Evolution Of The Television Drama, From Studying 1980 To Predicting 2020

Of every entertainment platform there is, perhaps none has changed so much, and so quickly, than television. In just the past few years alone, the medium has gone from being labeled a silly, inferior substitute to movies ("I don't even own a TV!" said many a bit too proudly) to being hailed as the replacement for film, due to the rise in high-quality cable shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. Some are calling it the second Golden Age of TV, while others are dismissing it as just yet another trend that's bound to pass. Yet, whatever you think, there's no doubt about it: television has undergone a major revitalization, and, considering how many new shows are being made each year, it's unlikely to stop changing anytime soon.

Which begs the question: what will TV be like down the line? Think about how much the platform has changed just since 2010; in another five years, in 2020, TV could look much, much different than how we know it today — especially in the drama side, where the biggest transformation has occurred. And, while no one knows exactly what that change will be, of course, I've done enough research into the television patterns of the last several decades to make some predictions.

Below, here's what TV dramas of the past three and a half decades have looked like, and what they might just look like in 2020:


Top 10 Dramas: Dallas (above); Murder, She Wrote; Dynasty; Magnum, P.I.; Falcon Crest; Simon & Simon; Knots Landing; Matlock; L.A Law; Hotel

General Themes: The family soap opera (scandals! affairs! murder!) started with Dallas and influenced Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Knots Landing. There was also a lot of love for the "lovable individual solving mysteries" storyline, as well as a focus on the workings of the law.

Cast Type: Ensemble was in, with shows from Dynasty to L.A. Law using the setup to tell a whole bunch of stories at once.

Female Presence: Murder, She Wrote and Falcon Crest were the only two in the top ten to truly have female leads, although several of the ensemble shows included women in the cast. Magnum P.I, Simon & Simon, and Matlock didn't fare as well, with the Tom Selleck series basically being an advertisement for masculinity.

Diversity Check: '80s drama typically went by the "star white people, but throw a token black guy into the cast" rule. L.A. Law did the best of the bunch, but not by much.

Relationship Statuses: The "happily single and/or in a healthy relationship" idea didn't seem to go over well with '80s TV creators, as nearly every protagonist from these ten series was divorced, widowed, or married but having tons of affairs. Except for Magnum, of course, who enjoyed plenty of flings with the women of Hawaii.

Set Locations: With few exceptions (Magnum and Dallas), these dramas tended to film in Hollywood lots, with L.A. passing for other cities.

Family Friendliness: Despite all the relationship dramas, very few of the shows actually contained anything too graphic. Even Murder, with its ridiculously high kill rate, kept its violence off-screen.

Lasting Legacy: Some of the shows have faded into TV oblivion (when was the last time you quoted Simon & Simon?) but many have had huge impacts on pop culture. Dallas and Dynasty are the forerunners to Gossip Girl and The O.C., and Murder is still so loved that there was serious outrage when the potential reboot was canned. But perhaps no show was more influential than L.A. Law, which popularized the TV lawyer profession and made talking about rape, abortion, AIDS, and more a little less taboo.


Top 10 Dramas: ER (above); Murder, She Wrote; NYPD Blue; Northern Exposure; Touched By An Angel; Walker, Texas Ranger; Law & Order; The X-Files; Chicago Hope; Matlock

General Themes: Workplace-set dramas had officially taken hold, with ER, NYPD Blue, Law & Order, The X-Files, and Chicago Hope all following the trend.

Cast Type: Once again, ensembles were all the rage. A few shows, like Walker, Texas Ranger, had solo protagonists, but most relied on a giant cast.

Female Presence: Some progress was made on this end, with The X-Files and Touched By An Angel joining Murder, She Wrote as female-led series. Others, like ER, gave substantial roles to women later in their runs.

Diversity Check: Both Touched and Walker had black actors in their main cast, if not as the actual leads. Most of the ensemble series included people of color in supporting roles, but others, like The X-Files and Northern Exposure, were nearly all white.

Relationship Statuses: The ensembles included a mix of married, single, and divorced characters, and some of the solo-led shows (i.e. The X-Files) embraced the idea of the unattached protagonist, unlike in the '80s.

Set Locations: While many of the shows still filmed in L.A. a lot, a few, like Touched and Northern Exposure, made the move to locations befitting their settings.

Family Friendliness: Fun fact: the nudity on NYPD Blue was the reason the Parents Television Council was created. Suffice it to say that the '90s were a bit more progressive than the '80s, despite the moralistic themes in shows like Touched and Walker.

Lasting Legacy: As fans of Lost, Supernatural, and every other sci-fi/fantasy show on TV know, no show influenced the genre more than The X-Files. ER, too, had a major impact in starting the "hospital drama" trend, and the careers of many of its stars. And as for that little show called Law & Order? TV — and our forensics knowledge — haven't been the same since.


Top 10 Dramas: CSI (above); Law & Order; ER; Grey’s Anatomy; Desperate Housewives; CSI: Miami; Lost; Without a Trace; NCIS; House

General Themes: Crime. Lots of it.

Cast Type: No surprise: it was all about the ensemble. Only House had a true lead character, as even shows like Grey's Anatomy and Without a Trace relied heavily on a large group of actors.

