Tuesday, March 29, 2011

TV Thoughts: The Revolution Became The Institution

Imagine a restaurant with a great salad bar. Now imagine that 1 month later, it's only stocked with iceberg lettuce, carrots, croutons, bacon bits, and ranch dressing. That's not much of a salad bar is it?

Here's where I'm going with this:

I'm going to try to explain a big problem that I have with a lot of serialized shows. Be warned - I am trying to describe my aesthetics and why I think they're valid. Viewpoints are a pain to get across, so read at your own pace. I can't hint this is long; I tagged it. I have a label called "Long-ass Posts."

Many television shows are set, to their loss, on a few plots, motifs, what have you. It's true, when you watch "Pokemon," it won't cover the importance of intelligent participation in democracy. "Desperate Housewives" won't deal with ethnic cleansing.

But I don't need every show to be about everything that makes life real and complex. My problem is the way many long-running shows drown the viewers in repetition. I'm talking about more than clich├ęd plots.

Until recently, I did one TV review, for "Burn Notice." [DJ added his batch review of several new shows last Summer.] While it was an exercise, I was pretty excited at the time; what I wrote might've read like an advertisement. For my part, I was trying something new - a review combined with a recommendation, looking at a TV series, trying to address 2 seasons in one commentary....

I liked the action. I loved Bruce Campbell and Gabrielle Anwar. I enjoyed Donovan as a charismatic and flexible guns-and-fists lead with good acting chops. I stopped watching a while ago...

I left my hat in that car!
"BN," starting its 5th season this Summer, still has all the same characters (+ 1 new cast member). It's also still the same show. That is the problem - a problem not limited to this one USA series, or the genre "BN" falls into. Many call the current situation a kind of Silver Age for TV, but my optimism is much more cautious...

Every episode involves the lead finding someone in Miami who's in danger from thieves/murderers. He helps them with guns, wits, teamwork, and driving really well. This is what happens 62 times, to date.

The hero here is a field agent, not a PI - that's a lot of people in danger from drug lords, embezzlers, spies. He's trying to "get back" or "clear his name" - it's not entirely apparent which - but that plot is stretched out over 16  glitzy hours. No episode is dedicated to non-spy-rescuing-regular-people work, to the non-action moments of anyone on the show. I got bored, watching the same story play out a little differently. I'd tell you to stop with Season 2.

Is there no way to write a fun ep where the lead loses himself in the Caribbean club scene, wakes up on the beach, and realizes that he has to change? That's happened to me twice already.

My real issue has always stuck to shows' tendency to fall back onto the same plots and twists. Even worse, some take their most outrageous elements and play them up til they're like a parody. What's the point in getting to do 20+ episodes when you just do the same thing with them? With multiple seasons of them? I'll start using examples before this just becomes a dry rant.

A latex dress, really?
There was a series called, "Alias." A capable and vulnerable lead dealt with danger, confusion, betrayal, and revelation. She did it while carrying out amazing spy activities and surviving incredible spy situations. It was so cool - even if the heroine was used as eye-candy a lot - and it continued to amaze for 2 whole seasons.

The third season was a weird retread of what had happened before. The lead had grown very close to her father - for several episodes. But every season ended up with at least one "Dad betrayed me!?" twist that was soon resolved. Each time, it made father and daughter grow closer together. 

Even after I bailed, I checked a few recaps; the last 2 seasons kept repeating the same elements. Nearly every episode had Jennifer Garner in various fetish outfits (French maid, geisha, Swedish hiker, nurse...), and every season had a major character get seriously injured, a mole... By the end, there was a "Dad betrayed me!?" arc in every season!

Isn't that ridiculous? Boring? Contrary to character progression? It's not like "Alias" was an absurdist spy show... It was both discouraging and sad to watch that show run itself into the ground.

I could refer to "The Sopranos," which had some very inventive cursing. That was always funny, and perfectly in tune with Tri-State boys. Of course, it was popular - and it just got more and more vulgar, as if coming up with obscure and intense curse-words was the point of somebody talking. As if showing f-ed up scenes was the point of following a character.

Whichever episode you're watching, in any season after the 2nd (?), it's painful and repetitive. It's a slow-mo trainwreck that's not going forward so much as circling the same ugly waters. No thanks.

I guess my problem is predictability. When something is popular - when it "works" - it gets used again. And usually not with reservation or discretion. It becomes, in effect, a catchline that gets used over and over. That's why people have "24" shot-games: because "do two shots when the President's relative acts like an idiot," or  "when someone foolishly circumvents the Presidency," it's because these things happen multiple times in each of its 8 long seasons.

