Tuned In

2013 TV in Review: The Rise of Craft-Brewed Television

Why was so much of the year's TV like a good beer?

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Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Marc Maron and Adam Scott in a scene from IFC's Maron.

As I wrote when I put together my top 10 TV shows of 2013, this was a tough and rewarding year to make the list because there was so much good TV. But that was also true because there was so much change going on in TV this year: in the stories being told, in the people telling them, and in the means of delivering them to you. As the year winds down, I’m looking back on a few of the trends that made 2013 TV what it was:

It’s been a few years now that people have predicted that technology would usher in a democratized, diverse media world of a billion channels, all on equal footing. I can’t forget that I am writing for the magazine that, with the rise of YouTube, declared “You” the Person of the Year in 2006.

That future hasn’t entirely arrived. Yes, there’s more original online video every year. Being an online media outlet now means being a video producer. Some web series, like Brad Bell and Jane Espenson’s Husbands or Felicia Day’s The Guild, could genuinely hold their own with their TV-on-TV counterparts. And there’s been some crossover between the worlds: Annoying Orange got a TV show! But there was still, by and large, a divide. On the one side, there were the interesting experiments and explosive memes of online video, and on the other, there was full-scale “real” television, made by the handful of broadcast and cable networks that could afford it. We didn’t really see the TV equivalent of “indie film” break out because the economics and logistics of the industry didn’t allow for it.

In 2013, though, we started seeing more and more TV productions that came close to that. While Netflix made HBO-scale projects like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, online video outlet Hulu gave us offbeat international productions Moone Boy and The Wrong Mans. Sundance Channel, eschewing high-metabolic action dramas, emerged as a specialist in low-simmer dramas like Rectify, The Returned, and Top of the Lake. New, small satellite channel Pivot had one of the best new comedies of the year in the Australian Please Like Me. IFC, following on the success of idiosyncratic sketch comedy Portlandia, gave Marc Maron his own dark personal comedy (which owed something to the dark personal comedy of FX’s Louie). Amazon debuted as a “broadcaster” with Alpha House and Betas, comedies set in the particular milieus of GOP politics and software startups.

None of these shows, and other small pleasures like them, are “indie TV” exactly–they have stars and budgets and weren’t exactly made on anyone’s credit card. But they’re approaching that–a middle ground somewhere between utterly DIY YouTube work and full-scale big network productions. They’re not exactly home-brewed, but craft-brewed.

The beer metaphor works nicely, actually, not just because TV and beer go so perfectly together. As in the beer world, some of these harder-to-find boutique offerings are overseas imports, others the productions of smaller American producers. (Or, like HBO’s stable of smaller-scale, smaller-audience series like Getting On or Hello Ladies, they’re a side product of a major distillery.)

Because they cater to smaller audiences with specialized tastes–even more so, in some cases, than already-narrow cable audiences–they can offer more specific flavor profiles, alienating to some. You might notice, for instance, that some of the shows that I mention above fit into a nebulous area somewhere between comedy and drama. Getting On, set in a hospital eldercare ward, is an often brutally funny memento mori. The Wrong Mans combines comedy with the crime-thriller genre; Maron, with personal psychotherapy.

Likewise, The Returned is a horror story that would rather unsettle than terrify. Enlightened–my #1 show of 2013–was simultaneously a New Age satire, a corporate cat-and-mouse game, and a meditation on how crazy you have to be to keep faith in a fallen world. Finding these stylistic and tonal hybrids may be a defining characteristic of craft-brewed TV: where big productions aiming at a larger audience need to be distinct in mission–very funny comedies, very stark dramas–these smaller shows are all about complicating things, making space for the odd, the both-fish-and-flesh, the uncategorizable and the category-creating.

And like the artisanal beer market (or, for that matter, the term “indie film”), craft TV describes both a sensibility and a business situation. It’s a phenomenon that’s possible not just because of the artists working in it but because of the growth of outlets–cable, satellite, streaming–for them to work in. It’s a byproduct of a market with expanding shelf space that allows–no, demands–unusual, niche products combining odd ingredients. Crack a few open. Eventually you’ll find your favorite.