That difficult second album syndrome – Television that hit the mark, and then didn’t
I wouldn’t be the only one in this day and age to skilfully notice that good television is becoming easier to find – these days you can’t throw an imaginary stick anywhere without hitting at least one or more exceedingly brilliant TV programs on the way down. I distinctly remember that no less than 10 years ago television networks had about as much desire to pump money into good TV drama and comedy as Molly Meldrum had in putting down the tequila bottle and becoming a poster boy for Dry July.
The word sitcom no longer was an abbreviation for ‘Situation Comedy’; Kirk Cameron and John English had left their grubby poo stained fingerprints smeared across the outer edges of the frame, and as we edged ourselves cautiously into the naughties, a chorus line of nauseating cop shows and bad Australian romantic drama jammed itself between thinly spaced great comedies like The Simpsons or the John Larroquette Show.
It was an era where the Emmy’s and the Logies conjured as much excitement as a cucumber salada at a 10 year old’s birthday party.
Praise be to baby Geebus that times have changed – we’ve taken off our vaginas and Christian themed onesies and opened up our minds to the possibility that good television doesn’t have to follow traditional convention; HBO has gone a long way to alleviate our anxieties about sensitive issues by getting good writers and directors to turn them into fantastic programs.
But what starts out wonderfully doesn’t always keep its perfect aura – in TV land, sometimes the ugly ducklings actually begin as swans, and good television can take a bad turn in the same amount of time it takes an Englishman to book a plane ticket to Bondi.
How did it go so horribly wrong so incredibly quickly? Observe:
This is a show that essentially had the hallmarks of greatness written all over it, however, like juggling an iPhone over a storm drain, awesomeness leapt out of our hands and carried itself along to the nearest sewage farm to be smeared head to toe with the unmistakable stench of bad writing and silly storylines.
Wait, I may have confused a metaphor or two on that last one. Nevermind.
You see long before Marvel decided to have a crack at the small screen, Heroes snuck itself to the front of a queue with a brilliant X-Men-esque storyline about people all over the world suddenly realising they have awesome super powers and using those powers to the fullest extent of their potential.
The deviation from similar comic books comes when these ‘Heroes’ begin to unwittingly seek each other out and search for answers, instead of whopping on a cape and gallivanting all over town saving people with their ray gun eyes, super strength, and shit talking mouth.
That last one may have been Amanda Vanstone.
Now before you jump on the “ughh” band wagon with all the other comic book hating freaks, the redeeming feature in the eyes of the non-nerd audience was a well crafted sense of drama, effortlessly styled from a brilliant Tarantino style multi-character storyline – a storyline that ultimately ended with a single event. At one point I expected Bruce Willis to meander into frame on the back of motorcycle with a bizarre French woman and utter, “Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead”.
So where did it come off the rails? At what point did it drunkenly soar over the guardrails of the highway and explode with all the dazzle of a Kenny Powers death scene?
Well, unfortunately for NBC (and for us) the timing of Heroes’ success was about as punctual as a Brendan Fevola television appearance – looming right around the corner was a raging death nell that rang out in the night for a lot of high rating American TV programs.
You see, a writers strike lurked ominously by, and when it hit, everyone that could hold their pen properly and string a complete sentence together basically downed their lattes, packed up their Bluetooth headsets, folded away their chinos, and went home. Even actors could smell the fear, and with the scent fresh in their noses they joined the picket lines outside America’s biggest television networks to try and scrape the bottom of the barrel to get their faces on Entertainment Weekly.
Some shows folded and waited for it all to blow over, however some shows, like Heroes, decided to forge on without their corps of writers, and began taking ideas floated around for future episodes for use in season 2. It soon became obvious however that slapping a fresh coat of paint on a 1984 Ford Telstar doesn’t make a great replacement for a Lamborghini.
Season 2 had its moments, but while season 1 ended with a great storyline that involved an internal struggle of emotions with the main bad guy protagonist Sylar (that bloke that played Spock in Star Trek), Season 2 seemingly took that great idea and spent a considerable amount of time pushing Sylar in a completely different direction.
It also had a strange ‘On the buses: Down Under’ vibe to it, with a lot of the first few episodes mysteriously taking place in Mexico, for reasons that I can only ascertain revolve around being a cheaper location to shoot, like those pine tree filled X-Files or Stargate episodes that take place in ‘rural America’, but are shot almost entirely in Canada. In some scenes set in the backwater Colorado, you half expected to see drunken Canadians wandering behind Mulder brandishing a plate of Poutine and spouting nonsense about Ice Hockey.
In all, the following seasons of Heroes merely became vehicles to give everyone’s favourite characters some screen time, and so the general public was made to fawn themselves over Hiro Nakamura’s bumbling childlike naivety, Hayden Paterririarreararearaea’s (I think that’s how it’s spelt) long blonde locks and tight jeans, and Sylar’s brooding elven-faced scorn like angst. Soon, all sense of coherent storyline went out the window and was swiftly replaced with nauseating scenes of Claire’s father awkwardly looking over to his adopted (SPOILER ALERT) daughter and exclaiming “Ohhh, Claire bear”.
