Analyzing Television

Yesterday, over at thepiehole, ellipticcurve made a post relating to a comment I made about Season 2 vs. Season 1 Pushing Daisies. Basically, my position was that Season 2 had gone downhill from Season 1 because the show had deviated from its more self-contained quirky-procedural model (wherein a crime was solved every episode) to a model where the focus seemed to be more on expanding the story of the main characters, with the procedural going by the wayside. I felt this is similar to what happened to Moonlighting, a series that started off strong, but went downhill when the stories moved from the focus on the crimes to the focus on the relationship between David and Maddie.

The thinking hit me again today whilst I was moving some episodes of Heroes from the DVR to DVD. The series has gone downhill because it has lost its focus and gotten too complicated. It is now too difficult for anyone but a fanboy or fangirl to get into. Did the fans push it that way? Did the writers, trying to serve the fans and not the viewers?

This got me to thinking about the recent move of NBC with respect to Jay Leno. Jay has been given the 10pm slot Monday through Friday to do a variation of his existing show. This saves NBC money by reducing the number of hours of primetime they have to program (perhaps now as low as 10 hrs/wk, given they’ve given Saturday to repeats encores, and Sunday to football), but it also loses what used to be the best hours of television.

10 PM on NBC used to be the home of great dramas. Hill Street Blues. St. Elsewhere. ER. Law and Order. Looking at all the networks, this used to be just a great time period. Cagney and Lacey. Lou Grant. Boston Legal. Now the viewership has gone by the wayside. What made this programs great was great writing, slow character development, the ability to join the series in the middle and not be lost. Have we stopped writing like that? I think the networks have. They’ve gone instead for long storylines. Where that might work for prime-time soaps such as Dallas, I don’t believe it can be sustained for shows like Heroes or Pushing Daisies. These shows needed a time limitation from day one — a guaranteed arc, a multi-year miniseries.

Good writing makes good shows, but good shows don’t exist just for the fans. The good writing has to be such that new viewers can be drawn into the story, that they can pick up enough so they might want to explore back stories, if that is even necessary. Many of our long-lasting shows have learned this: Psych, Monk, Law and Order, Numbers, CSI. When the show moves to quickly as a fan darling, and seems to move to serve the fans, it flames and burns out. I think that is why Pushing Daisies faltered in year 2, and why Heroes stumbled as well. We have yet to see if Life on Mars (US) will do this.

Can you come up with some additional examples? Counterexamples?