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July 25, 2013

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Does it still apply for shows without a strong serial component, where the episodes stand on their own?

sure.

Community, for example. the first two seasons were great. the third season was good but started to falter. and the fourth season was pretty much terrible because creater/showrunner Dan Harmon left.

Is TV on the Radio heard on the show? I love that song, but I can guarantee I will never watch a second of "Teen Wolf" (even though I just watched "Shit Teen Wolf Fans Say" - meta only for me).

You missed: They have a complete vision before shooting even began, a vision that has a definitive ending. They organize this into a meaningful main story and corresponding smaller story arcs that add up to an ending. Examples of this include Babylon 5 and Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex.

The latter is especially blatant: in the opening title sequence, the word "standalone" or "complex" would be highlighted: "standalone" episodes were just that, "complex" episodes were about the main arc.

Sitcoms seem to be able to last longer. Hence the name, I guess.

On a (somewhat) related point, the money in a successful TV show is just ungodly. It's probably less now than it used to be, but (and I'm sure I've mentioned this before), Jerry Seinfeld was expected to net $1B from the show all-in, which includes syndication, DVDs, etc., of course. How much money did all the other people that worked on the show make, not to mention NBC?

A second anecdote I have is that I happened to be seated next to a couple of folks who were the writers/creators/show-runners (or something in that vein) for The Nanny. They made enough money from that endeavor to never have to work for the rest of their lives while living comfortably in Santa Barbara. The effing Nanny!

That's it, I'm moving to L.A.

If content creators and providers can get pass all the regional restrictions and licensing and let anyone anywhere in the world have access to their content, the money is going to pile up even higher.

I'd say it can strike sitcoms, too. The first time I was ever slapped across the face by it was a (British) sitcom, in fact: Coupling. The first series was sharp and witty. The second series was good too. But by the third series, cracks were definitely showing. It still seems like a shame they ended it without trying to make a fourth series, though. I said, without making a fourth series. *sticks fingers in ears, closes eyes, and starts humming insistently*

I'd say Arrested Development showed a similar arc, though I'd say they redeemed themselves fairly well with the fourth season - it was a lot stronger and truer to its roots than the third was. Though they also screwed with the narrative structure fairly dramatically.

(I actually would have pulled up Buffy as an example, not as a counterexample. I always really felt it got a lot weaker and much more contrived starting with the fourth season, though again, the rot started in season 3.)

elf:

You're quite right, I'll update the post to add that possibility. "Game of Thrones" is another example, one where the planning ahead of time was taken care of by a novelist, before screenwriters ever got involved.

Everything you note is true, but I can think of another factor: by the third season, a series' main characters are (or should be) very well defined.

The good thing is, they're great characters at that point. The bad thing is, the writers are straitjacketed in what they can and can't do with the characters. Unless dramatic changes are built into the series arc (Babylon 5, BSG and Buffy come to mind), once a character is who he or she is, there's not much you can do to make them or their stories stay vital and interesting.

Some shows put their established characters into huge, life-changing situations... only to somehow undo it all and reset at status quo ante. That's a death knell, right there: if dramatic events are reduced to temporary plot devices, there's no reason for a viewer to get personally invested in what happens next. (X-Files, I'm looking at you.)

I like the new-ish trend of finite-duration shows, which I think helps to ameliorate (but not prevent, obviously) this sort of decline.

It seems that after the original concept runs out and a show is still successful, one of a few things happen:

1) The essential romantic/sexual tension (usually, although occasionally another engine) which drives much of the energy builds to a point at which it has to be resolved (see: The Office*) -- after which the driving concept/energy is not/never can be the same.

*Which recovered somewhat but still suffered; thankfully they ended it.

2) The original writer(s)/creator(s), having enjoyed some success, leave to pursue other projects (as Doctor Science notes above; the exemplar to me is West Wing); the well-intentioned folks who take over have a different vision, feel, or whatever, and the thing falls apart.

3) Non-traditional shows that thrive on e.g. lack of character development, non-linearity, or other conceptual oddities are helpless in the face of unexpected continuance and are unable to maintain the unique flair that was the best thing about them. I'm thinking of, say, Metalocolypse -- which was pretty fantastic for two seasons of 15-minute episodes, but when extended lost all of its abovementioned charm.

The three-season rule is of course a generalization, but successful shows that stick around seem to either fall into a sort of self-conscious self-parody (e.g. Stargate SG-1 (my wife liked it, so I've seen plenty of episodes)), reinvent themselves (e.g. seasons 5-9 or 10 of The Simpsons, which are after the glory years (season 4) but still quite good and before the last decade of unwatchable schlock), or sputter on with a dedicated audience despite having lost all redeeming qualities (Simpsons seasons 11-n, where n=now), or Family Guy, which has always had problems -- not the least of which is casual racism in the service of being "edgy"-- but which in the first season or two would never, ever conclude with an honest what-have-we-learned-oh-everything's-great-and-back-to-normal sweet traditional-sitcom endings.

