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TV Mailbag!

College shows, reverse shark jumping, and the best theme songs

My friends, these are strange television times. NBC is about to finish February sweeps in fifth place, behind Univision. (Here’s hoping Sábado Gigante will rework its popular animal segments to involve El Chacal devouring a desiccated peacock corpse. And even the non-disaster networks have to squint their eyes pretty tightly — or poke them out altogether — to see their tepid new offerings as hits. The best stuff — The Americans, House of Cards — is happening out on what was formerly considered the fringes while the mainstream zeitgeist machine rumbles in neutral, waiting for winter to be over so winter can finally arrive. When Game of Thrones returns next month it kicks off a five-month binge that will see the most talked-about shows (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development) return, just when the “traditional” TV season is winding down. To help make sense of the madness, I turned to the good old mailbag for some much-needed sanity.

I didn’t find much of that, of course. But there were some good questions! To begin, here are the five best sentences from e-mails that didn’t make the cut:

“I am in the major minority in saying Boy Meets World was the PERFECT television show.”

Rembert, Grantland staffers can’t contribute to this.

“Would you say Jon Bernthal’s great work as Shane in season two [of The Walking Dead] could have catapulted him to a Supporting Actor nom in last year’s Emmy’s?”

No.

“A month or so back, I outlined a proposal for a non-animated film, based on the series, Doug.”

Rembert, I’m serious.

“Read your TV mailbag column with some interest but you failed to mention some facts.”

You should probably stop reading right now, then.

“I need your assistance to execute a business from Hong Kong to your country.”

I should add that this came from an NBC corporate account.

And with that … to the mailbag!

Why, after the past decade plus of cable networks putting out one great show after another, have we still not had someone tackle the subject of college? It has all the makings of a great program. For starters, it has a pretty universal theme seeing as how so many people went to college. Secondly, the idea of covering somewhat mature subjects (sex, drug use, violence, etc) is not nearly as difficult to do anymore. Thirdly, the structure of college fits perfectly in the serialized format of television, four years (Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior) that allows you not only to follow characters as they progress but also you can easily integrate new characters (incoming freshmen, transfer students, friends from home who come to visit, etc). It seems like a no-brainer to me.

— Steve F.

First off, kudos to Steve for referring to this as the “Great White Whale” of the television industry later in the e-mail, thus making sure we knew that not only did he go to college, he at least audited a class in literary metaphors. Second, there have been a few shows set in college. From the great, underappreciated Undeclared (Judd Apatow’s follow-up to Freaks and Geeks; it’s very funny and currently streaming on Netflix) to the great, underappreciated Community. But not only are both of these shows straight comedies, they both tended to attract seminar-size audiences, not nearly enough to fill a lecture hall. Otherwise, college — a longed-for goal in the real world — tends to become an afterthought on the small screen, a way to keep a young cast together after they’ve outgrown their initial setting. When “seniors” begin losing hair, there’s always a California University lurking conveniently nearby.

To help figure out why a setting that is seminal to so many television watchers — gross pun maybe sort of intended — is generally ignored by television makers, I reached out to America’s foremost authority on fictional young people and beach punching, Josh Schwartz. “College is a really scary word for networks,” he told me. “The perception is that it’s rarified, it is low-stakes, and it is unrelatable to people who didn’t go. For any network, even the CW, to broadcast a show about young people, it has to be the broadest possible idea.” (I think Josh had more to say, but the sound of Death Cab for Cutie b-sides drowned him out.) This seems to me to be both accurate and sort of silly, in the way most decisions made at the top network executive suites tend to be. The Big Four networks have absolutely ceded stories about young people to the more fevered, fertile upstarts like the CW and, more recently, ABC Family, the thinking being that young people are more likely to watch shows about adults than the other way around. It’s not wrong, but it’s too bad. One of the reasons cable shows tend to be more creatively satisfying these days is precisely this ability to specialize. Due to bottom lines and budgets, the Big Four are essentially still liberal-arts underclassmen, stuck trying to cobble together as broad an education as possible, dreaming of the day they can finally declare a major.

