The more things change, the more viewers change the channel.
True or not? On first glance it seems true. People become fans of a show because they like something about it. They have an affinity with the main character, or a certain situation, or they enjoy a pleasantly familiar plotline. They become interested in what the show is. And when it's not that anymore -- a character leaves, or the show shifts focus -- they can very well lose interest.
"The X-Files," for X-ample. Last week I was watching Season Four on DVD with a smile on my face. Scully and Mulder were flirting, Krycek was getting his arm hacked off in Russia, black oil from space was worming through biohazard suits, Monsters of the Week were killing off small towns across the country, and all was right with the world. But I turn on this season, this final season, and there's nothing there that I recognize -- except Annabeth Gish, against whom I harbor a lifelong vendetta because we grew up in the same county and she's famous and I'm not.
I was a fan of "The X-Files." This is not my "X-Files." Therefore: X-fan.
Another example: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I loved it. I loved it for its mordant wit and its highly imitable lingo ("I took a small step, and conclusions there were") and the ageless interplay of trying to be a normal high school student while secretly saving the world and hiding your superpowers from your mother. Now: Buffy's got a fast food job and major characters have weddings and Giles went back to England and, also, Buffy has tawdry sex in an alley just about every week and, oh yeah, Mom? She died.
To be more specific, the whole tenor of the show has changed. Instead of entertaining flirtations with wacky hijinks -- alternate universes, Slayer hunting games, mayors who transformed into snakes but also extolled the virtues of miniature golf -- we have more of the mundane. Getting a job, and bringing home stale burgers to your bratty kid sister. Getting involved in a relationship that's no relationship and all sex, and hiding it from your pals. Fighting addiction and mooning over ex-girlfriends. Having pre-marital cold feet. The supernatural is still thrown in (the sex is with a vampire and the addiction's to magic and the marriage is to a former vengeance demon) but the focus is more on how hard it is to live in the world.
Yeah, rich comic territory, that.
And yet changes of this type are inevitable. Time passes. Felicity goes to college, and four years later... well, she graduates from college, and the show's not about Felicity in college anymore. Dawson has to move on, move somewhere, because there's no University of the Creek. David and Maddie surrender to their famous sexual tension, have sex, and whaddya know, things change.
What lasts a long time? Well, surely you've noticed that no member of the Simpson family has aged a day. They're drawn a little differently, but Maggie's still sucking a pacifier and Homer's got the same three hairs. Maybe the secret is to remain unchanged. Sure, it's a tad difficult when you're using real actors who actually, y'know, age, but it worked for "Cheers," right?
But one of the complaints I'm hearing about this year of "The Simpsons" is that they're just rehashing old plots, going around in circles, occasionally visiting a foreign country (Australia/France/Japan/Brazil) to internationalize the wackiness. Bart brats, Marge growls, Lisa shines, Homer d'ohs. Shows that never change can never create new situations, new comedic or dramatic opportunities. "Law & Order": famously long-running, and just as famous for rotating its cast. New personalities to play off, and besides, there are always new cases to solve. "Homicide: Life on the Street" could've run forever. It just didn't. "C.S.I." may. Time will tell.
Time changes people, and time changes characters. And maybe the secret to keeping pace with your viewers is changing as your viewers change. Felicity could become, rather than a show about a girl struggling with college and love, could become a show about a girl struggling with the job market and love. "Sex and the City" certainly isn't what it used to be, and maybe that's bad, but maybe it's good.
Or maybe -- and I think it's a definitely -- there are some shows, some situtations, too simple to last. "Felicity," after all, just got cancelled. Ditto "Roswell." Ditto "Ally McBeal." "The X-Files?" Them too. I'm not talking about the cancellation of a show before its run is up, the way good shows ("Once and Again") are slashed to make room for the possibility of newer, flashier, brighter shows ("The [#$()*!@&%!@] Bachelor.") I'm talking about cancellation as a result of creative fatigue. Sometimes you just can't take the show any farther than you've already taken it. Viewers get tired of either seeing the same thing over and over (Ally...) or seeing characters they depend on (Mulder!) jettisoned for unfamiliar faces (Reyes!?). Besides, the actors get tired of playing the same situations over and over, putting nail after nail in the Bob Denver Memorial Typecasting Coffin. They want to move on. And unless you're going to substitute a new actor and ask your viewers to swap out Dick Sargent for Dick York, the character has to move on too.
And yes, it all has to do with ratings. Artistic perfection is not the goal of most shows, and although sometimes both miraculously coincide, usually art will lose out to business. Television programs were never meant to be anything but a way to draw more viewers into commercials. Now there are Emmys and whatnot, and certainly we spend an awful lot of time and energy discussing whether or not a show is good, whether or not a character is compelling, whether or not a plotline is bunk. But deep down, our attention is really only important when it converts into dollars.
Shows are like goldfish. The reason they don't last forever is because they're not meant to.
Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY
more about jael mchenry
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
5.3.02 @ 3:12a
Was waiting for the whoopie line...never saw it.
5.3.02 @ 8:29a
Middle America, or at least the West Coast definition of Middle America, is your problem here. They apparently, sometime after 9/11, decided that "edgy" wasn't cutting it anymore. Of course, their defintion of edgy is Drew Carey.
Give the Simpsons credit for ignoring the critical backlash that would take most shows off the air. It's getting funny again, and, even though it's not always fresh, they pay more attention to the writing than the next three shows combined.
I mean, you've never seen "... a very special Simpsons."
5.3.02 @ 8:59a
I think we have, though it escapes me. They did do an episode of spin-offs.
