A good season, with reason
The great news is that the soon-to-conclude 2004-05 TV season truly does count as a “good thing,” unlike most of its recent predecessors. After years of dedicating all their creative energy to cloning their own hits or stealing someone else’s, the networks finally came up with a few new, popular ideas. Desperate Housewives alone might be enough to make the season a success √≥ and that’s not even counting the equally admirable Lost and House.
Nor was all the good news confined to new shows. Alias, 24 and Gilmore Girls bounced back from weak seasons to reclaim spots among TV’s elite, while NYPD Blue showed how a classic can go out with class.
Obviously, no TV season is perfect, certainly not one that featured such reality abominations as Who’s Your Daddy and The Will. The most we can ask is that the good outweigh the bad. This season, it did.
So with May on the way and the season on the way out, we pause to look at the best and worst the TV year had to offer √≥ our picks for the High Five and the Low Five of ’05.
5. The revival of scripted TV
Desperate Housewives and Lost didn’t just revive ABC’s fortunes, they also reminded viewers and networks alike of the pleasures and profits to be found in scripted television. Certainly, after years in which it seemed the only thing people wanted to talk about was who was kissing Joe Millionaire in the woods or kissing up to Donald Trump in the boardroom, it has been a joy to see the conversation turn to the sexual antics on Wisteria Lane and the hidden secrets of that mysterious island.
Like a rising tide, the success of these two breakout hits seemed to spark interest in other scripted hours. Certainly, there’s no happier surprise this season than the success of House, a whip-smart drama many people (well, OK: me) feared was too adult to fit into Fox’s kid-friendly lineup. As for those kids, a small but savvy group of them discovered UPN’s Veronica Mars √≥ a cult hit now, but a show that could someday attract a wider audience.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a broadcast season that boasts such dramatic worthies as 24, Alias, Gilmore Girls, Without a Trace, CSI, CSI: Miami, Grey’s Anatomy, Eyes and Jack & Bobby. Each offers a good reason to set aside reality and bask in the age-old glow of strongly etched characters and well-told stories.
4. Basic-cable dramas
In general, if you’re looking for original dramas, you still need to look to the broadcast networks, Showtime or HBO. But over the past few years, a few basic-cable networks have carved out their own niche, producing shows that blend the unregulated creative freedom of premium cable with the popular appeal of broadcast hits.
The upshot this season were two of TV’s best new series, FX’s Rescue Me and Sci Fi’s Battlestar Galactica (the best space adventure since Sci Fi’s own Farscape).
Granted, these series bright spots are few and far between in a cable landscape still dominated by wrestling and reruns. Still, any business that can give us Rescue Me, Battlestar and FX’s Nip/Tuck is a business worth encouraging.
3. Uninterrupted runs
How do you stretch 20-some episodes over a 36-week season? Sometimes, you don’t.
The normal broadcast pattern is to premiere series in September and end them in May, which means networks either have to repeat episodes or replace the shows entirely for a spell. But now and then they offer us a third choice: uninterrupted, full-length runs.
The greatest beneficiaries of the twist were ABC’s Alias and Fox’s 24. Heavily serialized and amusingly complex, these series have stories that are best told straight through. Interruptions cause viewers to lose interest and patience and give them too much time to ponder the logic of the plot.
Economic realities mean such runs will always be the exception, not the rule. But for Alias and 24, that exception has paid creative and ratings dividends √≥ and that’s a good reason to break a rule.
2. Reality in retreat
Failure could be the best thing that ever happened to reality-based TV.
Last year, after all, it looked as if we all might drown in the reality tide. But that was before this season’s rash of failures, a catalog of fast flops that included The Benefactor, Branson’s Quest for the Best, The Next Great Champ, Wickedly Perfect and Who’s Your Daddy – one of the most loathsome ideas in the genre’s short, sorry history.
With any luck, this purge has taught the networks that the only way to preserve the genre for the long run is to cut back in the short run. The best shows will and should survive: TV would be a much more boring place without American Idol, Survivor, The Amazing Race and America’s Next Top Model. But there’s a limit to how many times you can recycle the exact same idea, a limit surpassed by The Starlet, BMOC, and The Road to Stardom with Missy Elliott.
The worst reality ideas haven’t disappeared, unfortunately. They’ve simply migrated down to the basic-cable nether regions occupied by A&E and E! Though come to think of it, that is sort of like disappearing.
