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Reboot


 

DMc has thoughts on the Battlestar Galactica mid-season finale and related issues (though he doesn’t raise the most important point, namely that that couldn’t be Earth if we didn’t see Charlton Heston anywhere near the Statue of Liberty). This one is particularly important:

It’s a maddening, weird, and odd thing for a TV writer to consider. Because what it means, what it says about human nature, at least as far as I read it, is that the very thing that attracts you to the story in the first place is the thing that you will tire of first. Like those “cute quirks” that you wound up loathing about your Ex.

It happened with LOST. The wacky island mysteries were great in Season One, but by Season Three it was, “okay, enough already with the goddamn smoke monster and the polar bear.”

You loved X-Files because of the Scully-sceptic, Mulder-believer dynamic. Yet that was the thing that had worn thin and threadbare by Season 3.

In many ways, I think it’s just one of those unsolvable, structural problems of series TV. Maybe the British approach of shorter runs does make more artistic sense, for exactly that reason. Or maybe you need to hold back a game-changing reframe and know you’re going there right from the beginning.

For a show like BSG that is a) still really good and b) about to end anyway, this isn’t a huge deal. To some extent, as the post suggests, BSG’s ability to surprise us has waned because we’re all expecting them to surprise us with something. But that’s really just an occupational hazard of being on for four or five years. There is no possible way for a five year-old show to be as fresh and surprising as it was when it started; luckily, it has other things going for it, like the fact that we now know the characters and want to spend time with them (yes, even the evil and/or morally ambiguous ones). It’s a bit like a marriage, a good marriage. The thrill of discovery is gone, and there are certain things we thought we liked at the time that we’ve gotten a little too used to, but the relationship has developed in other, perhaps more interesting ways.

But not all marriages turn out well, and TV shows fail at an even higher rate than real-life marriages. I think there’s a flip side to the rule McGrath is proposing, that the show’s most attractive gimmick is the first thing we tire of. The flip side is that once audiences tire of the original gimmick, they will not clamour for the show to do new things. Rather, they will clamour for the show to “get back to its roots.” And not only audiences. The writers of the show, realizing that something is wrong, will say they have to get the show back to its roots. The network executives will call the writers asking them to get the show back to its roots. The actors will give interviews about how this year we’re going to get the show back to its roots. And so on.

It’s a paradoxical thing: the more worn-out a show’s original premise becomes, the more you’ll hear people talking about how the show needs to get back to its original premise. Look at the big reboot of Desperate Housewives, the most famous case of burnout in modern television — a show with several brilliant gimmicks that got completely exhausted in little more than a year. But you’re not hearing the writers say that they need to deal with the fact that everybody’s tired of the once-new, now-predictable combination of soapiness and arch humour. Instead you’re hearing them say that this reboot is a way “to reset the predicaments of the women, returning them to their desperate housewifely roots.” You hear this all the time in one form or another. Mike Judge told the King of the Hill writers that he wanted to “go back to doing simple personal stories, like we did in the second or third season.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s seventh season began with a ton of announcements, onscreen and off, that they were going to get back to the show’s roots from the high school years. Bill Lawrence is going around telling everybody that the new, ABC-ized season of Scrubs is going to get back to the more serious, less cartoony show he was turning out in the ancient era of 2001.

The assumption is always that the show has not over-utilized its original gimmicks, but rather that it isn’t utilizing them enough and needs to get back to those gimmicks in their purest form. It’s not a completely unfounded assumption either. If you compare an over-the-hill show to its best early seasons, you do see that they’ve gotten away from the things that made the show popular in the first place. The viewers know it, the network bosses know it, the writers know that the show is not doing what it was doing originally.

And yet, and this is another paradox, the reason they’re not doing what they did originally is often that they’ve been sticking too close to what they did originally. Because the more a show tries to ring in variations on its founding gimmick, the more it seems to lose its original appeal. I think this is related to something we were discussing earlier, the idea that dumb characters continually become dumber because the writers keep having to top themselves. If you’re going to do the same thing repeatedly without making it seem like you’re repeating yourself, each repetition of the original gimmick has to be a little bit bigger than the last one. Dumb characters get dumber. The new plot twist has to be bigger than the last one. Everything has to be bigger the second time, so if in season 1 Veronica Mars is investigating one murder with an undertone of class/race issues, in season 2 she needs to be investigating a whole busload of murders with race/class issues even more to the forefront, and then maybe you can throw in a supervillain with a magic blow-up-the-plane button for good measure.

