Friday, October 13, 2006

Whatever happened to predictability?

I recently stumbled across the site Trivial TV, which catalogues TV ratings since 1983 (an invaluable resource if ever there was one), and I realized something: The family sitcom, once a staple of television, has mostly disappeared.

In the '80s and '90s, shows ranging from The Cosby Show to Growing Pains to Family Matters to Home Improvement ruled the roost. Now, I'm not going to say that many of these shows were very good as art or even as superior entertainment (only The Cosby Show with its essentially plotless ruminations on the small rhythms of family life even came close -- and that was only in the show's first season), but there was something nice about having a niche that certain sitcoms filled.

As a kid, I didn't watch a lot of television outside of the Sesame Street/Mr. Rogers power combo in the afternoons on PBS. But I do remember that every night after dinner, Wheel of Fortune would come on. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we watched fairly tame sitcoms. Who's the Boss and Growing Pains on Tuesdays. The Cosby Show and Family Ties on Thursdays. Now, when I watch most of these shows as an adult, they seem kind of painful (particularly Growing Pains, which was my favorite show on TV as an 8-year-old -- no really!), but as a kid, it was something approaching family bonding time -- not even close to eating a meal with my family or playing with my father and sister, but a kind of bonding all the same, learning what, exactly, my parents did and didn't find funny and just how much they could tolerate the silly voices of Bill Cosby.

Now, of course, there are few of these family friendly shows on the air. Even Ugly Betty, which is mostly a pretty good show that would teach kids about female empowerment and good body image and family togetherness (subtly, I might add), featured an oral sex gag in the pilot. While it was the sort that could be easily brushed off when kids asked questions, I can see where many families would wonder, "Why bother?"

I don't mean to sound prudish. I'm tremendously happy that television has shows that are raw and bracing and adult. I'd much rather have The Wire than Growing Pains and Battlestar Galactica than Family Ties. But, honestly, when I have kids, what will there be for them? A bunch of cable shows full of kids who think good acting means screaming loudly? Even Who's the Boss had a certain kind of production quality that these kids' cable shows just can't quite match.

The popular foe to blame when it comes to the demise of network family TV is the networks themselves. And, to be honest, the move of Friends to the family hour helped the networks see that there WAS money to be made from young urban hipsters such as myself in that time period. But it's not like they suddenly just stopped trying. ABC aired family sitcom after family sitcom, trying to reclaim the success of Home Improvement. Lots of quality family dramas (other than 7th Heaven) have come and gone -- Everwood, Freaks and Geeks, Friday Night Lights (which seems almost certain to follow this same path). And the best family sitcom in years -- Everybody Hates Chris -- has trouble drawing more than three million viewers.

The trouble isn't that the networks abandoned families -- it's that they saw that there wasn't money to be made off of them anymore, except as a niche market. Why has the audience turned away like this? I don't know. But it's a shame.

Because, honestly, who will think of the children?

I'll write more about this once I finish parsing some statistics. Needless to say, it's all ironic.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Super Bowl show

It's that time of year again -- the time of year when we TV types wonder just what is going to get the Super Bowl postgame slot.

For many years, the slot after the Super Bowl went to new shows. This almost never worked. The A-Team and The Wonder Years both became top ten hits, and Homicide: Life on the Street had a long, low-rated run, but most of the shows that debuted after the Super Bowl were flops, even if 10-year-old me just LOVED Jonathan Winters in Davis Rules.

In 1996, NBC put on a star-studded episode of Friends that skyrocketed in the ratings and took the show itself to a whole new level of popularity (immediately followed by a huge backlash that crippled the show in the critical community for a season or so). And after that, the networks were ready to follow up the game with a big episode of an established hit. Just this year, the 10th anniversary of the big Friends episode, ABC's Grey's Anatomy reached its popularity apex with an episode involving a man with a bomb in his chest and a faux-lesbian shower scene. In fact, if you'll check out the list of shows that aired after the Super Bowl since Friends, most of them did quite well for themselves after their Super Bowl airing.

1996: Friends
1997: The X-Files
1998: Third Rock from the Sun (one of the few not to hit it big)
1999: The Simpsons leading into the Family Guy pilot
2000: The Practice
2001: Survivor: Outback
2002: Malcolm in the Middle
2003: Alias (another not to get a boost)
2004: Survivor: All-Stars
2005: The Simpsons leading into the American Dad pilot
2006: Grey's Anatomy

This year, the big game is on CBS, and the network could use the opportunity to kick off another round of Survivor, turn a cult show into a hit or shore up a flagging hit.

