A long, long time ago on networks far, far away, it was perfectly normal to watch an astronaut live with a hot genie, an advertising executive marry a witch or a family of monsters move into a typical suburban neighborhood. But then, after a steady diet of these high-concept shows, the magic slowly but surely slipped away.
It was eventually replaced by the exact opposite — series that strived to be as realistic as possible. This was more than just the rise of reality TV. It was also primetime, scripted series that began tilting toward more rational premises. You know, like a group of office workers reluctantly showing up to their office and never really working. A dying high school chemistry teacher making meth. Or a troubled a ‘60s ad exec drinking and sleeping around too much.
There have been plenty of attempts to bring back high-concept series, with mixed results. For every series with a successful gimmick like Lost or X-Files, there is the wreckage of short-lived shows like The Event, The Nine and FlashForward. Lately, though, primetime seems to be steering toward the more spectacular once again.
This season has already seen the debut of such series as Timeless, The Good Place, Son of Zorn, Frequency and Designated Survivor, each of which features some kind of fantastical element. Similarly surreal series, like Time After Time and Imaginary Mary, are coming later in the season. Meanwhile, shows like Agents of SHIELD, Once Upon a Time and all the DC Comics series (Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow) are still going strong.
So why this apparent Second Coming of high-concept shows that take place in what usually looks like our everyday world but ultimately really isn’t?
“I think TV is cyclical,” explains Legends of Tomorrow executive producer Marc Guggenheim. “The high-water mark for genre television was probably the 1970s, with The Bionic Man and all the Stephen Cannell shows. The ‘90s were a more cynical decade with darker shows, but with the tech boom and Bill Clinton in the White House, we were feeling good. The next decade was affected by 9/11 so there was the ascendance of the procedural and that became king across the dial. We liked a world where when a bad guy commits a crime, he gets punished by the end of the episode.”
It’s safe to say that 2016 isn’t exactly the happiest moment in human history, which might send viewers searching for shows that will distract them from the potential dystopia.
“High-concept is definitely tied in with the desire for escapism,” explains Jeremy Slater, executive producer of Fox’s take on The Exorcist. “It means big ideas. They’re not thirtysomething. They’re not very small shows about loving couples in relationships.” Adds Jon Feldman, executive producer of ABC’s Designated Survivor, “In this era of Peak TV, perhaps high concepts can cut through the crowd. I adhere to the classic Hollywood definition of the term. It’s an idea that can be summarized in one sentence.”
This all something Mike Schur is slowly getting used to after spending most of his career doing what he calls “lo-fi” shows like Parks and Recreation and The Office. Those comedies were basically “just about a group of people somewhere.” Still, with The Good Place, a quirky comedy about the afterlife, “high concept kind of just means concept, but with people in an unusual place or dealing with an unusual set of circumstances.”
The advantage of an outlandish premise, he has learned, is that it actually can make writing a series easier. There’s “a whole range of jokes that open up to you, jokes about a magical universe.” The catch is, he is also hoping to keep his show grounded by dealing with “interesting themes of morality. We have to make use of this world we’d created because we didn’t do it for no reason. It’s a magical world, in a Heaven-type place, but hopefully it still feels terrestrial. I want the show to basically say that a huge part of your faith is that your actions on Earth matter.”
Not every series is entirely comfortable being considered “high concept.” For instance, even though his series is based on comic book superheroes, Agents of SHIELD executive producer Jeff Bell insists the label doesn’t necessarily apply to his show.
“I get the idea of it,” he says. “High concept is something that can easily be explained in a poster or an image that breaks through the wall. But when I hear that term, I think of something like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito being twins. SHIELD was born of the Marvel Universe, which exists in the real world. So while there is a heightened reality to it, I think of us as more an ensemble show than a high-concept show.”
And even though Legends of Tomorrow takes place in a world where heroes travel through time to chase mystical villains, Guggenheim insists “I never hear from people wanting to talk about the characters’ powers. That’s what you want in a genre show, to pull in who aren’t genre fans particularly. The way you do that is to make even the highest concept more character-oriented.”
At least one of those characters needs to somehow represent the everyday experiences of TV viewers in order to really connect. Designated Survivor certainly fits in that category. It’s the story of an ordinary man (Kiefer Sutherland) who suddenly becomes president of the United States after a terrorist attack, and EP Feldman hopes “our audience can view this extraordinary situation through Kiefer’s eyes as his life is transformed. I hope viewers will respond to different things, with some being drawn to his character and epic personal journey and others just drawn into the mystery.”
The loftier the concept, the more it apparently needs to appear down to earth. Even if it’s Earth 2.
“In a unicorn world, you have to ask, ‘What are the stakes?'” says Joe Henderson, executive producer of Lucifer, Fox’s comic book-based series that features the devil himself helping solve crimes. “If you just rely on the one disposable hook, the show doesn’t work. Look at Blindspot. Halfway through the season, the main character had to just work with the FBI and the tattoos that were the initial hook shifted to the background. That’s why we’ve settled into the idea of the devil exploring his humanity through the people in the cases he deals with.”
When Sally McKenna started work as executive producer on Fox’s Son of Zorn, which features a (literal) cartoon barbarian who moves to the suburbs in an attempt to bond with his son and his ex, she made it a point to avoid dwelling on the absurdity of the premise. Instead, her goal was to keep something abnormal “from seeming gimmicky.” Which wasn’t easy to do, since it meant disregarding the very premise of her series.
“There are a million jokes you could tell about a barbarian going through his day-to-day activities,” she says. “But that’s not sustainable. You don’t want to be a one-joke high concept. That’s why we deal with how Zorn can connect with his son and former wife and the new guy in her life. We’re a fish-out-of-water story, which is very relatable. That’s why in the writers room, we all have our own stories about inappropriate, narcissist dads, about feeling ashamed of a father or divorced parents. Then we add the layer of animation to make things visually interesting.”
How much longer will it be until viewers tire of high-concept shows? Probably not anytime soon, according to Guggenheim, who says that “it used to be when pitching shows to networks, it had to be a show that would get to 100 episodes.” Thanks to the relative freedom that comes with watching cable or streaming services, shows that can grab viewers simply by having an outlandish premise may have a very long run.
Adds Henderson, “Out of the thousands of shows available, why pick mine? That’s why we’re in an age now where there’s so much product on the air, you need high concept to cut through that clutter.”