“I HATE YOU DAD”
“OHH CLAIRE BEAR”
“NO, I HATE YOU SO MUCH”
“BUT I LOVE YOU CLAIRE BEAR”
In all, if you’ve never seen this show, this shouldn’t stop you from watching season 1 – you see the first season does something that a lot of shows these days don’t really ever seem to do…..
The finale wraps the whole multi-layered universe up into a neat little onion like structure, and like the ending of a comic book adventure (which is how the show models itself) the good guys rejoice in their victory and stand around looking great and windswept for the final camera shot.
It’s like the guys that made the show didn’t even know themselves if they were coming back next season, and thought they better wrap up all the loose ends just in case one of the guys from ‘corporate’ swans into the room and tells them that their free supply of Lattes are cut off. Lest we forget that commercial television is exactly as the name implies, commercial, and the mountains of money that make these great shows comes off the back of ridiculously stupid sitcoms about families with anal retentive American Christian values.
They must have felt like George Lucas setting up to film the final shot in Star Wars, making sure the ending looked definitive enough to end a standalone movie, yet remaining ambiguous enough to tease the balls of the viewing public should management decide to get off their cocaine encrusted high horse and throw some more money at him.
More than anything Heroes shows us that great television doesn’t really belong on commercial TV, something that becomes obvious when you look at the calibre of great American and international television shows that inevitably end up on the government funded ABC – you would think commercial stations would be clambering over themselves to get a piece of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, but this unfortunately flys in the face of who watches ACTUALLY watches television.
How many of us have watched Breaking Bad on TV? It’s there. It’s on the ABC. Of course most of us either downloaded the show when it was shown in the US or we went to the store and got the DVD’s. Take into account that most young hip people between the ages of 22 and 35 don’t really religiously watch television – they’re too busy swilling expensive coffee outside of op shops and leaping feverishly between telling everyone they know they’re deep into Trap music, Dub or electro-punk-neo-grunge, depending on what’s popular at the time.
So who watches television? Well to be perfectly honest it’s fair to assume that most of us do when we walk through the door after coming home from work – so it’s pretty understandable that at these moments when our brain has turned to mush and all remaining flecks of our attention span have become devoted to shovelling ill prepared food in our mouths, that the last thing we want to wrap our intellects around is a multi-dimensional storyline with Oscar Wilde inspired dialogue.
Just show me celebrities dancing to terrible renditions of popular 70’s songs thanks.
And there it is, there’s your audience – brain dead zombie-eque office workers, school students molesting instagram with acres of self absorbed selfies, the elderly, and a wide eyed and wide awake sea of unemployed people, who don’t need to watch television because they’ve already spent all day streaming episodes of Samurai Pizza Cats from the internet and having games of Grand Theft Auto ad-nauseam.
Wait, I forgot where I was for a second.
Oh yeah, Heroes.
Season 1 good, the rest, not so.
Before the coolness of The Walking Dead, there was another swarthy, fresh faced post-apocalyptic TV show on the block – Jericho was a great little show set in the town of, errr, Jericho, a little Kansas backwater that apparently was so isolated from the outside world that it managed to survive a nuclear apocalypse.
But straight off the bat I want to be quick to point out that it’s not apocalypse in the Mad Max sense, don’t expect to see a writhing sea of cannibals descend over the horizon to tear flesh off unsuspecting protagonists with dodgy acting abilities. The show begins with a slice of modern life in the tiny unsuspecting hamlet, and things begin to kick off when a huge mushroom cloud can be seen over the capital city hundreds of miles in the distance.
Sounds pretty cool so far.
You see that’s where the awesome drama and intrigue comes in – how widespread is the destruction? Who are we at war with? How many people died? Can I still get Krispy Kreme? WHAT IS GOING ON?
The first series is reminiscent of putting together a jigsaw puzzle that never came with a picture on the box. Everyone in the show are given glimpses of clues to what is happening in the outside world and it’s seemingly up to the viewer to try and figure which pieces go where. We’re introduced to some great storylines that include civilians masquerading as soldiers to get free food, an internal town power struggle between the old sheriff and the new sheriff, and an impending shower of radiation filled rain that threatens to wipe out all life in Jericho.
Some rather awesome intrigue is thrown into the mix when every telephone in town begins to ring simultaneously, and it all seems to descend into a very strange Stephen King plotline as the viewer is unable to discern whether the events are terrestrial or supernatural.
Soon however the fun all seemed to come crashing down when network executives one morning jumped out of their Mercedes, attached their bluetooth headsets, and sauntered across into their offices and looked over the ratings – you see, they thought it wasn’t a hugely popular show, and in one of those baffling Arrested Development moments that defies good television, it was cut because the network couldn’t charge the fees for advertising they wanted to tampon companies for 30 second commercials about blue liquid.
The Jericho army soon made their voices heard, and after a massive fan campaign the network relented and commissioned another 7 episodes of Jericho that was meant to tie up the entire series.