1. Freshened faces
Yes, TV creates new stars. But it also can give new life to old stars, and that can be an even greater gift.
The most obvious example is Desperate Housewives, which took four fabulous women √≥ Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria √≥ and turned them into cover girls. Or consider Lost, which turned teen-favorite Matthew Fox into an adult leading man; or Numb3rs, which gave sitcom-killer David Krumholtz his first appealing role; or Eyes, which has provided a showcase for previously underappreciated Tim Daly.
Still, when it comes to well-earned stardom, the season’s prize goes to House’s brilliant star, Hugh Laurie. Even those of us who adored Laurie’s work in such British comic wonders as Jeeves and Wooster and the Black Adder series never knew he had House in him. Thank goodness the producers did.
5. The sitcom drought
Oh, Joey, what have you done?
Granted, the pilot for NBC’s Friends spinoff Joey was no great breakthrough. But it was funny and self-assured and competent √≥ something the show hasn’t achieved since. And as Joey goes, so has the genre this season, stumbling from one horrid mess to the next. You know a genre is in trouble when the best current example of the form, Fox’s Arrested Development, has a surer shot at an Emmy than at renewal.
That doesn’t mean the sitcom is dead: There’s no reason to think that the millions of people who made Friends the top-rated show on TV just a few years ago have suddenly deserted the genre en masse. If they’re not watching sitcoms, it’s because so few of them are worth watching.
How can the form be fixed? For a start, the networks might consider the success of Desperate Housewives, an hour-long comedy built around women. You remember women, don’t you? They’re the people who used to star in such shows as I Love Lucy, Designing Women and Roseanne, before the networks decided to consign most of them to playing smart, second-banana wives with dumb, unattractive husbands. Turns out women found that less than amusing.
4. Shows that will not die
Far too many shows these days are forgotten but not gone.
The problem is that the networks have grown so enamored of long-running hits and so afraid of development failures that they want to eke every possible season out of every TV success. Surely fear is the only reason NBC is bringing back Will & Grace, as nothing in the show this season could lead anyone to believe the writers have anything new to say or anyplace new to take these characters.
The sad truth is that most shows today outlive their welcome √≥ tying up time, talent and money that would be better spent elsewhere. Most stories can’t be stretched over a decade, and most series can’t survive time-induced cast changes √≥ a trick that works far better for a plot-driven show such as Law & Order than a character-driven show such as West Wing.
There’s an art to knowing when the time has come to get off the stage. Unfortunately, at NBC these days it’s a lost art.
3. Kiddie reality
It takes an electronic village to raze a child.
Once content to simply make bratty kids secondary targets in shows like The Osbournes, TV has now elevated them to stardom √≥ the worst examples being those bottom-dwelling twins, Supernanny and Nanny 911. Never mind the drivel about “fixing” these families; these shows exist to mine entertainment out of out-of-control children. Which means parents who have failed to raise their children properly have now failed to protect those same children from public ridicule. And we all join in.
Though it pains me to say so, the same complaint goes for MTV’s addictive teenage bratfest My Super Sweet 16, about overprivileged, undermannered kids bullying their submissive parents into throwing over-the-top birthday parties. The show makes a fairly compelling argument against inherited wealth; still, rich children are children. I don’t know when we adults decided mocking children for fun and profit was suitable entertainment, but it’s time we grew out of it.
2. TV franchisation
In September, we wondered how many Law & Orders and CSIs were too many. Now we know: for L&O, four; for CSI, three.
As it turns out, it takes more than a name to make a show. You also have to come up with a few compelling characters and some workable distinction that separates the copy from the original. CSI: NY failed the first task; L&O: Trial by Jury the second.
And while we’re complaining about franchise creep, it would be nice if CBS would stop trying to turn The Amazing Race into Survivor on the Go. The nasty tricks and backbiting maneuvers that work on Survivor should stay on Survivor √≥ and the people who play on Survivor, or any other reality show, should stay off TV afterward. You people aren’t franchises. You get one outlet, and then get out.
1. Time games
All right, networks, repeat after me: Shows start and end on the hour or half-hour.
That means, ABC, that Desperate Housewives should end at 10, not 10:02; and Alias should start at 9, not 9:01. As for NBC’s long-established habit of starting ER at 9:59 √≥ stop it. You networks keep playing these games with viewers, and someone’s going to get hurt. And trust me, it’s going to be you.
A good season, with reason