C'mon! This is the 5th time today!

In each preposterously one-day cycle, the lead is declared as a rogue and hunted by the government he's trying to save. More than once, usually. After a while, it's impossible to believe that anyone could possibly doubt Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer.

And every season gives a major storyline to the lives of some annoying and surprisingly volatile political family (usually the Prez'). This is time that could be spent developing the villains, letting the leads talk and eat and use the bathroom. When you've been renewed for 2 seasons, why not spend one focusing on operatives of the people working at Bauer's fictitious agency and their enemies?...

Aren't things more entertaining when you can't guess how they'll play out? Isn't it great, feeling surprise? If I know a show's story, from episode to episode, will be "have sex, talk about X, do something spontaneous, talk about what you did, have a drink with friends" then what's my motivation for watching?

Well, that is pretty "Desperate." Also, disturbing.
Writers' only hope to escape cries of self-plagiarism is sticking arcs - or superficial changes - onto those retread plots. An old character will get killed, or married, or have a baby. A new character will be introduced, and they'll "change things." Someone might learn something about themselves, and next season they'll have an eye-patch, or a cane, or a Lexus, or they'll be single for the first half of next season.

These tricks are used over and over, though. And so many shows just glut themselves on their "signature" and "successful" elements. A mystery about a suburban neighborhood harboring some very dark secrets that lead to murder? Sounds interesting. Waiting to find out what Eva whoever is going to argue about with Teri some-thing and there will be a cat-fight, and maybe a well-built young postman (sorry, letter carrier) will take off his shirt.

Am I supposed to stay hooked because maybe in the 4th season, it'll be a female postman? (sorry, USPS - letter carrier!) Maybe 5 years in, Tony Soprano will have sex with his one-legged Russian nanny or something. Because, y'know, he hasn't done anything that weirdly messed up yet.

Shows have been hyped for me before - "Nip/Tuck," "Family Guy," the latter half of "The Simpsons." Watch pilot episodes for some of the shows I've mentioned. They usually try to paint the broadest strokes with their stories. They want to have a wide appeal - they want to offer a great big world...

It's a hard knock life, I guess.

Based on the first 12 outings on HBO, Carrie Bradshaw could have gotten married in season 3. The following season of "Sex and the City" could have been about a happily-married urban sex columnist/writer who still tackles modern city life with her closest friends. It almost sounds like how people grow and change, right? Like a show about life, right? Like an evolving show?...

So why do television writing teams end up saying, "of course, X has to have a sex buddy in this episode. We cast an improbably gorgeous act-or/-ress to play X. Who wouldn't want to sleep with them? We know how much people love it when X has sex! C'mon, we're "X TV SHOW," we can't not have sex in an episode!"

I wish Seth McF would just go away already.
I loved "The Family Guy" when Stewie was a baby who rarely spoke. I loved the voice, and I actually imagined that only the dog could understand him. His mom didn't understand he was saying he wanted her dead. Beagles shouldn't be able to talk anyway, so it made sense that the dog would be the one who could talk to the infant. And since the dog is a funny, cool, drunk, it's no surprise he wouldn't reveal Stewie's "issues."

I didn't really think about it that much, I swear. That's what my brain did, intuitively - what can I say, I love "Harvey?" I just took the effort to figure out what I thought about Stewie. Anyway...

Stewie was popular, and there were nominations for the role. Then the character is talking all the time. Later on... he's acting out complicated roles, including army enlistment? And spanking people, I think? And playing "house" with the dog, I heard? What?

At the same time, "The Family Guy" always used brunt, spontaneous humor. By that I mean, a gag that's just baldly explained and relies on weird/random reference + visual of reference = funny. They always did that, but they also had plenty of cleverly and carefully written jokes with a set-up and a punchline. Getting popular seemed to encourage the writing staff to "check out" and go all-brunt all the time. It's sad because that takes no skill at all...

So I've explained that part of me is just disappointed as a viewer. There's nothing like that moment when somebody makes you blush, when they completely surprise you, when you "get zinged."

Yet the whole "my show is now on cocaine and it's totally got its head up its %^#)%" thing bothers me as a writer too. It's easy! It's too easy.

This isn't as nuts as her other outfits. And I actually like the colors...

You can look really bad when you make an attempt and it bombs. Look at Bjork - she's a true artist and following her artistic whims (?) has resulted in albums that are less fun than whale song. It's not that whale song is bad, I guess. How often has one of your favorite bands released an album where they only have 3 songs that you never skip? How do you feel when they release 3 albums in row like that?