Let's take a look at the many options CBS has available.

Some combination of two of the four Monday comedies: How I Met Your Mother is growing both in buzz and the ratings. The Class could use the help, though it's got some breathing room in its new time slot after Mother. Two-and-a-Half Men is, of course, the one sitcom in the Nielsen top ten. And The New Adventures of Old Christine is probably the best traditionally-shot sitcom out there (HIMYM is better, but it's also, technically, shot single-camera style). What's more, the moment is primed for a sitcom to explode. The new sitcoms on the schedule didn't exactly make that happen (even if 30 Rock and Knights of Prosperity deserve to take off), but CBS could potentially turn one of its smaller sitcoms into a sensation. If I were to pick two, I would go with HIMYM and Christine, which would give CBS a chance to spin one (or both) of the shows to another night if the strategy worked.

NCIS or The Unit: NCIS probably doesn't need the help (it's hard to imagine it growing much beyond the peak it hit last season), but The Unit will be heading into a tough competition with a House that's beefed up by American Idol. What's more, its brand of action drama could play well with the Super Bowl.

Criminal Minds: I've seen this idea bandied about elsewhere, but I'm not so thrilled by it. CM is holding up well against Lost and did well when it didn't have to face Lost, but it's another show I have trouble imagining people getting horribly, horribly excited by -- I think most of its audience has already found it.

Survivor or The Amazing Race: Survivor is played out. The Amazing Race always struggles to get much beyond 10 million viewers. Still, an all-star Amazing Race COULD be a big draw after the game. I can't imagine Survivor being what makes it, though.

Any CSI: Grey's Anatomy took a chunk out of the original flavor, but Miami and New York are still doing well. Really, the franchise would have to be doing a lot more poorly to need the resucitation of a post-Super Bowl slot.

Without a Trace: If Brothers and Sisters had killed it in the ratings, I might have expected this to get the spot, but it doesn't need the help, and people seem to know it's on Sundays now.

Numb3rs: Another intriguing possibility. CBS always flirts with moving this show to a more high-profile timeslot during scheduling season, but first they'll need to get the buzz going. This would be a way to do that.

A new show: If 3 Lbs is still on the shelf, it will probably get this slot -- medical dramas are hot right now. Other than that, Rules of Engagement and Waterfront probably wouldn't mesh well with the game.

If I had to place bets at this point in time, I would wager that CBS will go with one or two of its sitcoms or The Unit. But all of this could be upended by 3 Lbs staying on the shelf or an all-star reality show.

What say you all?


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Falling in love

I don't know a lot of things about criticism -- I've never been formally trained and most of my writing is just an attempt to ape the writers I really, really like (I was trained in just about every other type of journalistic writing but not this -- go figure that I would pursue it the most wholeheartedly). But I do know that you're not supposed to fall in love. It's okay to hate, to be so much cooler than the material that you can get off smug little quips that prove your intellectual superiority, but you're never, never supposed to collapse over a piece of art that so moves you or so possesses you or so makes you laugh that you are completely beside yourself.

Being a critic is all about being a part of the audience but also being apart from it. Your typical fan at a concert (which I will confess to being, as I have very little critical knowledge of pop music) will simply listen to the hits, gleefully enjoying the experience of hearing them live. Your music critic will sit, hovering above the proceedings, seeing where, exactly, the live versions deviate from the studio versions or plucking out the bad spots and tut-tutting over them.

And that's not a bad thing. That's what it means, in essence, to be a critic. Ideally, our goals enmesh with those of the audience -- we're going to pull what's good and what's bad out of a piece of art and discuss it with our audience, attempt to arrive at a consensus about why, exactly, Faulkner liked man-children so much or why the writers behind How I Met Your Mother are so darn pleased with that weird 20s-patois they've cooked up for their characters to speak in. The best critics get the audience to roll up its sleeves and dig in too, wading through the muck, looking for the pearls (in the age of the Internet, when everyone's a critic, we're getting away from this, but that's also getting away from the purpose of the post).

So what do you do when you fall in love? When you simply have to gush?

