I’m going to embarrass myself (again) and say that we watch a lot of TV in my house. Too much, really, for a couple of otherwise intelligent adults. Now, we read a lot too, but most of our “together time” is spent watching one thing or another on the good ol’ boob tube. Needless to say, we are enthusiastically anticipating the return of some of our favorite shows and curious about the wave of new entrants to the fling-advertisements-at-our-face race. We’ve seen some of the new pilots, and the general consensus so far?
Network TV is trying too hard.
I’m going to talk mostly about The Red Band Society, because it was the guiltiest of the parties, but all the shows I’ve seen yet are coming up a mess in one way or another; usually by dint of insulting their audiences.
First and foremost, RBS is trying to capitalize on the The Fault in our Stars dollar by shoving cancer kids in our faces and counting on that fact alone to tug at our heartstrings and keep us tuned in. A sympathy play as empty as the heart of a god that would allow kids to get cancer. There’s nothing wrong with trying to ride the coattails of a successful product, but, I mean, at least embellish upon the idea. TFIOS resonated with readers (and subsequently, viewers) because of its compelling, flawed, sassy but ultimately likable and admirable protagonist and her relationship/obsession (resessionship?) with Cancer Jesus. RBS takes that trope (compelling, flawed, sassy) and paints a caricature of it. Bitchy girl is so bitchy she’s unredeemable (but I’ll bet my no-longer-attached-left-nut she will find redemption, oh, somewhere toward the end of season 1, but slip back into her bitchy bitchiness just in time for season 2, should the show survive that long). Sassy guy has every answer for every situation ever, knows everybody and knows how to get what he wants from everybody, but he’s too smart for his own good. Horny black teen is horny and black and a teenager in the most transparent of ways (“awkwardly” propositioning his new nurse since he doesn’t want to die a virgin in a scene so painful and forced that … well, the point of all this is that it insults its viewers, so you know, THAT). Uptight girl is uptight, but she OH SO DESPERATELY SECRETLY WANTS TO BREAK THE RULES. And the protagonist (how is he a protagonist without being involved in any of the action?) watches (???) all this unfold from the depths of a coma in which he can hear everything around him, and boy has he learned a lot about life!
These are cardboard cutouts of tired characters who have appeared in every teen story we know since FOREVER, and they all have cancer and they all fight ferociously to prove who they are at every stage and they all spout pseudo-philosophical drivel in an attempt to sound deep that ultimately just left us scratching our heads. Example:
Put-upon Doctor: I guess the word “no” isn’t in your vocabulary?
Cancer Kid: If it was, would I be asking you to say “yes?”
That’s not clever, it’s an idiotic non-sequitur. And EVERY KID HAS A LINE LIKE THAT. That’s not character development, that’s a sledgehammer with the word “character” scratched in the side by a rusty penknife. And don’t tell me, “well, of course the characters are simple, it’s aimed at a teen audience!” It’s going into the Prime-time lineup. Glee is a show ostensibly for teens, but it has tremendous viewership outside of that demographic (or HAD, until the sharknado writing became super-sharknadoey writing after the second season). No, teens might be a focus of the show, but they are not the only audience intended for the show. But even if they were, that doesn’t change the fact that even teenagers are tired of these cookie-cutter characters. Glee was a bag of chocolate covered potato chips — an interesting treat, but not something you want to eat a whole bag of. RBS is trying to be a bag of chocolate covered potato chips with a dead frog in the bag for good measure. They’re counting on the fact that the kids have cancer to bring weight in and of itself to a show as hollow as anything on TV, and it’s not going to make me want to eat a dead frog.
Also? And this is not just RBS, but all the pilots we’ve watched yet — Narration. God, gag me with a hammer over some narration. Coma kid narrates all the comings and goings of the hospital from his coma. (How does he know what’s going on in the basement, by the way? Did everybody tell him everything after he woke up? Isn’t that sort of spoiling the entire show for us?) Some female voice narrates every facet of the female protagonist’s life on A to Z. It’s not the female lead’s voice, which is odd, because the female lead is grown and theoretically should not need an “old person” to provide her voice in flashback, so who is she? If she’s a character who will appear later in the story, why not introduce her in the pilot? If not, why have a separate voice narrating a character’s life? This show, also, suffers from trying-too-hard-to-be-significant disease in its dialogue: “Their relationship will last for three hundred, twenty-two days, seven hours, and fifty-six minutes. This is their story, from A to Z.” It’s cutesy the first time you hear it in the opening, but then you hear it again as the show closes out and you realize it’s going to keep happening and I just want to reach for a hammer.
Screenwriters: If the action is strong enough, YOU DON’T NEED A NARRATOR. If the action is not strong enough, WRITE BETTER ACTION. The only time you need a narrator is if there’s some seriously deep behind-the-scenes stuff developing, and even then the narrator should be hamstrung and chained to a post with a five-foot leash. Narration KILLS stories. And while I’m on the A to Z show, are you just going to make 26 episodes?
The only show that’s shown any promise yet, to my mind, is Selfie, and even that promise is dubious. I found myself wondering how I was supposed to identify with and root for a scummy shell of a human being, but at least the show had the good sense to poke fun at the shell and make the show about redeeming that person. It’s a good message for our technologically-advanced-socially-retarded society, but I wonder whether there’s any longevity in the concept. I fear that, more likely, it will splash around in the waters of social commentary for a little while and then get sand in its britches when it realizes that depth is hard and move to the kiddie pool with the other sit-com-rom-com dropouts (looking at you, A to Z). It does, however, have that girl from Doctor Who, so that’s a plus, though hearing her speak with an Americanized accent seems wrong somehow.
To be fair, I’ve not looked at any of the new dramas this year, but do I need to? More crime procedurals, more gritty tales of outside-the-box, not-by-the-book antiheroes with hearts of gold? Is there anything coming out with a legitimately original concept and a legitimate chance at longevity?
It’s all so depressing. Why can’t we have a show like Sherlock being produced in this country? Where is the next Breaking Bad, the next Dexter (prior to season 3)? Where, in short, is the next show I can get lost in?