Your Favorite Show in Danger? Good.

I’ve got a few problems with Hollywood these days. We’ll save my problems with endless remakes of films that were once considered untouchable classics for another day. For now we’re going to discuss television.

I used to hope that the shows I enjoyed would be universally loved. Everyone would watch what I watched and be as entertained as I was. After all, scientific research has proven that I have great taste in shows, so it was only logical. The more people that watched the shows that I loved, the longer the show would run, the bigger its budgets would be, the more fantastic everything would be.

It was a foolish Utopian view, sadly. What ends up happening is that shows become hugely popular, and they become a cash cow. Once a show is raking in money for a network, the suits step in and then they start to drive the ship. Creative control is now a matter of committee and decisions that might make for a better show, but could perhaps alter its path and therefore its audience, are shot down summarily. What started as a fresh and exciting bit of entertainment on the small screen has turned into a revenue generation machine that will run until it has ground itself into dust.

I’ve seen many shows walk this path, and it’s depressing. Seinfeld. The Simpsons (be honest with yourself, it hasn’t been the same for a long time). That 70s Show (they even tried to keep this one going after having lost two of its central characters and largest stars). Prison Break (how many times do they need to get placed into another prison for the premise to still work?).

In the past few years, I’ve gotten into and enjoyed a few shows that were in danger of failure, or indeed did fail almost immediately, and they’ve proven some of the most vital and effecftive bits of television I’ve ever seen. Firefly. Dollhouse (say what you will, it made for some action packed television). Veronica Mars. Arrested Development.

When a show has years of run-time ahead of it, it’s in the best interests of the writers to stall. They need to arrange relationships and situations so that they will carry on endlessly into the future. This means that no matter what happens on the show, a certain status quo must be maintained. Inevitably, the show will stagnate or get outrageous as the writers attempt to milk infinite mileage out of a limited premise.

A show in danger of being taken out back and shot is where you will see the prime television. How do you bring people in to a show that is struggling and keep people who are watching from abandoning you? Ratchet up the tension, move the plots along. In short: tell a story. There’s no time to waffle around and stall, the show needs to get from Point A, where everything is introduced, to Point B, where everything is tied up in a satisfying fashion for the audience.

This is akin to what seems to be the standard format for shows in the UK via the BBC. I’m not suggesting that everything that comes across the pond is excellent, but it’s pretty clear that British shows have the right idea when it comes to telling a story. Shows air for as long as they need to… and then that’s it. The Office, Extras, No Heroics, even recurring shows like Doctor Who set out to tell a story in a single go and fade away once they’re done.

Does this mean your favorite show might not be on the air for as long? Yes. But it should carry some weight that it will be better while its around. Lost is a prime example of this. Season 1 is some excellent television. By Season 2, it was clear the show was faltering, introducing mysteries and questions that it couldn’t answer, for fear of running out of content too soon. Season 3 was a pretty low point for the show and even the die hard fans were starting to falter. Season 4 rolled around and the show had renewed purpose, and flew through with an exciting and action-packed Season 5 filled with action and answers. How did they manage the turnaround? They decided the show would last only 6 seasons (with each season being shorter than average length). Suddenly the show had a timeline and the writers had a structure in which to tell their story and be done.

So, until networks start to prescribe to the notion that shows should only last as long as their story dictates, rather than as long as the cash will keep flowing it, it appears that the best way to ensure a show delivers a quality story is for it to be in danger. Sad but true.

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  1. #1 by Badmoodman on June 10, 2009 - 6:33 PM

    “What ends up happening is that shows become hugely popular, and they become a cash cow. Once a show is raking in money for a network, the suits step in and then they start to drive the ship.”

    – – Or in the case of my former favorite show, “The West Wing,” creator/writer Aaron Sorkin imploded a bit during the TWW’s third season. The 9/11 attacks, a drug bust and divorce unnerved Sorkin and his posting on devolved into a pissing match with posters that manifested itself in an episode (the subplot about Josh Lyman). Less than two years later, with the scripts noticeably weaker, Sorkin left his creation.

  2. #2 by mscarpel on June 11, 2009 - 1:15 PM

    It’s always sad to learn that disagreements and action behind the scenes are what bring a show down, rather than the strength of its concept and production.

    And my first ever blog comment! Exciting!

  3. #3 by Watch Veronica Mars on June 26, 2009 - 12:04 AM

    I like to watch Veronica Mars episodes as well Lost. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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