What’s on TV tonight…? (and what isn’t…)

Here’s the thing. It’s all about character.

What matters most about a piece of written work seems to do precisely the opposite when it comes to television. With a very few honorable exceptions, the moment you get some intelligent TV show, which features *actual character development*, it lasts a season. Or maybe a little longer, they give it just a LITTLE bit more rope, and then they hang it anyway. The fluff…? It stays around for decades. never say die. Some daytime soaps have lasted thirty years or more, never really moving away from the beginning, rehashing the same old plots with a new generation of actors in play (don’t you WANT to know whose baby that really was…?) But actual drama – particularly when it comes to genre – well, that’s just DIFFERENT. That’s all about the ratings. That’s catering to the lowest common denominator who watch Reality TV as their prime TV fodder and don’t have the energy, the focus, the curiosity or, perhaps, the smarts to really get into a show with real psychological drama behind it.

In relatively recent times, I’ve had occasion to begin watching several shows which had enormous potential – and which have all been cancelled after one season, or perhaps grudgingly allowed a truncated second season which still left them hanging in limbo and in the middle of everything without any hope of a resolution, ever, other than perhaps in fanfic written by frustrated devotees who cannot stand being left dangling like this. I’m particularly thinking of three straight genre shows – Jericho, Carnivale, and Caprica – and one which was borderline genre, Jack & Bobby.

You may love or hate any one of these. You may barely have heard of some. In the interests of keeping everyone on the same page, though, let me offer a nutshell summary of each.

Jericho is a post-apocalyptic story set in an America devastated by multiple nuclear explosions, and a tiny enclave, a small town called Jericho and its neighbouring settlements, none of which can properly even be called a city, which survives – and has to find a way to keep surviving. Along the way the main characters are pitted against those aforementioned neighbourhood settlements (which sometimes think that not having certain things entitles them to having those things when OTHER people have them, if they can take them, and they try); against a new “government” set up in Cheyenne which claims to be the legitimate descendant of the authority of the ex-United States of America which is no more; a shadowy group of terrorists who may or may not have connections to said government; a set of “contractors” who are neither more or less than mercenaries working for the highest bidder and killing on command for money (“:just obeying orders”); and a splinter government group which has set up shop in Texas.

Carnivale – set in the American Dustbowl during the worst of times, every nuance of its setting and context beautifully delivered, following a dysfunctional and semi-mystical carnival troupe across the blasted landscape. The carnival is under the leadership of the mysterious Management, an entity never seen that keeps to its own shadowy trailer and only relays its commands via its mouthpiece, a tough but remarkably empathetic dwarf who rules the troupe, in Management’s name, with an iron hand. The carnival has a true psychic (or two) in it, and serves as the shelter for the scion of Good as the final battle between Good and Evil begins to loom in the world.

JackĀ  & Bobby – every episode begins almost like a documentary, with a bunch of “talking heads” describing an American presidency. No, it isn’t THAT Jack and Bobby. No, the President in question isn’t Jack – it’s Bobby. And the talking heads… are talking of what is our future. The near future. Bobby isn’t president yet, he’s only going to be, in the fullness of time – and by all accounts a great president. But in the “now” of the series, after hearing from the talking heads about some of the highlights of the presidency, we get… to see the boy that Bobby was, or in the context of the series IS STILL… and to see the events which shaped his life, and shaped those highlights. We see how a president was made.

Caprica – the prequel to Battlestar Galactica – I never did see the new version, not really, and I watched some episodes of the originsl BSG only sporadically and even that,on occasion, only because I thought Richard Hatch was HOT. A series which was an extended sequence of running battles quickly palled on me. But Caprica, now – it’s different. It’s the bedrock of society that birthed the original series, the original war. We see the Cylons being made, being born, and it’s all twisted into the way that the people think and feel, the passions and the obsessions and the focus of religions and different cultural milieux of the different colonies, all of it done very well, small strokes illuminating much larger pictures. The main character, Zoe, starts out as a hyper-intelligent rich brat who can afford to indulge her childish impulses – but by the last episode that I saw this is quite a different human being, someone who has grown and changed believably over the course of the story arc which I have watched, and I already mourn the fact that I will never see her complete that growth, that change. Because the series was canned, and there are only some four or five episodes left to see.

