July 1, 2014

The dirty dozen things I hate about TV today

It occurs to me that I haven't gone off on a good toot for a while, and if you're not in the mood for one now, I'll see you back here later.  You might like this one, though; I have no way of knowing until I put it out there and wait for responses.

I've been spending a fair amount of time lately thinking about some of the reasons why I don't like most of today's TV shows. There are some very annoying cliches out there, ones that have long-since worn out their welcome on television, the kind that make you mutter, "Give me a break" - or words to that effect.

So in no particular order here's my advice, freely given, on what today's television shows can do without. And as I said, if you're not in the mood for bitter ravings of a curmudgeonly TV critic, feel free to come back on Saturday for another TV Guide story.

#1: Slow motion.  There are several different uses of slow-mo in television today: the "cataclysmic event," when everything slows down while the bullets fly or the bodies fall or the buildings explode, accompanied by muffled cries, poignantly exchanged glances, and desperate attempts to reach someone before it's too late; the "attitude walk," when the protagonists walk, side-by-side-by-side down the street after having solved yet another case, just daring someone to try and get between them*; the "blast and strut," which combines the worst of the previous two, where people walk away from the scene of the explosion, fire billowing and shrapnel flying through the air, without even flinching, their very demeanor that this could happen to you too if you don't watch out.  I don't care who you are, when bombs explode fifty feet behind you, you're going to flinch.

*Also used by local news teams in terrible commercials.

What all of these have in common is that the scenes unfold at a speed that gives the viewer time to bake a peach cobbler, do their taxes, and take a nap before our protagonists get to where they're going.  The use of slow-mo, in addition to being unnecessary and overdone, is terribly pretentious.

#2: Cops who need a good shrink.  Is there anyone out there who joined the police force simply to try and keep the public safe?  Watch today's police procedurals and you'll see, as one online commentator notes, "every cop being 'rogue,' 'on the edge' or only on the job because he/she is attempting to avenge the murder/disappearance of a spouse/parent/sibling from years ago. Or it's a manic-depressive/bipolar/insert your favorite psychological disorder FBI or CIA agent.”  Nowadays everyone has to have a backstory, often a tragic one, that motivates them in the direction their life has taken.  Does anyone know why The FBI's Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) became a Fed?  Or, aside from a brief mention in the pilot, how he became a widower or why he's never remarried?*  Apparently they were able to come up with enough stories back then that they didn't have to use the "out of the past" trope.

*And if you ever get a chance, ask Lynn Loring what happened to Erskine's daughter.

#3: The latest pop single.  Remember how it used to be said that "a picture tells a thousand words"?  That was supposed to be the magic of television, that it could show us things.  Radio, with only sound to fall back on, could never compete with that, could they?  And yet you can hardly find a popular show today that doesn't contain a scene (often at the end of an episode) in which the characters take time to look introspectively at what's happened their lives, all accompanied by the latest pop single from someone who sounds a lot like Norah Jones, with lyrics that describe the travails of the hero(s) in words far more meaningful than any dialog that the writers could come up with.  An added bonus is that the artist will be able to sell many downloads of that song to the fans of the show, who will look around their homes meaningfully while listening to it on their laptops.  This can be used to good effect, but most of the time it's lazy and overused.  

#4: Romance.  Is it at all possible for co-workers of the opposite sex to work together without enough undercurrents of sexual attraction to make an office feel like a electrical way station?  If it's not, then every argument ever made against having women in the workplace can just go right out the window.  Along with the idea of us all being adults.  But then, what would fans have left to them if they weren't able to combine the names of the cute couple into one adorable hybrid that speaks to how they were destined to be soul partners from before they were born.  (Yes, NCIS, I'm talking to you.)

#5: Uninterrupted (and often pretentious) speeches.  As befits this one, I'll keep it short.  Gilmore Girls. As my friend Jim once said, "I don't know about you, but every time I'm in an argument, I always get the chance to make long impassioned speeches without ever being interrupted, and then let the other person do the same."

#6: Fake season-ending cliffhangers.  I wouldn't know this from personal experience, but apparently Richard Castle, the star character in the eponymously-named series, was involved in a crash of some sort on the way to his wedding to the woman he's worked with all these seasons.  (See #4.)  Will he survive or won't he?  Gee, since the name of the series is Castle, and his name is Castle, I wonder how it all turns out?  I can't stand these fake cliffhangers - we all know that things work out in the end, unless we're industry-savvy enough that we've kept appraised on the contract disputes that the stars are having with the series producers.  If your favorite character hasn't reached an agreement yet, or is said to be a pain in the ass on set, watch out.  Otherwise, put in a wake-up call about halfway through the next season's opener.  This particular devise turned me against Leverage, a show I once enjoyed, as much as anything ever did, although it also suffered from #4, and a share of #5 as well.

#7: Quirky characters.  You all know them - the goths, the nerds, the studs, the brainy sex symbols, the attitudes - it seems that every ensemble today has to be carefully comprised of characters who are just caricatures.  In fact, you can hardly find a normal person on TV today.  I blame this on lazy writing; in lieu of giving a character real depth (without the annoying backstory), it's much easier to just make them quirky.  Frankly, more than half of the characters you see on series TV today would have been locked up back in the day.

#8: Endless backstories.  Continued from above.  Do we really have to learn all about a character's life in drips and drops, spread out over several seasons, culminating in the revelation that often explains the attitude found in #2?  A little of this can be a good thing, and when used correctly it can be a great thing.*  But again, it just seems as if it gives the writers an excuse to come up with a "very special episode."

*And then there's Danger Man, the entire run of which could be seen as the backstory to The Prisoner if you really believe that John Drake is Number 6.

#9: Ensemble casts.  Not new, but nowadays virtually the only thing you get on dramatic television.  Can you imaging Columbo as an ensemble?  Neither can I.*    Of course, there's a good explanation for this: the salaries of TV stars.  Considering how much the leads already get paid per episode, can you imagine how much it would cost to have a star that was in almost every scene, clearly dominating the show?  (Aside from Orphan Black, that is.)  It also gives the writers more people who can be exploited via #8.)

*And his quirkiness (#7) was not contrived, but was an integral part of his character - not to mention, in the opinions of many, something of a ruse.

#10: Limp dick commercials.  All right, this is kind of crude, and it isn't a trope of TV drama, but it irritates me all the same.  You can't watch more than about fifteen minutes of a golf tournament or programming on one of the cable niche stations without being bombarded with "male enhancement" commercials.  Sometimes they're cast as commercials for low-T.  Whatever they're selling, sex is never far from the surface.  The limp dick commercial features plenty of romance (#4), and montage scenes that almost cross the line into slow-mo (#1).  I know there have always been stupid commercials, but they didn't used to be so offensive.  What bothers me the most is that they're shown when children could be watching, and it's really not the kind of thing they should be exposed to (no pun intended).  My friend Gary expressed his disgust succinctly, saying that he didn't want to be watching golf with his son and have him ask, "Daddy, what's an erection?"

#11: Mockumentaries.  I don't watch any of them, although I readily admit to enjoying the Christopher Guest versions on the big screen.  But a little cleverness goes a long way, and while The Office might have been fresh once, by the time we get to Almost Royal, it's long since past almost too much.

#12: Police state wet-dreams.  Not to be confused with #2, #4 and/or #10.  I wrote an entire article on this one time, which means you should go read that instead.  The prime examples are pretty much every police procedural on television today.

I'm sure you can add cliches of your own to this list, but the one thing that most of them have in common is that they're unique to today's television.  OK, there's always been romance on TV (The Farmer's Daughter), and it wouldn't have been any more palatable to me then than it is now.  Pretentious speeches have been around since before Sterling Silliphant wrote his first script.  And slow motion would have been a difficult concept to introduce into live television.  But cliffhangers were much less common before television became so serialized, and prior to the advent of Miami Vice popular music was seldom used in television to the extent it is today.  Police officers were usually men who believed in helping the community, and the ones trying to settle a grudge or work out a past trauma were generally portrayed as the bad apples in the bunch, the renegades who give other cops a bad name.  As for Viagra - well, never mind.

This is also not to say that classic television was perfect - as a matter of fact, one of the message boards I read is in the midst of a lively discussion about TV cliches of the '50s and '60s.  But when someone asks me why I don't watch much current TV, I don't usually have to go far outside the lines of this list to explain why. Maybe this is a controversial list, maybe not - if you have any thoughts, let's hear them.

1 comment:

  1. OK, I'll take the bait. Some additional Things I Hate:

    Promos that give away key plot points--how can we enjoy this week's shocking twist if the promos for the show make perfectly clear which cast member is shot/unexpectedly given a job promotion/abducted by aliens? (Related: sitcom promos that contain the best joke in the episode.)

    Endless commercial breaks--it's impossible to watch entertainment shows on basic cable as they air because the repeated 5 to 5 1/2 minute commercial breaks are intolerable. We DVR everything to avoid it.

    Local TV morning shows: five minutes of meaningful content (today's weather, last night's scores, and the top news stories) stretched out to a minimum of 2 1/2 hours. Someday some local outfit is going to figure out they can have the late news team record it before they go home, put it on a loop in the morning, and save a pile of money.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!