Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#94-TV Dramas that suck years out of your life.

It was the decade when...

Television dramas demanded you give up your entire social life.

Remember the good old days? The days when you could turn on prime-time television at 9:00 or 10:00 PM and catch an arresting hour-long drama mid-season and feel throughly entertained? Oh sure, maybe you didn't know all the character's names on ER or what exactly was going on between Harry Hamlin and Susan Dey on LA LAW but, you could pretty much tune in any night and enjoy a well-constructed program. Other shows required even less dedication; The Twilight Zone, Quantum Leap or Law & Order (in any of its many incarnations) could be watched in whatever sequence one wished-you always knew Jerry Orbach's mordant one-liners would be the same. The model made sense; after all, television viewing was a casual activity - prone to whims of channel surfing and audience distraction (not to mention toliet breaks). Dramas that forced a deep commitment of time and mental energy on the viewer simply selected themselves out of candidacy for Neilsen glory.

Not any more.

Usually starring a large cast working in a ensemble mode that would make the Group Theatre green with envy, television dramas are now epic, multi-year, exceedingly dense and ornate behemoths of labyrinthine plotting and Tolstoy-esque depth. No doubt a result less of changing artistic sentiment than consumer gadgetry advancement, the proliferation of DVDs and (especially) DVRs, has made viewers free to watch their favorite television series on their own time. Never missing an episode (once a near impossible task when live viewing was the only option) has become as easy as clicking the big red button on your universal remote. Suddenly it behooved producers to ensnare viewers in complex stories and mysterious, breath-baiting cliffhangers that last, not just till you're back from commercial, but over the course of many seasons. It's all a ploy of course. They're playing us like a fiddle, teasing us along, season after season, like a moth to a flame, over-complicating the scripts to not only lead the horse to water, but ladel it down his throat. Here are the biggest offenders but, there are many more:

The Sopranos: It sounded like a bad spin-off of Analyze This. And yet The Sopranos became, over the course of it's six seasons, one of the best dramas ever produced on television. The story of mafia don Tony Soprano and his various Jersey wiseguys ended up more kitchen-sink drama (albiet the kind with a body count) than an accurate picture of contemporary mob life. Not that it lacked for suspense and plotting; the various backstabbings and grabs for power wouldn't be out of place on I Claudius (though ones ears might perk to hear Derek Jacobi calling a Patrick Stewart a "low-life cunt"). Still it was the emotionally familair storylines that hit home, like Tony dealing with his obstinate and aging mother; a relationship so realistically portrayed that it had to resonate with anyone who has seen an older loved one fall prey to the inevitable onslaught on senility. The Sopranos was so good at combining the mundane drama of 21st century family life with the anything but mundane criminal debauchery inherent to the subject matter that missing a episode became an impossibility. Watching the story unfold was like reading a great, (albeit very, very long) novel. HBO's second original hour long drama (after OZ) became a standard bearer for television in the the new millenium; expectations (and time commitments) were altered forever.

24-You can't say they didn't warn you. It's called 24. They tell you, up front, "Hey Bozo-you start this show and we are taking a day away from your life. It's gone. Sayonara! We have 24 hours to fill and, you know what, you're gonna watch every minute of them." At least they only addict you one season at a time. But, oh how one needs their fix when hooked! Now an iconic hero of the terrorist age, Jack Bauer, (played by a frowning and perenially hoarse Kiefer Sutherland) with his renegade, Guantanimo Bay-like tactics, is a 21st Century touchstone and a nexus for debate. But Bauer would probably shrug and say, it's all in a days work. Gimmicky? Sure. Reactionary? Probably. Repugnant? Maybe. Addictive? Definitely.

Other dramas that ruined my ability to do anything productive with my time: The Wire, Dexter, Heroes

AND, for the biggest offender of all...check back tomorrow.

You AUGHT to remember...


  1. While it certainly reached a peak in the 00s the trend was definitely begun earlier. The X-Files showed that, just like Lost and Heroes, you could have a series that starts out great, but meanders about without any clear idea of where it's going. At the opposite end of the spectrum you have Babylon 5 which showed that as long as you meticulously plan the entire thing out in advance and write almost all of it yourself, you can have a dense show with a coherent and logical five year arc... as long as TBS allows you to actually produce that final season.