I'm down to watching a couple of shows, baseball/football (seasonally dependent), and whatever cop/mystery show my wife is into at any given time (currently Castle, which is better than I had imagined, if not spectacular -- and further has the feature that the driving sexual/romantic tension was (it seems to me) always planned to be resolved and therefore is not as tragically, show-killingly damaging as otherwise expected).

Some shows put their established characters into huge, life-changing situations... only to somehow undo it all and reset at status quo ante.

Is that what Breaking Bad has done, minus the second part? I haven't watched it in a while, but I understand the chemistry teacher who started out as a fish out of water after entering the drug world has since taken to the drug world like a fish takes to water.

Everything you note is true, but I can think of another factor: by the third season, a series' main characters are (or should be) very well defined.

The good thing is, they're great characters at that point. The bad thing is, the writers are straitjacketed in what they can and can't do with the characters.

This puts into words what I've tried many times to describe about the "Third Season effect".

It's really bad with comedic shows where they've "thoroughly" developed their characters as shallow collections of quirks or broad archtypes; at that point, many jokes devolve into a perfunctory reference to their kooky personality and a queuing of the laugh track. It's a combination of lazy writing and safe pandering to a loyal fanbase.

Nombrilisme Vide, I'll take your word for what happens with sitcoms. I haven't watched one since... I don't know; maybe Mad About You or Friends. I loathe laugh tracks with the passion of a thousand fiery suns.

Yeah. Right there with you. I actually have a pretty narrow sample of sitcom-watching experience to judge by for precisely that reason, although for social reasons I've slogged through a couple of series over the last year or two.

I really have trouble understanding how many - indeed most - mainstream American sitcoms still use that awful thing (Arrested Development was/is good for other reasons, but its glorious willingness to forgo the infernal device would've earned it praise from me even if it was a far worse comedy than it is/was). It's really, really sad that people still want or need to be told what's funny. Though I will say that I've seen e.g. Big Bang Theory with and without its laugh track, and removing it takes weak, lazy, unfunny jokes and turns them into painfully awkward, desperate, and often distasteful things. And I guess that's a good thing? Sorta?

As cleek points out, you missed out:
6. The architect of the show gets fired.

It will be interesting to see if Harmon's return can revive Community.

It is pretty well axiomatic that TV chews up original talent at an alarming rate. What is fresh and new is going to be familiar and unexciting after three seasons of exploration.

Game of Thrones is hardly a counter example, if you consider just how long George RR Martin has spent writing the story.
Even a complete outlier such as The Wire could only have come about because the show's creators had several decades of experience from which they could draw the story.

I think the bottom line is that creating a great show is, talent apart, a huge amount of work - and if the basic material isn't already there, a year is not enough time to create it from scratch.

hairshirthedonist:

Yes, Walt's become a real animal. It's been very interesting watching the changes in the different characters. The creator of the series, Vince Gilligan, has said that over the seasons, Walt has gone from Mr. Chips to Tony Montana.

I've been following the series on DVD and I cannot wait for the ending episodes because I know there will be a reckoning for Walt.

I've thought for a long time that for any long running (ie four seasons or more) series, the best will almost certainly be the second or third.

Although I don't doubt the importance of creative burnout (especially in the US; 22-4 episodes per year is *insane*) I tend to think that it's just as much to do with the nature of open-ended drama.

* The first season will suffer from the inevitable growing pains of sorting out tone, characters and writing.
* The second season will largely be past this and able to do more daring things and carry the audience with it, often completing stories set up from the beginning.
* The third season can then put some kind of twist on the basic formula, taking characters out of their comfort zone etc.

After that, not only is there a limit to how many new things there are to do, but as CaseyL says it becomes more difficult to meaningfully alter the characters. I suspect that this would be equally true of say, book series, except that they are more likely to be pre-planned with a definite ending in mind, and so less afraid to take huge risks with characters.

An exception to my general rule was Heroes, which went way downhill after its first season. I think it was a very unusual case. The original idea was to create essentially a new cast of characters for each season, but once the first season was over and the characters had already completed their arcs, the decision was made to continue with them anyway, requiring a lot of retreading of ground. Season two had nowhere to take them and it was all to hell after that.

"* The third season can then put some kind of twist on the basic formula, taking characters out of their comfort zone etc."
The third season of Weeds had a lot of nudity, no doubt, taking actors out of their comfort zone.

