My wish list: Jaime Weinman on TV

More workplace comedies, more politics, and more old people, please!

by Jaime Weinman

Macleans.ca has asked its leading bloggers, pundits and critics to weigh in with what they’d like to see in 2012—in politics, television, film, books, wherever. The wish lists will run throughout the month of December and will be archived at macleans.ca/wishlist.

There are many things I would like to see in television in 2012. More singing competition reality shows. More jokes about sexual organs. More cable dramas about morally-ambiguous protagonists. These things have become so rare. But here are some other things I might like to see.

(1) More action: Or at least less talk. A lot of shows this year set up premises that seem to call for lots of action and chases, like a bunch of people threatened by dinosaur attacks (Terra Nova), another bunch of people threatened by zombie attacks (The Walking Dead) or a couple of vigilantes fighting crime in a creepy illegal way (Person of Interest). But most of them seem to resolve themselves into a lot of talk and a few token action scenes thrown in when the producers sense that we’re getting bored by all the talking. Even the genuine action-adventure shows sometimes seem a bit light on the chases and stunts compared to the shows they’re homaging. Not that every show needs a car chase or an explosion in every act; this isn’t the ’80s. But sometimes it can be a blessing to take a break from the actors and watch stunt drivers instead. Let us just say that Person of Interest needs some heavy rewriting from the ghost of Stephen J. Cannell, or as I like to call him, TGOSJC.

(2) More hastily-scheduled shows: One of the problems with Canadian scripted programming is that so much of it seems to be produced and then shelved. A show will make 13 episodes and then wait a long time to get on the air. This takes away the chance, which U.S. broadcast shows have, to re-tool and re-group while they are still in the middle of producing the first season, to adjust the show based on how the public is receiving it. Making a show and putting it on the air as hurriedly as possible is, strangely enough, sometimes a sign that a network has confidence in its programming, or at least hope that the producers and actors can make it work. At least it’s more of a sign of confidence than making a season and putting it on the air whenever. Speed and haste can be good things in TV.

(3) More old people: Even after the casting of Ted Danson on CSI, TV still has something of a reluctance to cast people who are (or at least look) over 55; Whitney dropped the character of the mother after the pilot, deciding instead to focus on boring young people. It sort of makes sense considering that advertisers don’t want to pay for viewers who are over 50. But really, shouldn’t the popularity of The Golden Girls put the lie to the idea that young people can’t identify with people their parents’ age? Several recent shows have done well by casting so-called old people, who can play a variety of roles in a show: Diane Ladd is the voice of mundane practicality when she supports her own daughter, Laura Dern, on Enlightened; Chevy Chase and the 86-years-young Richard Erdman get to be the embodiment of loony old men on Community. Generally speaking, audiences can identify more with a group that includes an older person than they can with groups of six beautiful young people. Few of us get to hang out with our beautiful friends all day.

(4) More workplaces: Most of the hit comedies these days are either about families (Modern Family) or a bunch of friends hanging out (Big Bang Theory). Meanwhile, shows like 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation have caused networks to brand the workplace sitcom as a “niche” format that doesn’t appeal to a broad audience, so most of the comedies being ordered for next season are family shows. The trouble is, there are only so many interesting stories you can get out of people who are friends, or who love each other; that’s why so many of the upcoming shows have someone forced to move in with family members they don’t even like. But the workplace comedy is still the best way to bring together a disparate bunch of people without having to explain why they choose to stay together. Besides, if networks want to bring back the live-audience comedy, the format still makes more sense for a bunch of people confined to one office or place of business, where people can wander in off the street.

(5) More TV movies: There are award-winning TV movies on HBO, and Lifetime movies that win awards for being snark bait, but regular networks have been slow to rediscover the two-hour movie event. And when they get one, like the CBC’s John A. Macdonald movie, they often don’t promote them much. But in an era when ratings for a series premiere tend to be higher than for the episodes that follow, maybe it makes sense to program more special events. Think of all the shows that could make tightly-plotted two-hour specials instead of slow-moving 13 episode failures. And, of course, if a movie does particularly well, the networks are always free to take that and turn it into a slow-moving series.

