Most of the buzzed-about network dramas of the 1990s have been largely forgotten these days.
ER and NYPD Blue might have been the talk of the town during the Clinton years, but in the Biden age, they’re seldom discussed outside of retrospectives about what the cast members are up to these days.
Interestingly, the network shows from that era that have loomed largest in the public’s memory are the ones that might broadly be described as “supernatural mysteries.”
We’re talking about Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, of course, The X-Files.
In fact, one could argue that no network drama from the past 30 years has proved as enduring and influential as the saga of Mulder and Scully.
The X-Files ran for nine seasons and inspired two feature films, a spinoff series (The Lone Gunmen), and a 2016 revival, with a second reboot rumored to be in the works courtesy of Black Panther director Ryan Coogler.
But Peaks and Buffy are no slouches either, and both are still widely discussed and revisited by TV buffs.
So it’s not hard to see why network and streaming execs might be drawn to shows in which cops or amateur sleuths investigate otherworldly matters.
The only problem is that that particular microgenre has a really shoddy track record in the 21st century.
In addition to the aforementioned Lone Gunmen, the following paranormal investigation series have prematurely kicked the bucket thus far this millennium:
Fringe, Haven, Almost Human, Limitless, Awake, Alcatraz, Minority Report, and Dirk Gently.
Interestingly, Chris Carter’s X-Files follow-up Millennium just missed the cut, having been canceled in 1999.
(To be fair, Carter was really tempting fate with that title!)
An asterisk should be applied in the case of Dirk Gently, as the BBC revived the show’s premise with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
That show ran for a whopping two seasons.
Our point here is that after a promising start, the supernatural mystery genre has not seen much success in recent years.
But if you thought network execs would quit going back to that well in the midst of overwhelming evidence that audiences are no longer interested, then you’ve never worked for a multi-billion dollar legacy corporation that’s very nostalgic for less competitive times!
Variety reported this week that Fox is developing a sci-fi police procedural called Borrowed Time, courtesy of executive producers McG and David Slack.
“Neuroscientist Mimi Peters is working to extract memories from the human brain,” reads the show’s official logline.
“Her technology is too dangerous to test on the living. But after she proves she can peer into the minds of the dead, FBI Agent Casey Harden comes calling. Together, they form an uneasy partnership using her technology to solve his cases.”
Sounds intriguing (if a little similar to the Freeform series Stitchers, which was also about using neuroscience to peer into the minds of murder victims)! But then, so did the premises for just about every show from that cancelation list.
And in fairness, some of them were very good shows.
But series where cops do battle ghosts or aliens aren’t exactly cheap to produce.
And something tells us that Borrowed Time will be no exception — especially if Fox intends to churn out 22 episodes per season.
In order to justify a Yellowstone budget, hourlong dramas need to deliver Yellowstone ratings — and very few of them reach that benchmark.
No realistic network exec is expecting their new effects-heavy series to become the next Game of Thrones, but if they’re gonna shell out for the CGI necessary to satisfy sci-fi/fantasy/horror fans, they’re gonna do so with the anticipation of some serious ROI.
And thus far, sci-fi detective fare has proven unable to generate numbers on that scale.
So why do shows of that nature keep getting greenlit?
Well, for starters, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the desperation of networks and streamers in 2024.
Struggling platforms in need of a hit will do just about anything to land the next X-Files, including throwing a bunch of money at a show that has very little chance of proving a worthwhile investment.
If you’re old enough to remember the days when David Lynch and Joss Whedon were both helming cultishly adored network series, then we probably don’t need to tell you that there’s not much to compare it to these days.
Sure, True Detective Season 4 appears to be headed in a supernatural direction, but the show struggles to crack the two million viewers mark, and the response to its more bonkers twists has been — mixed, to say the least.
In other words, it doesn’t look like we’ve got a new cultural phenomenon on our hands.
It’s worth noting that Twin Peaks was canceled after a brief run, lasting only two seasons on ABC.
But the beloved series later spawned a feature film and an acclaimed Showtime revival series.
It’s a minor miracle, however, that a series as wildly experimental as Lynch’s ever saw the light of day in 1990.
And these days, Peaks is considered one of the most influential and widely emulated shows in television history.
So maybe the lesson here is that it’s a smart move to take a risk on a detective show that ventures into the realm of the supernatural — provided you’re willing to wait a couple of decades for that risk to pay off!
What are your thoughts on the declining popularity of this once-beloved genre?
Are you hankering for more sci-fi cop dramas, or would you rather see that class of show return to its home planet?
Hit the comments below and let us know!
Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.
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