Friday, March 23, 2012

"Aging Series"

A new reader, Tania, who, as they said Bull Durham “announced her presence with authority” – welcome Tania – spoke about shows “veering off course because the writers appear to be following the gag or funny story idea rather than the character and the character’s story/truth.”

Yes. No, wait, that wasn’t a question, so, I agree. Television series, some old and tiring, others, relatively new but failing to connect with the audience, resort to altering, or cannibalizing, their original template, in a desperate effort to stay in the game.

Let me deal with the second type of show first. Basic principles: A show has a concept. It was sold on the basis of that concept. The pilot gets made, it gets on the air, and it proceeds to make episodes, all the time remaining firmly grounded in that original concept.

It turns out, it’s not enough. The show is floundering in the ratings. Cable cooking shows are doing better.

At this point, adjustments are required in order to survive. The series’ creator may say, “But the show sold on the premise of this concept. Why can’t we stick with it, and just try to do a better job?” (If you’re sensing some personal angst in this lament, you are not entirely incorrect.)

Though an honorable idea, the reason you cannot remain true to the original concept that that the network bought and said they loved, is because if you do, you’ll be cancelled.

So you look for a lifeline.

A standard remedy, at this point, is to eschew reality, and go “larger than life”, much larger, if necessary, often lurching into fantasy, ironic “cutaways”, and dream sequences. It rarely works, but you have to do something. Even though the most reasonable strategy would be to cut your losses, and try again.

The audience has spoken. Your idea did not connect. They do not want a realistically depicted series set in a Community College. And sticking a “clown nose” on it is not going to help.

It is simply time to move on. And remember that even though your show crashed and burned, you went home with quite a bit of money.

30 Rock is different. Though never a commercial blockbuster, it was a big success with the most desired demographic. Apparently, everyone who watched it bought a Lexus.

30 Rock was never entirely realistic. The Tina Fey/Alec Baldwin scenes felt fundamentally truthful, but the writing staff never wrote anything, and the Jenna character and the Tracy character were, I believe from “Episode One”, crazy.

From the get-go, 30 Rock was a two-humped camel. I only liked one of those humps. You can probably guess which one.

Of all the recent Thursday night NBC comedies, 30 Rock was the only one I tried to watch regularly, though when I sometimes forgot, I noticed I did not feel that bad. (I also like Parks and Recreation, because it generally sticks to its concept, and despite some forced quirkiness in the characters, it has an undercurrent of heart.)

30 Rock offered my favorite sitcom joke in a decade. (30 Rock’s “ha-ha” ratio was, for me, statistically not high, but I was always drawn back on “hope.” It’s like finding a needle in a haystack and thinking, “If there’s one, there definitely has to be more.”) Anyway, here’s the joke.

An editor, who’s asked what he’s working on, replies,

“I’m assembling a piece for the Today Show on how next month is October.”

My kind of comedy. Simple. Fresh. Irreverent. And insightful. I literally went “whoosh.”

Moving on…

Shows that have been on a long time inevitably run out of gas. But since every produced episode means more money in syndication, they continue making them, even when they are indisputably driving on fumes.

There are only so many stories you can write about a paper company that’s not doing that well. There are only so many variations you can do on a character’s idiosyncratic behavior. You can write only so many repetitions of the premise, “This idea can’t miss, and then it does” before the audience is light years ahead of you. You keep throwing them fastballs, and eventually, they will see them coming.

So, one reason shows, in Tania’s words, find themselves “veering off course” is because they have entirely exhausted their possibilities. Another reason is that, not infrequently, the “brain trust”, the show’s creators and much of the original writing staff, has cashed in or burnt out, or both, and have moved on, leaving the work to the lesser gifted of our fraternity, who, aside from being burdened by the best permutations of the jokes having already been done, cannot match their predecessors’ superior gifts. (On occasion, some “phenom” replacement will show up, but that is far more the exception than the rule.)

The funny thing – if by “funny” you mean annoyingly unhelpful – is that, on the strength of momentum and its deservedly praised earlier episodes, a series that is creatively past its prime can be pulling in the best ratings of its entire run.

Why? I have labeled this phenomenon “The Uppie Factor.” A grandchild toddles over to their doting grandfather and says, “Uppie?” Taking the cue, the grandpa lifts the child high in the air, possibly including the word, “Whee!” and then lowers them back down. At which point, the toddler says, “Uppie?”, and the grandpa is obligated to do it again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

At some juncture, pretty soon if one is of advancing years, the grandpa will, literally, tire of the game, and suggest that they stop playing. Unfortunately, the kid is still getting a huge kick out of this activity, and they insist that it continue. Unable to say “No” to the grandchild, the “Uppie” process proceeds, until paramedics arrive, carrying oxygen.

This, surpassing even than the desire to maximize profits, is the reason shows stick around much longer than is good for them.

Though the energy, excitement and creativity are far in the past,

The audience still wants “Uppie.”


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; is there hope in "uppie"?


Blaze said...

A friend of a friend of mine always struck me as an intelligent, perceptive woman who enjoyed reading. Then, in a conversation about books where I lambasted a mystery series I had dropped. "After the fourth book, it was obvious each book was the same exact formula".

She only nodded enthusiastically and said that is precisely why she bought them. And then, her other reading choices locked into place. She wanted her regular, safe, comfy "uppie" fix and life was good.

There's a demographic, a very large one, who hold dear the motto: "Change is bad".

It made me very sad inside as I silently, secretly downgraded her "intelligence and perception" status in my inner rankings.

Anonymous said...

I think happy days is an example of what you are talking about it started as agentle comedy on film
and then turned into a more slapstick

pumpkinhead said...

My first thought when I read the title was that it was going to be about a series on Aging.

Max Clarke said...

Very funny, "...until paramedics arrive, carrying oxygen."

Given the terrible ways a show can veer off course, all the more reason to appreciate the shows that had long runs and stayed fairly true to their start. I like the way Cheers did it.

Cheers had to change after the Diane years, but I never saw it veer off course or stray too badly. Rebecca was an opportunity to feature somebody good at the zany comedy you would have seen on I Love Lucy. Even 8 and 9 years into the series, the stories were still good.

As they wrapped up the series, the stories about each character didn't have to veer off course. They were simple and believable extensions of what happened before. Well done.

Thank goodness Cheers wasn't pulled off the air after their cellar ratings the first year or two.

benson said...

Blaze...good point

Marc: But how much of that was network meddling?

Earl, one of the things I love about 30 Rock is that it's a wonderful commentary/satire of both contemporary pop culture and the changes in the entertainment industry.

Tania said...

hmmm... my comment seems to have disappeared. apologies if this is posted twice.

Earl, how thrilled was I to be welcomed personally. And please excuse my arrival with a "statement".

I appreciate the comments you made re writing for a TV show, particularly as it begins to age. I realise that it's not always as easy as it seems.

Regarding 30 Rock, I thought their latest episode was outstanding. [mild spoiler ahead] They did however have a line for Kenneth about his happiness that I reckon completely undermined his character. This is an example of what I mean by veering off course. I don't think the joke added to the scene, the character or the episode. I thought it was worthy of a laugh in a writer's room (or what I imagine a writer's room to be like) and should not have gone further than that.

Yeah... more uppies please.