I previously opined about what happens to a good television show that makes the viewer one day mutter to himself, “What the hell is this? This is not my beautiful show! This is not my beautiful wife!” (Then he puts on an oversized suit and gets seriously into African music.) Today I’d like to go into a little more detail.
My theory is a simple one, and I call it Character/Concept Fatigue. What happens is that the creative force behind the show – be it a central producer, writer, writing team, or some combination of these – just gets bored with the characters or concept of the show, and starts trying out new things. At best, the show mutates into something new, but retains some level of quality anyway; at worst – and more commonly – it means Homer gets raped by a panda bear. (Ah yes, that was quite the cultural milestone for my generation, wasn’t it?)
Let’s touch on some of this agent’s favorite shows, as they are the ones with which he is most familar, and therefore most qualified to talk about.
1. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Some people were hardcore Buffyists until the end; some hung on through the end of season 7 with their eyes but not their hearts; and some pretty much gave up somewhere along the line. I guess you can put me in category 2. I saw every episode, but every season past the third one underwhelmed for assorted reasons; by the time the series concluded I was decidedly disappointed. The finale to season 3 (the gang defeats the evil mayor and graduates high school) would have been a great high water mark to go out on, and the season 5 ender (Buffy dies while helping to defeat a god with the usual destroy-the-earth plans) – though it came at the finish of a fairly weak season – would have been a great and very emotional end to the show as a whole. Either would have been preferable to the long trek through the last two unmemorable, generally poor years.
So what was the problem? For one thing, series creator Whedon had his fingers in other pies – or maybe I should go for the obvious pun and say an “Angel” cake. (Zing!) That’s always a sure sign of character/concept fatigue: when key creative people move on to new endeavors and leave their baby in the hands of the sitter with the funny mole on her chin. The symptoms of Whedon’s indifference and the boredom of the writing staff were myriad. We got an arc where Spike the vampire got a soul, which was A. a violation of everything interesting about his character, B. copied wholesale from a previous story arc, no matter how they tried to pretend otherwise, and C. a pretty clear sign that they didn’t have anything else good to do with the character and just decided to give a small but vocal group of fans whatever they wanted. Willow (the quintessential nerd/computer sidekick character) suffered the most from the writers’ fatigue. She got to become a lesbian after thoroughly established heterosexuality in the show’s first three seasons, and she bore the weight of the show’s most odious storyline, a thick-headed and sledgehammer-subtle metaphor where witchcraft = addiction and magic = drugs. In the meantime, “Buffy”‘s basic dynamic – teen superhero pals around with two good friends and a stuffy mentor – was completely lost, as the friends changed or faded out of the show. The storylines tried to argue that this was a planned change, meant to show the way our friendships and parental relationships evolve over time (and sometimes for the worse). But if there’s one thing a regular viewer can suss out easily, it’s those occasions that the writers are trying to cover their asses with retcon. Guys: you may write this shit, it may come right from your brain, but it’s the viewers who LIVE it.
“Buffy”‘s creative team lost interest in their main characters, and as a result I lost interest in the show.
2. “The Simpsons.” The clearest (and saddest) example of Character/Concept Fatigue I can think of, “The Simpsons” went bad almost a decade ago, and yet still soldier on in ignominy today. You can sample any random episode from season 10 on and probably immediately notice the issues with it. For one thing, the main characters have been reduced to flat charicatures of their former selves. They are either boiled down to a single shrill trait (see also: the entire cast of “Friends” in the last few seasons of that show) or are violated to contort to the needs of the plot. That’s why we now have years of episodes of “The Simpsons” where Homer is really dumb or randomly wants to go on an adventure, Lisa is naggingly PC or randomly wants to go on an adventure, Marge is naggingly nagging or randomly wants to go on an adventure, and Bart is a blank slate that does whatever the writers tell him to do. …Or randomly wants to go on adventure. It’s also why Homer no longer seems to have a job or – in many episodes – a house. The writers are sick of the characters as well as the main “family life in the home, school, and workplace” concept. As a result, the show has become this: ghastly parodies of beloved “Simpsons” characters go to Zimbabwe.
I never gave up on “Buffy,” but I gave up on “The Simpsons” many, many years ago. It causes me physical pain that the show has now been awful longer than it was good.
3. “Veronica Mars.” This one is fresh in my mind because I am just now watching the third/final season on DVD, having seen and loved the first two seasons some months ago. I haven’t even finished the set, but I am finding that the fan complaints I read on the internet are basically true: Wallace and Weevil have receded to the background, Logan has little to do but moon over Veronica, Keith does some strangely out-of-character things at times, and new addition Piz is a non-entity that smells a bit more like network interference than an organic development of the show.
