Friday, November 8, 2013

"Why Shows Get Worse"

I regularly read Ken Levine’s funny and informative blog bykenlevine for two reasons.  One, because I enjoy it; and two, because sometimes, I can be reminded of (read: pilfer) an idea, chronicling my own unique version of it here. 

Recently, Ken wrote about certain TV series that, during the course of their runs, have gotten worse.  I thought to myself, “I know a little bit about that.  Why not add my unbidden two cents worth on the matter?” 

I figure by injecting my definitive touch and perspective, I can feel worthily productive writing about it, and at some point, the original pilferage will fade obliviously into the background.  Even though I just spent three paragraphs talking about it.   


Why do shows get worse?

They don’t want to get worse.

“We’ve done a lot of good shows.  Let’s start making bad ones.” 

Nobody thinks that way.  But it happens nonetheless. 

We shall now consider some explanatory reasons.

Right from the get-go, a percentage of shows get demonstrably worse from their pilot episode to Episode Two.  This is where I throw in that I wrote the second episodes of Taxi, Cheers and The Cosby Show.  Watch them somewhere.  Those ones, I objectively believe, did not get worse. 

But a lot of shows do.  This season, I genuinely enjoyed the pilot of The Michael J. Fox Show, but Episode Two felt like pedestrian sitcom “business as usual.”  (And it’s gone downhill from there.)

Okay, let’s think about this. 

You spend maybe six months laboring over a pilot script.  Your show gets picked up, and you now have to produce an equally dazzling script virtually every two weeks.  Do you think the prodigious speed-up of the assembly line might have a deteriorating consequence on the quality?  I do.  Which explains why my happiest and most terrifying day in television were the same day – the day my pilot got picked up for series.

Then, there’s this other factor which affects Episode Two’s, and the subsequent episodes as well.  The following example fits the category of “speculation”, as I am not privy to the precise facts of the matter. 

Look at that – “pilfering” and “speculation” in the same blog post.  If my blog were an economy, these shenanigans would get it downgraded by international banking associations.

Will Gluck is th co-creator of the Michael J. Fox Show.  I do not know Gluck or his work.  But Wikipedia informs me that, besides being a TV writer and show creator, Gluck is also flourishing in the movies. 

Putting on my “Agent’s Hat” – abandoned by an agent who got a deal for a more fashionable one – I would opine that Mr. Gluck’s career interests are not best served wallowing in the daily grind of a television series.

My speculation therefore is that, the reason for the perceived qualitative decline, is that Gluck wrote the pilot and got the show off and running, and then gradually backed off, or even, as far as I know – and I, in fact, know nothing – backed away.

What you get then, metaphorically speaking, is a new restaurant opened with a Five Star chef in the kitchen, who is shortly replaced by a chef of a considerably lesser magnitude. 

Same restaurant, but with an inferior chef. 

What will inevitably happen to the food?

That is why, in my day, (read with amplified reverb – “IN MYYY  DAYYYYYY…”), the networks required you to stay with the show you created, a requirement intended to retain the quality level served up in the pilot.  Also, practically speaking, you would naturally expect to get richer, more resonating writing from the person whose undiluted DNA courses through the circulatory system of the pilot than you would from an, albeit talented and experienced, hired hand. 

Some shows get worse because the idea for them was not sufficiently thought through.  I have mentioned the sitcom Phyllis in this context – where the series concept is terminally thin. 

Since “Phyllis” was a popular character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it was decided to spin her off into a series of her own.  (Ditto with “Rhoda.”)  It was shortly discovered, however, that though you could sell a show featuring a popular character and camouflage its conceptual thinness in the pilot, they could not continue that legerdemain over the long haul, the result being that, in a shorter time than was anticipated, the show got cancelled.  (Ditto with Rhoda.)

Some shows get worse because you get tired of what they do.  My grandfather used to watch the long-running variety series, The Dean Martin Show (1964-1974.)  Early in its run, he told me “I love The Dean Martin Show; he only sings the old songs.”  However, later in its run, he complained, “I’m tired of The Dean Martin Show; he only sings the old songs.” 

I felt that way about The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family.  I enjoyed them both during their respective first seasons.  But the shows started repeating themselves, hitting the same character notes over and over, each repetition feeling less fresh and surprising than its predecessor. 

So I gave up on them.

Here’s what – admitting my ignorance – I do not understand.  For me, enough became enough by the two shows’ second seasons.  However, as they were getting worse for me, the general public was tuning in with continually increasing numbers.

Why would that happen?   I have absolutely no idea.  (I have a theory – Search:  “Uppie” – but there is no certainty it is correct.)

The final reason, at least for this writing, of why series get worse is that

Over time,

You get tired.

And when you’re tired you say, “This is good” when, by an earlier-adhered-to standard it probably isn’t, just so you can go home and sleep.  Also, how many times can you do your best work?  If you did your best work every time, it would be impossible to distinguish from your worst work.

All series inevitably get worse because somebody – most predictably their profit participants – don’t want to stop making shows.  (Every additional episode means millions more in the syndication market.)  And leave us never underestimate the “Fear Factor.” 

“If this ends, then what?”  Many prefer to delay finding out for as long as possible.

Closer to home, after coming-up-on six years, is this blog getting worse?   I shall leave for others to determine.

But in a post that includes pilfering, speculation and a unvarnished admissions of ignorance, this may not be the most propitious day for a sampling.  


Mike said...

Any examples of programmes that you enjoyed, that ran for say 5 seasons, and didn't get worse?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

As someone who's watched THE BIG BANG THEORY from the beginning, I'll answer you: the show has let the characters develop and has also added characters. I find Sheldon's relationship with Amy Farrah Fowler (added for S4) one of the most unusual TV relationships, and Howard has gotten married, grown up, and had some significant successes in his work life (you might like to look in on the first couple of episodes of S6). I agree the show isn't as fresh as it was. I'd also agree the show this year seems to be borrowing too much from FRIENDS. But, as you say, that's probably part of what makes it more mainstream.

I'd really love your - or someone's - take on what the writers on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER are thinking (other than please god, let me find another job and get out of here). it's wreckage.


Canda said...

One of the best second episodes to follow a good pilot was "Third Rock From The Sun". Unfortunately, it was such a high concept premise, it was almost impossible to really grow and remain fresh, despite an incredible cast.

Your six episodes after "The Cosby Show" were excellent, and really launched the show toward the heights it would achieve.

I think you captured well all the reasons why shows get worse, and most often it is because the original creators pull away or leave altogether.

Frank said...

I noticed once Larry David left Seinfeld the quality went way down but ratings went way up.

Rebecca said...

I sincerely hope you aren't thinking of ending your blog. I didn't realize it had been six years, but I certainly don't think it has gotten worse. Please remember that TV shows consist of what writers "make up", and you said you didn't even do that when you were writing them. Blogs, on the other hand, consist of what we are thinking about at any given time. As long as you have something to say, you can blog about it. I'm certainly willing to hear about it and I'm sure I'm not alone.