Saturday, August 13, 2016

DEATH WITHOUT DIGNITY: HOW LONG SHOULD YOUR SHOW REALLY RUN?





I was in a discussion about the 4th season of Orange Is The New Black* recently, when my counterpart opined that it was “not a series that should just go on as long as viewership is there” and that the show had essentially tapped out its vein of really good material.  I disagree in regards to Orange, but it got me turning over a general question that has grown to be perhaps the most important one for any “prestige” drama: when is the right time to end your show?

For many years, this was practically a non-issue, as TV drama remained firmly entrenched in the procedural mold. The protagonists may be cops (Dragnet, Cagney And Lacey, CHIPs), doctors (Quincy, ME, St. Elsewhere, ER), lawyers (Perry Mason, LA Law, Ally McBeal), or private detectives (Magnum PI, The Rockford Files, Murder, She Wrote), but each episode would have them follow a single case to a resolution.  And the well of such cases was essentially endless, so it was really only actors aging or dwindling audience interest could force a conclusion. 

But audiences are different these days, as new technologies have made our options more varied and tastes, dare I say it, more sophisticated.  What has not changed is the essential, primal demand we make of all storytelling, be it televised, flipbooked, or hip-hopera’d:  





What technology has changed is what we consider to be wasted time.  In ye olden days, when home recording devices were rare and rerun schedules erratic, it was frustrating for an episode not to provide some sort of resolution.  This is not because audiences of the past couldn’t handle ambiguity, or that they lacked patience (I’d actually argue that the glut of options and convenience the digital revolution provided has made us more impatient and fussy than ever).  Rather, it was just because catching part 2 or chapter 4 of a longer story was exponentially more difficult.  Audiences then, as now, craved resolution.  There are many who will tell you that it is the journey that matters, not the destination, but not me.  Sure, that is a great and fundamental truth of life.  But to apply it to fiction is to miss fiction's basic appeal as an alternative to real life.  The journey still matters, of course, but the promise of resolution is what makes us willing to sit down and listen to a story when we could be out, y'know, playing sports or procreating or anything else us active, normal-looking, well-adjusted people do in our spare time. Pilates?  

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My pilates class is sooo normal-looking, guys. But you wouldn't know them.  The class is in Canada.

Once DVD sets became popular and relatively cheap, it became easier to look for resolution on a broader scale than a single episode.  And so we started to see shows get more ambitious with longform storytelling.  Ongoing plotlines were no longer the domain of soap operas or the “Miniseries Event”, and today it is de rigueur for a show with any pretension to substance to feature an overarching story laid out in the very beginning, any deviation from which must be carefully calibrated or risk being marked as a waste of our M.F.’ing time.  We are spoilt for choice in terms of scripted narrative, and thus wheel-spinning has gone from television’s raison d’etre to a cardinal sin.

And while I would argue that Game Of Thrones is actually the most successful, in terms of both viewership and quality, example of a show that doesn’t even make an effort (occasional major battle aside) at crafting episodes with a distinct individual identity, it makes some sense to name this Big Picture Only approach the “Netflix Model”.  The service pioneered the approach of dropping an entire season’s worth of programming in one fell swoop and has a variety of shows (House Of Cards, Sense8, its various Marvel joints, the recent Stranger Things) that prioritize forward momentum over delivering any kind of discrete, complete story on an hourly basis.  This is not itself a positive or negative, really, it just means that those shows organize their story in terms of seasons rather than episodes.  The important thing about this, for the topic at hand, is that it creates different expectations for the ending of a given show.  In an episodic model, the finale is almost incidental, a final variation on a theme that the show has revisited time and again.  Maybe you resolve some sexual tension that probably went stale some time ago anyway.  But for a Netflix show, the ending is the single most important aspect of the whole enterprise.  It is what determines if the entire endeavor was a waste of my M.F.ing time.

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"THE FUCK YOU MEAN IT WAS FUCKING PURGATORY???"
Indeed, I think the heart of my disagreement over Orange was that my friend thought of it as a "Netflix show", while I did not.  In his view, the show is still first and foremost a story about a privileged white woman adjusting to the extreme culture shock of being thrown in prison.  And to be fair, that is how the show started, and it has played out that string as far as it can .  The contrivances to extend Piper’s initially short sentence are one thing, but she’s fully acclimated enough to her surroundings that there is not really any gas left in that initial comedic/dramatic engine of the show.  So viewing it as the Piper show, it’s completely reasonable to see it as a show in the vein of Dexter, Sons Of Anarchy, or (if I reports are to be believed) Jenji Kohan’s prior show, Weeds.   

Those were shows that debuted with a strong but finite narrative hook that had to be dramatically resolved.  Dexter had to fall off the knife’s edge of working for the police department that investigated his nighttime hobbies.  Jax and Clay had to fight it out for the soul of their motorcycle club.  Nancy’s side business had to blow up her suburban life.  If these things don’t happen, the promise of the premise goes unfulfilled, and you have wasted my M.F. time.    