This is what matters to me in a story, though, the way I can immerse myself into its atmosphere and surroundings, live it with the characters who inhabit it, and in so many ways the visual aspect of a story as presented as a TV series is a huge part of it. Some writers will tell you how much they sometimes hate that visual medium, the place where a subtle glance shared between two people, the tiniest gesture of the hand, a simple change of facial expression, can convey more in a split second than the writer can provide in paragraphs, sometimes PAGES, of text. We are all trained to cue on the visual and it really matters in this kind of relationship, viewer to character on screen. There is so much that can be done with these subtle shadings, so much power in them.

But the ratings, ah, the ratings. Those who have the patience and the intelligence to identify shows like these and to get involved in and with them are apparently simply not numerous enough to give the bean-counters sufficient numbers to weigh these shows. Often they are even pushed into slots where only the most devoted of demographics will seek them and find them and watch them – and naturally the numbers are not what was wanted or expected. When it comes down to the line, it’s a question of “how many of these viewers are buying the products which are being advertised in the non-story gaps with which we will cut their shows?” and many of the viewers who watch shows like these are not the buy buy buy kind at all, or at the very least not easily swayable by ads and particularly if they are merely an annoyance which has to be endured before the story continues. Some of us – like, yes, meĀ  and my household – rely on taping our favourite shows, simply so that we can FAST FORWARD the irritating ads which we do not want selling us things we do not need… but this of course probably means that we are watching the shows NOT at their original showtime which means that our numbers are not counted in the all-important ratings. If so, I may be partly guilty myself of murdering my own favourite shows.

But why is character development so much anathema to those who green-light TV shows? And if the rest of the crowd, the “numbers”, can have their Survivor and their American Idol, why oh why can’t the rest of us have something like Caprica? What makes us that much lesser a human being than the other, that we matter so much less, that we matter not at all, that the good and intelligent shows are swept away and replaced by fluff? Is it really possible that the only role of TV is for people to simply veg out in front of it, never to think about anything they see or question it, that the TV is, in LITERAL fact, the “idiot box” that the cliche would have it be and that it has no further relevance than that?

ARE those of us who want and crave and treasure character development, and “real” (no matter how spec-fic they are in nature, reality is relative) stories about “real” people, and shows about important themes and ideas, and stories that you need to think about before they fully unfold in your mind – are those of us who want and need these things going to walk away from TV at last, and go back to our beloved books as the only source of such needful things?

Is it possible to create a good TV show which lasts for more than two seasons and has characters with measurable development arcs? Can you give me examples…?

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  1. 1. Jim Brown

    Babylon 5 and Lost.

    The biggest killer of these shows is something I’ve not seen anyone address. The defeatist attitude of the viewers. When I ask those around me – who would appreciate heady, fun, character driven genre shows – what they thought of a new show that has grabbed me but good, the most common answer is ‘I’m not going to watch it yet in case it gets cancelled.’ Then you go online and try to commiserate with those who took the apparently gigantic risk of checking out something new and the doom and gloom takes hold immediately. The letter writing campaigns get started on the slightest rumor of cancellation, which only fuels the fire. Discussion of why the show is great gets lost in mourning it’s upcoming loss and insults against those who greenlit it.

    What’s so sad is a lot of die hard character loving sci fans seem to be lightweights when it comes to what they believe in and sticking with it, or having faith that if they push and devote, things may just work in their favor. I frequently ask myself, ‘Do you people not get what it takes to make the world better?’

    It’s almost like ‘I like this show a lot, so it’s doomed.’ No it’s not. It’s doomed because they like the show and do nothing to help it survive other than carry on in such a way that makes most people not want to watch it, or feel insulted.