When I was reviewing Friday Night Lights, a show I deeply, deeply loved, I ran into this. And I ran into it when I was writing gleanings for How I Met Your Mother and the season review of Veronica Mars. All I wanted to do was grab my audience by the shoulders, shake them and say, "Watch this!" But that would have been unbecoming, naturally.

When you've got to gush, the tendency is to run as far away from it as possible, to nit-pick the tiniest things, even if they're insignificant in the larger picture (which is what I feared I did with my FNL piece).

(Addendum: It's easy to worry that you're being too negative with a show too -- every instinct in my body told me that I was giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to Studio 60, largely based on some snappy dialogue and performances I liked, but I resisted those impulses. I wish I hadn't. Subsequent episodes have revealed that the show's worse nature has overwhelmed its better angels.)

This is all a way of saying that a positive review is much harder to write than a negative one, at least in my experience. There are only so many ways to say, "This is great. You should check it out." There are a million ways to say, "I despised this with every fiber of my being." Since the latter is so much easier, you'll often see critics who heap scorn on a piece of art, only to reward it with two-and-a-half stars or a grade of B- or something -- once you get started rolling downhill, it never changes to stop.

Of course, the downside of falling in love is that you fall out. Lost, for example, is not as bad as its detractors would have you believe -- the simple fact is that it was never as good as any of them believed it was in the first place. After season one, though, it ceased to be new. It was too easy to move on, to find something else to fall in love with. And once the rose-colored glasses were off, the flaws that were always there were easier to spot. "What's next?" we all asked, and we soon realized that very little was next (I don't think it's Heroes -- awesome cliffhangers aside). Just as it's hard to keep the gushing bottled up, it's difficult to register disappointment in a way that still reflects the true nature of what you're disappointed by -- often what disappoints you hasn't changed but, rather, you have -- you've become more knowledgeable or more cultured or more attuned to other parts of yourself. And there's no love lost.

Writing criticism, by its nature, is kind of a curmudgeonly pursuit, but the best critics combat that with a true love for the artform they're covering. In part, I chose to write about television not because it's so much better than film or literature (it simply doesn't have the history to compete with either) but because I'm in love with the potential of television, with its promise of old stories told in a new and exciting way. And when I see a shining emblem of that, it's tempting to leap into space, to declare my love.

But, instead, I'll tiptoe out to the edge of the roof and peer down over the edge and call to whoever's walking below, advising them to keep their eyes open.


Monday, October 09, 2006

South Dakota Dorks

Due to the fact that two men cannot alone cover the entirety of the television landscape, the gleanings are going to have to stop for now (unless we get really specific with them). However, if you think you would like to help out with these sorts of things, please e-mail me or leave a comment. We're going to be expanding here and can always use the extra hands.

This, actually, is our 300th post. I started this site in January and hoped to make it a blog about my attempts to become a television writer. Instead, the criticism aspects proved massively popular, and since I like to give the people what they want, I let those take over to the point where I've spun the television writing stuff off into another blog (if that sort of thing strikes you as unbearably wonky, never ever ever go there and just stay here).

Big changes will be coming to SDD as the new year approaches, but for now, look to us for TV criticism and occasional pieces on books and films. Thanks for your continued readership and always know that I'm willing to listen if you've got something to say.

In the meantime, some links for now.

--If you have yet to see my review of Friday's Battlestar Galactica premiere over at House Next Door, go here now. I personally think it's one of the better critical pieces I've ever written.

--I've been enjoying Kenny's blog for a long while now, but his tale of going to a tea party at the American Girl store in Los Angeles is something I think you'll enjoy.

--I think it says a lot about the kind of people I hang out with that the vast majority of our reactions to the Mark Foley scandal went something like this.

--Jamie Weinman has new digs to go with the old ones at Canada's MacLean's magazine Web site. His post on why sitcoms today aren't as good as those of yore hits the nail on the head in a way I had never considered before.

--And I really, seriously want to meet this girl.

Since you're such a good audience, here's a YouTube clip as well.

The X-Files' Jose Chung's "From Outer Space" was the subject of my first perfect episode post. Since I didn't know how to do this at the time, I couldn't, but here's the lovely denouement of the episode, from the pen of Darin Morgan, one of the best, least-prolific writers in the history of the medium.

Thanks for sticking with us through 300 posts and please stick around for 300 more.