5.3.02 @ 9:00a
The Simpsons is nowhere near as good as it used to be, but it's not unwatchable, and this year they've had a couple of great ones.
And RE: the subtitle, I wish Chandler would die.
5.3.02 @ 10:22a
Even the clip show (hosted by Troy McClure) wasn't bad for a Simpsons episode. Not as good as the Clerks clip show, but still good.
I haven't made a point of taping most of the new Simpsons episodes this season, but I did watch last week's ("Angry Dad") and thought it was the best in the last couple of years.
Jael, thanks for reopening the wound that is Homicide. Damn, that was a fine show.
5.3.02 @ 10:51a
Angry Dad was awesome. I really enjoyed that. The show was at a nadir last fall, but is slowly coming back.
Damn, Clerks was a funny, funny show. Or maybe it was just me. But it's also a beautiful example of what's wrong with the cancellation process. Listen to the commentary on the DVD for a lot of inside dirt on how Clerks got molested.
5.3.02 @ 10:56a
Kiss more Kevin Smith ass, Joe, why don'tcha?
I liked the Hamlet/Ulysses episode too. Some real good ones this year, there was a great one a few weeks back, I can't remember what one it was though.
5.3.02 @ 11:41a
Since Clerks was cancelled by ABC, feel free to spew that vitriol on... let's see... next Wednesday or so.
(A little pre-plug.)
5.3.02 @ 11:49a
ABC also cancelled Max Headroom, all those years ago. Bastards.
5.3.02 @ 11:55a
No argument here.
Some things, though, I'd just rather see cancelled. I thought last year's X-Files season finale would've been a great series finale. Better it die than linger.
michelle von euw
5.3.02 @ 11:59a
Lingering is just bad. I can't believe Fraiser is still on the air...what could that show possibly have to offer after all this time?
In general, do dramas seem to have more life than sitcoms? Or the other way around? I don't know -- I used to wish that Buffy would never leave the air, and this season has definitely changed my mind (as Jael fantastically pointed out).
5.3.02 @ 12:19p
Part of why any show sticks around as long as it does (for good or ill) is to secure the minimum required episodes for a juicy syndication deal. Some shows get grabbed even if they're killed quickly (eg, My So Called Life was snatched up by Lifetime or some other similar network, even tho' it barely lasted a season). Others, like The X-Files, or even Buffy, run long enough (and successfully enough) that they get syndication deals even when first-run eps are being cranked out.
Still, it's easier to produce sitcoms (shorter episodes, non-linear episodes, usually on a limited set/live stage) than dramas (almost always 1 hour, linear continuity between eps -- a growing trend, multiple sets and location shoots). That saves the networks and prodcos money.
That being said, I think sitcoms have a higher attrition rate, but that's in part due to the fact that there are probably twice as many sitcoms as dramas offered up during the season.
michelle von euw
5.3.02 @ 12:33p
And new sitcoms seem to get the ax faster, too, Russ.
100 episodes/five seasons = syndication deal, I think.
I'm not sure how the "cancelled show gets new life on cable" thing works, like with MTV/My So-Called Life and Comedy Central/Sports Night. I'm guessing the money that syndication brings is not present in those transactions...
5.3.02 @ 12:38p
Yeah, five seasons is a minimum. So X-Files has no excuse.
I should add that shows seem to (and should) have more life when they're not a) just about the situation or b) closely tied to the fate of a single character. I think dramas like Law & Order can be more long-lasting because you're not really tuning in to see what's happened to Sam Waterston. You're tuning in to see what they've "ripped from the headlines."
5.3.02 @ 12:49p
There are more sitcoms because it's harder to be funny. Think about it. I'd find it much easier to write a drama every week than trying to write 25 jokes with a storyline every week.
5.3.02 @ 1:09p
But sitcoms stay on the air even if they're not funny, unfortunately. There are more sitcoms cuz they're shorter.
5.3.02 @ 1:26p
Oh I don't know about that. You always hear of sitcoms being cancelled after 3 or 4 shows. You don't often hear of dramas getting the boot that quickly.
5.3.02 @ 1:45p
Maybe because there's always another line of sitcoms waiting to take the place of the departed. Or because sitcoms don't grow an audience the way dramas do.
Or because, as Russ pointed out, dramas are more expensive to make and so networks are loath to throw away an investment.
5.3.02 @ 1:57p
Except, of course, for Cop Rock.
5.3.02 @ 2:16p
I never saw it, but the concept makes me laugh, so I consider it a comedy.
Oh, Bochco, so wise and yet so foolish.
5.3.02 @ 6:01p
Yeah, Jael! My mantra for this might be: "It's the writing, it's the writing, it's the writing!" I know that doesn't guarantee that a network will keep a show, but when the writing goes downhill, then I lose interest. When I find a program I like, you can bet that the writing is good.
5.3.02 @ 6:07p
But isn't that subjective? There are probably people out there who loved the writing for "The A Team."
5.3.02 @ 11:38p
Perhaps it was just the spectacular acting that held their attention. After all, nobody could do Mr. T quite like he could.
5.6.02 @ 8:55a
I pity the fool who thinks that... oh, too easy.
Good point about the writing, Kathy -- good writing won't necessarily keep me watching (if I hate the characters, the acting, etc.) but bad writing will drive me away like snap.
I have great respect for TV writing. Movies, you can have one great idea about one moment and then be done with it. On TV you have to keep a consistent tone and interesting plots, driven by characters who people will actually find interesting for months at a time. Yow.