A few years ago, I taught a History of American Television Genres course, in which I lamented the apparent death of the adventure show following its peak in the 1980s. Shows like Quantum Leap, The A-Team, Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island, and The Greatest American Hero seemed worlds away from the broadcast schedule in early 2012, but watching new shows like Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, two of the successful new hour-long programs of this fall, I think the adventure show is returning. However, despite the obvious debt Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. owes to episodic adventure shows like The A-Team, purely episodic dramas outside of procedural franchises are nonexistent. Even one of the 1980s cycle’s closest descendants on cable, Psych, has some drawn-out serial arcs. Although the 1980s broadcast adventure shows lay the groundwork for this genre’s apparent resurgence, I’d argue that the 90s spate of first-run syndicated adventure shows are the most direct antecedent to the new broadcast adventures. For these shows, syndication freed them from the weight of legitimation and network brand identity allowing for fun to be their watchword.
“Adventure show,” like most generic designations is a discourse, a construction that provides a way of organizing the media we interact with. While certain elements of the adventure genre mixed, evolved, or fused with various other genres (notably spy and crime shows), the particular generic construction I am looking at is exemplified by that 1980s cycle and picked up again in the 90s syndication mode. These shows are most clearly characterized by their tone: breezy, fun, and often alternating between formulaic storytelling and kitchen-sink narratives that seem to throw together multiple disparate genres, formulas, character types, and plot developments with a wry wink, knowing full well exactly what they are and how they operate in their generic and narrative worlds.
Xena, Hercules, and Taking the World Seriously Without Being Too Serious
The adventure show’s winking tone provides levity without condescension toward the show’s characters, plots, and worlds. The characters and viewers both realize and occasionally acknowledge the ridiculous and/or strange elements, but everyone is in on the joke, not the butt of it. This is one of the key characteristics that spans all three cycles. Quantum Leap would put Sam Beckett in ridiculous situations, but always treated the characters’ emotions with serious attention. The 90s first-run syndicated shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess excelled at this winking tone. They nodded to popular culture and their own fans often without diminishing the weight of the core character relationships. Hercules and Iolaus’ and Xena and Gabrielle’s platonic (or not so much) love for each other and genuine desire to help people was not part of the “wink.” Among ludicrous squabbling gods, cartoonish sound effects, and the often juvenile take on the fantasy genre, the characters’ sacrifices and victories were taken seriously.
This balance is one of the strongest elements in the success of Sleepy Hollow. The premise is complicated and potentially alienating: Ichabod Crane was a Revolutionary War spy for the colonists who was tasked by George Washington to protect various mystical artifacts while fighting the British and fending off Biblical prophecy; he met the Horseman Death on the field of battle, cut off his head, accidentally mixed their bloods together, mostly died, then returned to life in 2013 Sleepy Hollow to combat the apocalypse with Sheriff Abbie Mills. Various reviews have praised the show for its “insanity” or “bonkers” storytelling (not hyperbole given its premise), and the characters are fully aware of the ridiculousness of their situation but carry on through the fantastic adventures, finding humor in the absurdity.
Death may be serious, but that doesn’t mean shows that feature the weekly threat of death need to be heavy with that seriousness. In a television landscape with a lot of “grim” and “dark” anti-heroes and gray morality, shows that are fun are sadly rare. The adventure show may have dark moments, but there is always comedy to keep the show moving without being ponderous.