If the writers try something genuinely different — and I’m not saying they should, necessarily; there are also big liabilities to a genuine break with formula — they can continue to do smallish stories because they haven’t done anything like this before. If they stick to the original formula, they have to go bigger all the time, and that’s how you get everything that was cool about Desperate Housewives and The X-Files and Alias becoming over-the-top self-parody. It feels like they’ve abandoned their mission statement, but they haven’t. What happened is they kept at their original mission until it became pointless.

So what we get with a number of shows is an unfortunate situation where the show has burned itself out from its inability to do new things, but the perceived solution — and I mean everybody’s perceived solution, insiders and outsiders alike — is that it needs to go back to doing the old things. Hence we get the reboots, the roots, the offshoots and the occasional case of the cutes. The problem with the attempt to go back to the show’s roots is that the show simply is not what it was when it started, and nobody can recapture that freshness after five years of stories have gone by. So you wind up with new seasons that feel like awkward attempts to recapture past glories. But on the other hand, the show cannot simply go off in a totally new direction and leave its old gimmicks behind, because a) then it wouldn’t be the show people liked in the first place, and b) we all perceive that the show needs to Get Back To Its Roots, and if a show tries to do the exact opposite, it’ll actually look like it hasn’t learned anything from its previous difficult season. If Desperate Housewives would try to really become something different instead of trying to re-do the first season five years in the future, then it might be more interesting than it is now. But I don’t know that anybody would like it much.

The upshot is that it’s just really hard for a show to un-jump the shark, which we all knew. Because the ideal that everybody has in their minds is that it should be whatever it was when it was good, but trying too hard to be what it was is exactly what made it turn bad.


 
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Reboot

  1. Excellent article. But with BSG in particular though, I felt the show was at its most exciting every time they threatened to drastically upset the status quo (as in the end of Season 1, Pegasus, New Caprica, Starbuck’s death, Final Five, this finale). Whenever the show went back to running from the Cylons in space, that’s typically when we got more of the character-driven filler episodes, which were mixed in quality. But damn, this finale definitely blew my mind, AND it was a totally logical conclusion as McGrather said.

    I want more gamechangers! Lost did an amazing job turning the show around with last year’s finale going into this season – they actually DID pull this elusive “going back to its roots” in bringing us mystery and intrigue that mattered again, while fundamentally changing other key concepts from the show’s beginning (Who are the Others now? Why does history matter?).

  2. I really like the idea of a quest series that delivers on the quest with half a season yet to go. It’s like a Bond movie where Bond uses his laser wristwratch to defuse the nuke in the second reel. What the hell does he do for the rest of the movie? Go back to developing character, which has been BSG’s strength from the beginning.

    Early in (I think) Season 3, they show you the most elaborate space battle ever staged for television. Truly stunning amounts of design and CGI work — and Lee Adama views it distractedly, out of the corner of his eye, while he’s concentrating on something happening three feet away from him. That’s another of this series’ strengths: its creators never forget they have sovereign control over where the camera goes and how fast the action unwinds. François Truffaut would have dug the hell out of BSG.

  3. Great post.

    I really enjoyed the BSG mid-season finale. And I just started to watch LOST, and have finished the third season. And my jaw dropped when Kate got out of the car. (on an unrelated note, it’s didn’t feel like it went off the rails being able to watch it in a short period of time the way I perceived people felt it had)

    Now proposed copyright laws suggest I won’t see Season 4 before the DVD is released, but maybe I will anyway.

    I wonder if there are two principles at work here. For shows like Buffy Lost and BSG (even the Sopranos) maybe you need that game changing. The premise has to be refreshed or you get to many of those boxing match BSG eps.

    For more tradtional shows, or lower concept, or lower stakes shows, maybe the rules are a little different.

    I think in general, the people involved with those shows get bored with it (the premise, the situations) faster than the audience. It’s okay to be a little bit ahead of the audience on that, but I really think the impulse has to be resisted to really shake things up.

    So maybe it’s like Physics in that there are two sets of rules: one for high concept shows and one for traditional shows.

    (I know, I know. This analogy is working a little hard…)

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