Tuesday, 17 August 2010

7 TV Shows That Crapshooted: Or Had No Idea How To Be TV Shows Past One or Two seasons

There's something about a show that starts well, and then step by egregious step begins to self-destruct, that's about as disheartening as watching filmed dramatic fiction can be. You commit to the world and embrace it, which for a TV show is a much greater commitment then film because it can be a relationship that lasts for years, and if you're a certain type of person, we know who we are, who delves into these worlds as a substitute for existing in this one, suffice to say we consider it quite the diss.

Why it happens, there's no sure answer. Sometimes its that the show-runners commit to the wrong aspect of the show, sometimes its that they go too big too soon, and other times it can be that they just don't know what the fuck they're doing. Anyways, list of disappointments coming your way. By the way, I gave 24 and 30 Rock a pass because just enough years of the show were good before it fell to shit. SPOILERS.

7) Prison Break

What went wrong: People said it could only be a one season show. They were right.

The problem here was the specificity of the premise. Its a show that called itself Prison Break, which clearly states its intentions, so while the first year was a pretty entertaining as we saw the meticulous planning, the group of escapees spar with each other and the various obstacles that were placed in their path, and it lead to an awesome finale where we finally saw shit go down. The problem being that when season 2 started and no-one was in prison anymore, you could pretty much hear the screams of what the fuck do we do now in every frame. It went after the conspiracy sub-plot, it went after the whole fugitive bit. It defied logic in order to keep T-Bag in the show. It's floundering became boring, and considering that our heroes the Scofield brothers were so suffocatingly dull and flatly acted (By Wentworth Miller and Dominic 'Blade Trinity' Purcell') they couldn't support any kind of character stories. Not that the show wanted to give them any really.

Its attempt to save itself? Throw every-one back in prison in season three and totally repeat the first season, only with different, less interesting characters. Past season one, Prison Break had no plan, and because the first season had nothing but the plan, this is what people liked about the show. So people stopped watching. And caring.

6) Ugly Betty

What Went Wrong?: Suffered the consequences of being Over-hyped.

If one was to be particularly cynical, you could say that Ugly Betty lived out the life that is beckoned for Glee. It came out to boundless praise, with everyone calling it a breath of fresh air, original and a new dawn for television. And more synonyms along those lines. It won the Golden Globe for best comedy series and America Ferrara did the double-slam of taking both the Emmy and The Golden Globe in the same year. A very rare feat indeed. Cut to four years later and it gets canceled in near-obscurity, with no real uproar and less viewers then the average repeat of Grey's Anatomy. Of course, all this has nothing to do with the actual show, which in its first year was a quirky, enjoyable diversion with a couple of entertaining performances, particularly from Michael Urie and Becki Newton. It was fun with no real need to be more. Unfortunately it pursued this attitude through the rest of its life, and suddenly the awards and praise felt like a mis-step and while the show slowly stilled into stagnancy, its defenders backtracked as quickly as your average episode of Heroes. It's a little harsh I guess, but the show certainly didn't get better as it went along, content to just offer up more of the same.

Its attempt to save itself? That's the thing. It didn't really, taking the denial route instead. Well unless you count the late in the day make-over for its lead character, but by then shit was over.

5) Alias

What Went Wrong? It Pursued the wrong aspect of itself.

Let's face facts here. At its core, Alias was never really about what was happening in Alias. Plot was a necessary evil in a show about cool action scenes, exotic locales and Jennifer Garner looking hot. In the early years, sure there was some plot bouncing around and even some darkness too. But your average episode was like watching mission impossible only with Garner replacing Cruise and someone taking a whole lot of money away, but I think part of the reason Alias became exhausting was when it starting believing in its own insincerity. The tacked on will they won't they romance between Garner and Michael Vartan became more integral, complete with love triangle villain Melissa George, who came and did nothing but annoy for a long, long time. Not just this, but the fucking Rimbaldi mythology. There's serialization that enriches plot, character and dramatic weight and then there's serialization for the sake of itself. This was long, never-ending and I was amazed how much I didn't care when they told me what it meant. The show became kind of a drag, and several episodes would go by with fun being had by no-one.

Its Attempt to save itself: Er did I mention that the show's villain wanted to turn the world into zombies? This is a spy show, set in the real world by the way. Zombies. For real.

4) Nip/Tuck

What went wrong: Got way too big way too fast.