Some shows put their established characters into huge, life-changing situations... only to somehow undo it all and reset at status quo ante.

What it comes down to is this: some shows make their lead characters static -- maybe the occasional very temporary shift, but essentially static. Great shows recognize that most real people grow and change over the years, and let their lead characters do so likewise.

Having someone repeat the same pattern over and over is simply not very interesting beyond a couple of seasons. But let the characters evolve, and you have something that can run for a long time. (I'd say "let the caracters develop" if the term "character development" hadn't already been co-opted for something rather different.)

Take, for example, Castle. For the first two seasons, the lead characters were in almost constant conflict (even as they nominally worked together). By the fifth season, they were shacking up. And the people around them were changing, too.

That's evolution of the characters. And it means that the writers have a steady stream of changing circumstances to play with, over and above the individual case in each episode.

Ugh: "On a (somewhat) related point, the money in a successful TV show is just ungodly. "

Which is a strong incentive to milk every bit of cash out of it, long after it's clearly on a decline. That's probably the biggest factor, that a show which has clearly seen better days is a more lucrative bet than the pile of show pitches on the producers' desks.

Dynamic characters seem to be a relative new innovation in TV series. In older TV series, Star Trek for example, no matter what the characters experienced, the writers put them back where they found them after each episode.

We have a few continuously running series over here that (I guess since I do not have TV myself) must by now be in the 3rd generation with the oldest characters literally dying off (shortly before the actors do in real life) and the format e.g. in the case of Lindenstraße allows for an uncomplicated change in cast (another advantage of most people over being renters, easy to have other people move into the flat next door). Where this of course works best is where there is no intricate 'plot' that has to be solved over the course of the season and with charcters that could literally be your neighbours. There is no need for a 'monster of the week'. But I guess it takes time to establish something like that, to grow an audience that does not run away when there is nothing sensational in every episode. But who will take the risk these days to invest longterm into such a thing when it may take a few years to land the fans for life? Over here I see a clear trend towards miniseries that can be recut for the cinema or, what's worse, movies that are made with a mini series extension in mind and usually fall short in both media (chopped for the first and overstretched for the latter; Procrustean productions). Fortunately long movies have made a return in cinema allowing for bridging the gap at least occasionally.

An exception to my general rule was Heroes, which went way downhill after its first season. I think it was a very unusual case.

Heroes' decline was truly amazing. it was like they'd totally given up on trying to make sense or even have fun. a true disaster.

wasn't there was a writers' strike during the second season, too ? i imagine that screwed them up a bit.

"Over here I see a clear trend towards miniseries that can be recut for the cinema or, what's worse, movies that are made with a mini series extension in mind and usually fall short in both media (chopped for the first and overstretched for the latter; ..."
The Millennium trilogy may be a somewhat successful counter example.

Charles, that case is a wee bit complicated. Iirc there were strong complaints by those involved in making it about this pre-planned dual use. And there is quite some chaos about different TV versions and DVD editions different from both. For example the longest versions were shown on Swedish (not German) TV but the DVD edition of this one is only available as a German dub. I believe the standard TV version is a slight recut of the cinematic version (so more of an alternative than an extended version). I do not know whether the long version is extended TV or extended cinema or again an alternative cut.
From what I know most complaints in such caes come from directors that want to make a film for the cinema but are forced to make concession to the secondary TV exploit because that's were major part of the funding comes from. Even with widescreen becoming the TV standard there still is a different philosophy between TV and cinematic movies.

@Pejar:

I suspect that this would be equally true of say, book series, except that they are more likely to be pre-planned with a definite ending in mind, and so less afraid to take huge risks with characters.

In my experience, sadly, no. Especially since relatively few book series actually have a pre-planned arc. I tend to strenuously avoid reading any novel series that stretches past, say, five books simply because at that point the author will generally be so invested in the series that they can't exhibit any meaningful or realistic character growth (or introduce new main characters) without risking alienating their core readers. The term that springs first to mind when thinking of such series is (surprise!) lazy, but incestuous is a close second. A long-running series will establish tropes within itself, and then assemble a collection of them to apply to the current plot. There are authors who can pull this off to make an enjoyable book, but not a lot, and with them I'm generally reading more for the writing than the story.

@wj:

What it comes down to is this: some shows make their lead characters static -- maybe the occasional very temporary shift, but essentially static. Great shows recognize that most real people grow and change over the years, and let their lead characters do so likewise.

[...]

Take, for example, Castle. For the first two seasons, the lead characters were in almost constant conflict (even as they nominally worked together). By the fifth season, they were shacking up. And the people around them were changing, too.

