30 May 2010

Why is 99% of Television Crap?

99% of television is crap because of how the system works to get new shows on the air.

So, before investing years of your life watching stuff like LOST, HEROES, GLEE, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, SPARTACUS, or a host of other shows that inevitably spiral down the drain to unwatchable, unsatisfying, and dismal shells of their earlier episodes read this post and save your precious time!

Before a show is put into production there is a contract in place for X number of shows. Take GLEE for instance. That show began with a 9 episode contract. Those first 9 shows have the best stories you will likely see in the series as the producers must place their best foot forward to gain an audience and obtain that next coveted contract to produce more episodes. Those first shows are big on story, moving the plot forward, and not wasting time with character “backstories” or “mythology” episodes that serve no real purpose, besides filling another hour of contractual obligation to the network, and which inevitably kill the series.

Those first episodes set the scene and are plotted before any cameras start rolling. Actual care is put into the story at this stage as there is time to make a compelling story and think through where the producers want the characters to be at some point in the future. The producers know that if the show is a hit, they will establish a fan base and be given more episodes by the network to tell the story of these characters. The seeds of future mediocrity are ironically planted at the point of greatest success when the show is extended to another 9 episodes by the netwrok.

If the show is a hit, the producers must bring in more writers because now they have hours of television they are contractually obligated to fill! This leads to many “throwaway” storylines that only serve the function of filling time to get to the ratings-week blockbusters which generate high ratings and more ad revenue.

There is nothing wrong with making money, but the STORY must be there from the very beginning to ground the television production. It is terribly backwards when the demand for television hours is what drives the generation of the story! Once the story goes through a bunch of hands, (e.g. different writers coming in and messing with the original vision to build their reputation off the show, finding out that certain characters test well with audiences so the focus shifts towards them to appease the netwrok, etc.), then the overall quality of the show suffers and the fan base inevitably is disappointed in the results.

The prime example of this base method of television production taking precedence and killing a story is LOST. (Thanks to thelittlestwinslow.wordpress.com for the graphic. Check out their great review of the LOST finale.)

LOST started out as a sci-fi show which seemed to be going somewhere. Then the producers realized they wrote themselves into so many corners they would never be able to put together an ending that tied everything together into a satisfying conclusion. The final episode introduced even more mysteries that were never explained to try and put a cap on the series. The producers took a good sci-fi show, watched it turn into a mess of something that kind of resembled a drama piece, turned it into some fantasy character study, and ended as a garbage Disney movie with no mention of the original sci-fi elements. What else could they do after abandoning the initial premise so many years ago?

GLEE is heading down that same road of not knowing where to go next with their story. GLEE chews through story like Gary Busey through dialogue. There is no way they can keep up the pace of their storytelling. Glee story arcs completed in 1 hour are enough for 4 or 5 episodes on some other television series. I can see that show burning out very quickly due to viewer fatigue.

HEROES- what a joke. It started out well in season 1 and again spiraled into a mess that is no longer part of the zeitgeist. This is the fate of 99% of television shows because story does not matter, only the mass production of more and more product. The reason is because people forget a good story has 3 SATISFYING parts to be considered a real story – Beginning, Middle, and End. The aim of producing these shows should be to tell a story, not sell CDs of the cast singing pop hits or moving “Blerg!” coffee mugs.

As a contra-example, look at shows like MAD MEN. Mad Men produces 13 episodes per year, each season takes place at a given point in time after the preceding season, and most of the plot lines are wrapped up within the same season. It is on every week at the same time on the same channel, so the viewer can find it, appreciate it, and knows when the next chapter will be available. THIS is how you build viewer loyalty! The slogan of the AMC network that presents Mad Men is “Story matters here.”, and I say thank you AMC for doing what most of television cannot – give me a good story with satisfying BEGINNING, MIDDLE, and END!

The last great television show that was scripted from start to finish was BABYLON 5. This show was fully written and fleshed out by Joseph Michael Straczynski. He had a vision for a story taking 5 television seasons, and that is exactly what he produced. Yes, there were some TV movies added on and some attempts at brand extension of the Babylon 5 universe, but those were not part of the original vision. One does not need to watch anything other than the television episodes to enjoy a satisfying story.

Of course my theory only holds for these 1 hour “event” shows try to reel you in with “Answers are coming next week to the MYSTERY”, which never come because another hack writer was given the reigns for 3 episodes and needs to put his own spin on things. Sitcoms don’t follow this pattern because they have no overarching story. If a sideline character like Steve Urkel gets over with the fans, make him the centerpiece of the show! Sitcoms exist in a world of consistency where everything is the same as last week, and will be until someone dies or moves in the final episode. They are throw away television, mindless empty mental calories that can serve a purpose for mental distraction after a hard day. (Of course, every once in a while a really great show like SEINFELD will come along, but that is another topic for another time.)

Tell a good story and you will have all the “Blerg” coffee mugs you can handle flying off the shelf, along with other endorsed products, for fans to purchase over the long haul! Tell a good story, and your audience will RISE over time instead of shrink with disappointment! The point is be prudent with your time and look at television shows that are on the way up instead of falling into the vicious circle of making more episodes for the sake of making more episodes.

To all those people that wasted 6 years of their lives watching LOST, hey, that is truly your loss!


1 comment:

Nick said...

Hey there - thanks for checking out The Littlest Winslow! This post is fantastic, and I had to comment on it.

Although I did enjoy the Lost finale...I've had a love/hate relationship with the show ever since the 3rd season. What they told in 6 seasons could've been told in 3 or 4, and I'll never forgive them for it. There's no excuse for treading water like that, especially for a show like Lost.

"It is terribly backwards when the demand for television hours is what drives the generation of the story!" I couldn't agree more! This is an excellent, excellent statement!

I also agree re: Mad Men - what a brilliant show. The writing is insanely tight, and the acting is just as top notch. Can't wait to see more!

I don't understand why people watched Heroes for so long. Season 1 was great on its own, but the show tanked very soon after. I'm a huge Whedon fan, and I always appreciated his storytelling. Each season had a beginning-middle-end format, though, he excelled at arcing stories over the course of the season. That said, viewers never had to worry about being left out to dry. I can't believe Buffy the Vampire Slayer took so long to catch (finally on DVD!) but it remains 1 of my 2 favorite shows of all time, with the other being Six Feet Under.

Good post! I'll be reading more soon!