Monday, October 16, 2006

1) Time Travel 2) Curing Cancer 3) Creating a successful television series

This was originally going to be one of my “Where does the time go?” sentimental pieces, as I can’t even fathom how we’re already halfway through this semester. It truly does seem like yesterday we were rolling down to Georgia for Labor Day weekend. The main point of it was going to be “Despite the fact it’s going by so fast, we still have a considerable amount of college left to learn/party/embarrass Our Lady’s University.” I’ll probably post what I was working on at some point in time, but I want to discuss a few other things first.

Some of my roommates were surprised, after stumbling upon an USA Today television ratings summary, that The Office wasn’t one of the top shows in the country. In fact, Steve Carrell’s beautiful piece of television art isn’t even in the top 20. When Grey’s Anatomy – your number one show on television – ran a clip show before it’s season finale last month, the freaking clip show blew The Office out of the water. Maybe you’d like to blame My Name Is Earl, the lead-in, but Earl got higher ratings last Thursday.

That begs the question: How the hell do you make a successful television series? Notice I didn’t even say a “good” television series. Making a good television series isn’t easy, but it’s doable. There’s a lot of really good television on in primetime, almost to the point that there’s no way enough of it will survive.

To make a successful series, you probably need to start with a “good” program. Reality television proves it doesn’t have to be overly intelligent or world-altering, but you better make it entertaining. If you’re a comedy, be funny, if you’re a drama, have interesting characters or engrossing plots: just make it good. But once you have a critically-acclaimed show that everyone loves, where do you put it? You have to have an already established show for your new baby to siphon viewers from, which is how shows like CSI (fed off of Survivor) and Grey’s Anatomy (took the ball from Desperate and ran very far with it) become so damn popular.

Let’s say you’re The CW Network, and you have the best show on television. We’ll call it Victoria Mercury. It’s got smart writing, compelling storylines and beautiful women prominently involved. However, the problem is, nobody gives a crap about anything on your network. How do you possibly promote it, other than stashing it behind the failing, ancient Gilmore Girls and hoping enough people are forced into watching the first two seasons on DVD that you become successful again? Without an established show to draw viewers in with, you’re in trouble.

Of course, that isn’t always the case. When you look at the top twenty, the majority of shows grew from having some sort of power lead-in. There are non­-CSI and Law & Order exceptions, such as NCIS and Criminal Minds, but you can trace most everything else back to some greater entity that predated it. The two shows that I can’t remember coming from anything but major, major marketing?

Lost and Desperate Housewives, who emerged the fall of our freshman year in 2004 and took the television world by storm. Desperate, after slumping last year, is back hellastrong, third in the ratings and only a couple million viewers and two shares behind the monster it created, Grey’s. Why did Desperate get popular in the first place? It had the quality, tearjerking lead-in of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and then threw out a lot of beautiful women (mainly Eva – oh, Eva) and an interesting first season. People will try to deny it now, but the first season of Desperate contained some great moments and slightly-intriguing storylines.

Lost handled itself in the same way: huge hype, beautiful people, quality show (from what I hear), but something has terribly wrong this season: Lost is slumping. It’s lost a few million viewers from it’s second season premiere in 2005 and is only a few thousand viewers ahead of Criminal Minds. I’m not sure if you’ve ever watched Minds, but my mother is addicted to every CBS crime procedural, so I’ve seen a complete episode before. It’s terrible. My mom said the episode I saw was one of the worst, but I can’t imagine it ever being that good. Why is Lost flailing about so uncontrollably in the television winds?

Because while it’s a serial that requires viewers to tune in week after week, it’s not a serial that can actually solve it’s mystery and still exist: Once the show turns into Found, it’s series over. Shows like Desperate, Grey’s, Buffy, Veronica Mars and The Sopranos perhaps all have a season-long mystery or conflict they’re trying to resolve, but that can be wrapped up neatly at the end of the season so new, fresher pursuits can be made by the established characters. 24 almost was in the same problem as Lost, but they realized that if people believed all of that crazy, improbable stuff could happen within a single one-day period, they’d accept that in the ­24 universe it could easily happen again. Prison Break turned into Prison Broke, and while it’s not exactly a blockbuster hit, they made a necessary adjustment and didn’t lose that much steam.

Lost is stuck between revealing too much and satisfying fans into leaving, or trying to keep them trapped in with more and more mysteries. I refused to watch Lost because the established universe didn’t play by its own rules – there are slave traders and polar bears? – and because I knew stories of those that were burned by shows like Twin Peaks, Alias and The X-Files, where more and more mythology was heaped on and the show just collapsed under the weight of its own expectations. The longer you draw something out, the more exciting the revelation has to be. Invasion died last season, and shows like Jericho and The Nine appear doomed to follow in the same fate this season.

A well-written procedural, like Law & Order, CSI or House, doesn’t have to worry about such tie-ins. They can follow the same format every show, and as long as some emotion is attached to that episode’s case and the main characters remain interesting, people will tune in week after week.

So how in the world isn’t The Office more popular? It’s well-promoted, both on NBC and by word of mouth. It exists as both a procedural and a serial: you get much more out of every episode if you know the over-arcing storyline, but there’s still some pretty funny stuff a new viewer can identify with. It’s extremely well-written and manages to encompass some of the best comedy, along with some of the best dramatic sappiness, you’ll experience over the course of the week. It’s lead-in is a good show, but it’s facing stiff competition and probably the feeling from outsiders that goes along the lines of “I haven’t watched it yet, I won’t understand what’s going on”. While that was the case with something like Arrested Development, where someone who hadn’t seen the previous episodes would have no understanding of why David Cross was dressed up as a British nanny, The Offce is pretty accessible for anyone that’s ever been into the workplace. You have an idiot boss, lazy people and general malaise most of the time.

For the question of The Office, I’ll just stick with my tried and true answer anytime a series I love dies or doesn’t have the ratings it should, such as Veronica, Arrested or How I Met Your Mother (which isn’t in any danger of being cancelled, but is not rewarded for being the second best comedy on television):

America is stupid. They don’t understand quality, and would rather watch the Reality Show Flavor of the Week over a decent reality show, like The Amazing Race, or a quality piece of programming like The Office. The Oscars won’t nominate the best five movies every year, the best teams won’t always play for the national championship and television will neglect, to the point of cancellation, two or three great series a year.


I’m extremely excited for the idea that Notre Dame will probably end up in the Sugar Bowl this January, barring some sort of embarrassing collapse against UCLA, Army, Air Force, Navy or North Carolina. Beating Southern Cal would only assure us our spot in New Orleans, unless the dominoes fall the right way and we slip into the BCS Championship. But still, for not winning a national title, spending some time in New Orleans isn’t too bad of a consolation prize.

The Sugar Bowl is one of the later bowls, falling in primetime on January 3rd. It’s within driving distance, meaning that there’s the option of spending New Years in N’awlins and a few days of drunken wandering through the French Quarter before the game or the secondary option of New Years in Niagara, then taking off for the bayou. My Mapquesting tells me it’s around a sixteen hour drive, which is definitely doable in one day/overnighting. Again, I’ll be gleeful should we end up in the BCS Championship game (played in Arizona), the Orange Bowl (sweet, beautiful Miami), the Sugar or The Rose (while being the most expensive potential trip, it’s the freaking Rose Bowl, man), if I had to buy a plane ticket to fly to the desert for the Fiesta Bowl, no matter how nice everyone says it was in January for the Ohio State loss, I would not be a happy camper.

Thankfully, the predicted Fiesta Bowl game as of right now?

Boise State vs. Texas. Burnt orange and blue. Lovely.


Have yet to see The Departed, although I plan on seeing it at some point in time before fall break is over. Somehow, despite it’s general awesomeness, it still isn’t favored for Best Picture, which confuses me to no end.

Another film that will be definitely worthy, yet not nominated?

November 3rd, and the exposure of countless pockets of American ignorance, is almost here.


It was a joy to settle in for an afternoon of NFL Sunday Ticket for the first day all season, since fucking Comcast hasn’t paid enough to the league to get this on their service yet. I’ve followed the NFL with less vigor this season then I have any other since I became cognizant enough of the world around me to memorize the divisional allocation in kindergarten (for the record, Dill doesn’t even know the divisions now).

I don’t like to do things half-assed, so I don’t want to go watching three games a week on Sunday afternoon – the majority of those involving the Colts, Bears and Lions – and stake a claim at being some kind of NFL expert. Sure, watching highlights and reading the Peter Kings and Gregg Easterbrooks of the world still help, but there’s nothing like watching a few drives from a team in crunch time and seeing for yourself if they’re the real deal.

Plus, the NFL isn’t nearly as fun since the Steelers won the Super Bowl, as nearly every broadcast somehow harkens to that dark February day. You’d think maybe this success would make Steeler fans smarter, but instead of their usual gusto, they were still worried about the Chiefs this Sunday. Why? Because they were using a back-up quarterback, perennially terrible wide receivers, a depleted offensive line and a banged up LJ against your stout run defense, allowing you to just put eight in the box and let Damon Huard try to beat you? Not to mention the Chiefs are consistently deplorable on defense and coached by Herm Edwards. What advantage did they possibly have?

And of course, after the 45-7 victory, it was all jubilation and redemption for Big Ben. “The Chiefs aren’t very good. Damon Huard is their starting quarterback. You need a good QB going against you to lose because it minimizes the effectiveness of the Blitzburgh attack. Why are you so happy and ignorant over this victory?” I ask, with only Terrible Towels slapping me in the face as a response.


Coming up next time: The merits and demerits of Washington, DC; a finger-wagging at Grey’s; the NBA is almost starting! musings; Departed reaction; and eventually, someday, the complete breakdown of what makes Veronica Mars so awesome.

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