I'll stick to TV. I saw something like 12 or so episodes of "Nip/Tuck." Plastic surgeon practice in Miami, doctors with success and wildly complicated lives and tense, even twisted, relationships. I think I saw a few first season episodes, then several episodes from season 4. The series could have gone anywhere - sexless character drama, murder mystery, man-on-the-run series. The strength of interesting characters and the writers' willingness to get dirty - entertainingly dirty - was impressive.

"Repulsion," a new fragrance by Calvin Klein.
But I don't want to watch Madlibs with sex + surgery + betrayal + some form of "freakishness" over and over again. That's just the same story. The whole point of TV shows is their running shot at telling different stories, unlike a movie which can only tell one story once. 24 vs 1. Or sometimes 22, 20, 13, 12, or 6. Those are all greater than 1. Trust me.

As a writer, it suggests that some professionals have gotten lazy, misguided or comfortable. Maybe they're high on success, or they just didn't have any other story to tell. Maybe, as with "Heroes," it was a lucky fluke - there was no real writerly sensibility or skill behind what made it work.

Hey, that's a good example! Do you remember that show "Heroes?" There was a 1st season that was new and fun and cool, and then there were other seasons. In those other seasons, nothing mattered, no major character could die, and the same people kept losing their powers/getting lost/whatever. I bailed very early, but I'd read the AV Club reviews to see how bad it got. The reviewers swung between frustration and comical mockery.

Please don't do a song-and-dance. Please no.

See? Reading always will be more rewarding than watching a video. I got plenty of thought out of scanning an explanation into how well-paid, employed show-writers could lose ratings, week after week, until a TV series vanished. Watching those episodes? Pure waste - even the few I watched, just to see if "the hurting" was real...

"Heroes" was on the decline for 3 straight years. How can the internal staff not feel humiliated? How can I, a writer, not think that someone else should have that job? Or that someone in production should have decided to completely shake things up?

Can I complain that "The Sopranos" continued to give Tony S more and more mistresses as the series went on? I mean, a mistress was in the pilot, and cheating on his wife is a part of the character, and guys with money and power never lack for opportunities. Same goes for killings, and deals, and angry confrontations and saying "OOO!" or "AAA!" (they love vowels, y'know)

The only real change after S3: his weight. (Sorry)
I don't like wasting my time, and watching the same thing over and over again - that sounds like a waste of time. And it really worries me, that success can misguide artists. It bothers me that it can change their sensibilities - that their progression as an artist itself, can get completely warped.

What's worse than watching something with real promise turn out to be a one-trick pony?

"Entourage" could have been an entertaining insiders' look at the weirdness that accompanies Hollywood success. I don't think it got to a dozen episodes before it just did the same sort of thing over and over. HBO shows are really prone to reveling at the first sign of popularity...

It's also a really poor reflection on life. Even in San Diego, it rains sometimes. It could snow any place on the globe... Life is about feeling happy, sad, proud, embarrassed, shy, out-going - all in day maybe. On a good day, you might find a relative in the hospital and learn that your book just hit the Best Seller lists. If you live somewhere that's drowning in famine, war, or disease, your good days might have lower bar to clear.

I can't top that & I won't try.
I've chosen to "save" a lot of shows - "The Office," "The Wire," "30 Rock" "Mad Men" - for some vague day in the future. I've tried others, or at least checked out some samples.

Most TV shows still claim to reflect something about life. "Heroes" could be about internal conflicts, and a drive to do great or terrible things; it could claim to be about the "power" that every person has. "The Sopranos" could claim to be about people suffering physically and mentally from lives that they cannot escape. "Sex and the City" can say that it's about young-ish women trying to get the most from life (and sex!) in modern society.

It's not like any/all of those productions started copping out/abusing the audience with random, un-related story elements. They simply over-loaded themselves on those elements that made them popular, which is also a cheap, "easy" approach. Sometimes I tune in to catch one random new ep of a shows that I've ditched; or I check out a few reviews. I haven't gone back to any of them, ever. Some stories, settings, and/or creators just lose air, like tires.

Other series get canceled before they can "straighten themselves out" or "work out the kinks." And, obviously, most TV shows just aren't especially relevant, or funny, or cool. I think I'd rather they went off the air or were had some creative shuffling.

Honestly, I'd rather they never made Seasons 3+ of "Alias" or "The Sopranos;" or "Desperate Housewives S2," and beyond. It's better than watching something totally focus on the few particular elements that made the show popular in the first place. Then watching it go to the point of parody, or massive predictability, or senselessness.

I ask again - imagine a salad bar that only has iceberg lettuce, carrots, croutons, bacon bits, and ranch dressing. That's not much of a salad bar is it?

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