Saturday, September 7, 2013

Digging Deep - Learning the Wrong Lessons From Success

"Ray Donovan" had all the trappings of quality drama except for the "quality."

This summer, two new dramas premiered that appeared to have all the trappings of “prestige cable drama.”  One, Showtime’s Ray Donovan, looked to all the world like it was following in the footsteps of Mad Men, Dexter, and Breaking Bad as the next great anti-hero story.   Likewise, AMC’s Low Winter Sun, seemed like it was going to be the next great gritty cop drama, a la The Wire or The Shield.  Then something funny happened.  The shows premiered to a collective critical “eh.”  Something was missing.  They were supposed to be good.  They followed the formula and did everything they were supposed to do in order to be “quality dramas.”  But what these shows did is what dozens, if not hundreds, of shows have done over the course of television history.  They learned the wrong lessons from the successes of others and tried to turn the television creation process into a formula, forgetting that, above all, what matters most is that your show having interesting and unique characters doing interesting and unique things.

Television history is replete with examples of creators copying past success.  The broadest forms of television storytelling almost all have their roots in the 1950s, the earliest days of television programming.  The modern-day police procedurals, the CSIs and NCISs, can trace their beginnings back to The Untouchables and Dragnet.  House and Grey’s Anatomy find their spiritual predecessors in Ben Casey and General Hospital, the first popular medical dramas from the 1960s.  Perry Mason begat Matlock, which begat Law & Order.  Even sitcom forms are more than a half-century old.  Modern Family isn’t Modern Family without The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or I Love Lucy.  Television, better than any other storytelling medium, has learned how to take successful shows, recycle their forms into new ones and find success again and again.  But sometimes the process doesn’t work the way creators intend it to.  Sometimes networks and producers learn the wrong lessons from successful television shows and what we get instead is a pale imitation of the original, devoid of life and usually mediocre at best. 

The reason I’m discussing this phenomenon now is because, for the first time, we’re seeing this behavior creep into the realm of the “prestige cable drama.”  The copycat culture has long been the province of the broadcast networks, which have always needed to fill far more airtime than cable.  Just in looking at the last 10-15 years, I found four clear examples of television creators and broadcast network executives learning the wrong lessons from their previous hits, none more obvious, perhaps, than the aftermath of Lost, but the first of which was ABC’s and NBC’s attempts to duplicate success of The West Wing in 2005 when they debuted, respectively, Commander in Chief and E-Ring.  

In the fall of 2005 The West Wing was entering its final season as the recipient of six consecutive Best Drama Emmy nominations and having won four times.  ABC, looking to fill the Presidential drama void soon to be left in its wake, launched Commander in Chief, a new drama that seemed to perfectly match what The West Wing was doing.  They brought in a pair of movie stars (Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland) to head the cast and supported them with a pair of classic television “hey it’s that guys” in Harry Lennix and Kyle Secor.  It then put on the air of an “Important Drama” and went about its way, hoping that, by wearing a Sorkin suit, the show could draw in the same audience.  But creating a show “with an idealistic view of the presidency” like The West Wing and that “looks a lot like The West Wing” does not mean it will become The West Wing.  Unfortunately, what Commander in Chief didn’t have was interesting characters, stories or, frankly, Aaron Sorkin.  It started off with really good ratings which, honestly, should be expected of a show billed as “the next West Wing” and with a pair of bankable stars, but faded throughout fall, dumped its showrunner for Steven Bochco, and came back from hiatus a shell of its former self, before finally being ejected from the schedule to burn off in the summer.

NBC’s attempt to replace The West Wing was a bit more subtle, but it was clear that E-Ring was meant “to do for the Pentagon what The West Wing did for the White House.”  NBC even moved the elder show to Sunday nights in order to slot E-Ring into its old time period on Wednesdays.  The show was likely pitched just how Variety’s Brian Lowry imagined it: “Remember those scenes on The West Wing when the Joint Chiefs assemble in the "situation room" to tackle some faraway threat?”  Unfortunately E-Ringreprise[d] the tension with none of the intelligence,” rendering it a bland, inert drama.  Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper were the big-name stars brought in to sell the show (not to mention still A-list producer Jerry Bruckheimer) but neither were good enough to elevate the mediocre sandbox they were given to play in.

Both Commander in Chief and E-Ring thought the key to duplicating the success of The West Wing was to hire movie stars (or at least B-list stars) to top the bill and to make a film-quality production.*  What both forgot was that all the talent and production values in the world can’t make up for bland characters and boring stories. 

* E-Ring even hired Taylor Hackford, fresh off an Oscar nomination for directing Ray to helm its pilot

Probably more than any show in the last three decades, Lost has been the envy of television producers everywhere, and for a five year period, no show was more imitated, less successfully than Lost.  Networks (especially ABC) were falling all over themselves trying to find “the next Lost.”  They copied everything: serialization, flashbacks, unending mysteries.  But none was ever able to crack the seemingly simple code and make a show that could last. 

The most obvious example of Lost copycatting is the triumvirate of alien/sci-fi shows that debuted in the fall of 2005.  ABC’s Invasion, CBS’s Threshold, and NBC’s Surface all hoped to capture a little of the Lost audience by replicating its serialized, supernatural storytelling.  All three debuted to decent (or in Invasion’s case, spectacular) audiences, but all three faded quickly, with none returning in 2006.  None of the shows were terrible (well, Surface maybe), but neither did they ever make the transition “from intriguing to addictive.”  Lost paved the way for a lot of the things these series were doing (Invasion likely doesn’t get a ten person cast in 2003 and both Surface and Threshold had Lost-level production values), but none really tried anything different.  It was as though they all felt good production values and an extended, serial storyline was all it would take to win over viewers.  Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your view) they were wrong.

The following year, The Nine was ABC’s second attempt to replicate Lost.  It was also the last time ABC tried to launch a fall show out of Lost (the next year it would move to airing only in the spring).  This time, they thought flashbacks were the key, along with an incomprehensible, serialized story.  Oddly enough, of all the shows that followed Lost, The Nine was easily the best received, though that was only based on the pilot.  Alan Sepinwall, then of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, noted that while The Nine was “probably the best” pilot of the season, it gave him “absolutely no clue how good the show will be next week -- or even what it might look like.”  Maureen Ryan had the same reservations, askinghow long will the writers be able to tease out the mysteries of those 52 hours without driving viewers mad?”  Unfortunately, the answer to that query was “not very long.”  Despite an impressive cast, a great pilot, and an intriguing mystery, The Nine forgot to make us care about the characters.  What kept people coming back to The Island week in and week out was not the mystery, but the characters.  It was the people that really mattered and The Nine never really gave its audience interesting characters.  And so the show debuted big (thanks to a monster Lost lead-in), dropped a third of its audience in week two, and then puttered along until November sweeps, when it was unceremoniously dumped from the schedule.

In Lost’s final season, ABC took one last stab at trying to remake success, but that year’s attempt, FlashForward, suffered the same fate as its predecessor The Nine.  Similarly high-concept, FlashForward put together a talented cast and gave them the shallowest of characters before forcing everybody to sit around talking about what happened to them instead of actively exploring their new world .  One of the great things about Lost is that their attempts to decipher the island often revealed as much about the characters as about the island.  Trying to track down the radio signal revealed Sayid’s history as an Iraqi soldier and Shannon’s past as a French au pair.  Digging out the hatch taught us far more about Locke and Boone than about the island.  The problem with FlashForward was that, even as the show delved deeper into the mystery, it didn’t peel back the layers on its characters; instead it added more (layers and characters).  FlashForward was too worried about reaching its endpoint, when it needed to care more about the journey. 

Lost was a cultural phenomenon and perhaps no show was ever going to be able to replicate that.  But all these shows failed to do the one thing that their predecessor excelled at.  Lost gave us characters we cared about.  For all the mysteries: the hatch, the Others, the Dharma Initiative, the flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-sideways, what kept viewers coming back was the characters.  While the show’s finale was divisive, those who enjoyed it (myself included) usually cite the fact that, crazy plot twists and deus ex machinas aside, the show stayed true to its characters and gave them a fitting end.  None of its copycats got far enough to plan an ending like that, but I can’t imagine enjoying watching their characters enough that I would have even cared whether those shows had fitting finales or not.  The networks, ABC especially, mistakenly thought that it was style that mattered most.  Make a show that looks like Lost and sounds like Lost and you’d have another Lost.  But Lost was more than high production values, a thrilling score, and questions piled upon questions.  It was first and foremost a story about interesting characters doing interesting things.

Lost may be the most obvious example, but it was not the only show that ABC fell all over itself trying to replicate.  Launched in the same season as Lost (and fellow smash hit Desperate Housewives) was Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes’s first show and her first attempt to sex up the workplace (in this case a hospital).  In 2006, the fall that The Nine premiered, those three shows were the top three shows on all of television (until American Idol returned in the spring of course).  But three monster shows couldn’t keep ABC out of third place and, by the summer of 2009, the network was barely holding off NBC (mired in its own slump) and, even in spite of a Jay Leno Show-inspired ratings collapse, would end up tied for third with the peacock network a year later.  ABC tried three times in the next two seasons to find a show that could repeat the Grey’s Anatomy formula, but all three failed, with two being unmitigated disasters.

The first of the three shows to launch was Defying Gravity, which debuted in August of 2009.  While the show wasn’t created by ABC, its creator had been a writer and producer for Grey’s and it was even pitched to the network as “Grey’s Anatomy in space.  Of course, by “Grey’s Anatomy in space” they meant “sexy time in space.”  “Girl talk, romance and sexual tension” were “the centerpiece of [this show].  Unfortunately, they should have made the storytelling the centerpiece.  Any time you see the word “stupid” used four times in a single paragraph…well that’s a problem. 

Defying Gravity lasted four episodes.  Its successor in January, The Deep End bested it by a pair.  With “Grey’s Anatomy in space” having bombed, ABC tried its hand with “Grey’s Anatomy with lawyers.  I have to admit, I was predisposed to liking The Deep End because of my unrequited love for Tina Majorino.  Unfortunately, what they forgot in trying to copy Shonda Rhimes is that what made Grey’s Anatomy great wasn’t the sex, it was that the show had an ensemble filled with great actors (18 Emmy nominations to date between the cast and guest actors) and had a writing staff who could flesh out its characters into something more than bland caricatures, something The Deep End never had. 

Proving that even the best can make bad rip-offs, ABC launched the Off the Map in January of 2011.  Written by a Grey’s scribe (who would also transition to Rhimes’s Scandal) and produced by Shonda Rhimes, it basically transported Seattle Grace to a remote South American village.  Again, the same formula was in play: attractive, talented actors saddled with weak characters and the hope that throwing enough sex into the mix would mask the lack of focus and aspiration.  Again, there was nothing here but an attempt to recreate the past.  Among the choice adjectives used to describe Off the Map were “pleasant, unremarkable, overly-familiar” and “relentlessy predictable.”  

All three of these shows thought that putting pretty actors in a procedural format with a healthy mix of sex would let them leech a little of that Grey’s Anatomy glory.  And all three failed because they didn’t realize that beyond the sex and the soap, Grey’s (and its not quite as successful spinoff Private Practice) has a universe filled with complex characters whose motivations are driven internally rather than determined by whatever the story needs of them that week.  No matter how hard ABC tried to prove otherwise, characters with depth and unique stories are going to trump sex any day of the week.

In 2011, having unsuccessfully mined their own archives for hits to replicate, the networks turned to cable for inspiration.  Specifically, NBC and ABC decided to make a play for Mad Men’s awards and its cultural cachet by launching a pair of period dramas set in the 1960s.  Honestly, the less said about NBC’s The Playboy Club the better (and its total of three aired episodes certainly merit little discussion), but I would really like to focus on ABC’s Pan Am.  There was a real chance for this show to say something interesting about the women’s movement in the sixties.  Much has been written and said about the Civil Rights movement in the decade, but the discussion of women often gets left behind in favor of the more obvious (and more prevalent) race discussion.  There was the opportunity for Pan Am to really make its mark and tell the story of working women in the 1960s, but it instead decided to subvert any politics to show the doe-eyed, awe-struck stewardesses who were lucky enough to enjoy the jet-set lifestyle of the time.  It took all the style and nostalgia of Mad Men and turned it into the substance of the show, without saying (or even aspiring to) anything more important.  The Playboy Club was the disaster of the two, but Pan Am was the greater disappointment because it had the chance to be something unique and instead just dropped nostalgia on top of a worn, staid story.