Trusting the Audience: Complexity, Rapidity, and Genre Confidence
Another element of that “insane” descriptor for the contemporary adventure show is their full commitment to the genre(s) they engage in and the viewing audience to keep up as they speed through their complicated premises. Hercules and Xena used voice-over opening credits to provide the background for the fantastic world in which the heroes existed. Sleepy Hollow, too, has been using voice-over recaps of the premise in addition to the standard “previously on” bumper before the credits. Despite these voice overs indicating an audience that needs reminding, the shows move their characters quickly through disbelief into pragmatism. Both Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. place a lot of faith in the audience to keep up with their relatively rapid movement through complex premises and to use their generic knowledge to fill in the gaps. Why is no one reacting to Ichabod Crane reawakening in Sleepy Hollow? This is a fantastic narrative world with an alternative history that doesn’t include Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” of course. How did that tech company get their hands on alien technology? Because that’s the way of comic book villains, of course. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also assumes audience knowledge of the Marvel franchise of which it is an off-shoot, so they don’t waste time explaining what Extremis is or recapping the Battle of New York from The Avengers. The adventure show moves at a quick pace and because it has confidence in itself and its attendant genres as well as its audience to keep up, it can wind its way through more locations, set-ups, and pay-offs than many other series.
The Adventure Aesthetic Bind: Exotic Locales and VFX a Must, But On a Budget
That rapidity of both storytelling and often travel, however, comes at a price. Although visual effects (vfx) have become more widespread across all media, television budgets are still much much smaller than film or video game budgets, yet adventure shows are expected to present travel to exotic locales and/or create believable dangers to the heroes using vfx. For the 90s syndicated shows, the small budgets’ resulting vfx were expected. No one tuned into Cleopatra 2525 on a Saturday morning expecting state-of the art vfx, so the laughable images were part of the levity.
For today’s adventure shows, however, television bears the weight of 20 years of a discourse of cinematic progress regarding acting, writing, and aesthetics. At the same time, the audience for broadcast fictional programming continues to shrink and networks continue to struggle to boost their revenue streams. The result is broadcast adventure shows in 2013 that share an astoundingly similar vfx aesthetic with their 90s syndicated counterparts.
(The second image is from ABC’s Once Upon A Time In Wonderland which may fit this genre if it focuses more on Alice’s time in Wonderland and doesn’t go the Lost route with flashbacks to her time in the “real world,” but after one episode, it’s difficult to tell.)
New/Old Industrial Logics: Diving In with Trusted Producers
Both Sleepy Hollow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were guaranteed at least 13 episodes before even their pilots aired, and both have since been renewed for a second 13-episode season and the back nine for a full 22 episode season, respectively. Because these adventure shows are relatively outside the standard logics of successful television–they may have procedural elements but they aren’t procedurals nor do either have big stars heading their ensembles–they are high-risk-high-reward series. Yet that risk is mitigated by the backing of producers with proven track records and industrial relationships that the networks want to maintain. These relationships likely allow a bit more freedom to take risks and try new (or new-old) approaches to television: breezy instead of grim, more episodic than serial, more generically complex than simplified categorization.
Joss Whedon, king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and cult television demigod, executive produces Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman are in-demand film and television writers with close ties to J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions via Star Trek, Alias, and Fringe. Kurtzman and Orci were also key writers on both Hercules and Xena, and they cut their teeth on those syndicated shows (as shown in their fictionalized representation in this self-reflexive Hercules episode).
Escapism, Seriousness, and the Weight of Legitimation
For all these parallels between the earlier cycles of adventure shows and their apparent resurgence in 2013, why now? The 1980s adventure shows were trying to lure back the dwindling mass audience, one of a few strategies broadcast networks attempted at the time. The other main strategy was the move toward televisuality, which is the strategy that persisted. Nearly 30 years later, and that push toward legitimating television has weighed the medium down, leading to a current conflation of quality and serious, heavy, serial dramas. Cable used to be a haven for “blue skies” fun programming, but the push toward serialization and movement away from the apparent frivolity of fun has even shifted USA Network’s anchor programs toward seriousness. Thus, a niche has been opened for fun shows, and broadcast is well positioned to fill that niche, as they have historically been the provider of escapist of television (and at various historical periods been criticized for that), and they cannot compete with the ability of cable to portray the adult situations that are required of this turn in quality. Instead, they can turn into the skid, so to speak, and return to the strategy they tried in the 1980s for appealing to more of a mass audience: fun, adventure, escapism, levity, and giving certain trusted producers the space (though not very large budgets) to build programming that winks as it throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience.