TV fails to tell long-form and complex stories correctly time and time again. That's a problem for me, because these are my favorite type of stories (Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon Five, etc.). Unfortunately, it's not a problem that is likely to go away soon. There are three simple reasons for this failure:
1. Television actors are unreliable.
2. Television writers are both lazy and unreliable.
3. Television executives are stupid.
Now that I've offended everyone in the television industry, I want to push even more buttons, and say that there are a few simple solutions to this problem.
But first, let me explain a little more about what I mean when I write about those "long-form" TV show mistakes. Here are three examples from the recent past:
1. Heroes season one was pretty great (not perfect), and it captured my attention like few shows can. However, season two is filled with blunders. To name just one, some random loser shoots the character DL in the beginning of the season, because the actor could not get along with the actress playing his wife (or vice versa), and she was the bigger star. This was a failure of an unreliable actor and actress, and it did nothing for the plot. Maybe Tim Kring, the writer, could have written him out better, but really, he's not the one to blame in this instance.
2. Up until season three, Battlestar Galactica was also amazing. However, season three bogged down like crazy with lots of unnecessary "drama" that failed to move the story forward. Now, this did not bother me, but it bothered a lot of other people. What did bother me was the final episode of the season, which revealed four of the Cylon sleeper cell bad guys. I thought the episode was great, except for the one problem that seriously damaged the series: Ron Moore, the writer, had not decided who among the major cast of good guys were sleeper Cylons until season three began (he admitted as much in an interview). This is writer laziness in the extreme! How can you hope to write a good, coherent story, with appropriate foreshadowing and characterization clues if you don't know how it's going to end?!? If there's one thing that annoys me more than anything else about long-form TV shows, it's writers who make the story up as they go along.
3. Babylon 5 was one of the pioneers of the long-form sci-fi TV show. However, you can easily see its screw-ups at the end of season four, and through all of season five. James Michael Straczynski (JMS), the writer, thought he only had four seasons to wrap up his plot, so he wound it down in season four. Altogether, I thought he did a good job with this. However, at the last minute, after the cast had been let go, Babylon 5 was renewed for a fifth season. JMS should have just said, "Hey, you told me I had four seasons, so the story finished up in four seasons." Instead, he went ahead with a bad season five, with poor replacements for some of the main cast that had disappeared. This is mainly a case of the execs causing disaster, although the writer could have prevented it.
Here's how the TV industry can fix mistakes like the above, and more:
Solution 1: Fire Real Actors, Create Digital Actors.
Real actors have egos that clash and get bruised (see above). They demand more money (like Bitty Schram, who played Sharona from Monk), or get bored, or fear they might become typecast (like Christopher Eccleston, the previous Doctor Who). They get sick, die, get thrown in jail, embarrass the show, or decide to quit acting and spend more time with their families. And you can't just replace them with another actor to play the same role, because audiences don't like that. Well, Doctor Who is an exception, but that's cheating, and has some consequences besides. Even with cartoon characters, it's difficult (though much easier) to replace a voice actor.
The answer is to completely digitalize actors, separating image and voice from the problematic individual. We're getting there already with the Pixar films, Final Fantasy movies, Shrek movies, and films like The Polar Express and Beowulf (even though some of these suffer pretty badly from the problems of the Uncanny Valley). Voice digitalization is still a big problem, but all-in-all, we're getting there.
After voice and image can be disconnected from individual actors, these actors become regular, replaceable employees. Sure, motion capture and acting talent will still be necessary, but the motion capture allows the actors to be in the background, providing data that can be provided by anyone with ability. Also, actors may have different styles, but the look of the character will persist, and I'm sure there will be software to digitally correct small behavioral inconsistencies, as well as actors good enough to adapt to the established character's personality.
Solution 2: Fire TV Writers, Hire Book Writers
Authors of books write better long-form stories than TV writers. This is largely because an author writes an entire book before the publisher publishes it. It also helps that there is an editor to read it all over before publication as well. When the author reveals that Susie is the murderer in chapter ten, and finds that Susie's homicidal streak is not credible because there were subtle indicators of it in previous chapters, he goes back and fixes those chapters. He cannot just make things up as he goes along and hope that the reader does not notice. Publishers and readers want more than that.
Now, not all the TV writers need to be fired, if they can just finish their scripts, or at least the outline with major plot points and secrets, before the airing of the first show. It would also help if they created plots that were a set length, say two, three, or four seasons, and let the story run its course.
There is a large pool of good writers out there just waiting to be tapped. Of course, there are writers who make the same mistakes TV writers make, but these mistakes don't usually show up in a single book. Rather, they tend to show up when the author writes a series of books, possibly trying to milk a proven set of characters for more money. To get around this problem, I'd say that the talent pool is large enough that these people could be avoided.
Solution 3: Tell TV Executives to Butt Out
Television executives have a big problem with micromanagement. They see something they don't like in a series, and they want it yanked. Or they decide that a series makes them good money, so they milk that cow for all it's worth, dragging it into season after season and squeezing the life out of any plot that once existed. To fix this problem, they need to butt out of artistic decisions, and let the plot play out as it was originally planned. They may not see the big picture of the story, or they may not realize that a risk in the plot or characterization may make the story unique, or have unforeseen rewards. They are not the artists, and they should remember that (and they might even make more money if they followed this advice).
Solution 4: Keep What Works
There are a few pieces of the television equation that work right now. For instance, if a TV story is not compelling, audience feedback can help a writer correct the problems mid-stream. Heroes shows us a great example of this. With season two, Tim Kring set up some lame subplots, mostly revolving around some boring and unconvincing romantic scenes. The audience complained online, and Tim Kring changed the direction of the show to make it better (he has stated so publicly). This is good, because improving something is always better than not improving it. Of course, the writer should use his judgment with this approach, because the viewers may not always have good opinions.
TV shows also often perform single episode pacing well. Audiences need hooks that pull them along from episode to episode, and the occasional cliffhanger or surprise revelation to build excitement. Many shows do this well. It's probably one thing that TV writers are better trained to do than fiction writers.
Lastly, there's the humor aspect of TV. Authors are good at dry humor, because that's what works in books. However, this does not necessarily translate as well to the small screen. TV writers have experience with the format, so this is another good reason to keep some around.
There's a lot wrong with the current state of long-form TV drama, but the problems are solvable. Some solutions await in the future, beckoning lucratively, and some are just common sense. Most of the changes would shake up the industry dramatically, and anger many people, but that is the way of progress. I'm all for progress, especially if it gives me the wonderful, evocative, compelling stories that television has the potential to provide.
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