I have to start this post with some embarrassing facts about me. To summarize: I watch the following TV shows: The Office, Glee, Entourage, True Blood, Community, Californication, Mad Men,and Hung. Before they concluded, I also watched: Battlestar Galactica, The Tudors, and Rome.
Almost all of these shows were, at one time or another, quality programming (only Hung was never any good). [EDIT: on further thought, Californication has never been all that great either.] Yet almost all of them sooner or later deteriorated into shows that were at best mediocre and worst downright preposterous. The only exceptions are Rome, which was saved only because it lasted only two seasons, and Community and True Blood, which haven’t really had enough time to go bad.
What I want to enquire, therefore, is this: Is there something inherent in the format of television that dooms TV programming to eventual mediocrity? Or is this more a problem of how viewers interact with programming?
As, it seems, with everything that I write about on this blog, the answer appears to me to be both. I’ll be more interested today in what I see as the problems of the television format, but at least some of the problem almost certainly lies with the level of investment that we, the audience, make in these characters. That we do invest, of course, is demonstrated by the fact that we continue to watch shows like Entourage or The Office that stopped being funny years ago: we feel we have some stake in what happens between Jim and Pam or in Vince’s now-great, now-floundering career. When we build up that level of investment, we develop some chimerical belief in our right to have some say over what happens to the characters – hence our dissatisfaction when something happens that we didn’t want to happen.
Be that as it may, the format of TV seems to me to present a set of unique challenges that so far no show I’ve watched has succeeded in working around.
First of all, there’s a basic problem in the scope of stories that are developed for television. TV shows, if they’re successful, will run for years, meaning that there are several years’ worth of people’s lives that need to be developed and explored. At the same time, though, television settings are relatively limited, with a circumscribed cast that can’t accommodate extensive use of new characters for a long period of time. This leads to a level of incestuous plotting that renders shows preposterous. Why doesn’t a single one of the kids on Glee have a significant other that isn’t another one of them? Why does almost every one of the regulars on True Blood have some sort of dark secret in their past? Because they’re the people the producers have to work with and the show has to be kept interesting, that’s why.
Beyond the plot structure of television series, however, there’s also the problem of the way that television series are produced. Where in film production the producers and director usually (though not always) work from a finished script towards the construction of a story with a pre-determined ending, television shows usually have no such clear endpoint. When a show gets a pilot made, the producers are hoping to get the studio to order enough episodes for a half or full season; then, if all goes well, they’re hoping that it gets renewed for further seasons. Often, shows aren’t renewed until after the last episode of the previous season has already aired.
What this means is that, even if producers have a general idea of where they want a show to go, their focus isn’t on constructing an overarching product so much as on making the immediate future of the show entertaining enough that it’ll keep getting renewed. And, indeed, the very idea of shows being able to be indefinitely renewed is inimical to the development of long-lasting storylines: what do you do once you’ve reached the end of the story you want to tell but you still have an audience? Similarly, why map out a five-season plan when you might get cancelled after only three?
Let’s look at Glee as an example of this. Beyond the club’s competitive dimension and the running rivalry with Sue Sylvester, the first season had three fairly involved plotlines: Quinn’s teen pregnancy, its mirror in Terri Schuester’s faked pregnancy, and Will’s ongoing non-romance with Emma. There was, in other words, some real serious shit going on, all of which got resolved, more or less satisfactorily, by the end of the season. In the second season, by contrast, there’s been – what? Curt’s problems with the football player thug? Sure, but even that was little more than a brief story arc. And, in the absence of any such thematic content to complement the more light-hearted aspects of the show, Glee has become little more than a series of loosely narrative public service announcements. Once it resolved the heavy plot issues of the first season, it had effectively spent itself; it had nowhere new to go. There had been no forethought about what would come after that first season.
Finally, television programming faces a challenge that is inherent in any narrative endeavor predicated on installments – that is, things like television series, film series, or book series; more abstractly one might also think of ongoing photographic or artistic projects. That is, such endeavors must find a way to balance what makes them effective and entertaining with innovation and evolution. With any artistic endeavor – indeed, with any long-term endeavor whatsoever – there comes a time when, no matter how good the product has been, one begins to want to stretch beyond it and achieve something more.
There’s strong reasoning behind this. How many shows have we seen that started off great but after not too long a time became stale? Think, for instance, of The Office. Initially, the mockumentary style and loose, situation-based style made it fresh and charming and funny. Once that style became familiar, however, the show found that it needed to find new ways to amuse, so it began to try to lean on increasingly tired plot-driven stories to keep its audience invested. This strategy made perfect sense. The mine of humor in Jim and Pam’s disguised pining for one another, for instance, could only run so deep.
At the same time, the main reason that we were drawn to the show in the first place was that it was funny, and it was funny precisely because of those things that producers were compelled to move away from in trying to keep the product fresh. Thus we come to the other side of the problem: in demanding artistic and stylistic evolution, the need to keep the product fresh often demands (or is understood to demand) a move away from, perhaps even the abandonment of, principles that were from the outset fundamental to that product. In other words, keeping a show good seems mean moving away from all the things that made it good in the first place. And there is a term for this, coming, appropriately, from an event in a television series: ‘jumping the shark.’
I don’t think this is a necessary fate for all television programming, but it is an extremely likely one. Without a set idea of how long something is going to last, how it’s going to end, and how it’s going to get there, innovation is both necessary and doomed. It’s the only way to keep people interested, but it’s also like throwing darts at a dartboard with a blindfold on. You might score a bulls-eye, but you’re much more likely to end up pinning your buddy who’s standing by with the beers.
So how can you avoid this? The answer is simple: don’t start producing a TV show until you know how it begins, how it ends, and have a rough road map of how you’re going to get there and in what time. Then, have faith in the version of you that made that plan and carry it out as planned. Alternately, know when to quit.
Unfortunately, this is all much easier said than done; indeed, this sort of system is both impossible in the current system and financially impractical for the people who are putting up the money. Like movies, as discussed in my post on comic book adaptations, television series are as much commercial investments as they are artistic projects. And, realistically, it’s the viewers, not the money men, who necessitate this system. I still watch The Office. I still watch Glee. What reason have I given the producers of these shows to walk away and start a new project that would be as good as these shows used to be? What reasons have I given studios to rethink the production process?
Exactly. None. On which note, it’s time to go back to slapping my head in frustration every time Hank Moody has another absurdly unlikely sexual conquest.
Gentleman of the Day: