Friday, April 8, 2011

Knowing When to Leave: Ending an Acclaimed (& Lucrative) TV Series

      Mad Men’s fifth season will be delayed because AMC wants too much money from advertisers, but doesn’t want to add two minutes to the show as it has in the past or, depending upon the source, series creator Matthew Weiner doesn’t want to cut two minutes from the show or two members from the cast (though Betty and her new husband have been suggested and I concur, especially since Don’s fiancé demonstrated greater mothering instincts in two episodes than Betty had in four seasons).  Mad Men should not go beyond a fifth season anyway because, as its story line has advanced over four seasons from 1960 to 1966, it will soon be encountering the rise of the counterculture, the “don’t trust anyone over 30” ethos of the Boomer generation, and the self-consciousness and overt sexuality that overtook American advertising in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  

Dexter's late Grandfather appeared in the
finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show
      Six Feet Under ended after five seasons and the last two seasons felt like creator Alan Ball was intentionally setting up what would happen to the main family for the rest of their lives.  The final ten minutes encapsulated everything the show was about:  death as the final underline for a life that might not be remembered for anything else; family as something both emotionally overpowering and alienating; the everyday slog of living while looking around for something greater to do.  It was a series that ended when it should.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s producers also had planned that it would end after seven seasons, though it was after its ratings peak.  That ended on a wistful, bittersweet and, somehow, hilarious note.
The team breaks up and the new owners keep the jerk and fire the competent employees.  Ironically, in real life, Ted Knight was unable to find a hit show, whereas the rest of the cast went on to great successes (even Georgia Engel went back to the stage to acclaim).  St. Elsewhere ended when it should have – it had nowhere else to go plot-wise and it had always combined the realism of a medical show with the surreal self-reflexivity of a TV show that referred to other shows.   Friday Night Lights was never properly supported by NBC and ended up with five seasons, many of them shortened, even though it received overwhelmingly positive reviews and an intense cult following.  This is known as the thirtysomething syndrome.

Dexter's Dad liked hanging out with the cast of The Sopranos
      The Sopranos smartly held back from starting consistently each season, which really turned each premiere into an event.  Series can do that on cable, but they can’t on the major networks.  David Chase cleverly demanded a sixth season out of HBO (they probably wish it was still on), which started off with Tony, in a coma, after being shot by Uncle Junior and ended what seemed like three scenes too early.  Tony and the family were never going to get out of the life as gangsters and they would always live under a cloud of guilt, retribution, and frustrated dreams.  

      Most shows go on way too long because they’re still winning their time slot or they need to stick around for the magical 100 episodes for eternal syndication repeats on a dozen channels or none of the suits have the guts or the insight to replace a known mediocrity with an unknown entity and thereby lose advertising dollars (the real and maybe only motivation for television).  So many networks need so much product that much of it is junk.  That was true in the 1950s when TV was declared a “cultural wasteland” and it’s still true today, but everything is about niche audiences today because advertisers are willing to pay.  Some of these have to go off soon – please!!!!

30 Rock is ending in 2012 but Dexter lives on
      Any show with ‘housewives’ in the title, desperate or otherwise should go.  All the Real Housewives shows need to go.  Can anyone really watch any more middle-aged women with fake body parts, too much time on their hands, and mean, two-faced asides?  Some of the drama feels simply dreamed up so that it’s ‘interesting’ but, after a while, it feels as humdrum as their lives probably are in real ‘reality’.  30 Rock, which I felt was beginning to fade artistically this season turned it around a couple of weeks ago with a brilliant episode focusing on Angie and her entourage as the House Of Jordan, which satirized years of the Bravo Housewives of various sundry cities’ editions in 22 minutes.  Tina Fey is making the right decision to end the show next season. We know Survivor has been about forming an alliance quickly and taking out the real competition as soon as possible and we’ve known it since the first season.  Is the secret appeal of the show that one of the contestants might end up horribly maimed or dead?  I enjoy The Amazing Race, but when the producers start dragging back past losers and I’m hoping that some of them accidentally drive off a cliff or get held up by customs and strip searched or worse, then the show has died on some level.   Actually, I wish one of the taxi drivers would turn on one of the teams screaming at him to go faster and just throw them out of the cab.  Does any reality show end if it makes it past a couple of seasons?  They’re cheap, they don’t require thoughtful writing (though I bet they’re far more scripted than most viewers would expect), and they’re reassuring because the template doesn’t change.  It’s also why they sometimes seem endless.  

