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Paint Yourself into a Corner April 21, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Television.

It seems to me there are two basic types of TV show. There are open-ended shows, like Gunsmoke, Cheers, E.R., or Hill Street Blues, that can go on for decades unless canceled for reasons that have nothing to do with their premise. These shows tend to be set in locations with lots of comings and goings — hospitals; police stations; bars, coffee shops, or diners; the Stratford Inn, whatever.

And then there are what I think of as “paint yourself into a corner” shows, shows that by their very premise limit themselves to a few seasons. For example:

  • The Fugitive: eventually David Janssen HAD to find the one-armed man or become known as an incompetent fool.
  • Superman, Batman, Superboy, Lois and Clark, Smallville, Angel, True Blood, Being Human, The Vampire Diaries: No matter how buff he is NOW, eventually Our “ageless” Hero is going to be so obviously a fat, balding old fart that even George Reeves or Adam West would say, “Hey, fella, lose some weight!”
  • Battlestar Galactica 1978: Eventually the space orphans HAD to find “the shining planet known as Earth” or look like incompetent losers. (Remember how sucky Galactica 1980 turned out to be, after they found Earth and it turned out to be in the midst of a huge battle between the good West and the evil Commies, I mean, Eastern Alliance?)
  • V, 1983-84: Like the modern version of V, this series started out with enormous promise and quickly fizzled out through what I consider an enormous failure of imagination.
  • Twin Peaks: Eventually the FBI agent had to find Laura Palmer’s killer or look both incompetent AND stupid.
  • Welcome Back, Kotter: This show was set in a school, which ought to have allowed for the flexibility of comings and goings; but its cast never changed, which meant that after a few years, the Sweathogs looked less like juvenile delinquents than like daddies dressing up as JDs for a Halloween party.
  • 21 Jump Street, which was basically a revisited version of The Mod Squad: Doesn’t it occur to TV producers and network suits that young-looking 24-year-olds are only going to be able to pass themselves off as 17-year-olds for a short while? (But it DID have a young Johnny Depp and a gorgeous, slim Peter de Luise!)
  • Sliders: The original premise of this show was that you could never know which alternate reality you’d end up in next and that you could never, never go back to either a previously visited reality or to your original timeline. First they invented baddies who kept recurring, the Kromaggs (Cro-Magnons, get it?), and then — well, not long after, I lost interest and stopped watching. Although Jerry O’Connell remains handsome, John Rhys-Davies was the only character I really valued.)
  • Most shows set in schools that star kids with good agents, like Room 222, Head of the Class, the Facts of Life, My So-Called Life, Beverly Hills 90210, Saved by the Bell, and SO many more.
  • The Wonder Years and its many relatives: What is it about children turning into adults that series producers don’t seem to understand?

I don’t include the original Star Trek with its “five-year mission” on the above list because a mission can always be extended, and because the series thought of itself as open-ended, a “Wagon Train to the stars.” And I’m sure there are lots of time-limited shows I haven’t thought of yet.

The TV version of M*A*S*H was an anomaly, I think: a paint-yourself-into-a-corner show that was also a big success. There were more episodes of M*A*S*H than there were days in the Korean War, and it got embarrassing after a while, watching Radar O’Reilly, supposedly 17 to 20 years old, going bald and getting wrinkles. While still sleeping with a teddy bear when you just KNEW the actor was thinking about his prostate. But I certainly appreciated how Hot Lips evolved from a cartoonish witch into a complex, rounded, sympathetic heroine.

To my mind, Two and a Half Men is a paint-yourself-into-a-corner show. Charlie Sheen’s well publicized problems only distract us from the undeniable fact that Jake is more like 87 percent a man as I write this (his voice began changing in fall 2009!).

As I write this, ABC has issued no word about its fall 2010 plans, and the TV Guide thinks both Flash Forward and the 2010 version of V are “on the bubble”: that is, there’s room for only one sci-fi show AT MOST on ABC next fall. And I regret to say, I think both are “paint yourself into a corner” shows. What were the producers of Flash Forward thinking when they chose April 29, 2010 as a “goal date” for a show that premiered in fall 2009? And what were the producers of V planning for year five, year ten, or year 20?

Babylon Five is the only sci-fi TV show I can think of that even attempted to imagine an alien race’s culture from that race’s point of view. Though the original Star Trek had its moments (like the Horta or the Space Amoeba), most alien races were obviously humans with a little latex pasted to their foreheads. Virtually all alien races on TV today are 21st- or 20th-century human beings who share humanity’s ethical values, moral assumptions, and cultural worldview.

(I remember a scene on one of the Star Treks, probably Voyager, in which the human hero gave his alien guest a friendly clap on the back. I turned to my husband and said, “I’ll bet a genuine alien would have ripped off that guy’s arm and beaten him to death with it!”)

Dear TV producers: Unless you have a clear vision of where you’re going to be in five years’ time, as Babylon Five did, don’t start yourself out with a deliberately limited premise. You’re just going to end up thrashing around aimlessly looking for more sharks to jump.