(6) More culture: It’s hard to know where TV programs about high culture would go nowadays, but in North America, the idea that cable and the Internet would make public TV obsolete has pretty much been a bust. Cable networks like Bravo! have mostly moved toward reality TV, and the Internet hasn’t picked up much of public TV’s slack either. The rise of HD theatre broadcasts is helpful, but doesn’t have the same reach as TV. And without TV coverage of the arts, it’s hard to find opportunities for conductors, visual artists, and authors to appear on camera and discuss their work. And without that, scripted TV shows will go on portraying artists as scarf-wearing hipsters, having never seen an actual artist on the screen.

(7) More ripoffs: Sometimes remakes work out great in TV. The best new drama of the year, Homeland, is based on a show from Israel (whose TV industry is becoming as rich a source for U.S. TV as the British have traditionally been). But sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to remake a show, especially when it’s one that has been off the air for some time. The remake of Prime Suspect was hemmed in not only by the title but by the need to take on elements of the original series, including some sexist male cops who (rightly or wrongly) seemed to be stuck in the ’90s. Shows that just copied elements of Prime Suspect, like The Closer, managed to do a lot better. The same goes for a lot of the remakes being planned: except for foreign name recognition, what can a remake of Bewitched give CBS that it can’t get by simply doing a different show with the same basic setup? TV is built on thinly-disguised copies; it often works out better than paying to use the original show, because the brand name limits the writers’ freedom.

(8) More unhappy comedy endings: It’s hard to remember now that the most popular comedy of the ’90s, Seinfeld, ended nearly every episode with every character losing the girl, the job, or large amounts of dignity. Now most North American comedies feel a need to end an episode with things working out, or at least a feel-good moment. Which is fine, but you lose the simple joy of having everything fall apart on a character and leaving him humiliated at the end—and without the option to truly humiliate the lead character, there’s a lot of farcical comedy that can’t be done. Broadcast networks need to remember that if the protagonist is in hilarious hot water at the end of an episode, they don’t actually need to show how he recovered from it. Look at Basil Fawlty. He’s completely ruined at the end of this week’s episode. Next week? He’s back to square one and ready to be ruined all over again. Think how much funnier some current shows would be without the scene that puts everything right.

(9) More politics: There are certain issues mainstream TV will always have trouble addressing, and there’s no use complaining about it; TV is basically a centrist medium, held back from taking a definitive stand on almost anything divisive. But that doesn’t mean every character has to be completely without defined political views. It’s often hard to tell what political affiliation a character has—even when that character is a politician. In an era when almost everything is politicized in one way or another, and even a schoolgirl’s tweet can lead to an incident with the governor of Kansas, it can be limiting for characters to be without opinions on these things. We don’t need to know who every character votes for, but there are story possibilities when some of them are Republican or Democrat or Tory or NDP. After all, when families get together, one of the things they argue about is politics; if you take that away, you’ve mostly got arguments about technology and sex. And as TV is currently proving, there are only so many stories you can get from technology and sex.

(10) More anthologies: Unlike some of these ideas, which are things TV should do but won’t, this is something TV would like to do but can’t. Attempts to bring back the TV anthology have flatlined for years, be it Twilight Zone revivals, new horror anthologies, or Love American Style reboots (yes, there was a pilot for that). But just because the public keeps rejecting something is no reason I can’t wish for it! The fact remains that there are many stories that work better as short self-contained episodes than as ongoing series—and that these types of stories are often more interesting when they involve characters we don’t have to see every week. When you read the enticing news that Deadwood creator David Milch has signed to create HBO shows based on the works of William Faulkner, you have to wonder if some of Faulkner’s short stories wouldn’t work best in a single-episode format. And not just Faulkner. As TV turns more to adaptations of novels, there are also tons of short stories out there waiting for a good anthology show to give them life.




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