Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.
Inspired by a recent Entertainment Weekly article, one of many lamenting the most recent wave of TV shows to fail, I decided to share my thoughts on how the networks have failed us as well as what they could do to save us.
1. Most of the new shows made are dumb. By that I mean that they aren’t smart, and they don’t treat viewers like they are smart. 1600 Penn was a bad idea; Americans don’t think the Presidency is funny, and a comedy about the White House is going to fail. Veep, btw, is satire, not comedy, which is why that show about a vice president and her team works. Snarking at politicians is a national pastime and makes for smart TV. Most people enjoy shows with a mystery element — cop shows, courtroom dramas, medical shows, spy thrillers — because there is a problem that is solved as the story progresses. Humans are built to solve problems. Even being a passenger in the process gets the happy parts of our brains firing.
2. TV shows cannot exist in the middle ground. We like shows that are either very close to home, such as The Office (many of us work in offices), or are very far removed from our reality. Justified does this for me. I don’t have any experience with US marshals or the hills of Eastern Kentucky. He could be a law-enforcement office on Mars, and I would probably still watch it. Viewers want to have an emotional reaction to the things we experience, or we want to escape from the day and find entertainment in the unknown. Shows that exist in the middle distance, sort of like our everyday but not exactly, have a much harder time surviving.
Medical drama + Jeckyl&Hyde = Do No Harm… yeah, pass.
Buddy cop show + Jeckyl&Hyde = might work if it laughs at itself or if it is edgy (Staying in the middle is a no-no)
High school drama + Jeckyl&Hyde = episodes would write themselves (We all went to high school = close distance. What if you acted like a different person?)
Medical drama + Jeckyl&Hyde + on a spaceship = much more interesting because the environment is limited
3. Don’t be everything to everyone. Heroes could have been great. It could have gone the distance, but it struggled from trying to be so accessible to everyone that it became bland. It needed to find its edge, then go live right on that line. It was a show about superheroes with superpowers. Why would you dull that down, unless you were afraid that not everyone likes superheroes. If that is your worry, then don’t make the show. Interesting stuff happens on the edge; it doesn’t happen when a show is appealing to the masses. Make it interesting, please.
4. Where have all the interesting characters gone? House worked because we hated to like him, hated to agree with him, and hated when his luck turned bad. We wanted to save him, but by saving him worried we would lose what made House himself. More time needs to go into character development before some of these shows hit the screens. Give them some real flaws, and make the characters suffer because of them. Mary Sue will be alive and well as long as there is network TV.
So this list is very much like writing a book. Well-developed characters + intriguing setting + fresh plotlines + surprising details = enjoyable entertainment. Genre fiction is meant to entertain. Literary fiction may have higher aspirations, but after I’ve had a crappy day with a crappy boss and crappier coworkers, I just want to set my brain on forgetaboutit. I’m looking for an experience.
Let me answer that with another question — why are reality shows so popular? Because the audience can either participate (voting on American Idol anyone?) or can envision themselves having the same experience. If you have shows that can do both, it should be a win-win. I strongly recommend the use of social media to shape the show. The future is coming (or is that Winter is coming?)
Example 1: High school drama in neo-Victorian setting (I recommend steampunk elements, but hey, it’s what I like). Have the kids wear uniforms (saves on the wardrobe budget). Have writers develop 75% of the script beforehand, but allow 1-2 decisions each week to be made by the fans. They go online, they vote, then those scenes are filmed. The decisions can be big or small, but the participation is vitally important. Viewers will want to watch that show as the story unfolds. Seeing it later on the DDR and missing out on the process will be a lesser experience. It might not matter in the overarching plot who takes Belle to the ball, but it will matter to the fans.
Example 2: Buddy cop space opera. Again, uniforms, green screens, save money to pay the script writers. The buddy cops track down bad guys. As the clues unfold, you learn if the criminals are really bad or if they are serving a greater good. Let the fans decide what the cops do. If they vote to let the criminals go too often, let it come back to bite the cops in the butt. Good dialogue is a must as well as some action choreography. Just get some MMA personality to be an advisor on the show.
A bit simplistic, I know, but there has to be a better way of doing things than the current morass. Somebody buy the Syfy network and give it to me. I’ll fix Television.