But Josh’s point does speak to the potential limitations of campus-set programming. It’s not so much that swanning about on quads, playing Frisbee, and having complicated thoughts about socialism is necessarily exclusive and unrelatable — or, at least, any more exclusive than being a neurosurgeon or a highly paid litigator or being married to Whitney Cummings. But it does lack the built-in stakes provided by hospitals, courtrooms, and nightmares. Animal House: The Series or Old School: Back to School1 — two series I would absolutely watch, by the way — could get by for a while on all the binge-drinking, bed-hopping antics that take place outside the classroom. But where do they go from there? Most successful college comedies are about putting off adulthood, not preparing for it. Even without all the clever writing and graduate-level trickery, Community works because it’s about grown-ups trying to fix their screwed-up lives, not kids blithely doing the reverse.

When you try to add drama to an already creaky course load, things only get trickier. While it’s true that you couldn’t ask for a more chaotic time of transformation and discovery than college, nearly all of that transformation and discovery — barring a few ill-advised tattoos and that one night with your roommate during spring break — is internal. And internal drama, in inexpert hands, tends to make for dull television. Or worse. Short-lived shows like Fox’s Class of ’96 removed all that difficult inner-life stuff and simply made its characters well-scrubbed avatars for the issues of the day: racism, sexism, pleated pants, and crippling sincerity. (I’d say its well-intentioned sanctimony was inaccurate, but I actually have some of my own college papers lying around to prove otherwise.)

In freshman orientation, I was taught to avoid “I” statements, so, to sum up, let’s just say that we, collectively, can do better. There should be a show — maybe not a network show, but still, a show — able to combine the red-cup cocktail of partying and pathos that is American higher education. The trick, I — I mean, we — think, is to make the college town as much of a setting as the college. There’s an enormous amount of story to mine from such a polarized setting, filled with fresh-faced people excited to be there and a crush of locals desperate to escape. How about a show that crosses the witty sadness of Kicking and Screaming with the stoned melancholy of Wonder Boys? Play up a Max-Kate romance between a clueless upperclassman and a savvy townie, cast someone world-weary yet lovable as the doobie-puffing, coed-caressing English professor (I say shoot for Bryan Cranston; Chris Ryan votes Sam Rockwell; editor Sean Fennessey might win with the outside pick of Campbell Scott), and don’t skimp on the Eric Stoltz–as–the–guy–who–refuses–to–graduate role. (Actually, Eric Stoltz is probably available.) The trick is avoiding the mistake most college students make and not to take the heavy stuff so seriously and the fun stuff so lightly. Find room in the budget for a shower caddy and a mini-fridge, and you’re halfway to air.

I lost 4 hours of my life last night watching the Oscars (there should be a Surgeon General’s warning at the start of the telecast) and found my mind wandering into a bizarre dreamworld by the time the G.O.A.T., Meryl Streep, made her appearance. Seeing her on stage got me wondering: what would it take and what would happen to the TV industry if Meryl Streep (or some other A-lister) decided to take a turn on the small screen?

— Brody S. Lewisburg, PA

There was a time when such a thing would be impossible to imagine. TV-to-movies was a fame pipeline that only traveled in one direction. To go from Moonlighting to Die Hard was like Orpheus escaping Hades; to make the reverse trip was a fate worse than Van Nuys. All of that has changed recently, of course, with TV — especially cable TV — emerging as a safe haven for steady paychecks that are more than just cash grabs. Character actors, those averse to big-tent action pictures or those simply interested in commuting to a soundstage instead of Slovakia, have taken to TV without any noticeable damage to their Q scores: think Zooey Deschanel and Kevin Bacon. Even the highly employable Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal were cast in HBO’s adaptation of The Corrections before it was scuttled. In particular, the small screen has been a boon for great actresses unfairly trapped in the sexist purgatory between hot girlfriend and MILF: Glenn Close, Laura Linney, Mary-Louise Parker, and Emily Mortimer have all taken advantage of opportunities that movies stopped offering them years ago. Even so, it’s not the rise of quality TV projects that I think will really open the floodgates for A-list talent: It’s Netflix.

