Friday, November 11, 2005

I Love Television, But Television Doesn't Love Me Back

When the TV goes off, the world ends. In a small way, I believe this is true. The characters I watch on my shows — however few I actually keep up with nowadays — engage me in a way that nearly lets me believe they’re real. I tend to care about them. I tend to feel sad when they go away. On that note, here are two musings on television and TV characters.
[ As If Shame Were Something to Be Proud of ]
Since people’s taste in television shows has swung away from sitcoms, a lot of hourlongs have sprung up. (A lot of reality shows have too, but I don’t care about those.) Things like “Desperate Housewives” and “24” and “Alias” and Nip/Tuck” and all those. And though I’ve heard good things about all of them, I’ve abstained from watching merely because I didn’t need some new fake universe to envelop my free time. Few readers will remember what happened during winter of 2003, when “Twin Peaks” swallowed me — as well as Jill, Nate and Moe, to varying extents — and we talked about Nadine and Bobby and the Log Lady like they were real people. I didn’t want to let that happen again.

Recently, however, I’ve become a big fan of “Lost.” I was willing to forgo my embargo on new hourlongs simply because “Lost” seemed too enticing. Helmed by J.J. Abrams, whose work I enjoy. Written by Paul Dini, who made the “Batman” cartoons I watched as a kid so engrossing. And ultimately structured along some very “Twin Peaks”-like lines. Similar to how every episode of “Twin Peaks” followed a consecutive day in the investigation into Laura Palmer’s murder, “Lost” follows the plane crash survivors’ investigation into why they crashed, where they are and just what the hell is up with the island. Like the town of Twin Peaks, the island is almost a character unto itself. More often than not, poking into one mystery merely yields another, more dangerous one. I like.

I was more than a little put off, however, when the most recent episode, “Abandoned,” ends with the apparent shooting death of Shannon Rutherford, a survivor played by Maggie Grace, who I’ve liked since I saw here as a Swedish exchange student on the short-lived “Oliver Beene” a few years ago. Shannon, as Spencer put it, never let the fact that she was on a desert island deter her from styling her hair in a sassy zigzag part. She also gleefully flirted and fucked her way to survival, both on the island and before the plane crash. Indeed, this character was created very much so in the Cordelia Chase vein — and that’s a stock personality type I can appreciate.

As the show stands so far, Shannon is the second of the major characters to die. Late last season, her character’s stepbrother — and fuckbuddy — Boone bit the big one in a, well, plane crash. (Yes, there was a second one. Long story.) It’s really a pity that the show’s directors chose to bump off Shannon because this last episode consisted of flashbacks into her life pre-island. For the first time, she seemed like a genuinely sympathetic character. Now that that whore Ana-Lucia — whom online “Lost” fans abbreviate as “AnaL” — put a bullet in her chest, I feel like we’ve seen Shannon grow as much as she ever will. Worse yet, her flashbacks provided a way for Boone, played by Ian Somerhalder, to show up again. No more, I guess. The cast no longer skews quite so WB.

In the end, however, I’m okay with Shannon being dead. The show still has a large cast of characters I like — Sun, Jin, Sawyer, Charlie and Claire, to name some. But more importantly, I think killing off Shannon helps to remind people — both the remaining characters and the show’s viewers — that this island is a dangerous place. I’ll wager that Shannon won’t be the last “survivor’ the be picked off this season.

Still, it’s lamely sad to think about Shannon being dead.
[ Family Comes First ]
As if Shannon’s accidental death weren’t hard enough, the news that comforted me in my fictional character mourning was of the cancellation of “Arrested Development,” the best show on TV and the only hope for the sitcom as a genre. Even a guest star as high-profile as Charlize Theron couldn’t save “Arrested,” which people simply didn’t want to watch.

I was talking with Kristen and Betsy about this a few nights ago, and it seems so strange to us that such a great show could suffer from this problem. I seemed like most of our associates watched the show with some regularity. However, this bad news is a reminder that our friends generally are pulled from a very select group — college students and recent graduates living in California and with enough understanding of literary techniques to appreciate the show’s genius. The rest of America, it would seem, is more content watching unchallenging fare like “The King of Queens,” which airs on CBS in the same timeslot “Arrested” formerly occupied on FOX — 8 p.m., Monday night.

Still, I’m oddly not that upset about the cancellation. Sure, life seems just a little knowing that I may never hear another one of Lucille Bluth’s racist remarks or without ever seeing just what Steve Holt’s impression of a chicken might have been like. But I’m still hopeful. I’d wager that critical praise of “Arrested” might be enough to prompt another network to pick the show up. Say the ailing NBC or even HBO, whose looser standards could let the show truly flourish. Though the show’s fan base is small, it’s the kind that would be willing to follow it to another network and another time. They honestly care about these characters.

Friends who like the show will hate me for saying this, but I can honestly see why the network cancelled “Arrested.” I’m not too happy about it, but it all comes down to money. It’s unfortunate that TV networks and movie studies have to let money get involved with something a human as narrative. Whether it’s ending a narrative before its time — as happened with “Home Movies,” for example — or pumping one beyond its proper lifespan — as NBC’s doing with “ER,” for example, or as Miramax did with “Scream” — it happens. Realistically, “Arrested” shouldn’t have lasted as long as it did. It never got great ratings, and since FOX is notorious for prematurely yanking a show, fans of “Arrested” should be happy that they got as much as they did.

I’m hopeful for the future of the show. I honestly am. But I think the part that really gets me at the moment isn’t that a great show was cancelled for some silly, inconsequential reason. What really pisses me off right now is that a great show was cancelled for a very good reason.

[ And Then a Short Epilogue ]
Take this as evidence of the way TV-watching culture has changed, but I just realized that though I think “Lost” and “Arrested Development” are both great shows, my primary experience with them did not come through regular TV broadcasts. No, I bought the first season of “Lost” and have been catching up the new season through the episodes posted on iTunes. (Just $1.99 per installment — not a bad deal at all.) As for “Arrested,” I can remember watching it on FOX during the first season, but I had to fill in my little plotholes with the first and second season DVDs.

So, in effect, I wasn’t actually watching the show I was trying to get everyone to watch. Shit. Does this mean it’s all my fault?


  1. I know what you mean about Arrested Development. Fox really did give it more of a chance than it deserved, but it's still the best overall show on TV. Plus, they've been threatening to cancel it for so long that I got over my outrage at the end of season 1. Plus plus, it's not really cancelled, they just didn't order more episodes.

  2. Anonymous10:10 PM

    And yet professional wrestling is popular enough to have two three hour shows each week. What a fucked up world.