TV'S LETHAL WEAPON

The future of TV is a dystopian wasteland of bland prequels to famous action movies

Obsession
Glass
Obsession
Glass

It’s the year 2042. The birds have long ago left us. US supreme leader Barron Trump reigns over his dominion with an iron fist. Masked marauders patrol the empty streets, killing for water. New Orleans and Miami have already begun to sink into the sea.

But most horrifying of all: There’s nothing to watch on TV except tedious, uninspired prequels to forgotten film franchises.

This may be the future we’re headed to. You already can’t change the channel without seeing some kind of franchise extension (usually a prequel) to a famous film (often of the action-adventure variety). Worse, these shows are proliferating. While cable isn’t immune, the problem resides chiefly with the “Big Four” broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC.

On Monday (Feb. 27), NBC will debut its new series Taken, a prequel to the popular film series of the same name, which starred Liam Neeson as a retired CIA operative who killed lots of people. Taken, the TV series, will follow Neeson’s character as he begins his career as a clandestine agent, long before he ever became an internet meme.

Taken joins a long list of TV prequels and sequels to major action flicks that have debuted in recent years. Here’s just a sampling of them:

Year of debut TV series Network Number of seasons
2017 Taken NBC 1 (ongoing)
2017 Training Day CBS 1 (ongoing)
2016 Lethal Weapon Fox 1 (ongoing)
2016 The Exorcist Fox 1 (ongoing)
2016 Shooter USA 1 (ongoing)
2015 Minority Report Fox 1
2015 Limitless CBS 1
2015 Agent Carter (Captain America) ABC 2
2014 Gotham (Batman) Fox 3 (ongoing)
2012 Transporter: The Series TNT 2
2010 Spartacus Starz 3
2008 Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Fox 2
2001 Smallville (Superman) The CW 10

That list doesn’t even include the myriad TV reboots of other famous television series (CBS’s Hawaii: Five-O and MacGyver). Nor does it include extensions that networks have made of their own shows (Fox’s 24: Legacy, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, etc.).

These shows are, by definition, unoriginal. But the ones that are prequels are doubly unoriginal, since we already know what happens to the characters. There is nothing less risky, nothing more middle-of-the-road, than a glimpse into the past of an action franchise that in some cases wasn’t particularly original itself.

But these franchises are well-known, and some are even well-loved. And that’s exactly why we’re seeing so many efforts to capitalize on them. Television is an industry of trends—when one network tries something that works, every other network tries it too. Even when an idea doesn’t work very well, other networks will copy it, out of fear that they’re missing the boat on something.

Broadcast networks will jump on any chance they get to greenlight a show with a digestible tag line (“CIA agent kills people”) that references an established franchise (Taken) with a built-in audience (those who liked watching Liam Neeson punch people in the throat). A show like that markets itself.

For the most part, TV action prequels have stayed away from the truly beloved action franchises (Die Hard, Mad Max, James Bond), but that could change soon. The John Wick creators have already floated the idea of a TV prequel based on the film assassin (played by Keanu Reeves). That would be a great way to quickly ruin a terrific action franchise that literally started only three years ago.

Luckily, there’s enough amazing television today that you don’t have to watch any of these shows if you don’t want to. Unlike in film, auteurs aren’t having much trouble getting their cool ideas financed on the small screen.

But mark my words: The “TV action franchise extension” sub-genre is here to stay, and if it continues reproducing at the rate it is now, one day it might be all that’s left to watch.

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