More specifically, the Netflix model as demonstrated by House of Cards. Kevin Spacey isn’t exactly a box office draw anymore, but he is an Oscar winner. And he got as much value out of his association with the show as Netflix got from him. The reason: The entire series was conceived, pitched, filmed, and packaged as a finite entity. The real red flag for established film actors these days isn’t celebrity, it’s time. Standard television contracts run seven years on networks, and a hugely successful cable show like Homeland operates on a limited budget, meaning grueling days spread out over months of shooting. Beyond the concern of being pigeonholed in a single role is the bigger worry about not having time to do anything else — a movie with Terrence Malick, a play on the West End, an adopted baby in Kathmandu. Signing up for a TV show that has all of the standard wild cards of TV pre-removed — the fear of boredom or burnout, the bigger fear of cancellation — makes it a much more attractive choice, especially because something like House of Cards carries the “event” buzz more often associated with a motion picture than, say, a midseason debut on Fox. So I’d expect to see more and more big names looking for similar projects. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are already taking the plunge with HBO’s upcoming True Detective. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see awards-bait like Julianne Moore, Edward Norton, or Paul Giamatti follow suit.

Not Meryl, though. Some talents — and personalities — are just too big for the small screen.2 But that doesn’t stop me from imagining a guest turn or two: How about as Jessa’s muumuu-wearing mother on Girls? Or a return engagement as Margaret Thatcher for a very special episode of The Americans? The Walking Dead would actually be improved if it were transformed into a one-woman show with Meryl playing all the parts. She can really pull off the cowboy hat.

Where does The Americans pilot land on the all-time “uses of ‘In The Air Tonight’” rankings? I’d put it at second place, just behind The Hangover.

— Patrick P., St. Louis

Great question! I think you have to go:

1. Miami Vice

The original and best!

2. Cadbury Gorilla

Worth the wait.

3. The Hangover

“This is my favorite part coming up right now!”

4. The Americans

791. Miami Heat player introduction video, 2010 season.

What do you call it when a show does the opposite of jumping the shark? Crawling under a turtle? What are the most notable examples of this happening — not just good to great but rather going from nothing to something?

— Josh R.

Two quick notes before we dive in. One, I’m not a big fan of the term “jumping the shark,” both because I reject the idea that a single bad decision is ever solely to blame for the downfall of a good show and because I just have too much respect for the Fonz. Two, the context of this e-mail was about the USA show Suits.

That said, I love this idea, but it’s deceptively hard. Mainly because networks have itchy trigger fingers: TV shows are expensive to produce and scheduling real estate is limited. With so many channels competing for the same number of eyeballs, there aren’t as many places for networks to hide struggling shows no matter how much confidence they have in the producers to turn it around. So it’s tough thinking of examples of series that had a lightbulb moment that took them from negligible to great, because most negligible series don’t last long enough to get there. I don’t know if it qualifies as great — or even “good” — but one example that comes to mind is the very strange turn taken by the forgettable Fox comedy ‘Til Death. As chronicled by the indefatigable Todd VanDerWerff over at the A.V. Club, in its fourth and final season the show went from being a standard family sitcom into a vicious, self-aware satire of the ridiculousness of being stuck on a standard family sitcom. It’s a rare instance of a long-running show becoming interesting not only by biting the hand that was feeding it, but gnawing the entire thing clean off and then finger painting with the stump.

Instead of jumping over marine life, we’re far more likely to encounter shows that made a different sort of creative leap. In polling other Grantlanders, numerous people pointed to the improvement of Justified from its first season to its second, when it went from a decent redneck procedural to a weirder, bleaker serial in which Margo Martindale pushes Oxycontin and smashes her own son’s hand with a hammer. Others mentioned how both Seinfeld and The Simpsons got better and became more like themselves after lackadaisical starts — but finding a higher gear isn’t the same as flipping a switch. Most successful shows improve in their second season; rare is the show that gets a second season without clear evidence of why it deserves one in the first place. So I keep coming back to Parks and Recreation. The first five episodes of its brief debut season weren’t bad per se, but they were off-key, Office-lite. But when the show returned in the fall of 2009, it abandoned its limiting Leslie-builds-a-park conceit and instead built an entire comic universe.

This is a tough one. I think we’ll need to revisit it in a future mailbag. Until then, let’s try to come up with a term for what we’re talking about since reverse shark jumping sounds both vaguely pornographic and extremely dangerous. Should a show pulling a Fabolous and becoming fabulous be called:

  1. Hammering the Fingers?
  2. Mentioning the Bisque?
  3. Eating the Shorts?
  4. Knoping?

 
Suggestions not only welcome, but clearly needed.

