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.