      American Idol is the consistently highest rated reality show, but how many idols are there really and will one show up every season?  So far, the answers are a limited number in any generation and no.  Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and Kellie Pickler (who did not win) have become genuine stars and the country genre, which Simon Cowell disdained mainly because it is endemically American and he couldn’t really get it, is the best suited to the show because the fans have the widest age range, they not only support artists by voting for them endlessly on the show, but they turn that enthusiasm into real sales for them once the show is over.   Nashville Star didn’t last long, perhaps because it was too narrowly focused on a single genre, thought it produced a genuine star in Miranda Lambert.  Interestingly, she came in third.  That ‘interest’ is true for Idol as well.  Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert, and Clay Aiken have all had more successful careers than the winners of their seasons.  Jennifer Hudson has, so far, had the widest ranging industry respect of any artist, winning both the Oscar and the Grammy.  She’s a double threat as an actress and singer and the tragedies in her life are the stuff from which diva legends are made (and she displays her class by never touching upon them).  

Dexter finds Jennifer Lopez
and Steven Tyler's comments
purr-fect this season
      Since Idol couldn’t guarantee finding an idol (Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen, David Cook, Taylor Hicks), it switched up the game by finding idols for judges.  Jennifer Lopez may be a second stringer (she is a performer, but cannot be classified as consistently successful actress or singer), but she gives some pretty terrific advice especially since, unlike Simon, it’s not to bolster her own ego.  Steven Tyler, old enough for reduced Social Security and a genuine star, is turning into America’s newest sweetheart, and proved he has the chops to not only perform at full throttle, but to stop the show on the CMA awards in his duet with Carrie Underwood.  The thunderous reaction he received was even more amazing considering he was performing rock for country stars.  Will any of the current contestants emerge as an idol?  Their voices are anywhere from extremely good to electrifying, but some of the more interesting performers that might sustain careers don’t sing as well as others that just aren’t as compelling to watch.  It is a problem when a singer cannot move.  Elton John could move while seated behind a piano; Whitney Houston could not while on a stage, though she could during a thankfully canceled reality show while trying to get her husband’s attention on many occasions.

      Bravo has made a cottage industry out of pitting prospective entertainment industry professionals against one another, whether designers (Project Runway), chefs (Top Chef), interior designers (Top Design), etc.  Some of the shows have been cut, due to lack of buzz (Jonathan Adler had minimal camera charisma), but is there an inexhaustible supply of designers, chefs, etc?  Top Chef created a Masters’ series and some All-Stars shows and season, thereby extending the shelf life of its ‘stars.’  Project Runway, bought out by Lifetime, may not be able to re-thread its needle after giving the win to Gretchen last season.  Crowning the villainess as queen leaves Cinderella at home from the ball and one of the Ugly Sisters with the glass slipper fitting her foot.  Take all these shows off life support, but leave us Work of Art, which did more for American art than anything on TV since Robert Hughes’ American Visions

      The active life span of any primetime series is four to seven seasons.  TV executives that care about quality should review every show in that range and cut anything that is just repeating the same old formula, even if its ratings haven’t dropped.  Creators need to move outside of law and cop shows (even those about scientific and/or medical investigators) because shows about gangsters,  funeral home owners, firefighters, advertising, English royalty, teachers with cancer, high school music clubs, unconventional families, and zombies are more compelling narratives and, with the right backing, could entice more lucrative advertising, which is what TV is all about anyway.


meowmeowmans said...

So insightful and true, Dexter! I totally agree about Six Feet Under. The ending was perfect. And at the perfect time, too.

ABBY said...

Very well done Dexter!

>^..^< >^..^< >^..^< >^..^< >^..^<
Abby Ping Jinx Boo Gracie

Who is Dexter? said...

Dear ABBY,
Thanks! I really enjoyed sharing all the photos of my ancestors and me that were part of such fine shows.

Jewel said...

Thanks for sharing your views, Dexter, you write very well. Our kitten is only at the stage of watching "Cat in the Hat" at the moment, perhaps she will graduate to more mature TV in time.