How far in advance do TV shows film their episodes? For example, when will the final episode of The Office be shot? If the showrunners want to change course on the Jim/Pam storyline, because it’s getting such negative press, can they?

— Craig, San Jose, CA

It depends on the show, but network comedies are usually filmed about two months before they air — editing and post-production can drag on until just days before. So my guess is The Office will film its finale sometime in mid-March. Which means, in theory, there’s plenty of time to pump the brakes on Emotional Poochie. But there’s probably very little chance of it happening. The way stories are broken in the writers’ room means the broad strokes of the season are usually mapped out months in advance. Small details might change — for example, Brian’s stubble might go from “a Frenchman at Midday” to “the Least Interesting Man in the World” — but the track has already been laid. As long as that’s the only thing that’s getting laid in this scenario, I think we’re headed toward the same perfectly fine, two-years-overdue, happy-ish ending we’d have gotten with or without the film crew.

Which show (modern, then of all time) has the best theme song? I have grown to like Game of Thrones, while The Office is probably my favorite.

— Tyler, Arizona

Oh, man. Remember theme songs? I mean, back when they were actual theme songs? I fear there’s an entire generation of TV watchers who assume that a stray 15 seconds of perky music is enough to set the mood. Meanwhile, there is not a single person over the age of 30 alive today who cannot sing, word for word, the delightfully milquetoast anthems of Family Ties (sha-la-la-la!), Growing Pains, or The Facts of Life (written by Growing Pains‘s Alan Thicke!). It may not be fair, but I actually do judge books by their covers, and I do the same with TV shows and their opening credits. A show with a successful, consistent vision will demonstrate that in every facet of the production, from casting to fonts and music cues. (It’s part of what makes being a showrunner so impossible. It is your job not only to have an opinion on everything3 but also to have the stones to get it done accordingly.) Nearly every hall of fame show sets the tone right from the start, from Mad Men‘s swank louche nihilism to Breaking Bad‘s high and lonesome twang. There are very few truly great programs with truly bad opening themes.4

Any list of all-time favorites would have to include Twin Peaks, Cheers, The O.C., and, for purely sentimental, home-sick-from-school reasons, The Greatest American Hero. These days, there are a few sitcoms that’ve totally figured out how to do more with less: The Office, 30 Rock, and especially Parks and Recreation are zippy, memorable table setters.5 But really comparing the state of theme songs to what they were just a decade ago is tragic. As ads started to eat up more and more script pages — you realize, right, that your half-hour sitcom maxes out at barely 22 minutes — extended credits sequences were the first things to go.6 Now we’re left with a piddling collection of halfhearted plinks and plonks. I don’t necessarily need a song spelling out the story — that would be challenging with, say, The Walking Dead7 — but would it be so hard to ask for a little originality? House shouldn’t get extra credit just because its music supervisor has good taste in hair salons.

How far we’ve fallen! To watch the opening of, say, L.A. Law now is to travel back in time to a slower, stranger era. This thing is a full 90 seconds! And it’s not even a particularly good 90 seconds, just seemingly random clips of people leaving meetings, carrying briefcases, and shrugging. The first cast member — the god Harry Hamlin — isn’t even introduced until 54 seconds in! And it’s not like it ends with any purpose. Instead, the wheezy saxes peter out until the whole thing curls up in your lap, like a narcoleptic cat. When you think about it, it’s not even the slow-surging, Vangelis-like synths8 that place the show squarely in the ’80s, it’s this cocky, master-of-the-universe attitude toward waste and excess.9 The networks were so confident in their ability to keep you on the couch — and there were so few other options — that they could just diddle around with Michael Tucker pumping his fist in slow motion and you’d watch it and like it. Those were the days.

My wife thinks you live atop a spire in Williamsburg surrounded by a circular wall of televisions constantly piping programming into your brain and a rotating chair in the center. Any truth to that?

— Brian S.

Don’t be ridiculous! I would never live in Williamsburg.

Until next time. Keep the questions coming to grantlandTVmailbag@gmail.com. Just not the questions about why I don’t watch Dexter, OK?

Filed Under: Andy Greenwald, Celebrities, TV

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald