Television Recommendations – 11/10/09

October 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

From Mid-September, US viewers have been treated to several new seasons of award-winning television. Americans are knee deep in high quality drama, with House, Mad Men and Heroes back on screens, while Curb Your Enthusiasm and How I Met Your Mother are filling out the comedy space. Meanwhile, in the UK, we have Peep Show and… well, that’s about all I can think of at the moment.

It’s interesting to note that all of the series I’ve mentioned that are now playing in America are, at the very least, on their third or fourth run. Whereas in the UK we tend to stick to six or twelve episode series with a general shelf-life of two to three series max, the US generally favours eighteen to twenty-four episode seasons, with a show going on until it’s milked bone dry by the networks. This all leads to my point of “season fatigue”, something US shows often fall foul of while UK shows avoid – and the subject of today’s sermon.

The thing is, season fatigue is not inevitable. Sure, it’s more likely to occur as more and more episodes are produced, but it’s generally more down to whether the show’s concept is strong enough to keep on going. Let’s compare Curb Your Enthusiasm and How I Met Your Mother, for example, as two different, but sit-com-y, comedy shows.

HIMYM is really faltering by the seams, mainly because the actors are getting too old to play the characters they’re portraying, and the catchphrases and in-jokes, once novel and amusing, are wearing extremely thin – all this, and it’s on its fifth season. But when you put it alongside a show like Curb, now on its seventh season, where the quality of the writing is still as high as it ever was, it shows that, as long as the scripts stay funny and are able to evolve with the characters, a programme can sustain itself way past the average life expectancy mark. (Just look at The Simpson as the gold standard for this.)

Many shows, like Heroes and House, have had to employ crazy, drastic plot twists to keep their formula from becoming stale. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. The writers of House, for instance, made the right call to introduce a new team of lackeys, while moving Chase and Cameron to the background. However ridiculously contrived it all appears in hindsight, it probably saved the show.

If we look at a something like Heroes, though, each season becomes more incomprehensible than the one before it, as characters switch sides, are introduced and killed off, brought back and killed off again. And then there’s that giant reset button that bad writers so often abuse: time travel. Heroes only works because of the small sub-plots rather than the larger ones, and because of a handful of very entertaining, charismatic personalities – people like Sylar, Noah Bennet and Angela Petrelli. If those figures were to disappear over an episode or season, there’s a very good chance I’d stop watching altogether.

Mad Men is an interesting case. After loving the first and second seasons, this third endeavour hasn’t really gone anywhere. Mad Men has always been a little slow, relying on undercurrents of angst rather than showy, gestural scenes, but it’s on the verge of becoming – dare I say it – boring. Nothing is happening! At the moment the only memorable thing that comes to mind is this guy getting his foot shredded by a lawnmower while at an office party. Just like Heroes, though, Mad Men manages to hang in there due to the strength of its characters; however, having said that, my patience only stretches so far, and I can only imagine this must be what some other fans are feeling right now.

Linking into Mad Men, I’ve also been watching Six Feet Under and have watched seasons one and two almost back-to-back. I’m now on season three as it stands, and wouldn’t be too bothered if I never got to see the rest. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the first two seasons, but it’s that difficult third album syndrome all over again. Just like Mad Men, everything seems to have slowed to a crawl, and I am constantly being doused in the feeling that there’s nothing new here anymore, that there aren’t any more surprises left in that particular bag.

Bringing it back to the homeland, some might expect that shorter seasons mean better quality shows. Again, that’s not necessarily the case. Peep Show, as funny as some of this series’ episodes have been, hasn’t been the most consistent on maintaining the laughs. Yet AGAIN it’s the same old story of the first two series being great, with everything after meandering between good, so-so and poor.

And what does all this suggest? Well, I guess its pretty obvious. Most television shows simply don’t have the legs for a third season. For whatever reason – be it due to concept or the ability of the writing staff or financial pressures – most shows are unable to maintain the high level of quality. (Some shows can’t even make it past the first season!) So, ideally then, shows should be commissioned for two seasons, or series, and then left well alone – unless an idea, so phenomenal, comes along that it would be a waste not to use it.

Of course, this will never happen in the US, because, as I’ve mentioned, networks will keep a television programme airing until it all turns to shit and isn’t profitable anymore. That’s the sad truth behind the matter.

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