Castle set its course with its initial tone. Since its bread-and-butter was UST, it had to grow or die. You can only maintain the level of UST present in the early seasons for a short period of time before it becomes extremely contrived. That's an area where "Status Quo is God" is a hard philosophy to maintain simply because anything more prominent than an undercurrent of UST tends toward stagnation or resolution. If you're going to make it the unbilled third star of a series, you're going to have to kill it off eventually if you want to maintain any degree of coherence in your show. I was frankly impressed Castle did as good a job as they did maintaining it. (Full disclosure: I'm only at the start of Season 4 with my personal viewing of the show, so for me they're still maintaining it. None-the-less, I can't possibly fault your revelation that *gasp* UST is going to get run over by a bus as the least bit spoilery for the above-mentioned reasons.)

Sorry for the spoiler with out an alert.

But you still can anticipate how it will get run over by the bus. ;-)

Speaking of series, I have been keeping up with the heavily-advertised The Bridge and it looks fairly good so far. Diane Kruger plays a socially dysfunctional cop (so far it's not clear why, but there appears to be some reason that they just haven't mentioned yet) who so far has been pretty unlikeable. Which I like, so far. After 3 episodes, it's pretty clear there is something going important going on, but they're not telegraphing it much besides "serial killer".

I was not so happy with Defiance, even though SciFi hawked the living daylights out of it.

Agreeing with Slartibartfast - a rare pleasure to be able to do that! - The Bridge is indeed starting well, but does not look at all like the kind of show that will still be good in three-four years. It will either die or morph into something totally different from what it now is, IMHO. Too many characters are on a collision course with destiny and/or each other. Things can't continue as they start, but once anything is "resolved," it will become a new show, or a dead one.


And looking back at past sitcoms, has anyone ever re-watched the very first season of M*A*S*H? It was dreadful! - They were trying to emulate the tone and set-ups of the film, but that - also a classic - had, in its very nature, a self-destroying quality that series TV couldn't sustain. By season 2 a "softer, gentler" M*A*S*H had arrived, and lasted - through a number of cast changes - very well right up to the end. But Altmanesque it was not.

I'm watchiing season five of Breaking Bad. There was no third years slump that I discderned. ANd the fifth year is...distractingly beautiful to look at just as the Walter gets uglier and uglier. Hs Breaking Bad always been glossy, color coordinated and shot like a series of beautifullly composed stills? Or did all of the gorgeousness start this season?

but does not look at all like the kind of show that will still be good in three-four years. It will either die or morph into something totally different from what it now is, IMHO.

Agreed!

This is fun!

Yes, there are TV series that don't seem to have any built-in capacity for endurance. Heroes was one of those, I think. They made themselves a superbadguy and then pivoted the whole show on him. They tried to make another superbadguy and (IMO) failed.

I really, really liked the show to start with, though, and am highly annoyed that it turned to crap.

I remember noticing a related pattern that used to happen with science-fiction/fantasy/adventure shows of niche appeal: sometimes they'd just barely avoid cancellation and survive to a second season, but with major retooling to give them wider appeal, which would usually make them worse, in some cases hilariously awful. Typically, that would be the last season.

Examples include "Space: 1999", the original "Battlestar Galactica", "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century", and "seaQuest DSV" (a particularly unusual case: it survived a second major retooling into a yet-again-different third season, which was not as bad as the second).

I always thought of the original Star Trek as a rare example in which the near-cancellation and messed-up retooling happened between seasons 2 and 3. But in hindsight, Star Trek didn't really change that radically for its third season, despite the change of producer; the scripts just got a little bit dumber on average.

Hs Breaking Bad always been glossy, color coordinated and shot like a series of beautifullly composed stills?

i think so. i've always been impressed by how BB looks.

i also really like the way they handle scene transitions. sometimes they feel a little forced, but even then i like that there's someone thinking about the little details and trying to do something fun.

and speaking of M*A*S*H: i never get tired of the story of the theme song.

a writer/showrunner can only do about 2.5 to 3 seasons in a row of an hour-long drama before they burn out.

I'm sure somebody has already mentioned this, but 3 seasons of a an hour-long TV drama is 78 hours of programming.

That's like a feature movie and 37 sequels. IMO burnout would be unsurprising.

I'm surprised anything makes it through three seasons, let alone beyond.

err, make that 38 sequels.

Since you're being precise, you should also account for commercials taking up part of the hour. (Or not...)

OK, so, 40 minutes per episode, 26 episodes per year, 3 years. I think that works out to something like 52 hours, so, a feature film plus 25 sequels.

It's a lot of writing, a substantial commitment from the principal actors, and basically a lot of making stuff up to concoct 52 hours of narrative.

Especially for more modern TV programming, where narratives extend across many episodes, that's a lot of hard creative work.

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