That brings us to this summer’s premieres of Showtime’s Ray Donovan and AMC’s Low Winter Sun, when even cable networks started learning the wrong lessons from their success.  What has marked this recent golden age of “Difficult Men” is that, while the lead characters in these shows often shared common traits, they were each uniquely situated to their circumstances.  Don Draper’s constant infidelity is the result of his pathological fear of ever having another person truly know him.  So he is only able to give a piece of himself to any of the women he’s with.  This all stems from his decision to steal the real Don Draper’s identity during the Korean War.  The character’s past and personality drive his behavior, as it should be.  Ray Donovan, on the other hand, cheats on his wife because that’s what Draper, Tony Soprano, and Vic Mackey did.  There’s no deeper meaning to his infidelity.  He does it because that’s what the archetypal male antihero is supposed to do.

There are a litany of these character traits that Ray Donovan hijacks from previous antihero dramas for no reason, as detailed by Maureen Ryan in her review of the show.  Ray is “virile, capable of serious violence at the drop of a hat, working through conflicting loyalties, employed in a field that puts him in contact with unsavory, unpleasant, or unethical types, from an ethnic or socio-economic subculture, and good at his job, more or less.”  All of these traits are ripped straight from his predecessors like Draper, Dexter Morgan, Jack Bauer, and others.  But there are no reasons given for Ray to act or be like this other than that those are the character traits expected of a straight, white male antihero.

The same problems plague Low Winter Sun, causing Alan Sepinwall to coin it and its ilk the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better Dramas.”  Sun has everything you would expect from a gritty cop drama like The Wire or The Shield.  But Sun didn’t even have the patience to wait for the end of its pilot episode to have its cop leads kill another cop: it happens in the first scene.  And it really is ridiculous that this show isn’t better.  It’s got a fantastic cast (Lennie James is one of those actors I’d watch in anything), and a unique setting.  A strong sense of place can do a lot for a show (just look at this summer’s best new show The Bridge) and Detroit is well-used.  But there’s a terrifying emptiness to it all.  The main characters kill another cop, but without any background for them, it’s mostly meaningless.  There’s no emotion, no connection.  It wants so desperately to be high-quality drama, but it doesn’t really know what that means.

The most frustrating thing about the recent spate of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better” shows is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  There’s been a lot of sturm und drang recently regarding the so-called “end of an era.”  With Breaking Bad airing its final season and Mad Men preparing for its swan song in the spring, a lot of critics have taken to declaring this the end of the golden age of television (or at least the most recent golden age).  Anybody saying that is just wrong.  Certainly the male antihero show is dead, at least until somebody can find a new spin on it.  But I think we’ve merely reached the end of this golden age’s first act.  The last couple of years have seen the rise of new brands of drama.  Showtime’s Homeland and FX’s The Americans and The Bridge have largely eschewed the male antihero archetype for narratives focused around strong male and female leads; pairs who share strong emotional bonds if not necessarily romantic ones.  Two of 2013’s best shows so far, Top of the Lake and Orange is the New Black, have been built on female leads and, in the case of Black a stunning supporting cast with dozens of women.  There is more good television on today than ever before.  It doesn’t look exactly like the great dramas of the past 15 years, but that’s a good thing.  Even the best things go stale when they’re not revisited now and again.

The one thread running through all of the great shows is their characters.  Their worlds are populated with interesting people who are real, true characters.  And that’s what the imitators always fail to get.  They treat their characters like puzzle pieces to be moved around and shoved together in a desperate attempt to find something that fits.  It’s certainly possible to succeed by mimicking a show’s tone or themes.  Grey’s Anatomy owes a great deal to ER.  Person of Interest is an intriguing newer show that borrowed a lot of tone and style from Fringe, not to mention the debt it owes to its crime procedural forebears.  But, ultimately, what makes the great shows great is not their plots or their narrative devices: it’s their characters.  And those you just can’t copy.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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