Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Question for the Week of May 21-27: Abandoning Shows

A conversation with DJ led to the question for this week:
When should you abandon a TV show?
Plenty of TV series diminish over time. You can't help it. Under the American system, where 20-22 episodes is the standard season, you're guaranteed some sub-par or bad eps. By the time a show has done more than 80, actors and writers have left the series, plots get repeated... It's to be expected, a bit.

So, although this article is practically a follow-up to my post about Burn Notice 3 weeks ago, I have multiple answers to this week's question. The first two are philosophical, while the last talks about 7 specific shows and when you should hit the "eject" button on each.

The simplest answer is that you should give up a show after 3-4 consecutive eps that leave you unsatisfied; this is doubly-true if the changes strike you as weird, cliched, or dumb. Use that time for something else, and ask friends or check in with TV reviewers to see if the show bounces back. It's quicker and you'll be spared all the ads.

But even the simple answer isn't quite so simple. Have you ever tried to get a friend into a show when it's already in a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th season? If you've ever tried to promote a show to interest a friend, lover, or relative, you know that some episodes can be skipped until someone's already hooked. Or that a show gives 2 bad eps and one mediocre one, all in a row, only to have a great run right after.

The more complex answer is that a series is there to do two things: (a) tell its story and (b) entertain you. And because these producers and crew are professionals, you shouldn't make it too easy for them, either. It's human nature that if you ask for less, you will get less - because of human nature, studio interference, or plain-old bad choices.

So you should bail if you're not satisfied with the story that a show is telling - or it feels like they're telling it in a way that you find dumb, condescending, annoying. If you stick with them, do it for a real reason, like having genuine hope that the series will fix itself. Don't keep watching out of habit, or boredom.

See, I think you can call some things definitely "bad" or definitely "good." Some people love Martin Lawrence movies, Eddie Murphy's kids' films, and the Transformers trilogy. It's hard to define "good" and "bad" when you're talking about something that's both art and entertainment, but I can at least point you to a good measuring stick: it's called "discretion."

See, you use discretion when you decide that something isn't worth your time. You also use it when you decide to talk to someone about art or history, or things that confuse you about life instead of, let's say, dirty jokes and celebrities' lives. And directors, actors, and crew make those same choices when they decide what does and doesn't go in to a finished film. It's still very subject - I still like Tango & Cash, and it's not a good movie; but I know why and how I like it so much - I don't claim that it's as good as Citizen Kane, Splash, or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Wiki: Discernment is a term used to describe the activity of determining the value and quality of a certain subject or event.

Merriam-Webster: Showing insight and understanding.
I try to grade shows by my own response, then consider how other people might view them - people with really solid and educated standards. It's the key to my judgmental aesthetic, because I look at it from at least two sides. And I still accept that I might enjoy something that is awfully put-together. Sometimes "suck" is "suck."

My third and final answer is specific to shows that I watched/discussed with people many times. There's no reason you should think to yourself, "I should've stopped after season 4, I'd've saved so much time." You'll have to trust me on this, but I put thought into my opinions here, so... Ahem:

The New Battlestar Galactica - Stop at the end of the second season. It's excellent and flawless, and you can pretend the show goes in any direction that you like. While the actors don't drop the ball much on BSG, the writers certainly did. Starting in S3, there are weird, confusing, artificial choices that just don't work on screen.

For one thing, the big cast of skilled actors actually become a detriment. Before, some characters would only appear every now and then. Suddenly, the great non-lead roles are used far too often. They're put them into increasingly dumb or forced plots. The series tries to be socially-relevant with deep "human questions," but they're handled stupidly in context.

And when I checked in on some Season 4 episodes, it was somehow even worse. Things happened, not because the characters would act in a certain way, just because it was "shocking" or "harsh." Imagine a version of Clue where all the characters wait until your guard is down, then commit suicide/infanticide/incest. It's just shocking you in order to shock you, with nothing to back that up.

Lost - Stop at the end of S1. Much like BSG, the big cast becomes a burden. The second and third seasons of Lost are very up-and-down, with a couple of great eps in them. Regardless, the first run is just... a gift to anyone willing to watch a tv series. In fact, Lost continued to blow me away in its fourth and fifth seasons.

But the resolution of the series was very unsatisfying; like when you finally decide to stop going to a diner. And well before that, there were some extremely dumb, manipulative, and frustrating writers' choices that will - and should - leave you cold. I don't like being toyed with by folks who show me shiny objects, then toss them aside and claim that they were trying to pull me in with character beats.

JJ Abrams is so artificial and compelling in a calculated way! It's like the Victoria's Secret ad with a gorgeous woman in lingerie leaning on a $250k sports car for no apparent reason - an overblown cry for attention. See, Lost would likely give you a Romeo + Juliet scene, but, in the background of the scene, would frame something huge, like Moses and the Flaming Bush.

Which is obviously awesome and cool and I should totally use that and I will. But then Lost goes on to say nothing about Moses or the Burning Shrubbery, but will use both to soak up episode time anyway. And you may not like how it handles the Romeo + Juliet material in any case. It's just a shiny object, and I'm not a fish.

Regardless, Lost is so addictive, you might find it too hard to stop. If you feel you're like that, don't even get started. Read several books and learn a new language instead.

