A continuation of my thoughts re: Battlestar Galactica, etc.
My grade nine teacher's singular rule for essays was, "Essays should be like a woman's skirt: short enough to be interesting, but long enough to cover the subject." (The year was 1979, for those of you keeping track.) As a lad who, um, appreciated the "subject matter," you can believe I took his advice deeply to heart, and didn't always meet the "coverage" requirement.
I am still talking about essays, here.
I was more attentive as a university undergrad, but my proudest day was when a prof returned an essay with the comment, "This is a well-written essay that covers all the necessary points. Still, it comes in at 200 words less than the minimum requested." BOO-yah!!
Unfortunately, if I'd padded that sucker with 200 more words, she'd have given me an A+, instead of a mean A. Am I crazy to think I did that woman a favour by cutting down on her marking time? I should have been awarded an A++ for that little feat, but she clearly had a different standard in mind.
It seems to me most television viewers hanker for that extra 200 (plus) words, so we get behemoth franchises like M*A*S*H, post-Shatner Star Trek, The Simpsons and West Wing, to pull just a few examples from recent memory. There is unquestionable entertainment value to be gleaned from long-running programs: consider the soaps, or (closer to my heart) comic books. DC and Marvel usually coax a few dollars from my wallet every year with a short storyline that takes an acceptable risk. But the operative words in that last sentence are "few" and "short" (and maybe "acceptable").
M*A*S*H is the example that today's television writers love to kick around. The Ivy League writers for The Simpsons and The Family Guy have made it the butt of their derision, but the deeper truth is these jokers silently hope their franchise will "suffer" the exact same fate. In fact, The Simpsons is already there; it's outlasted M*A*S*H and it's at a point where its cultural relevance can be summed up by one word: "D'oh!"
The first four seasons of The Simpsons, though, were pure magic. Actually, the first two or three seasons of M*A*S*H were pretty special, too. Prior to 9/11, The West Wing was frequently fun to watch, though nowhere near as startling and delightful as its predecessor Sports Night had been. Sports Night was phenomenal, juggling dicey issues like racism, politics and professional compromise, adolescence and adulthood, responsibility vs. a sense of play. Then it began to look like it might devolve into a Friends-type "Who's dating whom?" fest ... and they killed it!! BOO-yah!!!
I whiled away many a pleasant hour on the post-Shatner Star Treks, but I don't waste my time seeking out the re-runs. Just try to wrestle the remote from me, though, if I've tripped across City On The Edge of Forever, Spock's Brain, or any of the episodes from The Original Series. TOS: four seasons ... and they killed it!
Someone once advised, "Leave an audience wanting more." But I think when it comes to television, the better maxim is, "Kill 'em young." Everybody wants more, all the time -- that's just the pre-condition of North American it's a free market and I want it NOW life. A little withholding of gratification goes an incredible distance in this atmosphere. We don't need the next Sopranos: we need the next Deadwood, Carnivale, Futurama or Fawlty Towers.
But if you're a TV producer and it looks like someone just might be proposing the next Sopranos, I say go ahead and give it the green light ... then kill it young!!