    I prefer to take the stance of being grateful for what I have. I feel blessed I got to see as much of Caprica as I did. I love that one wonderful season of Firefly to death. I will always check out a show hoping it’s going to be something cool and then sticking with it, enjoying as much as I can.

    It’s better than years ago folks. At least now there’s plenty of new genre shows to check out, even if they struggle. Used to be you couldn’t find genre anywhere for years at a time.

    I got picked by Neilson years ago. Because I had plenty of money and I spent spent spent. And I put my name down for anything and everything, and I filled out registration cards, and on and on, because I wanted more stuff and I liked to know about new cool stuff. It was so cool to get picked and that’s when Firefly was on the air. I was so looking forward to putting it down that Friday night, then it was preempted.

    But the point is you have to stand up to be counted, and unless you want to fund your own TV shows, you have to feed the advertisers. Simple as that.

    And be postive. Caprica was awesome and be grateful for you had. The Walking Dead is the new kid on the block and it’s amazing. Did you check it out? Think about your reaction to that question and see if there’s room for any changes in your attitude.

  2. 2. Frostling

    Fluff is easy to produce, while SF series aren’t, so it’s not surprising that soaps and reality tv are everywhere, no matter the western country where we live.

    I guess that if we want to support SF series then we have to buy them on DVD, which can cost a lot.

    I can’t give any example of tv shows that last and remain brilliant all the way. As you said, after one season they often become either repetitive or they get the chop.

    At the moment I follow just 2 tv series: “The Mentalist” (not great but the dialogues can be amusing) and “The walking Dead” (interesting at the beginning but it has now turned into a very basic affair. In fact it looks more and more like BBC series Survivors).

    So for me, true inovative stuff remains the domain of books. In addition, there are no adverts between the pages :) .

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Jim – B5 (which got truncated, but still had a 5-season run) and Lost (which did, surprisingly, survive its full allotted lifespan) are possibly exceptions that prove the rule. I haven’t come across The Walking Dead, no – but I’ll take a look

    As for your last sentence – “changes in my attitude”? Involving what – spending money I don’t have on products I don’t need?… It is not, or should not be, all about the advertisers. If it is, it’s a sad old world.

    Frostling – heh. there are no ads between the pages YET. And you may be right – books may be the last refuge of this.

    I think I’ll keep trying to write them…

  4. 4. Anassa

    Supernatural’s currently in its sixth (and final, after resurrection) season. It deals with duty, family, good, evil, and grief, and has deep, complex characters who do change and develop over the course of the show.

    It’s the only show I watch for “thinking” these days. I want more like it. I’ve noticed a trend towards fluff even in the last few years, with there being less and less of interest airing, and would love to see us move back towards the other end of the scale.

  5. 5. Andrew A. A.

    The hard part of this kinda topic is defining fluff. What’s fluff for one is not for another: Buffy, STNG, Xena, X-files… Which I feel have good character growth and solid endings (Kinda…)

    And how about cross culturally: Add BBC shows here, ie: Doctor Who’s (new and old).

    Though I do have this exact same conversation about Genre Cartoons. American produced cartoons no matter how good seem to have short life-spans with no ending, the cartoons just fall off the TV — plop. I have High-hopes for Star Wars the Clone Wars since it’s got money support from Lucas.

    On the other hand Anime both Japanes and Korean, not only have some of the best speculative fiction story-lines available(even those made specifically for kids — Ie Naruto Shippuden) but usually have a solid ending when the show has run its course which can take hundreds of episodes.

    I think running its course is the trick in anything that is popular money-makers, the direct cause of Fluff in the best of shows (and books). When a show and beloved characters are making money those making the cash want it to stay around longer to the detriment of plot.

    Keep in mind that every season all participants of show get a contracted increase in wages. When more money is being spent on the show then the show is actually making then either people are fired (usually writers-ha) or show is cancelled.

  6. 6. Amit Doshi

    Try Supernatural. Genre show in its 6h Season. The first 5 were fantastic and this one is getting better. They have the Monster of the week episodes, but they also have a multi season story arc.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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