I will say, however, that “Mars” still has a few very strong elements in its favor. For one thing, the writers have not lost interest in Veronica herself. And seeing as how she’s a fascinating character (strong-willed and smart, but not invincible or superheroic; tenacious to the point of being obsessive; suspicious and a little damaged; above all, imperfect) this is a good thing. The show lives and dies with its titular P.I., and so far, it’s still kicking. For another thing, although slightly uncomfortable things are happening with some of the regulars, it’s clear that the show’s conception as a dense, ongoing mystery remains intact, at least thus far. Plot threads are hinted at one episode and then coaxed to the forefront much later – or seemingly dropped, only to be resurrected just when you think the writers dropped the ball. The noir/detective angle continues to be the show’s stylish, dark heart, and no amount of Piz can bury it. (I have it on good authority, however, that the network execs may have done it in later on, insisting on shorter story arcs and more stand-alone episodes. If so, it’s a pity.)
4. “The Office” (US). I fear for “The Office,” I really do. There were still a fair amount of laughs in the last season, but stress faults are already beginning to appear. More episodes venture outside of the office itself, and the characters (especially Michael and Dwight) are prone to more prolonged and outlandish fits of ridiculous behavior. I have a suspicion that we are a couple seasons away from “‘The Office’ Goes To Hawaii!” – and I’m not looking forward to it. The much-rumored but still unrevealed “Office” spinoff show is not a promising sign, particularly if any of the current creative team goes over to the new show.
5. “Twin Peaks.” Few TV shows have burned through their initial blast of creative juice so fast. In the case of “Peaks” it wasn’t just fatigue with the show itself that set in, but also fatigue with handling viewer and network expectations. Lynch is on record as having basically abandoned the show to Mark Frost and the hired guns once ABC forced them to conclude the Laura Palmer mystery. Rewatching now, there’s a clear sag once the killer is revealed – it’s like half the air has gone out of a balloon. Following that the show treads water for a while, even allowing dullard James Hurley to escape Twin Peaks for a long, boring outing in some nearby town. This was both fatigue and lack of direction.
“Peaks” eventually found its legs again – but unfortunately the race was cancelled not long after. Luckily Lynch left us with that black valentine of a final episode.
In hindsight it’s clear that what made “Twin Peaks” run was a combination of two things: 1. the background hum of the Palmer investigation, always meandering into new territories without ever coming to a resolution; and 2. the soap opera interactions of the main characters – Leland, Maddy, Cooper, Bobby, Harry Truman, Mike, Josie, etc. etc. Lynch’s initial idea, maddening as it was, was that the Palmer murder would never be answered at all, and it would just slowly recede (without ever fully disappearing) as the rich universe of the characters moved to the front. As much as I love the episodes that wrap up the murder investigation, I think Lynch’s idea was basically the heart of the show, and it’s no surprise that when the network forced a premature conclusion on them, that they collectively lost interest or lost their way. In fact, it’s surprising that the mid-season 2 episodes turned out as well as they did.
I could ramble on about another half a dozen shows, but I suppose the point has been made. Which brings me to one last question: WHY exactly does Concept/Character Fatigue set in?
Well – why does any fatigue set in? Let’s turn to the obvious metaphor (already dropped in above) and look at a foot race. Anyone can run for a few seconds; a person in decent shape can run for a minute or two; an athlete can run several miles. But eventually, whoever you are, you’re going to run farther and longer than your body is ready for, and your lungs shrink up, and your heart starts hammering in your chest. Suddenly you start seeing spots – or maybe you even collapse in somebody’s yard, longing for a big glass of water and maybe a nap. Fatigue set in because you went too far.
We do that in American TV like it’s a religion. Our seasons are twice as long as in British TV, and our shows default to running as long as people will keep watching them. I think it may be telling that we usually refer to a year of a show as a “season” whereas the British tend to use the term “series.” A season is something that renews in neverending cycles; a series is finite and doesn’t imply the existence of anything past itself. Our “Office” runs in seasons, but theirs ran in series. Their “Office” lasted 12 episodes total, whereas ours has – just so far! – racked up 65 episodes (four of which are 40 minutes long, seven of which lasted an HOUR) plus 14 webisodes. Our strip syndication requires a show to have 100 episodes, or to enter its fifth year – and there’s usually a push to reach this mark with any show that last a few years out of the gate, because syndication rakes in more money. We don’t just milk the cow in this country; we milk it, then we bleed it, then we squash it between steel plates and drain off any remaining moisture, then we suck on the remains, then we feed it to other cows to boost their milk and blood production. We are kind of gross, Diane.
My argument is this: we always have a choice between making money and making better television shows. So far, in the US, we have made the wrong choice. It’s rare that an American show is strong from start to finish, no matter how long it lasts – and rarer still that a truly long-running show (like “Seinfeld” or “Cheers”) sustains anything like its full strength for the whole length of that run. There are almost no episodes of “Seinfeld” that I can’t watch and enjoy, but even that titan lost some of its muscle in the last two years it was on. I wouldn’t want to give up even the weaker seasons of that show (still one of my favorites) – but if I could trade them in for a “Buffy” that ended two or four years earlier? Or a “Simpsons” that went out on top?
Well, I just might.