It has always been an, as yet, not entirely rewarding exercise for me to determine what makes some shows better than other shows.
At this point – a mere one sentence into this undertaking, I am about to confound myself – and perhaps the reader as well – with a perplexing contradiction.
There are people in my family… okay, I won’t do it that way.
Let’s try this. (Which will get me into considerably less trouble at home if it ever gets back to them, though most likely it won’t. But why take chances, right?)
You walk into a menswear store, or whatever, and you’re browsing through “casual slacks” or their assortment of sports jackets. In the course of your rummaging, you discover an item of apparel so screamingly outrageous that, at best, only a TV game-show host would consider wearing it, and even then, only later in the week after they have used up everything else.
Pinky Lee would have said, “Too ‘over the top’!” (For those hungering for a Pinky Lee reference.)
And yet, returning to the topic at hand…
Game-show hosts aside, it is entirely possible that another customer, perusing the same array of haberdasherial inventory, will enthusiastically select that garment, explaining to anyone interested, or a salesperson pretending to be interested,
“This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
The item is (I’d say, objectively) hideous. But they love it.
Such is the way of individual judgment, taste and personal evaluation. And I get that. “It’s all subjective.” The thing is, my believing that “It’s all subjective” should invalidate the evaluation of “better or worse.” And what I am saying is,
Everyone likes something different. But there is still an identifiable “better” and “worse.” Is what I am arguing here at this moment.
Allow me to continue. Even if you disagree. Although if you strongly disagree or have better things to do with your time, you may not continue. In which case, I shall miss you, but goodbye.
In the following pursuit of understanding and truth, I shall not be discussing what have been ceremonially accoladed as the best TV shows in recent history, such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, Orange Is the New Black or Homeland, to name but seven, because I have either not seen them or I have seen them less than twice, due to my discomfort with violence, disturbing emotions, discomfiting ambiguity, the amoral value system, the relentlessly bleak outlook, or because or I lack the appropriate technology or am unable to figure out how to use the technology I have. (Netflix, Amazon Prime, my Time Warner cable Program Guide, etc.)
I can only discuss the middle range of programming, because, for better or worse, the middle range is – and always has been – where my personal sensibilities reside. And, not coincidentally, where I experienced my greatest career success. I wrote and created middle-range comedies.
The more narrowly focused question then is:
Why are some middle range programs better than other middle range programs?
Since I wrote comedies, acknowledging that the perception of “What’s funny?” has inevitably changed over the decades, I believe I remain qualified, as a professional, to evaluate the current comedies based on the less generationally mutable criteria of concept, characterization and storytelling.
But what about dramas?
I am not an expert in dramas. Still, I have this inner certainty that, for example, Law & Order – you knew that was coming, didn’t you? – is better than a show I’ve begun watching multiple episodes of on the ION Channel called Blue Bloods.
You may ask – and justifiably so as I am an admitted non-expert – from whence – or just plain whence, or, possibly, wherefrom – does that “inner certainty” derive?
A thing that occurred to me after thinking about this for a while is that “good” comedies – No, I am taking a big risk here and am dispensing with the quotation marks.
A thing that occurred after thinking about this for a while is that good comedies and good dramas have an identifiable common denominator.
In both genres, the superior offerings are the shows that deviate the least from accepted reality to successfully communicate their stories.
In comedies, that standard is reflected in how believable the stories are, how multi- dimensional the characters are (rather than being mere “delivery systems” for jokes) and the degree to which the verbal setups must “stretch” introducing the immediately following punchlines.
I heard somewhere that comedy was “Reality plus ten percent.” That seems about right. Anything beyond that ten percent may still elicit the much sought-after “Ha-ha”, garnering a possibly tumultuous “Ha-ha”, but the price paid is the dismissingly critical, “They went for easy laughs.”
In dramas – police dramas is what I seem to exclusively watch – the correlative counterpart to “easy laughs” is, “How much did they ‘cheat’?”… to achieve the conclusion they were premeditatedly shooting for; specifically, was the resolution obtained via legwork, interrogation and the assiduous sifting of the evidence, or was there a last minute, “Some information recently reached us…”, exposing the perpetrator, compliments of an unearned revelation fortuitously provided by the writer?
Credibility matters. If you want to be good.
If you want to be popular and are oblivious to the price…
That statement is too harsh and perhaps misleadingly inaccurate. In all my lo so many years in the entertainment business, I have personally met no one who has deliberately sold out to achieve personal success, partly because of integrity and self-respect, primarily – though I mysteriously put it second – because you do what you do and you cannot realistically do anything else, and partly because selling out in no way guarantees success and there is little that is more reverberatingly agonizing than egregiously pandering and still falling on your ass.
I think I have more to say on this subject, although I am not certain about that as, at this particular juncture, I have no idea what that “more” is going to be.
I invite you to stay tuned.
I just hope I have something.