This is where the problem begins…
The creators of Jericho must have thought they struck gold when an cohort of fans demanded the show get reinstated, and whether it was a strange power trip or the unsubstantiated belief in their own abilities, the writers of the show effectively rolled up their sleeves and set about penning the worst piece of television the world has ever seen.
It’s fair to say that during the show’s creation, the writers would walk into a room and routinely expel huge spurts of diarrhoea and sputum over blank pieces of paper, the dried contents of which would go on to make up large tracts of both the dialogue and storyline for season 2. The overwhelming sense of intrigue soon dissipated when we would go on to learn that (SPOILER ALERT) the attacks were coordinated by a shadowy underground homegrown all-American terrorist group that planned to usurp power in the United States by destroying all traces of government.
Ok, now what? The show seemingly went on to spill the beans in the first episode of the new series, meaning any sense of whimsy and marvel from then on was completely ruined, and the remaining episodes were left to play out a rather tedious and boring narrative about a new United States government going to war with the new nation of ‘Texas’.
As a viewer it suddenly dawned on me that the characters effectively no longer needed to be there anymore, and the writers must have felt like A-grade world class idiots when they realised that there was nothing left for an adoring audience to tune in for.
It’s like spending an entire year wonderfully crafting the characters and situations in a game of Cluedo, only to spoil it all by including a letter with the boxed set that reads “The Butler did it”.
Needless to say when it was axed a second time, the Jericho army was silent.
I’ll get copious amounts of hate for this next one, but before you begin raiding your crispers for ageing vegetables to launch in my direction, let me explain why I’ve put this in the ‘Difficult second album’ pile.
The whole point of this isn’t so much about television programs that peak too early, as it is about programs failing to compare against their own genius – the programs in this list didn’t just start out good and then go stale, they started off so amazingly brilliant that being able to continue their rapier like intensity was going to be all but impossible.
This is where Archer fits in, the animated spy show on FX that was so awesomely funny in its first season, that only god himself parting the heavens, descending on a diamond studded unicorn, and bestowing mankind with his infinite knowledge was really ever going to show it up.
If you’ve never seen the show, do yourself a favour and check out practically any episode from the first series – what awaits you is the exploits of Sterling Archer, a child-like secret agent whose only vocation in life is to use his status as a spy to acquire as much unadulterated sex and material wealth as he possibly can. All of this is under the watchful eye of his mother and ISIS agency founder Malory Archer (voiced by the amazingly brilliant Jessica Walter of Arrested Development fame), who has problems of her own, including an illicit love affair with a Soviet KGB agent and an all consuming alcohol problem.
As you can imagine, all manner of wacky situations arise from this crude melting pot of shambolic ideas, including the phrase “This is how we get ants” that gets emblazoned on your brain within the first 5 minutes of chucking on the first episode.
So what went wrong?
Well, it’s not that anything went wrong…..
….it just didn’t go anywhere.
It’s like that Jimoein joke about finding 50 dollars in the street, if your eyebrows peak too soon, the next piece of information becomes completely useless.
“Hey! I just found 50 bucks!”
“Oh, and there’s life on Mars”
*Eyebrows still raised*
Much the same way that it was surely difficult for Nas to peddle out ‘It was Written’ after he knocked out ‘Illmatic’, it must have been difficult for the series creators to follow up something that was pretty much the best animated show on TV at the time.
It seemed to suffer the fate of a lot of shows – transforming smaller plotlines that changed weekly, into larger narratives that span several episodes at a time. It’s a phenomenon that seems to be repeated time and time again when writers couldn’t be arsed writing large chunks of new material; The X-Files, Stargate SG1, Supernatural, Fringe, and a plethora of others suffered the same doom – an array of great shows that became stale after the focus shifted from ever changing narratives into a grandiose yarn with a definitive ending.
Suddenly episodes of Stargate relied heavily on knowing what happened three episodes prior.
What? Why? Don’t fill my head with tech jargon about Asgard shield beaming technology, just write a new ending to the episode that doesn’t involve stuff you’ve already written because you’re lazy. It’s like the end of Iron Man 3, “I can’t write a way where Iron Man can plausibly defeat the evil bad guy, oh I know, I’ll create a scenario where 50 Iron Men show up and save the day instead”.
Sigh. Have I lost you yet readers?
In regards to Archer, suddenly cool scenarios that changed weekly became long drawn out events that seemed to rely on telling a story more than it did on telling jokes. It’s a comedy show, start making with the yuk-yuks buddy. It’s as though one day the writers had a meeting, sat down, put their serious faces on and said:
“Look, I know we used to write jokes, but I want to add a little Tolstoy element into the storyline from here on”.
By the end of season 3, Archer had turned into a show that relied less on silly ideas and more on plausible narrative elements, something you don’t really want from an animated show that follows the adventures of make believe spies in a make believe spy agency.
I haven’t yet seen season 4, but I don’t hold out much hope.
Part 2 – Coming Soon