Female Presence: For once, women had a major part in drama TV. Desperate Housewives, Grey's, and Lost all had female leads, and ensembles like CSI and ER put women at the center for at least some years during their runs.

Diversity Check: Grey's did best here, thanks to the TV game-changer that is Shonda Rhimes. Series such as Lost and Without a Trace, too, employed a substantial number of non-white actors, if not as leads.

Relationship Statuses: Crazy dysfunctional marriages? So old school. '00s drama was all about the single star, with shows from House to CSI: Miami featuring solo protagonists.

Set Locations: Unlike the '90s, nearly all of the series shot in L.A., with just Lost and Without a Trace regularly filming elsewhere.

Family Friendliness: Unsurprisingly, both versions of CSI received flack from the PTC for their graphic scenes. Grey's stirred some complaints for sex, but mostly, it was just the crime shows causing controversy.

Lasting Legacy: Where to even start? CSI and NCIS are still going strong in their spinoffs, Lost brought mystery back, Desperate highlighted female power, and Grey's introduced "Shondaland" into the lexicon. Even House was, at one point, the most-watched TV show in the world.


Top 5 Dramas: NCIS (above); NCIS: Los Angeles; Grey’s Anatomy; Criminal Minds; Person of Interest

General Themes: In a totally shocking event, crime drama continues to take over the landscape.

Cast Type: Ensemble, ensemble, ensemble. Of these five, only Person of Interest has strayed from the pack, with a storyline based primarily around two actors.

Female Presence: Grey's continues being great for women, but the others largely focus on their male characters, instead.

Diversity Check: Once again, Grey's takes the lead, but the rest of the top five don't lag far behind. Criminal Minds includes a black lead character, and both NCIS shows and Person have several non-white actors in their ensembles.

Relationship Statuses: Divorce has reigned large in the first half of the decade, with NCIS, Criminal, and Grey's all prominently featuring the issue.

Set Locations: L.A. is, again, the main location for these shows to shoot, although Person films in New York City.

Family Friendliness: The crime shows haven't strayed far from R-rated material, but truly graphic episodes have been few and far between.

Lasting Legacy: NCIS has created several other shows (including Los Angeles), and Criminal just cast its second spinoff. As for Grey's? The ABC show still gets huge ratings, is responsible for Shonda Rhimes' incredible career, and, 11 seasons in, shows no sign of slowing down.

So what's next?

2020: My Predictions

As the past few decades have shown, only two things can be counted on in drama TV: that crime shows will always be popular, and that, when it comes to the size of a cast, the rule of thumb is the more the merrier. Even if the current CSI and Law & Order spinoffs fail after a few more seasons, others will just come in their place. Procedural ensemble shows simply aren't going anywhere, regardless of how many other series get added to the mix.

That's not to say, however, that they'll keep the ratings they have. Recently, original dramas like Empire and Gotham have surprised critics by making sizable dents in the line-up, and, of course, there's the continuing rise of cable/non-broadcast TV. The Walking Dead averaged 18 million viewers last year, more than almost any other 2014 show; Netflix won't release specific numbers, but has said that their hit Orange is the New Black (above) is their most watched original series ever. And there are even less-traditional platforms like Amazon, that, thanks to critics' attention and Emmy wins, will likely expand their offerings and bring some real competition to "regular" TV.

And they'll do it by continuing to focus on the topics broadcast TV is only beginning to feature, despite decades of possibility: feminism, LGBT issues, and diversity. Despite the progress made in shows such as Grey's Anatomy or Parenthood, few other network dramas have been bold enough to give these subjects more than "issue of the week" attention, a major contrast to the efforts currently being made by non-traditional TV. Don't expect that hesitance to last much longer, however; as just-released shows like Jane the Virgin (below) and Fresh Off the Boat , among others, are starting to edge network television toward the right side of history. By 2020, we'll likely be hard-pressed to find an all-white, all-male show anywhere on TV.

What we will probably see, though? Less marriages — and the ones that do happen might not take place for awhile. A large portion of millennials say they'll never get married, or at least not until later in life than earlier generations did, and expect to see this trend represented on-screen. The same goes for kids; the focus in 2020 drama will probably be on career and friendship, not the decision to settle down.

As for the other factors studied above, I expect plenty of shows to move back to location shooting; sure, L.A. sound stages are convenient, but, when it comes to making shows look as realistic as, say, House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, non-Hollywood settings are very necessary. And as for the family friendliness of the shows of the future? Expect cable TV to continue showing as many mass murders and naked bodies as they want, but network TV during primetime hours simply can't make that jump. Shows that start later in the night, like the often-graphic How to Get Away With Murder, have slightly more leeway, but, as long as they're accessible to viewers of any age, broadcast shows are going to stay PG. Ish.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this; if you'd asked me five years ago if my favorite show currently on TV would be a CW series about a pregnant Latina, I would've told that you were going insane and then ignored you to continue live-tweeting Glee. But judging from the trends of past few decades, the direction of TV seems pretty clear to me: white, uber-masculine men are out; non-white, complex women are in. And everyone — male, female, white, black, gay, straight, transgender — will be solving crime.

Images: Amazon; CBS (3); NBC; Netflix; The CW