Thursday, October 20, 2005

American Television: Promising Origins and Pathetic Closures

The latest Blowhard, Donald Pittinger, remarks on yet another sign that a television series has "jumped the shark": the Hawaii Episode. It's been a while since I've seen a Hawaii Episode in a television series, but then it's been a while since I've watched a television series. Commercials are an irritation, and I can't be bothered to keep track of the tempermental shifts of TV scheduling - a fate which typically befalls television's most creative efforts (Arrested Development being a current example of this tendency). I'm a trailing-edge tekkie, so TiVo is out of the question. And TiVo at least makes sense; cable and satellite TV most emphatically do not. Why would anyone in their right mind pay over $50 a month for commercial television? I've got one of those quaint old rooftop antennas rigged up to receive the handful of local channels. It does the trick. I'm happy just watching documentaries on CBC and TVOntario, and renting DVDs from my local mom-and-pop shop. If I'm still awake, I might watch the news.

Our DVD rentals are as close to series television as we get, these days. We've watched the usual HBO offerings: some months back we caught up with The Sopranos, and now we're slowly working our way through Six Feet Under. I'm a sucker for profanity set to iambic pentameter, so Deadwood is likely to score big points with me. So far, the HBO formula for not jumping the shark or heading to Hawaii seems to be to keep a tight rein on its parlour dramas.

In a parlour drama, the audience is quickly introduced to the principal characters, and their charms and foibles. The characters are flawed, but loveable. You see at a glance the delicate balance they try to maintain, to keep the peace in the parlour. Then a little chaos gets thrown into the mix, usually via a love interest, a villain, or the Forces of Fate brewing just outside the parlour windows. The Sopranos is as tidy a parlour drama as you could hope to find, with tension being maintained via Carmella's religious strugglings and Tony's efforts at keeping his family empire intact (it was not always thus - their second season remains their best, with the writers and the actors taking genuine risks with the sympathetic limits of their characters).

The parlour drama is about the struggle for equilibrium, and so is one of the least risky genres of drama. The riskiest genre, I think, is the sacred quest. SF (that would be "Sci-Fi" or "Spec-Fic", to you non-geeks out there) lurvs The Quest, which is one reason why most SF shows are so crappy. If you take a big risk like that, you'd better deliver a big pay-off. Most of the time, as with The Matrix, it simply can't be done. The penny drops pretty quickly for most SF TV makers, and they subtly try to withold the finding of the Holy Grail, putting it off indefinitely, if at all possible. Or, if that can't be done, hastily wrapping it all up in an unsatisfactory manner in the last three episodes.

The X-Files is probably the baldest example of how badly awry The Sacred Quest can get. It took a season for it to find its legs, but the concept of sending out a Skeptic and a True Believer to make sense of Weird Occurrences had real appeal to it, and the first three seasons were a hoot to watch. The characters of Skully and Muldaur were developed by delicious increments from episode to episode, until, as a viewer, I reached that jackpot moment every TV producer hopes to hit: I cared more about what the episodes meant to the characters than about what the episodes meant in and of themselves.

When a series fetches that moment of genuine belief, the creators can temporarily get away with bloody murder, because logical gaps will not matter in the least to the viewer. The viewer has made that intuitive leap and joyously anticipates being caught in loving arms at the other side.

Alas, the disappointment that grows with being held in suspended animation for an unforseeable length of time! When the fourth season of The X-Files was "capped" with yet another cliff-hanger, I grew impatient. Fifth season started ambiguously, and I grew bored. I came and went, but made a point of tuning in for the season finale. "Did Muldaur commit suicide?!" Why, yes he did! By shark. In Hawaii.

I felt like I'd been contemptuously toyed with, so I shut off the TV and left the room. I don't know how the series wrapped up some five or six seasons later. I'm told it was an honorable finish, but I don't care. I know when I'm being taken for granted, and unless you're my kid, I don't have enough life in me to indulge you.

These dark thoughts occur to me as I watch Battlestar: Galactica unfold. Because the show isn't yet on network TV, I've dropped 50 bucks on the DVDs, and am looking to drop another 30 on the next half-season. I don't begrudge the initial outlay - yet. The mini-series is fan-bloody-tastic (get your Apocalypse on!), and the first season continues to be both harrowing in its immediacy, and enticing with its foreshadowing. The show's creators are deftly exploring themes of religious claims and the activities they inspire, along with the weaker impulses of humanity and the trouble they can get us in. It's snappy, it's gritty, and it delivers. But, dammit all, they're on a quest! And as of this moment, it's anyone's guess as to whether or not the show's developers have consciously established an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

All of which gets me shouting "amen!" to Michael Blowhard's observation that the miniseries is an underrated TV genre ("A miniseries is long, but it isn't endless. It's finite - and how cool is that?"). The list of TV series that overstayed their welcome is long and depressing; conversely, the list of series that quit and left their audience wanting more is short and sweet (think, Fawlty Towers). Right now I'm in early leap mode, hoping against hope that Galactica is intent on belonging to the latter.


Cowtown Pattie said...

Of course you know my "Deadwood" vice. Delicious television.

I, too, was an avid X-File fan, but towards the end it got boring. The big screen movies didn't really deliver.

I seldom missed Star Trek - Next Generation when it was a going series. I still try to catch reruns when possible. Of course, nowadays, I can get a Data fix by watching the new "Threshold". BTW, I don't think "Threshold" will stand the test. Of all the sci-fi offerings this season, I think "Invasion" is the only one still standing come January.

What is it with TV characters that we become so attached? As a fan of the short-run series "China Beach", I still see Marg Helgenberger as K.C. when I watch CSI. In fact, her Catherine Willows is just K.C. in a different decade and respectable clothes. Same cold bitchy attitude protecting a soft heart.

Whisky Prajer said...

I was mulling over CSI as I wrote this, wondering just what sort of category it fell into. I guess the truth of our most successful TV shows is they all nurture a sense of parlour-drama no matter what their larger genre is. That was one aspect that made ST:TNG such a treat. You really did watch it to see what sort of character development Data, Picard, Crusher, etc. would face as the series grew. The other aspect to ST:TNG was the obvious fun the cast seemed to have with each other. You could really sense this was a group that loved their job and the people they were working with. That seems to rarely be the case, in television.

Tom said...

I find the number of TV shows I'm willing to waste my time on these days dwindling down. I download Battlestar Galactica and HBO's Rome, but only regularly catch Lost, Desperate Housewives and Veronica Mars on the tube itself. Those last two partly for the "scenery" if you will. When Sopranos and Deadwood pick up again, I'll be actively searching those torrents out, but I'm miffed that Carnivale was cancelled, as it had a compelling story arc.

DarkoV said...

While your post is quite intriguing, I'm having a hard time with your Sacred Quest theory. Perhaps if those type of tv shows were on non-commercial tv, I'd bite. But since the majority of those quests took place between intermittent commercials, your release of disbelief was hard to maintain, especially when a Pop Tarts jingle would be playing right after a character's realization that God is in him but he is not God although he had God-like tendencies which only irritated his fellow travellers who were into the New Mayflower travel methodology from the old Gods. Got that?

By the way, I'd say my favorite series was/is Seinfeld, from the very first ones where he combined his "real" life with his "show" life to the last season where excistentialism seemd to rule the day. It was a Quest for Nothing. And somehow, the commercials didn't ruin the flow.

Whisky Prajer said...

Tom - Carnivale looked very promising. I'll be giving it a spin if the DVDs ever make to our village. As for scenery, I find it interesting how the Desperate Housewives rumour-mill devotes the most press to the actual ladies' true and total loathing for each other. How long can a show survive with such bad vibes among the cast members?

DV - "sacred quest" is certainly a loaded term, and not infrequently a larded term, to boot. Galactica asks some uncomfortable questions about the moral choices people make when they claim or eschew a divine imperative, but hasn't yet become larded with the "big questions" of who/what/whenceforth "God", etc. - which I usually find tedious and distracting. But simply put, Galactica's quest is to find Earth - talk about setting yourself up for disappointment! (Agree with you about "Seinfeld", BTW. Perfect example of a show that quit on a high note.)

Whisky Prajer said...

CP - Thanks for the heads-up on Threshold. I was curious about the re-teaming of Braga and Spiner, and not a little leery as well. I can't help thinking that Braga is in large part responsible for the way the Star Trek franchise tanked after Next Gen concluded.

Cowtown Pattie said...

I forgot about Carnivale - I didn't know it was cancelled!!!

Boo Hoo! It was a very imaginative, evocative series, IMHO. Grapes of Wrath on LSD...

I never watched ST again after TNG was finished. I did see all of the big screen movies, however. Will continue, especially if it involves any of the TNG cast.