Please forgive me for that angry detour. And now, on with the complaining about bad TV.
Properly think through any second season revamps for shows that have only just avoided cancellation
V was never a good show (sorry @DarkEyeSocket). It was exactly the kind of nervous, apologetic sci-fi show churned out by a network with no real idea why they were revamping a beloved original other than that some mis-programmed spreadsheet somewhere said it was worth $Xm when actually it was worth a tin of chicken pie filling. For an alien invasion series that had a bunch of potential, V did nothing, it said nothing, its characters were inconsistent for the most part, it recycled plots over and over again, and it looked cheap. I couldn’t really hate it, though, mostly because things as time-distortingly boring as this usually only breed low, pulsating resentment.
That said, at least the showrunners seemed aware they had problems with the show; it limped into a second season with not much buzz and little critical attention, and so they needed to up their game to bring in new viewers. The first season ends with an overt act of aggression against evil alien leader Anna, which makes her lose her otherworldly shit and turn the skies red, while vowing to hunt the killer of her diabolically evil offspring. Exciting stuff (really, it was promising). So how did season two continue?
- Anna does not get her revenge, and her “Red Rain” attack on Earth is instantly forgiven by everyone after a speech explaining that red rain is a nice thing.
- Alien traitor Ryan vows to help Anna, then betrays her by helping resistance leader Erica.
- He then betrays the humans by helping Anna. This is followed by another betrayal of Anna by helping Erica.
- There are also lots of scenes of Ryan trying to sneak off, and onto, the alien mothership, pausing only to explain to people why he is sneaking off, or onto, the ship. No one seems that bothered.
- Father Jack gets defrocked and wears a sad face for the rest of the season.
- Jay Karnes appears. Shield fans are momentarily as excited as Firefly fans were when they saw Alan Tudyk and Morena Baccarin on the castlist for the pilot. This euphoria lasts about ten minutes.
- Some stuff happens with Scott Wolf’s character but I wasn’t paying attention. I think he joins the Shriners? Or buys a dog?
- Erica’s angry chip breaks because her vile teenage son has a number of tantrums related to him sucking as a person.
- The rest of the resistance group congregates in its traditional awkward Circle of Debating to argue with her over every poorly-thought-through decision she makes from then on. This happens at least three times an episode.
- The finale comes around after nine repetitive episodes, kills off a bunch of characters, introduces new ones, and completely changes the game in a number of ways that show great potential.
- The show is then cancelled.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you have some radical ideas for how the show should be, introduce that shit IMMEDIATELY and don’t think you can just bluff your way through with low viewing figures. You don’t have time to be coy. The changes from season one to season two were just not dramatic enough. Look at how The Vampire Diaries stepped up its game about halfway through its first season, with an almost exponential increase in quality by the time the second season started. What looked like a tedious Twilight cash-in is now an indecently entertaining show with a modicum of justified critical respectability. That’s the model to emulate.
The other model to ignore was used by Human Target. SoC has long believed that dramatic shows with a small cast are onto a loser; you need a big cast of characters to have a wide array of storytelling possibilities to explore. Angel got really good when its core cast jumped from three to five, and the addition of Lorne in the fifth season pushed it over the top (Correction: TV writer and Angel fanatic @RowanKaiser maintains Lorne became a regular in season 4. Ooopsies!). Lost had a huge cast, and the show was able to fly off in directions no one could have predicted (especially as it wasn’t Purgatory at the end it was a Tibetan Bardo SHUT UP HATERS you just don’t understand Lost on the same deep level I do).
With a barely-serialised action show like Human Target, a huge cast wasn’t the point, but even though the first season was fun enough, three main characters (and no women) was a problem. Even at its best, it was a bit mundane, with not enough variety from week to week. Sadly, the introduction of two new (female) characters didn’t go the way I had hoped, not helped that showrunner Jonathan E. Steinberg was replaced by Chuck producer Mark Miller. As longtime readers will know, SoC is not fond of Chuck. It is the TV equivalent of mercury in the water table. It’s telling that Steinberg wrote some of the best episodes of the second season, proving he knows the show very well. Who knows why he was moved aside, but it didn’t work out.
Sadly the chemistry of Mark Valley, Jackie Earle Haley and SoC favourite Chi McBride was damaged by the introduction of Indira Varma and Janet Montgomery. Not because the actresses were bad; far from it. What was wrong was their effect on the spiky leads. Grouchy, mysterious Guerrero became an increasingly sentimental father figure for Montgomery’s Ames (an inevitable but unfortunate “arc” for a mean loner, I guess), Winston became superfluous as his position as “tetchy fusspot” was taken over by Varma’s new boss character Ilsa Pucci, and charming gadabout Christopher Chance fell for his new boss in a Moonlighting stylee.
All of those plot threads make perfect sense. They follow from what the characters were at the end of the first season and resolve their issues, more or less. Great if you only want one more season, but ruinous for a show that could have stayed on the air for a while, if it had ever learned to offer something, ANYTHING, that differentiated it from any number of crunching action shows on the air. The first season had a touch of quirk; it looked like it could go places. The second season made every character less compelling and added nothing else to make up for it. With its odd touches of character gone, the show dribbled to an ignominious end. A real shame.
So I guess the lesson I learned here is, if your show isn’t awesome enough at the end of the first season, make it more awesome, and not less awesome. I guess I’d like to see shows capitalise on the things that make them unique instead of excising them and aiming for the middle, but I think all of us already knew that. ::shrugs::
On a procedural show, a rigid format is a bonus. On a serialised show, it’s death
This is another way of saying “if you can’t break it, you’re gonna wear it out instead”. In the latest season of Dexter, our anti-hero improbably fell for Lumen, the victim of a gang of rapist murderers (::sigh:: What a delightful show) after accidentally saving her. Coming so soon after the death of his wife Rita, this plotline was introduced with the intention of bringing Dexter back from the grief he felt, though that grief was listlessly dramatised after the first episode, in which he snapped and finally killed an innocent guy (though he was a REALLY REALLY NASTY innocent guy, so it’s not like this guy mattered at all, right?).
The possibilities of this were promising, as was the show’s greater interest in using the secondary cast, especially weaselly tough guy Quinn. Could the show finally break new ground, stopping the endless loop of Serial Killer/Family Man dramatics? Sadly, no. While this season did a better job of weaving the secondary character arcs with Dexter’s, the usual flaws were abundant. In the season finale, Dexter is once more on the verge of being discovered by the police — this time his sister — but gets away with it because of her decision to just look the other way, which is conveniently made in such a way as to protect his identity. Once more Dexter has no agency in these matters, because acting to protect himself would put him in a format-ruining situation.
Even worse, his new love Lumen bolts almost immediately after the big finale due to contractual obligations and the necessity of resetting the show for next year, leaving Dexter bereft, just as he was at the start of the season. This season could have given Dexter an interesting arc, showing how his grief transforms him, curing his serial killer tendencies and turning him into a normal human being. But there’s money to be made in churning out years more of this crap, so Dexter has to walk on the spot for two more seasons (unless Showtime falls out with Michael C. Hall), thus rendering a promising idea about grief and loss into an underwhelming metaphor for how sucky it is to have a rebound relationship fall apart after a couple of months.
Part of the problem comes when a show is so wedded to its format that it cannot escape it. Dexter must remain a forensic expert working for the police, so he must never be caught and no one close to him can ever find out. He must also stay sympathetic so he can never kill an innocent (unless they’re REALLY REALLY POINTLESSLY ILLOGICALLY NASTY). Nevertheless, there has to be tension, so his secret identity is threatened until he is forced to do something that breaks his code and ooops! Someone else makes a decision that lets him off the hook. Every season ends like this. It taints every accomplishment of the show with a thick sticky veneer of pointlessness.
Look at Glee. The showrunners can add as many George Gershwin tunes and shots of the Lincoln Centre to their season finale, but it doesn’t make the tired formula any easier to digest. Even if the show didn’t have a writing staff of three, Glee has become far too reliant on a season arc that seemingly cannot change. Everything boils down to the club winning the regionals to get to the national championships, with each episode mixing up the relationships between the characters into a finite series of patterns. Who cares about Rachel and Finn? Do even Glee fans care? No one on the show has ever seemed to, so why should we?
Glee‘s three showrunners would do well to look at how Friday Night Lights transcended its similar school-year-based formula to provide seasons that felt individual. Not only did that break its formula at the end of season three — with Coach Taylor transferred to a new school – but each season felt distinct from the others either by making the Panthers lose early (season two, if the truncated arc went in the direction I think it was going), by introducing a new team with no hope of winning (season four), or taking them all the way to the top either as beloved heroes or despised underdogs (seasons one and five respectively). Glee has no interest in that. It has one story to tell, and apparently its fans are just fine with that. The rest of us crave more, though.
Avoid comedy episodes in a show that already wears its comedic moments lightly
One of the great joys of the last year has been discovering a real gem. Even with the huge amount of criticial praise thrown as The Good Wife, it still seemed like a soapy trifle, thanks to that premise and many of the trails shown on More4. How to describe the thrill of watching the show and realising it’s the most perceptive, adult, and well-constructed political dramas of our time, a West Wing without Sorkin’s blither clogging up the ethical debates and weighty interpersonal strife? With Friday Night Lights gone, The Good Wife is easily the best thing on network TV.
But it’s not all plain sailing. The show is often slyly funny, with jokes coming from character more than situation. Though Eli Gold is sometimes played for laughs, the show never goes all-out for cheap giggles, except for once. The late-season episode Foreign Affairs featured a cringe-inducing comedy sub-plot with a faceless “Hugo Chavez” appearing via teleconference, “hilariously” ranting about Courtney Love, with Fred Dalton Thompson – as himself – acting as Chavez’ lawyer in front of a star-struck Ana Gasteyer.
The effect is excruciating to watch. Maybe someone thought this would be a nice treat for the audience, or a break from the show’s usual heavy subject matter. Whoever that person is, they were wrong. The Good Wife is exactly as funny – and good-natured – as it needs to be. If you’ve mastered the tone of your show, any meddling will stick out like a sore thumb, especially as the episode ends on one of the most dramatic reveals of the season. Coming after the earlier hijinks, the big emotional scene at the end is muted.
Game of Thrones got the tone problem exactly right; by keeping the jokes to a minimum and localised mostly to Tyrion Lannister, who was then thrown into terrible situations where the contrast between his demeanour and the seriousness of his predicament gave insight into his character. The trial in the Eyrie, which sees him arrogantly acting like he has control of the situation when in fact he only prevails through good fortune and the kindness of Bronn — partially earned because of his humour — is a perfect example of the tension between humour and drama. And, just for good measure, the showrunners cut down heavily on the screentime for “comedy relief” Hodor. A very shrewd move.
Okay, there’s more to come. I know! It’s too much! Something broke in my head while I was writing this and now I can’t stop.