Why is Television so Awful?

Since its inception, television has been derided as a cultural wasteland. This is, perhaps, not quite fair. After all, television is a diverse beast because we are a diverse audience. Those who don’t care for reality TV may get more from TV about reality, which is why Neil De Grasse Tyson is on PBS.

Still, from a literary perspective, much of television programming suffers from an inherent defect that seems to doom it from the outset. A staple of television has always been the series, and in the vast majority of cases, this takes the form of a set story pattern that plays itself out over and over again whether as game show, situation comedy, or courtroom drama. In most cases, the main characters (be they host, buffoon, or crack P.I.) do not change very much. They do not get to grow as people. They simply show up week after week to let a new set of questions, jokes, or perps play out upon them in the established pattern.

This is understandable of course. It is risky to tamper with success. Yet, some might argue that repetition is inherently toxic to successful storytelling. From a literary perspective, it breeds mediocrity or worse turns the successful premise into a parody of itself.

Some programs weave in a little character growth in the form of cross-episodic story arc. Magnum may begin to suspect that Higgins is really Robin Masters. Frazier and Lillith may have a baby. Fox Mulder may learn that the aliens are part of a quasi-government conspiracy that might have involved his father. This seldom manifestly changes the main character. He may be pushed dramatically or humorously out of his comfort zone, but by the start of the next episode, he’ll be right back where he belongs. If the show is successful enough, real character growth may be allowed in the final episode. Dr. Winchester may finally grow a heart. Cody may finally graduate. Sam Malone, left standing behind his bar, may be reveled as the sad, middle-aged Lothario he has always been.

There is, of course, a legitimate issue of continuity. If main characters are allowed to grow too much, viewers may become lost if they miss a few shows. This was a more serious concern in the early years when most television programs were broadcast only once or twice. Today, viewers have plenty of ways to catch up once they become interested, and character growth is a key way to achieve this. Whether due to this, to fragmentation of the mass media, or to increased sophistication of viewer tastes, we are starting to see exceptions to the general rule—and examples of far better television.

A case in point is the BBC’s Primeval. This is a sci-fi time travel show involving dinosaurs and adventure, not traditionally fertile ground for rich character development. Yet, the characters in this show are painted with texture from the start, then allowed to grow organically over a number of seasons. A self-obsessed scientist becomes a leader. A shy, cowardly goof-ball grows up and becomes a reliable, fearless hero. A petty zoologist matures into the kind of woman who can love him.

Closer to home, the sci-fi series Lost and Heroes provide an example in contrast. Lost was not a perfect show, but at its best, it was some of the finest, most revetting drama ever to reach the air. Each of the lead characters grew as a result of their circumstances. To pick just a single example: Charlie, a self-absorbed rock star, learns self discipline and restraint, comes to understand love and commitment, and ultimately sacrifice. Many of the other characters similarly grew—and strove to grow beyond the petty circumstances that had stained their existence prior to the crash.

Lost eventually ran aground, recovered, and ran aground again, but when it was good, it was “stay up all night watching back to back episodes on the web” good. Heroes, on the other hand, never really found a footing in the second season. From the start, it depended too much on the introduction of new characters and new magical powers. This is all tantalizing stuff, but from a narrative perspective, special effects take you only so far—no matter how tantalizing. Characters were fleshed out fairly well in the first season, but any change was more adaptation than real personal growth. We were never allowed to know the characters because the writers wanted to maintain a sense of mystery.

Then in season two, Heroes tried to repeat its success with a wearying palette of additional characters who only muddled the cast, diluted the story, and detracted from time that could have been spent on real growth. Characters remained mysterious, and mystery became ambiguity and them inconsistency. The exception was Hiro, who grew consistently over his appearances but sadly was not given a central enough role to compensate for digression away from the mysterious army-camp past and into the maniac carnival owner.

In the end, Heroes also suffered from another literary faux paux borrowed from the soap opera stage: the character shift. Bad guys become good guys. The cheerleader (for no reason related to the story) flirts with a lesbian. The Spectacled Man is a bad guy, no a good guy, no a bad guy whose heart is in the right place, no a good guy doing evil out of good intentions. Sylar is evil incarnate, but in the future he’s a Daddy, but he’s evil… Pretty soon, viewers are exhausted by the inconstancy and looking back fondly on the good old days when the Skipper’s “Little Buddy” could be counted on never to grow up and Vampires always recoiled from Holy Water. Even Lost succumbed to this ill to a degree, but on a show in which everyone starts out doing evil for what they believe to be noble reasons, a little shifting is understandable.

It’s a delicate balance. TV writers have a product to crank out. They need formulas, and frankly, there is a place in the world for fluff and even camp. In any consideration of quality in television, though, we must ask one simple question: what stands the test of time? To me, there is a lone stand out above all others–one show that lives on past all those final episodes and all the changes in tastes and technology. It is a show created by a great writer who used television to reach a wider audience than the theater crowd of New York, whose only formula was the unexpected, whose only repeating character was his pen. He wrote every episode as a self-contained teleplay. Every episode brings some new character to life and then up to the brink. And the happy fact is, as this writer might say, is that these techniques aren’t confined to the Twilight Zone.