Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Curse of Good Television or, When Bad Things Happen to Good Viewers

It's not supposed to be like this.  Quality TV shows, critically-acclaimed and popular with viewers, should, in theory, proliferate, spawning more quality shows.  So why aren't the airwaves (and fibre-optic lines) a-quiver with top-notch, gripping entertainment?

The networks are, we all know, focused on ratings and ad revenues, so taking a chance on a series that's a little smarter, that asks more of its audience, is a real stretch for the average executive.  ("Hmm, sounds risky.  Can't we just do another reality show about people who look like their cats?")   But one big hit and everyone's trying to copy it - after all, nothing succeeds like success.

Unfortunately, in Hollywood, nothing exceeds like excess.  So, in the wake of shows like Lost, we have a multitude of programs that have large casts, multiple storylines, complicated, long-running 'mythologies', and employ non-conventional story-telling, like flashbacks, and non-sequential scenes.  (A brief digression: at what point does the non-conventional become conventional - I mean, is it before or after it's been done to death by a spate of imitators?)  And guess what?  They mostly stink.

Sure, all the ingredients are there, but this isn't like simply following a recipe and ending up with a cake as good as a master baker's.  There are an infinite number of decisions to be made on how the story is told, and even subtle variations can make the difference between the brilliant and the banal.  Not least of these is the pace at which information is doled out to the viewer.

There's a fine balance between too much and too little.  Audiences can barely wait through a two hour movie to have "the answers" revealed (now you know why you feel like you've seen the movie after watching the trailer) - imagine how much more challenging it is to make them wait three, five, seven years for a resolution to all the mysteries they've puzzled over in their favourite weekly drama.  Without regular doses of enlightenment, the audience will simply drift away.

But there has to be something held back.  Giving away all the secrets at once, and early, strips much, if not all of the appeal of these shows.  Revealing (spoiler alert!) in the first episode of The Event that the 'bad guys' are aliens was gutsy, and likely included to defuse the accusation so often hurled at Lost: "you never tell us anything big".  Can't help but wonder, though, how much more compelling a series it would be if there was more to be guessed at.  Besides, the audience will always imagine a more personally compelling conspiracy than the writers will devise, so it pays to have them at least somewhat in the dark.

Ironically, episodic television lends itself to this kind of storytelling in a way that other media can't, because of the unnatural pause between weekly installments.  The seven-day delay allows for reflection, reassessment, and discussion with friends, or - more likely these days - with a community of fans on a website.  Then, back to the tube to see if you were right (and more importantly, to prove that blowhard in accounting was completely off base).

Like a lot of things, it's harder than it looks.  As a result, there are many shows that would like to be the next X-Files, Mad Men, or (name of your TV crush here), but they just can't pull it off.  Channel after channel is clogged with wannabe's, few of which will survive.  (Flashforward? Flashed-forward to its own demise.  The Event?  Rapidly becoming The Non-EventFringe?  Well, there have to be exceptions.)

So enjoy these good shows while they're around - you'll spend the next few years channel-surfing to avoid their pale imitators.  And, of course, whining about the good ol' days.