Family Guy - I loved the 1st and 2nd seasons of this show. I had bought the DVDs as a holiday present for a girlfriend in 2004, and I was so happy when she lent them to me! I loved the idea that baby Stewie couldn't be understood by his mother, who he constantly threatened. I loved the idea that only the talking dog could communicate with him. I enjoyed the plots and the jokes.

I started the 3rd season, and found it very lackluster. When I said that to my woman at the time, she told me that the show had been cancelled/nearly-cancelled at the end of each season, and so they lost most of their writing staff. Of course, I only learned this after I'd borrowed the last S3 disc, which actually contained 3 wildly-funny episodes.

What followed after was just... disappointing and confusing. Stewie was now talking all the time, which made no sense whatsoever. He was also involved in stupid plots, like joining the army with the family dog. The comedy went from "setup, then punchline" to "just punchline, usually as a dumb reference." I couldn't understand how a series that showed genuine comedic skill suddenly just dropped the whole "delivery" part of a joke.

I don't know if Family Guy ever had an ep, after Season 3, that I would call "funny." A friend or two would occasionally send me a clip that was amusing, but the episodes were just too over the top for me. I doubled over when I heard Peter Griffin was writing knock-off novels, and one was titled, "Harry Potter and the Half-Black Chick."

I just know that lots of people liked it. It's like those spring videos - just because lots of other dudes like it, doesn't mean I will, or have to give a damn. If your standards for comedy are as low as I saw from the FG writers, tho, I may be generally unconvinced by your opinions on entertainment.

The Sopranos/Sex in the City/Entourage - I loved both shows when they started. HBO series, unfortunately, have this problem where they have a super-popular first season, then they get shockingly full of themselves. It's not the arrogance that bothers me, it's that they start out with an actual story to tell; success makes them shift to just pandering to their fans.

By "pandering," I mean that every element that people liked is then over-used. If people really responded to some unusual, filthy curse on The Sopranos, then there's even nastier ones coming down the line. And those curses aren't there because they feel organic or "real," they just exist to as, well, a wank for the viewers. If people like a mean, mouthy agent on Entourage, then now we're getting tons of time devoted to him doing just that.

Sex in the City was an especial disappointment. I was really excited for a female-centric show, and it started as an interesting story about a working woman in New York. Suddenly, it became (to my mind) a writer's room full of females who were coming up with catch-phrases and girl-power moments instead of plots and character arcs. 

I recommend dropping each of those shows after their first (and for Sopranos, maybe the second) season. Your mileage may vary, but the purity of intent and focus displayed at the start of these series are elements that quickly disappear; I hope you're not pleased with what replaced those aspects - otherwise, you may have bad taste.

The Simpsons - God how I loved and respected and adored this show. I haven't lost those feelings - it was great while it lasted and I won't be upset with them for failing me. The problem is that after Season 8, most eps aren't very funny or special. At times, the failings are quite huge, and it's like "going-through-the-motions sex," which I've never had and would advise against.

The rare exceptions: the Halloween episodes and the occasional three-part installments in which The Simpsons tells three 8-minute stories. Those used to always be reliable, but each edition has been poor or strongly-off for the last several years.

Someone got me to watch the series this year, and I'm proud to say that the writers actually still have some fuel left in the tank. Unfortunately, we're in the 23rd season, which means about 13-14 years of not being very funny at all.

The X-Files - This series is sort of incredible. It's like Rammstein becoming as popular - to the mainstream US - for 3 or 4 years, then just disappearing like Keyser Soze. Step 1 is simple: watch a selection of the first and second seasons, using best of list and the Amazon reviewers who grade each ep to pick a tight set of episodes. Step 2: do not become addicted to all the awesome elements of this show and watch everything else.

I never made that mistake; I watched in this fashion, catching episodes on and off throughout the first four years. The X-Files could tell an amazing horror story, could display amazing wit, and had a great cast - these rumors are dead right. Even the S5, 6, & 7 have some real television gems.

People who become devoted viewers, however, often get pulled into a series' mythology and the question it's raised ("will he find the one-armed man?"). I heard all about it from friends: tantalizing details revealed every so often, with no pay off whatsoever. I called this show "the never-ending ha**-jo*." It's like pre-Lost, but not so manipulative, and with a truly awe-inspiring horror anthology bent.

Everything I've heard from friends, or quickly caught on Netflix Instant, made my joke freakishly accurate. If you like what you see in those first two seasons, check out a few from each, but avoid the serialization. It's more frustrating than... a John Hughes high-school.

Intelligence - stop in the first 2 eps of Season 2.

Misfits - This UK series was a breath of fresh air - in its first season. The idea of "what if the X-Men were post-juvenile delinquents" is very neat, and the characters are vivid and entertaining. They're backed up by some great ideas and a good soundtrack. Unfortunately, the show pulls a partial Sopranos for maximizing the loudest parts of the show.

And it becomes genuinely lazy and dumb in its second and third seasons. There are some high marks, but it's all too damn much. It's one thing to expect a show to get better than it already was, but it's another to watch it become worse. Unless you're very easily satisfied, Misfits is all about diminishing returns.

One role is profoundly annoying, and the leads have no reason to see each other too often, but they do anyway, and they put up with that one jerk anyway. They all hang out on the main set all the time, too - which is unforgivably stupid.

That's it for this installment. I'm exhausted.

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