6 streaming TV shows that rewrite the rules of programming

As television stops being a thing we watch every evening on our TVs and starts being a thing we watch whenever we want on any display we want, we can find TV shows are getting stranger and stranger. The old models for making money are starting to fall apart, and some networks and network executives are trying new things to bring viewers and money back to their networks. This week, I’ve got a collection of shows that experiment with the format and come out with something that just might be the future of television.

Defiance

★★★

Hulu, first 4 episodes now streaming

As Sci-fi fare goes, Defiance (Syfy, 2013) sometimes seems traditional to a fault. Set on Earth after an alien invasion, the show combines the sci-fi western trappings of Firefly with the struggling community themes from the modern remake of Battlestar Galactica to a degree that almost seems self-conscious at times. What Defiance brings to the table that feels genuinely new has, by and large, taken place outside of the TV show in the MMO game that’s set in the same universe, and was created in conjunction with the show. Defiance was conceived as a huge multimedia story moving forward together in a bunch of different mediums, but it’s still early going to see how effective that is as a storytelling strategy. Both the game and the TV show have been judged in isolation so far, and the verdict seems to be that on their own, they’re both pleasant diversions if nothing spectacular. Recent episodes of the show have started to open up the world a little, but it’s still a show to watch out of curiosity more than compulsion so far.

One Life to Live

★★½

Hulu, first 8 episodes now streaming

I know what you’re thinking. “What’s One Life To Live (Hulu, 2013) doing on this list? It’s as traditional as can be, a soap opera basically everyone knows even if they’ve never watched it.” Which was all very true up until ABC canceled the show in 2011 before bringing it back (along with fellow soap All My Children) on Hulu. The new show is, depending on how you look at it, one of the most experimental TV shows on Hulu or just another soap. The show’s new format of four new episodes a week followed by a kind of behind-the-scenes special each Friday seems set up to reward the devoted fans that brought the show back from the dead. At the same time, the show seems to try and attract new viewers with a new generation of cast members who are taking center stage, which makes the show feels more like TNT’s new continuation of Dallas—which isn’t a compliment.

All My Children

★★★

Hulu, first 8 episodes now streaming

All My Children (Hulu, 2013) holds up slightly better to a new soap opera viewer like me, since it seems to commit more to the new generation of characters, making the main narrative a little less confusing. If you’re a big All My Children fan, though, I get the feeling that’s a bug not a feature, with the younger characters pulling attention away from older long-time characters that I know nothing about but who might be the main draw for most of the show’s new online audience. Of course, with only eight episodes under their belts so far, both shows are babies as far as the soap opera world, and they’re only just starting to find their footing.

Cougar Town

★★★½

TBS.com, Season 4 now streaming

Cougar Town (ABC, TBS 2009-present) never found a lot of success on ABC. Maybe due to it’s terrible title? But over its first three seasons, it developed into a fun hangout sitcom that shared a lot of the same fun energy of creator Bill Lawrence’s earlier series Scrubs. What’s surprising is its second life on TBS. While shows have switched networks before, Cougar Town’s relatively low ratings and the switch from a traditional network to a cable network have led to an interesting adjustment period, as it went from an ABC budget to a TBS one that’s worth watching even if you haven’t been a Cougar Town fan before.

Maron

★★★★

Hulu, first two episodes now streaming

Based on an interview podcast by the show’s creator and star, Marc Maron (at top), IFC’s new comedy Maron (IFC, 2013) is one of the most oddly auto-biographical and non-fictional scripted comedy shows I’ve ever seen. The show follows Maron through his largely auto-biographic adventures as a neurotic comedian who’s gained recent fame for interviewing his fellow comedians. It also briefly pauses these adventures to engage in an interview with a famous comedian that Maron is ostensibly talking to in the show’s version of his real life podcast WTF With Marc Maron. These interviews are also scripted. None of these strange blends of fact and fiction detract from the show (save the occasional odd line reading when someone can’t quite figure out if they’re playing themselves of “themselves”) but rather make Maron a much more compelling experience than a more traditional translation of his podcast into an interview show might have been. They do, however, make the show one of the odder sitcoms in a cable landscape already littered with quirkily off-formula variations on the genre.

Copper

★★★½

Netflix, first season now streaming

At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about Copper (BBC America, 2012-present). The story of a cop in 19th century New York during the Civil War is the kind of brainy spin on a cop procedural you expect BBC America to bring across the pond. Except it didn’t bring it across the pond. Instead, BBC America commissioned its own original scripted series that has nothing to do with the actual British Broadcasting Corporation, but shares a lot of the sensibilities of the rest of the network’s programming that actually does come from England. The result is a show that is simultaneously trying to act like a British drama while being almost defiantly American, a combination that sounds off-putting but in practice works out fairly well for Copper. Over it’s first season, Copper developed into a good-if-not-great show that blends historical drama and cop procedural together to form something that feels decidedly different from either. It’s a show that’s worth looking forward to as much as any of the genuine-article BBC shows in BBC America’s line-up.

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