Friday, 6 February 2009

Passing The Use By Date

I don't normally watch a lot of television, most shows don't appeal to me. But the few I do watch, I have a sort of religious devotion to them. But there always comes a point where the show has run it's course, and instead of just ending the show persists into a downward spiral where it becomes so unwatchable that it feels amazing I stuck with the series for so long. It seems especially apparent with American series, a show's longevity is decided by ratings so series go well on past a date of expiry.

Don't have a cow, man
The Simpsons was and still is a landmark television show. It's staggering success as a prime-time animated comedy has led the way for TV of a similar ilk. But really the show stopped being funny a decade ago, and these days it's a shell of the greatness it once exhibited. Over Christmas, I sat down with my youngest brother to watch season 4 of the show and I was blown away by the quality on all fronts. The storyline were compelling, the jokes were funny, it complex characters, it may simply be nostalgia but while watching I remembered how great the show once was.

In this decade, only one episode stands out: Behind The Laughter. Aside from that even the best episodes have felt like average episodes from seasons past. The movie was an improvement but still had nothing on what came before it. The characters are too one-dimensional these days, weighed down by 20 years of previous character development. It's painful to watch new episodes for that reason, it's destroying my memories of a once great show. But that's just me, maybe the new episodes work for a new audience.

Likewise the re-emergence of Family Guy is really just a continuation of the same formula that persisted in it's early years, and for that the non sequitur jokes are becoming again stale. Ever since South Park lampooned the show, it's also become quite unwatchable because the formula is apparent. It's getting tired and repetitive. South Park on the other hand is one show I can point to as being a successful series more than a decade later, it stands alone in that it's able to capture an element of the zeitgeist and push the boundaries that other shows will not do. Not even Penn & Teller are able to get away with lampooning Scientology, and I don't know of any other show that could be able to show George Lucas raping Indiana Jones.

The Fawlty Towers principle
One of my favourite TV shows of all time is The Office, Ricky Gervais cites Fawlty Towers as the reason why the show ended after two seasons. In that time he was able to tell a compelling story, yet not have the material get stale or repetitive. By contrast the US version of the show is now in it's 6th season with no sign of ever going away. Now I actually like the US version of the show, it has taken the British format and created it's own show around it. It's not a pale imitation, it's good on it's own merits and that's something I've never seen in a remake before. Without an end in sight, the TV show does suffer in that there's really no climactic arc to obtain. Each storyline is a mini-arc that will vaguely draw the show in some unspecified direction as the need to keep capturing the audience makes each episode ever more slightly incredulous and fantastical. Scrubs has gone that way, the show has lost most it's charm by continuing ever onward in the evolution of a never-ending show.

In some ways shows like Arrested Development are the lucky ones, it was cancelled while the show was still quality. While it's cancellation forced the final series to compress plot lines and there is talk of a movie, the show was able to maintain a high standard throughout. Californication could have done with the same culling. The first season of the show was one of the best shows I've seen in recent years, each episode was constructed all towards a climax that the show finished on. Yet the second season had to pretty much disassemble that ending in order to continue in the same spirit as season 1. The second season to me was a pale imitation of the first.

A movie really has a set period of time to tell a story, usually between 90 minutes and 2 hours in order to lay down the antagonists and protagonists, create the setting, begin a conflict, search for a resolution, then wrap it all up. Television on the other hand has two real options: use each 22 / 45 minute episode to tell it's own story, or use each episode as a chapter in one long story. In recent years, I've particularly enjoyed shows like Dexter that have done the latter. Each week is a new chapter which all is building up to that grand finale 3 months down the line. But even then, is Dexter ever going to end? Will the writers of the show (or even the novelist) decide that enough is enough and the show has reached a logical or artistic endpoint? How many seasonal arcs can be sustained until the idea has been pushed past the use by date? Will it be decided by ratings, by network funding, or by some other means? And if so, will it even reach the climactic ending that all shows deserve to have?

... But then you get to the end and a gorilla starts throwing barrels at you
Futurama would have to be my favourite show of all time. I remember when it was cancelled, those final few episodes were treasured like no other show before it in my eyes. And the final episode felt like an ending. Now it's been resurrected and the 4th of a series of straight-to-DVD movies is due out in a month, and the producers have stated that the movie has a finishing point regardless of whether it's renewed - something that is looking unlikely. While I nervously wait for the final episode, knowing that it will possibly be the last time I ever see new content, in some ways I'm glad that it was cancelled before it's time. Seasons 3 and 4 of the show were sublime, and the 72 episodes combined with the 4 DVD films will stand as they are - a great science fiction show that only got better as time went on.
"another great sci-fi show cancelled before its time." - Bender

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