TV: Where Everything Dies Without Dignity

October 3, 2011

But George, I love That 70s Show.
TV networks are like Lennie from Of Mice and Men, they find precious shows and hold on to them so tightly they turn into a fine paste (which they spoon feed idiots for a few extra years).

TV show success is defined by a Favrian lack of self-awareness, an unwillingness to step out of the lime-light long after it's turned into a lemon-light, a golden shower of shark-jumping, fridge-nuking sub-mediocrity that all but undoes any legacy that may have existed.

I don't need to spell out all the shows that have made the celebrated shark-jump. Instead, I'll focus on a few good shows that illustrate the fall from grace.

The Office
Assistant (to the) General Manager
The British Office was like a mini-series. It still exists in the ether as a completed work with a beginning, middle, and end. In America, we prefer to keep our shows around long enough to ruin everything that we liked about them. Now into season 9, the "will they or won't they?" plot that drove the UK version and early seasons in the US and provided just about the only storyline that was properly dramatic--powerful, yet painfully realistic--has been replaced by a tedious child-raising story.

We can't let our characters exit gracefully, no, we want to see them grow old and boring, raising kids, paying mortgages, saving enough for retirement. Some will say it's a mirror on the audience and somehow that makes it a worthy story. Simply being realistic doesn't make a story worth telling. It's almost as if Jim and Pam are relatives we all share, the cute and funny cousins that we remember fondly. It reminds me of numerous Sci-fi stories where people have implanted memories they all share but think are their own.

They tried to replace Jim and Pam's unrequited romance with several other romances, but none of them had anywhere near the same effect since they involved comedic relief characters who we don't easily attribute actual emotions to.

Better get the kids to soccer practice,
mr. single father; I just don't know how he does it!
Don't get me wrong, I really like Dexter and am eagerly anticipating this season. The problem with Dexter is actually its greatest strength...Dexter is movie like in a lot of ways. Each season could really be trimmed down into a 2-3 hour movie and it would work pretty well. See,  movies have to be about the most important events in a character's life. TV is more about maintaining the status quo and getting the most out of the situation. Movies are life-altering events. That's why it's hard to really have film-like shows, you're going to run out of life-changing events that don't feel artificial.

Let's look at Debra Morgan as an example. (spoilers ahead). Deb's brother is a serial killer with a heart of gold. So of course her life is going to be a bit odd. She falls in love with and nearly marries a serial killer who tries to kill her. Then she falls in love with a serial killer-hunter, only for him to be murdered in front of her (and she was shot herself) by a serial killer.  She falls in love with a guy who is kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer but survives. Then she has to help her serial killer brother raise his kids after he's made a widow by a serial killer.

I mean honestly...Take any one, maybe two seasons, and you could have a believable story. But when you look at the whole series, it loses all credibility. Deb has become a serial killer pin-cushion. You just know that in the Dexter writing room this sentiment was expresed, "It's original because instead of being the target of a serial killer, this season her lover is the target."

There's a new serial killer in Miami every year, and there's never any shortage of a free killers for Dexter to hunt down. You'd think there were a thousand murders a year in Miami. It makes sense in a movie, or when you take one season at a time. Hunting a serial killer is the biggest thing these characters would do. By season 6  it's not even eye-raising. Instead of the plot being based on the hunt for this killer, we've given every minor character their own relationship sub-plot. Because that's why I watch a show about a vigilante serial killer, to see office romances play out between non-emotive cops.

I will give Dexter's writers credit for (spoiler) killing off Rita because they must have realized how tedious the family plot had become. I mean hello, I'm watching a show about a serial killer, next thing I know he's in marriage counseling opening up about his feelings and trying to connect with his teenage step-daughter.

The West Wing
I can't wait to find out which co-worker
she makes friends with benefits with.
This is my favorite TV drama of all-time, but I can't let the last few seasons off the hook. For the first 4 seasons it was a character-driven realistic look at how the president's staff lives. Wrapped up in their jobs, their social lives are practically non-existent. They measure their ups and downs with the polls and election results. It's actually a pretty difficult to explain formula. It's Aaron Sorkin, the guy that turned a story about computer programmers into The Social Network. The dialogue is smart, the plots are elegant and subtle, and ultimately all about the characters.

Once Sorkin left, the show fell victim to 24-syndrome. The plot from season 5 on was driven by kidnappings, bombs, nuclear meltdowns, classified leaks, basically any crisis that can take over a cable news channel was penciled in for a 4-5 episode stint as the "plot." So lovable characters became little more than mouthpieces for plot information.

I'm exaggerating of course, but this all could have been avoided had the show exited a little more gracefully when Sorkin, the show runner, did. It did manage a fairly graceful exit that felt like an ending as the new president takes office in the series finale (though not by choice as they planned on continuing the show).

So let's make a checklist to define shows squeezed to death.

1. Relationship sub-plots for all the characters (typically amongst existing characters that you wouldn't expect)
2. Outlandish number of coincidences
3. Plot no longer character driven
4. Transition from getting the girl/boy to tedious child rearing/marriages
5. Lack of any overall story structure (beginning, middle, end)

The exception that proves the rule is Seinfeld.

1. Unlike Friends, That 70s Show, How I Met Your Mother, and numerous other shows, they resisted the trend to have all the characters hook up at some point. In the hands of lesser writers, Elaine would have ended up in a love triangle with Jerry and either George or Kramer. Seriously.
2. This one isn't really applicable in the way it is to Dexter and dramas.
3. The plot was always driven by each character's neurosis. Never by baby-mama love-triangle drama.
4. George and Susan never make it to that point and no other character ever comes close to settling down.
5. Not really applicable since this had almost no real "drama" to it. However, they walked away gracefully and did end the series with a bang and not the whimper of cancellation.

Let's just hope that Arrested Development has the balls to avoid these mistakes.

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