The Smell of Decay
And a time to every purpose under heaven."
--Some hippie, paraphrasing some religious nut
This year, I've been thinking about my faithful companion Bart a lot. Because this year I've seen more evidence than ever before about the life cycle of that rarest of beasts, the long-running network television series.
TV series start like baby turtles, planted by the thousands in the sand by an itinerant mother who quickly abandons her eggs. They hatch, and most of them die before reaching the water -- or in a TV series' case, a pilot episode is made but it doesn't get picked up for the fall season. Of the ones that do make it off the beach, most are killed quickly by the cruel predators that lie in wait in the water. The TV translation: cruel TV executives quickly kill any show that shows a sign of weakness.
A few of those plucky little turtles survive and thrive, living unthinkably long lives. And so it is with television series. And that's when the life cycle of the TV series kicks into high gear.
The first year of a TV series is usually a stupendous mess. Take a look at any early episode of a show you watched for years, and you'll notice dozens of strange quirks. Commander Riker has no beard! Kramer's a dimwit instead of a doofus! Hawkeye and Trapper John (the guy before B.J.) share a tent not only with Frank Burns (the guy before Charles), but with a guy named Cutter John! The Simpsons are rudimentary stick figures with bad overbites! Ellen has a completely different set of friends!
That first year, a show is just getting its bearings. Sometimes, if you turn up the volume and quiet down the family, you can actually hear the desperate cries of the producers: "We have to do 22 episodes of this? Jeez, we could barely think up enough plots for the pilot!" Characters come and go. Whole sets come and go. Hell, Richie Cunningham had an older brother named Chuck during the first year of Happy Days, but he was removed from existence quicker than you can say Pat Morita.
But while that first year can be pretty hairy, by the end of it a show's producers have hit their stride, and the show has settled into a pattern that it will more or less follow for the rest of its life. Take Everybody Loves Raymond, a series that's just entering into the prime of its life. The comedy sputtered during the first year, but began clicking on all cylinders last year and is now hitting home runs nearly every time at bat. Or Spin City, which erased its female co-star during its first year on the air, turned to focus on Michael J. Fox's wacky ensemble at work, and has never looked back.
At some point, however, a show simply runs out of gas. It can be because key cast members have taken off for greener pastures, because staff writers have gotten too big for their britches and headed out to lay some new turtle eggs, or because a show's premise has simply worn too thin. These past couple years have definitely seen some long-in-the-tooth series go through their death throes.
Mad About You is probably the best example of a long-running show that's simply on life support now, begging for death to a family that simply refuses to pull the plug. The show started sweetly enough, as a story about a young, newly-married couple in New York City. As a more romantic, less edgy Seinfeld, Mad About You was not perhaps the hippest show in the world, but it was funny and sweet enough to survive being moved to six different time slots by ruthless NBC turtle-eaters.
And so it went, until the show's producers got a whiff of the TV Stink O' Death and decided it was time to play with the show's premise before it came apart in their hands. That led to the show's first Very Special Episode, a sure-fire sign of a show that's run out of ideas. In this endlessly painful 90-minute epic, Paul and Jamie simultaneously flirt with having affairs after years of wedded bliss. That travesty ended with a surprising -- and nauseating -- plot twist in which Jamie revealed that she was with child. Another sure sign of a series' death, of course, is the hope that a baby will inject new life into the equation. Another year of Very Special pregnancy episodes followed, and so on.
It got so bad last year, the Year of the Baby, that I simply stopped watching -- and so, apparently, has everyone else -- this series, for which NBC is paying Ms. Oscar-Winner Helen Hunt and her co-star, annoying AT&T pitchman Paul Reiser millions of bucks per episode, is now getting its lowest ratings ever, even lower than when Warren Littlefield parked it on Saturday nights.
If you look around, you can see other shows that are falling down the back side of the curve, getting the arthritic hips and mysterious lumps and other symptoms that mean ol' Mr. Entropy is coming your way, and this time, it's personal. Frasier, which had been brilliant for each one of its five years on the air, fell apart this fall, as the show's producers (apparently getting a whiff of the TV Stink O' Death) decided to remove Frasier Crane from his job as a radio host in an attempt to tinker with the show's premise. Homicide: Life on the Street has been dealt repeated blows from cast defections and premise tweaks. What started as a hard-to-follow, deeply interwoven cop drama starring the likes of Ned Beatty morphed into a streamlined but gritty cop drama featuring the brilliant Andre Braugher -- and the show managed to prosper. But now it's re-morphed into a young-cops-in-love romp featuring young heartthrob Jon Seda and former beauty queen Michael Michele.
This is the way it's been through time. The last seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 would have been better left unmade; I hold many fond memories of All in the Family, but have apparently blocked out the last couple years, when Edith died and the action moved to the bar known as Archie Bunker's Place. (And series produced by David E. Kelley apparently are the TV equivalent of those children with a disease that causes to age at a rapidly accelerated rate -- Picket Fences peaked in its second year and crashed to earth in its third, Chicago Hope had a classic first year followed by the show's complete destruction by the middle of its second, and Ally McBeal is even now showing signs that the end's just around the corner.)
For me, the life cycle of a TV series can be thrown in no sharper relief than by comparing two series that would be described by TeeVee's own Philip Michaels as "silly sci-fi for the kids": The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Now in its sixth year, The X-Files is showing its age. Though still capable of turning out great episodes, the show's producers are obviously worried enough about the show's slipping standards that they're trying to reinvent the show's premise. Now some new agents have been assigned to the X-Files, and Mulder and Scully have been given a new boss. (Maybe they can get jobs as the hosts of a paranormal talk show on Frasier Crane's KACL? I hear they're hiring.) And while series creator Chris Carter once promised that there would be no romantic liaison between agents Mulder and Scully, it's clear that this year the show's trying to throw as much romantic tension into that relationship as possible, hoping to blow a little bit on the show's dying embers.
In contrast, Buffy is at the top of its game, almost every episode a winner -- and it's the show I look forward to the most every week. That's something I used to say about The X-Files, but no more. While The X-Files is now busy booking guest writers like Stephen King and William Gibson or guest stars like Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin, Buffy is churning out mind-bending, how'd-they-think-of-that plots that are simply more fun than the rut X-Files has gotten stuck in.
If Buffy is still around two or three years from now, I'd expect that it'll be where X-Files is now -- and maybe sooner, since two members of Buffy's ensemble are getting pulled out to star in their own Buffy spin-off next fall -- the life-shortening TV equivalent of donating one of your kidneys.
But I'm not too worried. If watching TV has taught me anything, it's that when one show shuffles off its mortal coil, there's always another one waiting to take its place. Who knows what future TV treasure lies quietly in the sands, waiting to be born?
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