Time was, April was the homestretch of the TV season, the month when network executives saw the plans they’d laid in September begin to blossom — or steeled themselves for the rough harvest of May. These days, April is the cruelest month only for our DVRs: With Mad Men and Game of Thrones flourishing and The Americans, Orphan Black, and Veep rising, TV has never been busier or better. With so much going on, it’s an ideal moment to dip into the old TV mailbag: a friendly place where scores are settled, children are mocked, and (onscreen) deaths are celebrated. (Send me questions for future mailbags here.) To your emails!
In your preview for this season of Mad Men, you talked about how it was the last pre-Twitter/Facebook show that [refused to cater] to viewers. My question, then, how would some older shows from the Golden Age (or even prior) been affected by today’s tendency for producers to indulge fans?
A great and slightly disturbing question, James! Every decision TV writers and producers now make is dissected instantaneously by a rabid community of tweeters and Tumblr-ers, drastically reducing the potential for artistic distance and wildly inflating the possibility of creative overreaction.1 It’s a ferocious phenomenon that is empowering for fans and generally terrifying for creators. For every Vince Gilligan, high-fiving his way through fan sites on his way to TV immortality, there’s a Damon Lindelof stuck still apologizing for doing something TV writers have done from the beginning: the very best he could in a highly pressurized moment. I can only imagine how Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are feeling this week. For three years, they’ve floated more or less above the Internet fray due to their unique position as adapters of the novels. Now one strange choice (explained here for the spoiler-averse) has audiences calling for their heads before they’ve even had a chance to let the consequences of that choice play out.
But in the column you mentioned, I tried to suggest it’s not just that the showrunners’ obligations have changed — so too have the appetites of fans. In the past, series were delivered to us from on high. Other than the simple decision to watch or not watch, our ability to provide feedback about shows, good or bad, was severely limited. This was the era of the proverbial watercooler, of the strongly worded letter to TV Guide. (This was the era of TV Guide!) When ’80s stalwart Cagney & Lacey was canceled the first and second time, it was the power of the post office that brought it back. (Eventually, it even became a hit.) When millennial trifles Jericho and Roswell were threatened, bulk mailings of nuts and Tabasco sauce, respectively, saved them. When they weren’t fattening the coffers of the USPS, fans had very little sway over the fates of their beloved entertainments. The one-sided nature of this relationship led to a feeling of disconnection and, ultimately, resentment. Why couldn’t diehards have a seat at the creative table? They were, after all, the ones who paid for the table in the first place.
Now everything is faster and more furious on both ends. Fans have the ability to interact directly with creators; creators have the ability to woo and placate fans. This tends to inspire crackling debate and, more often than not, some severely compromised art. A decade ago, I was sitting with The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz in his dining room as he pored over vitriolic reactions to a recent episode on the site Television Without Pity (which closed down this month). I know for a fact he now regrets the amount of time he spent stressing over what his viewers might want instead of telling the stories he felt inspired to tell. If Twitter had existed to torment him in 2004, would there have been enough of The O.C. left for the fourth season to redeem? And I wonder how a Mount Rushmore series like The Sopranos would have fared in today’s hyperactive climate. Tony Soprano wasn’t just a bad guy — he was very often a monster. The things he did to Carmela in the pantheon episode “Whitecaps” alone would have kept the outrage industrial complex powered for weeks. It’s the immediacy of TV that makes it so engaging, but it’s the potential to take the long view of a complicated story that makes it exceptional.
With that in mind, here’s how I imagine three popular, pre-Twitter programs faring in today’s overheated atmosphere.
This long-running CBS soap practically invented the Holy Shit! moment when it ended its third season with a shocking murder attempt on its main character, Texas oilman/heavy eyebrow operator J.R. Ewing. The subsequent “Who shot J.R.?” phenomenon raged the entire summer of 1980, roping in presidents and reducing otherwise respected media outlets to squealing teenagers. Had it happened in the fall of 2010 instead, the debate over who pulled the trigger probably would have fizzled out by Memorial Day. But Dallas was still a series on the rise in 1980 — the media attention simply helped vault it to another level. This was not the case five years later. The show’s ninth season featured a massive overhaul behind the scenes and a huge change in front of the camera: Star Patrick Duffy was gone, his character, Bobby Ewing, having been killed off so Duffy could, as the saying goes, “pursue other opportunities.”
But neither fans nor the studio were happy with the changes. By the time the 10th season premiered — let’s just say that again, for effect: the 10th season — the writers had once again been shuffled, Duffy had been wooed and won over, and Bobby Ewing was revealed to be very much alive. The explanation? The entire ninth season was a dream. None of it actually happened. With the opening of a single, steamy shower door, all 31 episodes — let’s just say that again, for effect: all 31 episodes — were tossed onto the continuity scrap heap.
Imagine, for a moment, if such a thing were to happen today on one of the most popular shows on television. What if Jesse’s girlfriend Jane had awoken, alive and well, at the beginning of the third season of Breaking Bad? What if the crazy thing that happened a few weeks back on The Good Wife was undone this fall and explained away as a mass hallucination brought on by a bad deep-dish pizza?2 There would be rioting! Well, virtual rioting. But still. The Internet would have angry emojis tossed through its plate-glass windows; the flame wars alone would torch everything and everyone in their path. Whatever credibility the shows possessed would’ve been wiped away in an instant; their hashtags would go from praise to mockery, the GIFs from charming to bleak.
More important than any of that, the show would be canceled. Maybe not immediately, but very, very quickly. Catastrophic mistakes happen all the time on TV; they always have. But these days there are no amnesties or mulligans, no surprise second chances for characters or shows. When the air goes out of the balloon, the ground comes rushing up awfully quickly. Yet Dallas rambled on for four more years after its dream season. Back then, everyone was watching but no one could do much about it. Nowadays, fewer people are watching, but those people can make an awful lot of noise.
For eight weeks in the spring of 1990, Twin Peaks was the talk of the nation. Dreamy, digressive, haunting, and deeply, deeply weird, there had never been a network TV show like it. (To be honest, there hasn’t been one like it since.) But while the atmosphere of the show got acclaim, it was the central mystery that got attention. The majority of the people tuning in were amused by the dancing dwarf, but what they really wanted was answers, specifically to the show’s central question: Who killed Laura Palmer? By the time the second season began without anything resembling a resolution, ratings plummeted faster than a wheelbarrow over the Snoqualmie Falls.
Though I think the viewership bubble and subsequent pop would have been louder for Twin Peaks had it aired today, I also think the way we cover TV now would have allowed the show to exist in a way it couldn’t back then. For one, there is now an entire online industry devoted to highlighting and supporting televised artistic ambition. I’m not saying my fellow scribblers and I are especially important; it’s just that these days, if you’re a network with a high-minded project, there is now an established choir to preach to. But beyond that, there is also a greater appreciation of the varying depths and strengths of fandom. No matter the year, there are always fewer people interested in digressive, immersive worlds than there are in straightforward whodunits. But “passion” is now something as sought after as Nielsen ratings. A giant audience is still best, but there’s real value in a smaller crowd of committed obsessives. I don’t think Twin Peaks would thrive in 2014, but I do think it would survive, even if distant genius David Lynch never set foot in the writers’ room again.3 I could see it rambling on for numerous seasons like Fringe, garnering respectable ratings on Friday nights, charming its adherents and being generally ignored by the culture at large.4 Twin Peaks didn’t need to be a sensation; in fact, it was poorly suited to the role. It just needed to be what it wanted to be, and now, more than ever, TV audiences seem to understand and appreciate that sort of specificity.
“The Truth Is Out There” was the tagline for this much-loved — and, eventually, much ignored — thriller. And creator Chris Carter was smart never to say exactly where the truth was hanging out and how long it might take to catch up to it. As the show unveiled its aliens-are-real conspiracy in fits and starts over its nine seasons, it gradually become apparent that there really was no map. By the time the black oil started running up people’s noses and both bees and John Neville were somehow implicated, The X-Files sounded crazier than the tinfoil hat–wearing preppers it had once sought to dignify.5
So while the geek chorus that fueled the show’s rise now runs the world, I don’t think The X-Files could survive in it. Audiences are too savvy and too trigger-happy with their remotes; at the first sign of winging it, they’re liable to take flight. The X-Files flourished at a time when it was still OK for TV shows to ask questions and stall on answering them. That wouldn’t be the case today. At the TCA panel following the smash debut season, Chris Carter would have been inundated with questions involving the words “road map” and “endgame.” If he so much as broke a sweat, his audience would disintegrate.