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"A LUMBERJACK? REALLY???"
Problem was, these shows became victims of their own popularity at a certain point.  Truly great shows in this vein, like Breaking Bad or The SHIELD, made an art out of weaving the diversions from their natural climax into a series of escalations, resulting in an almost tantric form of storytelling where you wanted it to go on forever, even as you know it can’t.  Of course, it helps that those shows, when they got to their endings, paid off their basic conflicts as spectacularly as could be hoped for**.  But the bad examples rob themselves of that opportunity by concocting increasingly bullshitty reasons to avoid facing their own premises, such that the audience has stopped caring by the time they get around to it.  Of the current crop of TV dramas, The Americans is doing the best job at the tantric thing, while AMC’s Preacher may have set some sort of stalling record by spending its entire first season on 10 hours of prologue, before even establishing its premise in the close of the finale. 

What I've decided, through all this pondering, is that the key to determining how long you can stretch a show out for is to ask yourself what is the show, at the most basic level, about?  The possible answers, in descending order of longevity: 

a) a particular setting
b) a particular character
c) a particular conflict
d) Denis Leary having too much sex thrown at him 

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Bitches, ammiright?
If you have a show that is about a particular setting and how people are affected by it, then it can potentially renew itself forever by weathering cast turnover without sacrificing continuity.  A police precinct a la Homicide, or the White House a la The West Wing, these settings have built in reasons to cycle characters and administrations in and out.  The Walking Dead can churn out survival horror stories endlessly, because the hook there is the world, which is bigger than any particular character. And, I would argue, that Orange Is The New Black sprawled so quickly and effectively past Piper’s perspective that it has become a show about the prison that could theoretically subsist forever on a constantly shifting blend of old favorites and new inmates.  This is not to say that these shows would not grow stale and need to reinvent themselves from time to time, but that they have the capacity for reinvention built into their basic DNA.  There is not an obvious and unavoidable endgame they have to enact at a certain point.  This is the hardest sort of show to design, but should probably be the pie in the sky for a network. There are times when it feels like Game Of Thrones has established Westeros as such a fully realized setting that it could keep spinning the wheels of medieval intrigue ad infinitum.  But thankfully, the shot callers seem to understand that they can only put off resolving the Danaerys and White Walker plotlines for so long, and resolving them will take most of the wind out of the story sails. 

The next longest running show is about a particular character, generally some form of detective (see Justified, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, House, Veronica Mars).  These shows have a strong center of gravity, which doesn’t allow as much capacity for change, but they can still get very good gas mileage out placing that character in similar situations over and over.  Fans will have their own preference for this Big Bad or that mystery, but a staff of writers who are good with plotting can essentially turn out a different “___________ Adventure” every year until the central performer ages or burns out of the character.  When that starts rearing its head, you can expect an increase in serialization leading up to the finale, and probably a reappearance of an early foe or backburner plotline that seemed like it might be a big deal in the early going but fell by the wayside.  But if the character is the draw rather than the specific conflict, you can provide the necessary level of resolution at the end of each season, and follow that up with soft reboot after soft reboot.

Then you have shows about a particular conflict or relationship.  These tend to be those with the splashiest first episode/seasons that get everyone all excited, but also particularly brutal sophomore slumps, and the strain is always starting to show by season 5.  Mr. Robot is currently navigating those tricky second season waters in better (if increasingly masturbatory) fashion than most, boosted by the decision not to shy away from resolving the fundamental questions around the titular character.  But even shows with legitimately great premises and debut seasons can trip themselves up by convincing themselves that they are really one of these other types of shows, and they can get away with running from the premises that got people hooked in the first place.  And that temptation only gets stronger the better job you did creating that basic hook and breakout debut season.  Both for crass economic reasons, and artistic ones – it’s all too easy to buy into the hype and convince yourself your show is really one of these other types.  It’s about the characters, the themes, not pedestrian bullshit like plot!

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Oh, take it easy, The Leftovers.  That shot wasn't even aimed at you. 
But that path is treacherous.  Just ask LOST.  Ask The Killing.  Ask Homeland. Ask Dexter.  Or just about any Showtime series, really.  When your show is built around a specific conflict, or even worse, question, you have to be very careful about overstaying your welcome.  This is the type of show my friend thinks Orange is.  And as far as the show is about Piper, he’s right, I just don’t think that’s very far this last year or two.   

Finally, if your show is about Denis Leary struggling with having too much sex thrown at him, just stop.  I don't care if your Denis Leary is played by David Duchovny or Charlie Sheen, there are cheaper and less embarrassing ways for aging men to publicly masturbate.  And if your show is somehow a little of all four of these categories at once, congratulations! You made Mad Men.  End it however the hell you want. The less people understand the smarter they’ll feel for watching it.  

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 You have officially beaten TV. 




*Schwartzblog review: largely terrific, marred slightly by making essentially all the veteran guards into cartoonish monsters.  Their civilian counterparts were/are more interesting for being ill-fitting or apathetic rather than outright sadists.  

**I do think that BB actually betrays itself thematically in the process of wrapping up its plots so neatly, but on the scale of TV finales, that’s a fairly classy problem to have