Man I hated this show. But it got a lot of praise in it first couple of years, for being daring and something no-one had seen before yada yada. Nip/Tuck was always over the top, but in its first year this felt like a refreshing antidote to dramas molded under the Sopranos template, in which everything was subtle, intelligent and under the surface. Nip/Tuck was the antithesis to this, the quintessential extrovert's show where the only way to proceed was to go big. This lead to some guiltily enjoyable moments, and to be fair to Nip/Tuck, I'll never think of DIY circumcision again in the same way. But the ever escalating level of hysteria meant there was no solid foundation. And as the camp increased season to season it made it apparent that at its core it was just hollow, it didn't care about any of its characters instead forming them into increasingly gross caricatures until nothing meant anything. Just what gross out surgery would it be this week.

Its Attempt to save itself: Because it was a cable show, it didn't have to worry about that. It lasted seven years, and can stand in confident tonal brethren with shows like Dynasty or Footballer's Wives, only with the illusion of credibility through darkness.

3) Dexter

What went wrong: Pursued the wrong aspect of the show

This won't be a popular one no doubt, as many people consider this the best show on television that just had its strongest season yet. But you know, if you don't stick to your guns then, well I'd just be the blogging equivalent of Dexter and obviously no-one wants that. The crapshooting of Dexter is the most frustrating one for me on this list, because I loved its first season, and much of its second season, so very much. A twisted spin on the police procedural, bringing new meaning to the term 'victim of the week' featuring a fantastic lead performance from Michael C Hall and even a surprisingly funny experience, complete with a droll voice-over and some awesome deadpanning from Hall. Sure its supporting characters were a collection of barely noticeable cyphers and cop stereotypes but no matter, I thought this was going to be my favorite show for years. Alas, I felt a little like the Arsenal fan who cried Theo Walcott, because in a very small space of time everything just went to shit. The roots of this lie in the second season, where the show defined what it was going to be. It's a very strong year on the whole, and anything wrong with it can generally be brushed off onto Lilah. Oh Lilah, screechy terribly acted, ridiculous, broadly drawn Lilah. Fucking hell.

But one misjudged character does not a bad show make, and generally it remained pretty strong, and once the antagonist switched from Lilah to Doakes in the last 4 episodes, which was freaking awesome, presenting Dexter with a dilemma he couldn't rationalize his way out of, killing a (mostly) decent man in order to save himself. Or his family. Whatever, the show was finally going to make Dexter face the consequences of his actions, see that he couldn't have his metaphysical cake and eat it too and push the show into more dramatically complex and interesting territory. Or it could pull the most shameless cop-out in television history, and I don't overstate it when I call it that, its truly what I think it was, and have Lilah reappear to take care of it for him, so he could take care of Lilah and everything could be tied in a neat little bow. To build something up so exquisitely and consistently and end it with such an impotent, lame, secretion of an excuse is about the most odious thing a show can do. Fuck you show. Fuck you in the face.

But fine, I can see its just one crucial moment it blew. Its not the end of the world right? Well then came the the rancid third season, in which everything went wrong from all sides, from those painfully dull supporting characters all getting painfully dull boyfriends/girlfriends that took up a lot of screen-time, to a meandering, rushed and simply written arc and Jimmy Smits as the year's bad guy. Well that was just embarrassing. Its like all the dark drama, the moral ambiguity and most importantly the storytelling maturity just vanished of the face of the shows' reality. It started off a dark, exploration of a sympathetic monster and became a cartoon, that seemed to apologize for its hero as often as possible. And all this without even mentioning Rita, if Dexter wanted to explore family then fine, but that could never be done in any insightful or sophisticated way with Rita around. Impossibly naive, impossibly forgiving and with the world view of a 10 year old girl scout, and about the level of complexity to match. Hey bitch, if a guy just admitted to you that he's a junkie who assaulted and framed your ex-husband for drug abuse and you have two kids under the age of ten, you don't give him another chance. Have some self-respect woman.

If anything she was, more then the title character, the reflection of the creative voice of this show. Stuck in some turgid status quo without the balls to do anything about it. The fourth season didn't really change much of my opinion. Sure John Lithgow was awesome but the same problems remained. Its twist ending hints at something new, finally, but consider me very much unconvinced.

Its attempt to save itself: I think we're about to see it.

2) Weeds

What went Wrong: Tried to be too clever for itself.

This is an interesting one. What went wrong with Weeds stands pretty much alone in the TV backlog. It was so concerned with being avant-garde, being unpredictable and doing new things, all admirable intentions, that one by one it stripped itself of anything you liked about the show, morphing itself into a dark drama that still kind of thought it was a comedy. The fucked-upedness is nearly all-consuming, to the point where in last season, our heroine's teenage son killed an unarmed woman in front of his mother, and didn't consider it a big deal. Yeah. Every now and again I think its an ahead of its time work of genius, but for the most part I just find it unwatchable. Darkness doesn't always translate as good. If you're going to substantially change the tone of you're universe it has to be earned, you can't just turn into dark drama solely because that wasn't what you did last week. Everything just feels random and smug, and Nancy who began the series as a pot dealer who sold weed to rich white women, has become such a cluelessly irresponsible pit of selfishness that if she wasn't played by the excellent Mary Louise Parker, she would be the devil.

No show maybe outside of Heroes has worked with character as inconsistently and as incoherently as Weeds, and its all so disappointing because Weeds has somewhere in itself such a clever show. I'd be tempted to say that no show on TV does dialogue better when its on its game, an its got enough talented actors to make Damages blush. No, Weeds has been ruined by its own sense of self-satisfaction and its belief that being clever means you don't have to worry about anything else, but it turns out you do.

Its attempt to save itself: What? aside from killing all of Nancy's boyfriends, to burning down the suburban community that was originally its setting, to ridding itself of all of its black characters, to marrying Nancy to a drug-lord, to changing locales every season, to having a 15 year old boy we've seen grow up before our eyes be a homicidal Psycho? Not much. I'm making this sound kind of awesome, but believe watch this show and you'll be appreciate the Joker's brand of thoughtful political concern. In other words, shit be nihilist as balls.

1) Heroes

What went wrong: Lol.

Ah, the piece de resistance. Kids, if TV shows could be space missions, then Heroes would be Apollo 13, only without the everyone surviving thing. Past the first season, everything that could be done wrong was done wrong and then it was done again. It quickly became very clear that Tim Kring didn't just not know how to write a TV show, he didn't know how to write anything. From simple dialogue, to simple character development. I'm not talking Dostoevsky here, just you know shit like this.

Hiro: I'm never going to travel through time again. Bad things happen.

Ando: OK.

cut to, say, 10 minutes and a painful scene with Ali Larter later

Hiro: The only way to solve this problem is to travel in time and make things right. Its the heroic thing to do.

Ando: OK.

But you just said! Its almost as if you're being made to do and think whatever the plot needs you to at any given time, regardless if it makes any sense as far as you're character is concerned. But that would be ridiculous right? Right Nathan Petrelli? Oh yeah. Shit. What made the crapshooting of Heroes all the more beautiful was that each passing season it tried to address what critics were saying was wrong with it, like some desperately incompetent child inanely trying to impress of a disapproving parent. So season two was too slow to get going? Well lets start season three at 6000 miles an hour. Ha take that. Not enough Sylar in season two? Here, have him, look at him being badass in his Neo-trench coat, killing people. All the time. Not enough emotional connection to characters in season three? Well lets stop everything and watch Claire go to college. Not enough interesting villains that aren't Sylar? Look, here's a Carnival full of bad guys with magical powers, in idea that seemed to come randomly whilst watching Carnivale. One of them's T-Bag from Prison Break! Love me!

It came to point that in terms of ground covered, Heroes must have given everyone everything they could have conceivably wanted. But ironically the one thing that everyone wanted was just to be what it was in the first place, a fun diversion about ordinary people with superpowers. The thing that Heroes could never rediscover was that people part, and our root in the universe, the characters, were such works of blatant artifice that there was no reason to give a shit anymore. What it needed was more quiet moments, scenes entirely about the people in them and not whatever the fuck the company was doing now. But that was the one thing it never seemed to get.

Its attempt to save itself: Everything it ever did past the finale of season one. Show never had much self-esteem really. And why should it.


Tom Clift said...

I completely agree about Heroes, Prison Break and Alias, all of which are shows I eventually plain gave up on.

I didn't read what you wrote about Dexter or Weeds in order to avoid spoilers (I watch my TV on DVD and so am always far behind).

I've seen to the end of Season 3 of Dexter, and I thought it was easily the weakest of the three.

On the other hand, a lot of people seemed to hate Season 3 of Weeds, but I thought both Season 3 and 4 were great (maybe not as strong as 1 or 2, but still entertaining as hell).

Louis Baxter said...

I did think weeds was probably the most debatable, and you certainly could never accuse it of sitting on its laurels. Still.