In retrospect, the most amazing thing about The X-Files isn’t the chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson — it’s the patience it received from a more even-tempered ’90s audience. Even when it wasn’t clear if the Cigarette-Smoking Man was scary or merely Canadian, there was always a palpable sense that the show was building toward something incredible;6 some diehards didn’t even jump ship when Duchovny himself did, after Season 7. In the end, we were just as Fox Mulder predicted: too trusting.
With Girl Meets World set to premiere soon, are there are classic TV shows that would work well following the child of a former protagonist? Imagine Frederick a sitcom where Frasier’s son, a young med student training to be a psychiatrist, moves in with his father whom he seldom sees eye to eye with. Old favourites make guest appearances and a hilarious farce ensues!
—James H., Toronto
I think this is a fantastic idea! Some initial pitches:
The Grand Pacific Northwest Motel
Abandoned by his mother, sweater-clad homicide detective Sarah Linden, young Jack Linden of The Killing finds work as a lobby boy at one of Seattle’s most twee highway motels. Educational high jinks ensue in brilliant 2.35:1 widescreen; also rain.
24’s Kim Bauer, now a divorced mother of two, must make her way in a funny, sexy world full of wine, men who won’t commit, and giant, predatory jungle cats.
The Washington Wizard
Four years in the future, Homeland’s Chris Brody, ignored by his family and tormented by his country, retreats to his dorm room at Georgetown to live a quiet life devoted to online gaming and irreverent NBA blogging. But when the nation is threatened and the CIA needs someone unexpected to go undercover, all those years of karate practice finally pay off.
All Mao Children
Nothing, not even the second act of Les Misérables on Broadway, has ever made anyone cry as hard as Smash’s Leo Houston did the day he found out his parents might not be able to adopt a Chinese toddler. Now, after college and a stint in the Peace Corps — the latter marred by a bout of malaria, the former by a dalliance with an a cappella group — Leo is prepared to dedicate his life to ensuring no one will ever again know the pain of potentially not having a little sister again. This action thriller — featuring original songs by Marc Shaiman! — sees Leo reborn as a one-man enforcer of international adoption laws. Costarring Idina Menzel as Ms. Hannigan, a stern child-services employee, and Nathan Lane as beloved theater icon Nathan Lane.
Thirty years ago, it was revealed that the entirety of St. Elsewhere took place within the mind of child Tommy Westphall. This daring series focuses on middle-aged Tom Westphall as he deals with the rising stress and pressure of staring into thousands and thousands of snow globes simultaneously, while also writing joke- and reference-saturated “recaps” of everything he sees. One of the main themes of the series is how Sunday nights are particularly hard.
With Orphan Black back for a second season, how would you rank the clones?
—Mick Bunsen, Los Angeles
In reverse order of preference:
Self-mortifying Ukrainian assassins are fine, but can we cool it with the processed sugar?
Nobody likes a quitter!
Nobody likes a know-it-all!
She’s in the business of herself and business is good.
Pros: cool accent, excellent life skills. Cons: is one scream of “Kiiiiirraaaa!” away from this.
She sings. She dances. She burns her husband with a glue gun. Alison is the best.
How can Parks and Rec end on a high note? The show is as strong as ever, but I’m worried they are stuck re-hashing old plot lines (harvest festival —> unity concert, everyone gets pregnant) and are so saturated with quality bit characters, even Tom Haverford gets left out.
There’s no question Parks is having an uncharacteristically down season. I wouldn’t call it bad so much as fatigued. After six years of constant delight, it’s only natural the lights of Pawnee would begin to dim a little. Each week, you can feel the behind-the-scenes struggle to come up with new pairings and novel scenarios. The ecstatic yelling of Billy Eichner can’t quite make up for the absence of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe. (Taking him off the street feels as natural as domesticating a coyote.) Leslie’s pregnancy, while wonderfully sweet and fan-servicey, feels more like obligation than inspiration. It’s emblematic of the sort of slow, graceful decay that eventually afflicts all TV shows allowed to run this long, even the very best of them. Not even a liberal misting of Tommy Fresh can mask the stench forever.
But I remain convinced that the upcoming seventh — and, I’m confident, final — season will reverse the downward slide. I have faith in the show’s brain trust of Mike Schur and Amy Poehler, and even with the loss of Dan Goor (and, it must be noted, some of Schur’s focus) to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks’ writers’ room remains the most stacked in show business, with talents like Joe Mande and Aisha Muharrar still in the fold. The concern is what story is possibly left for them to tell. Low ratings have caused the show to cycle through numerous plots that could have served as potential series enders — from the aforementioned Harvest Festival to Leslie and Ben’s wedding. Is there anything remaining on the office whiteboard that would feel like a crescendo instead of a shrug?
There is, and it’s quite simple: Leslie and Ben need to leave. I know it seems like sacrilege even to suggest it. Pawnee without Leslie Knope is like Metropolis without Superman, and one of the show’s indelible accomplishments is the way it carefully constructed a ludicrous fantasy town that somehow came to feel as warm and welcoming as home. But Parks has been suggesting for quite some time now that Leslie’s ability and ambitions may have finally outgrown Indiana, and considering she has binders longer than her tenure on the City Council, that’s likely very much the case. Besides, there is precedent for this sort of ending. Like Parks, Friday Night Lights was a critically adored, Nielsen-ignored series built around an inspiring couple who elevated everything around them. Like Ben and Leslie, the Taylors needed to let go of their town to help us do the same. It seems counterinuitive, considering one of the main reasons we fall in love with shows like Parks is the implicit suggestion that our friends will always be there — after all, the taps never ran dry at Cheers; somewhere, in M*A*S*H’s Korea, the war is still raging. But it’s actually more of a comfort to think that our time with these characters was the totality of their time together. We’re a culture plagued by FOMO. If and when Ben and Leslie move on to the next challenge, we know we didn’t miss a thing. It’s also worth noting that Friday Night Lights is the one recent show that is unanimously thought to have stuck the landing. I have a feeling it’ll have company on that list sometime next year.
WARNING: Two of the next three questions include a spoiler for something that happened on Game of Thrones two weeks ago and that, if we’re being honest, you really should know about by now.
With the death of Joffrey by that drank who takes the crown (sorry) for most hated TV character?
Hmmm. Is it too soon to nominate Mad Men’s cruel and clueless Lou Avery? To settle this properly, I think you’d have to come up with a sort of anti-fan round-robin tournament featuring Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead (a character so tedious, even the usually levelheaded Alan Sepinwall wrote an entire post articulating why the erstwhile sheriff should die), Marnie from Girls, and the two sons from Dads. But my personal choice? The red-haired beard monster on Mixology. He’s such a hateful, venom-spewing zero that the only way I’d even consider watching the show again is if he were somehow involved in a Westerosi wedding. Speaking of:
Is Mixology the worst show on network television?
Yes. That ABC is even considering renewing it — likely at the expense of the subtly wonderful Trophy Wife — makes me want to reach for Joffrey’s wine goblet. Speaking of!
We know Jack Gleeson wants to retire from acting after being despised as Joffrey. But let’s say you’re his agent and managed to convince him to take one more go at TV. What’s the dream show in a current show for him? Maybe his Britishness could land him on Sherlock or Downton Abbey.
Even if Jack Gleeson really does want to devote the rest of his life to something more rewarding (though not, likely, in a financial sense) than acting, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some light damage control on the way out the door. As Joffrey, Gleeson was so good at being bad that it’s likely he’ll have people accosting him about what he did to Ros for the rest of his life. (If you like, feel free to substitute “Sansa,” “the book Tyrion gave him,” or “smiling” for “Ros” in the previous sentence.) So that’s why I think his best move would be to make a winking, in-on-the-joke appearance as himself on one of those indulgent Hollywood comedies HBO seems so devoted to producing. If Ricky Gervais can’t be bothered to make more Extras and Stephen Merchant has been barred from doing any further Hello Ladies, maybe there’s a way to shoehorn Gleeson into a future episode of Doll & Em. Wouldn’t it do wonders for our perception of him to see Jack Gleeson play “Jack Gleeson,” a kind and low-key Irishman who, no matter his intentions, tends to make children weep and dogs snarl? If such a thing isn’t possible, I’d just give the people what they want and encourage Gleeson to do a murder tour of all of TV’s finest serial-killer shows. Perhaps the chance to see Joffrey offed again and again — gutted on The Following, devoured on Hannibal, mothered on Bates Motel — would help provide the closure we all so clearly need.
While watching The Following (I know, I know), I exclaimed to my wife that the Joe Carroll saga would be an amazing real-life Wikipedia page and that I’d totally sit there for an hour reading it. It would just be non-stop “no ways” and “really?” and “why did the President leave this manhunt to only one man who clearly is always a step behind?” comments. This led to my wife and I debating which TV character would have the best WTF real-life Wikipedia pages. Clearly Walter White would be first, but who would be in your top 5 hypothetical TV character Wiki reads.
Hugo “Hurley” Reyes from Lost. Mental case to millionaire to messiah!
Meredith Grey from Grey’s Anatomy. Everyone around her dies!
Bob Benson from Mad Men. Lover, fighter, stick-shift driver!
John Munch from Law & Order: SVU and nine other shows spanning 20 years. I feel like the entire page would read like a Rust Cohle monologue.
Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli. Quote from his actual Wikipedia entry: “In subsequent episodes, he out-dueled an expert fencer and mangled a gangster’s prosthetic iron hand with one fist.”
Alternate answer: Literally anyone who has ever appeared on Scandal.
I know you’ve written briefly on it before but why is it Shameless can’t get any award recognition? The writing and acting are incredible.
As I wrote last month, I think Shameless tends to get overlooked mainly because its risqué content can’t distract from its proudly old-fashioned heart. And thank goodness! It’s that unfashionable commitment to characters and relationships that makes the show worth watching. But getting the series more publicity is a priority for Showtime president David Nevins — check for my podcast with him next week — and that’s why he recently made the call to begin submitting Shameless to the Emmys as a comedy instead of a drama.
It’s not too far of a reach: Apparently, showrunner John Wells has considered the series to be a comedy all along. (And while a 3-year-old overdosing on coke is never funny, everything that led up to it kinda was.) But more important, the change is yet another sign of the shifting dynamics of awards season. Though the actual value of an Emmy win is negligible, the prestige associated with a nomination matters more and more, especially with so many shows competing for a limited number of eyeballs. It’s why The Good Wife is making such a big deal about the degree of difficulty involved in making 22 episodes a year compared with its more nimble cable competition7 and one of the reasons FX — which has long been unfairly ignored by the Academy in major categories — is investing so heavily in limited series. (American Horror Story has cleaned up those categories in the past. Fargo ought to get similar recognition this fall.) Of course, HBO continues to play by its own rules. Many expected True Detective to dominate those same miniseries categories, but HBO surprised everyone when it announced last month it would be submitting the show as a standard drama, putting it up against the final season of Breaking Bad. (“Unfair!” cried FX chairman John Landgraf in response.) The reason for all this tumult has a little to do with strategy and a lot to do with ego. FX wants those miniseries noms in order to be taken seriously as a major player. HBO shuns them precisely because it doesn’t want to appear minor. I continue to insist that awards are silly but this sort of jockeying is undeniably great fun.
Time for the lightning round!
Why aren’t there half hour dramas?
I don’t know. There are, however, half-hour tragedies. Have you seen Dads?
Isn’t Gossip Girl the proper comp for House of Cards? It certainly isn’t the “prestige” drama it shoots to be. Plus, Frank and Claire are really just less fun and interesting versions of Chuck & Blair.
Recently I have started to watch Mad Men from the beginning. I have also decided to start drinking whiskey because of Don Draper. Has a show or character changed or made you start looking at things differently?
Certainly! Because of Breaking Bad I never put stevia in my tea, because of True Detective I start my drinking at noon, and because of Mixology I weep for the future.
Does David Duchovny head home every night thinking he’s completed a job well done? Is hell full of people who enjoy Californication?
Yes and yes. I think my work here is done.
Illustration by John Tomac.