Predictable Shockers: How TV Lost Its Capacity to Surprise
Opting to write 2,000 words about a deficiency in modern dramatic television is a bit like Scrooge McDuck taking time to lecture unemployed steel workers about the annoyances created by backstroking through his sea of gold coins ("The wealth smell doesn't wash off my feathers for like a week, guys"). On the meritorious complaints totem pole, making drama over drama falls somewhere between "This free-range brontosaurus egg omelet is three degrees too cold" and "The rims on my gerbil's stroller are scuffed again."
After all, dramatic television isn't the first thing that jumps to mind when someone identifies a lack of entertainment innovation. Hell, it's not the tenth thing, or the fiftieth, or even the two hundredth. Think of golden-age television as a magnificent lakeside hideaway nestled in bottom of a lush sunlit valley (imagine the Oblivion oasis, and then remove Tom Cruise and anything related to the Yankees). Sure, portions of the lake are littered with reality TV detritus and derivative procedural flotsam. A bag of festering toxic garbage floats just beyond the reach of trash collectors ("Hemlock Grove"). Occasionally, you stumble onto a promising new swimming spot that just never seems to get warm ("House of Cards"). The only fish are red herrings ("The Killing"). And no how much you want to unwind in the hammock and enjoy a beautiful day, there's always a swarm of gnats doing its best to ruin everything (Twitter). It's an imperfect yet tremendously gratifying ecosystem. For every annoyance there are a dozen reasons to keep returning year after year.
It's also a damn familiar landscape these days. For more than a decade, prestige television dramas have remained powerful yet relatively unchanged, a crocodile drifting listlessly through the waters of the entertainment world. We haven't yet reached dramatic homogenization -- characters, settings, periods and subject matter may vary from series to series -- but core structures, plotting and themes remain disconcertingly similar. It begs the question: When did television lose its ability to surprise?
On March 12, 2002, the pilot for a police drama called "The Shield" ends with its main character, Detective Vic Mackey, taking a gun off a slain criminal and using it to intentionally shoot a fellow police in the face, killing the officer. Michael Chiklis, who played Mackey for all seven seasons of the show's run on FX, won an Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy for his performance in the pilot, which had critics and viewers buzzing for weeks. The murder was shocking both for its unexpected brutality and the offhanded detachment -- the last scene features Mackey standing over the body with a sardonic grin on his face -- with which with the show's "hero" commits the act. This was a legitimate game changer, both for television and the way viewers thought the show would unfold.
Eleven years later, another respected FX show, "The Americans," wrapped its ninth episode with an FBI agent shooting an innocent low-level KGB agent in the back of the head in retaliation for the earlier murder of his partner. Critical and viewer reaction? Muted. The "shocking act" had a sadly obligatory feel, a box that needed checked in order for the show to earn its Serious Drama merit badge.
Discussions on whether we've become desensitized to televised murder aside, the most surprising element of that "Americans" episode was how ordinary the shooting felt. A decade of high-quality, award-level television viewing has made us all too aware of the patterns inherent in modern TV - the flawed male antihero1; the shocking cliffhanger finale; the semi-major but largely inconsequential character death; the white knight crossing a line into darkness; the twist for twist's sake. Somewhere along the line these once groundbreaking themes metastasized into tropes. We expect characters to meet their makers in season finales. We know characters positioned as heroes will eventually make a decision that places them on a darker path. We assume obvious truths are not what they seem. Why? Because that's what typically happens.
There's a formula now2. What was once innovative is now stale. Too many showrunners scribble their derivative ideas on recycled paper and mail them to cable networks in used manila envelopes. Execs on the receiving end of those envelopes exacerbate the problem. Eager to get in the game, they commission and greenlight pilots with indistinguishable DNA signatures (USA and TNT are prime offenders), market it as serious fare and continue the cycle.
We've come to expect this out of networks. TV will always be a copycat medium, particularly for the Big Four. Cable, however, owes its rise almost entirely to innovation. Forward-thinking execs identified a demand for realistic high-quality television series, and capitalized. AMC grabbed "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." FX unveiled "Rescue Me," "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck," "Damages," and "Justified." Standard bearer HBO solidified its leadership position by following "The Sopranos" with masterpieces like "The Wire," "Deadwood," "Rome," "Band of Brothers," and more recently, "Treme" and "Game of Thrones." The aforementioned series featured bold, original themes and broke down barriers of varying size, each containing a slew of memorable surprises that still resonate today. By the early half of the 2000s networks had completely ceded creative and critical prestige to its cable cousins, and as we move deeper into a new decade there are more and more outlets diving headfirst into the original dramatic series pool. But they too often leap before knowing how to swim.
The glaring exception to this trend is of course "Game of Thrones," HBO's sprawling, meticulously plotted fantasy drama that's arguably the most consistently startling scripted series ever. Attempting to predict the show's plot points or the lifespans of its characters borders on intellectual masochism for non-book readers. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss crafted a series that sustains itself more on the ramifications of actions than the action itself, an approach that generates a stream of perpetual pants-shitters rather than one traditional late-season Big Moment™. They don't shy away from lobbing the occasional boulder into the pond - Ned Stark's death was a true jaw dropper, the first of many to come - but the ripples are where the duo opts to dedicate a majority of their focus. That's the fertile plain. Ned's demise, while spectacular, was merely a catalyst. If Ned keeps his head, Jamie doesn't lose a hand, Theon can still listen to Xzibit ("yo dawg, we heard you don't sow, so we made this scarf out of your flayed skin."), Robb isn't at war, Stannis doesn't murder his brother, and so on. And each one of those actions has its own rewarding spoiler-filled consequences leading to further bombshells down the line. Benioff and Weiss -- with a big assist from author George R.R. Martin -- understand that the effect of the ripples, not the size of the rock, yields richer relationships and more developed future surprises.
Not every show can or should aspire to be "Game of Thrones." The show's lessons, however, have applications beyond the Seven Kingdoms.
An Early Grave
Killing off a series regular is nothing new. Killing off legitimately important characters at unconventional times because their deaths advance the story is television's four leaf clover. Here's a potential midseason episode synopsis for "Parenthood," one of best character-driven ensemble dramas on TV:
Haddie Braverman finishes her first year of college at the end of the week. Adam and Kristina, searching for a little spontaneity, decide to drive across the country to pick her up. On the way, the husband and wife are stuck and killed by a drunk driver.
Excessively morbid? Probably. Unbelievably bountiful dramatic territory? Without question. Zeke and Camille have to heal a broken family while mourning a terrible loss. Haddie, racked with guilt, struggles to cope while simultaneously caring for her Asperger's afflicted brother, who cannot comprehend where his parents have gone. Joel and Julia, without any hesitation, welcome Nora into their growing family. Crosby, thrown off his moorings, teeters dangerously close to self-destruction before righting the ship and becoming more like his brother than ever before. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Yes, it's shocking. But it's not shocking simply for the sake of being shocking. Rather, it provides an opportunity for dynamic characters to evolve in realistic ways, altering the series landscape along the way.
Big Moments™ are essential to the growth of any dramatic series, but only if actual growth results. Too often, characters are eliminated to clear an obstacle-- this person is now dead so this piece of the story can continue unabated. The murder is never investigated, the family never involved, penalties never levied.3
Big Pussy. Ned Stark. Omar Little. Terry Crowley. Stringer Bell. Lane Price. In the right hands, game changers live up to their definition, fundamentally transforming a series' DNA. Vic Mackey's decision to murder a fellow officer dogged him for years. Big Pussy's memory haunted and molded Tony Soprano until the power went out during the series finale. Ned Stark's head is the engine that powers half of Westeros. "Parenthood" is a prime candidate for an unexpected death because Jason Katims places such a premium on characterization. The show is essentially an endless exploration of ripples, allowing Katims to find dramatic gold in any direction. The more emphasis dramas place on character development, then, the better they're able to keep viewers guessing.
We typically lay the responsibility to shock at the feet of showrunners. But creative types aren't the only ones capable of throwing viewers for a loop. The networks themselves have a few cards to play, too. For instance, this season's penultimate episode of "Game of Thrones" will make our pets' heads fall off. Now imagine after the credits roll, a message appears on the screen reading simply: "Stay tuned for the season finale of the HBO original series 'Game of Thrones.'" No leak to the press, no advertisements, no notice on the digital cable guide. Just queue that badass intro and enjoy the ride. Twitter's servers would melt into bubbling puddles of plastic and silicon. While the world is linked liked never before, the rise in interconnectedness comes at a time of diminishing live cultural experiences. Major sporting events, breaking news, and television -- that's what's left to enjoy in real-time. A surprise finale airing is both exciting and immediate. The news would spread through Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere at ludicrous speed. Within five minutes, the entire pop culture world would understand that HBO created an authentic moment. Think of the equity an act like this builds with fans; the buzz it creates. Critics would gush over the move for weeks, keeping the show on the lips of every television fan. "Thrones" certainly doesn't need the hype-- a network should save this play for a respected freshman drama in need of just a little more exposure-- but the concept has merit.4
It's not accurate to say that most shows refuse to take chances. Rather, they refuse to take unpredictable chances. They refuse to take well thought out chances. They refuse to fully explore the consequences of those chances. With few exceptions, television is overrun by oxymoronic predictable shockers. Is the lakeside getaway still a compelling destination? Absolutely. That doesn't mean we wouldn't mind seeing that croc swallow a few jet-skiers from time to time.
1FX president John Landgraf, one of the sharpest television execs in the business, said last year that he passed on "Breaking Bad" in 2007 because he worried viewers would brand FX - already home to "Rescue Me," "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" - the "male antihero network." Fast-forward five years and it's nearly impossible to find a critically acclaimed/popular drama that isn't centered on moral failings.
2 The recipe: Stick a bunch of morally flawed characters in a compelling setting. Add F-bombs, the occasional violent outburst, and a few pairs of tits. Kill off a semi-regular character in the penultimate episode. Serves 13.
3"House of Cards" dropped its "game-changer" in episode 11, killing off the series' sole redeemable character in predictable fashion. With two hours left in the season, it seemed as if head writer Beau Willimon would follow the aftershocks with the remaining time. In this case, though, the murder was just another step in a contrived, overly complex scheme designed to elevate the protagonist to new levels of power. Yawn. Willimon certainly explored the ripples. But when those ripples end at a Rube Goldberg machine, what's the point?
4HBO occasionally uses new media platforms to tinker with traditional scheduling, debuting episodes a week early on demand or through HBO Go. In 2009, following the fifth-season premiere of "Always Sunny in Philadelphia," FX treated viewers to a secret sneak peek of an original comedy series scheduled to air in January. The network didn't promote the preview, barely told critics, and even made sure the new pilot didn't appear on digital cable guides. The move went over pretty well. That series - "Archer" - is universally considered one of the funniest on television.