Friday, November 5, 2010

What's Wrong with some of Today's Shows?

I don't really watch too much TV these days, but I have some of my favorite shows. On Mondays it's Two and a half Men, and on Thursdays it's Community, Big Bang Theory and The Office.

Unfortunately, other than the annoying fact that Community and Big Bang Theory are on at the same time this season, there's something wrong with all of them.

When a TV series starts off it has to have a wide range of things to explore in its plot to continue being interesting, and if it's a comedy the jokes have to always be original, and ongoing. Then as it continues, the characters, in my opinion at least, have to develop and continue to grow.

After several years, the problem with most TV shows I tend to see is stagnation - they run out of ideas, or plot points, or work themselves into a dead-end or cycle.

The way I see it, a movie is like a novel. A TV series is the same, but the novel is actually a series of novels about the same thing, a chronicling of adventures. It's longer.

If you want a long-running series that goes on for a long time, you can't have a fixed point that sums it up, or else people will get bored waiting forever for the main character to reach his or her goal the TV series works off of. Great examples of this are shows like How I met your Mother, or Lost. They all have a main intention or theme to work towards - figuring out the mother, or being found.

What made Lost so good is that the creators set a beginning and an end, and ran it for six years with a definitive ending in mind. They planned on ending it, and within a reasonable time frame.

How long can How I met your Mother go before people get bored waiting and waiting for Ted to meet the woman that eventually becomes his kids' mother? And then, when he does, what next? His story to them is the most intricate and longest one I've ever witnessed from time to time, when I've watched it occasionally. I could never remember all that as a story at all if I were to eventually tell my kids a story like that.

The best TV series and the longest ones tend to be the kind that revolves around families or friends. If there's no definitive point towards anything, no big plot outline the series closely and solely follows, then you have more options and ideas to work with and entertain, more freedom to work with, and you can last longer. I guess Seinfeld really worked towards this basis - it was, after all, a 'show about nothing.' Just the everyday pursuits of several friends living in New York.

The problem with Two and a half Men is the restrictions that the basis of the show employs to keep its format together - for the show to work under its title and pattern, Alan can never move out of Charlie's house, and Jake therefore will always end up spending some time there. As well, Charlie can never elope with one woman and stay with that one woman.

Because of this, Charlie's lifestyle has become boring by now, and Alan has progressed from being a sensible, knowledgeable middle-aged man to a useless, weak, cheap idiot that is ridiculously gullible and lacks any dignity at all. If he has a job as a chiropractor, he has an income. And if he lives with Charlie, he has expenses but not nearly as much as he did. He is perfectly able to save up some money, rent an apartment elsewhere and move out and away from a family that doesn't seem to treat him with any respect.

Of that show, only Jake has matured and grown and brought up any interesting story lines and developments as he goes through teenage life, but I'm tired of watching obnoxious Charlie and have no interest in Alan acting like the continuous, predictable loser he portrays.

With Community, it's still a fresh new show that hasn't explored all avenues of interest and plot development yet, but I see trouble in the future. For one thing, that study group can't stay in college forever. The show will definitely have to end by the time they've finished all their studies, or else it can't continue to be called Community. As well, a study group can only accomplish so much together. As the show progresses, the format dictates that the study group, or parts of it, always end up together at the same place or stay together in a situation, always those guys. It becomes apparent that it's more than a study group, it's a close knit band of friends that go off into different pursuits together.

The Office was pretty fun in its second, third and fourth seasons.
The first season was too based off the original, but by the second it captured its own style. The problem is that, again, the show is about an office. More importantly, it's a mockumentary. A documentary crew is filming an average office.
By this point in the series, it's a documentary crew filming office relationships, characters going to places elsewhere, dinner parties, christenings, births, romantic dates, and everything else outside the office. It's moved away from that - which is great for the series, but the problem is that it's a mockumentary. Normal camera crews would stick to the office setting, without filming a salesman's baby being born or christened, or a boss's buying of a condo. It's gone from a mockumentary to a mocku-reality show, because it's turned personal. 
Returning to the office setting, that's the reason it's gotten personal - you can't keep everything alive for five years just filming inside an open-concept paper office. You have to get out and follow the characters, delve into their personal lives, see what happens when a boss and his superior throw a dinner party or the receptionist marries the salesman. The camera pokes into all of this, and it has to. If the show stayed within the office park it would have lost most of its interest after Jim and Pam finally came together.

That's the one problem - because it's in a mockumentary format and theme, and because it has to reach beyond Dunder Mifflin to continue to be appealing, the mockumentary fails because that's just unrealistic. If it were a more of a reality mockumentary aimed at the personal aspects, or standard multi-camera, it would be more realistic.
The problem with that though is that without the mockumentary format, it removes talking heads, humor derived from the characters knowing of the camera's presence, and originality, making the whole show kind of an odd and interesting hybrid of things; it has glue that holds all these aspects together and keeps it going alright, and has managed to keep it marginally normal and working over these years. You can't eliminate the mockumentary format, but it is still unrealistic and too nosy to be a professional office documentary.

Steve Carrell's departure at the end of this season sure will inspire a lot of change, but ultimately I doubt the show will last very long afterwards, perhaps for a season; the departure of the main comedic character to those kinds of shows never works out in the end because they're the primary vehicle for comedy, and without it the show is handicapped. It happened to Spin City, That 70's Show, and many others.

The longest shows are again, probably ones that do have plot lines, but not definite and single ones that determine the course of a whole series; they have plot lines that work themselves out and keep the viewers interested, and leave room for new development and other plot lines to come up afterwards. The longest shows don't have restrictive formats that never change, forcing the characters to de-evolve and slowly become ever more stupid to keep them from changing and/or maturing in a way that would change the show's theme or backdrop (like Charlie and Alan). The longest shows don't have a definitive point, or setting, unless it plans to finish, like Lost.

Oh, and the Big Bang Theory - well, let's just say that the show has done well in keeping the plot lines big but not definitive - Leonard managed to ask Penny out in a reasonable amount of time, and the show then played that story arc out. It transcended into new ones and has so far kept it quite interesting. I don't see how it can work its way into a dead end with its characters because they will mature and be able to do things they couldn't in the beginning, and there's no single big goal the whole show is focussed towards, unless it is not definitive. That's the only program I see longevity in.

Otherwise, everything else will last for a time, and it will be fun, and funny no doubt, but they won't be able to go super long. I guess the best example in all this is The Simpsons - those shows never have any huge plot lines and rarely sees multiple-episode story arcs, but their problem is that the characters don't age, and eventually they'll come to the point where they'll realize that maybe it would be interesting to chronicle Bart or Lisa's life as they finally grow into teenagers and adults, without the help of fortune tellers or future vision machines previous episodes have used to show this. They can't go forever in telling stories with everyone the same as they were twenty years ago. It just gets more boring and ever more unrealistic and far-fetched.
Yet they're still on the air. We'll see.
That's my analysis.

Justin C.

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