It is immediately apparent to anyone who gets to know me even a little bit that I am a TV fanatic. I used to conceal this fact or at least get defensive about my preferred medium of entertainment, but no more. Read a lot of books and you’re “intellectual”. Watch a ton of movies and you’re “cultured”. But admit to religiously following any show not on HBO and you’re “an idiot”. Well, today I bring you my reasons why TV is awesome.
A novelist has almost complete control over their work. Certainly, an editor may make changes or contributions, but ultimately Philip Roth puts out the exact book he wants to put out. A singular achievement, in every sense of the word. One artistic voice impervious to meddling. Want to write a short story? That’s cool. A mid-sized chick lit beach read? Good on you. An epic masterpiece thick enough to be its own coffee table? Best of luck selling it but it’s your call.
A movie director usually has majority control over their work. That is, once they have a script they like, actors approved by the studio and enough money to execute their vision. For the purpose of my argument, I’m specifically referring to movies where the director has been afforded the ultimate luxury: final cut. Where they may begin with a good script or a shaky one, have Oscar-caliber actors or be forced to cast Denise Richards, at the end of the day the product that leaves their hands is the culmination of their best intents and efforts. Even when they do not have final cut and the studio comes in with test marketing results calling for a new ending, once the movie is done it is done and you have a completed piece of work, if not always a piece of art. You have somewhere between 90 and 150 minutes, unless you are Peter Jackson, with which to convey your full creative statement.
But who controls a TV show? To an extent, the creator/writer/producer a la JJ Abrams, or Rob Thomas (the genius behind Veronica Mars-you saw that coming).
They have the initial idea, usually write the first few scripts and oversee the arc of the show should it continue. Aye, there’s the rub. Because the life of a TV show is almost directly controlled by the audience or lack thereof. We all bitch and moan when brilliant shows like Arrested Development or My So-Called Life are taken off the air prematurely, but the upshot is if people were watching them, the networks would have kept them on the air. As an exec producer, you have no idea if you are writing something that will be on the air for three episodes or three years. What if MSCL had stayed on the air as long as Buffy did? Would it have had rough patches and a mildly unsatisfying ending? Do we love it more because it was like James Dean-young and full of amazing promise that was never really put to the test? What if the X-Files had ended two or three years earlier? Would people now be talking about how much they miss it or how great everything wrapped up? The push and pull between making something that is ostensibly meant to continue as long as possible but always being ready to wrap it up neatly if need be is what makes TV the most difficult and awesome form of entertainment. A novelist or screenwriter has a complete idea; beginning, middle, end. An EP has to be ready to continue the show as long as people are watching and the network will allow. Rob Thomas mostly had everything mapped out for the first year of VM, but then the show continued. I’ve seen various arguments on the merits of S1 vs. S2 but my feeling is you have to give the have to give the advantage to Season 2 if only because the degree of difficulty is so much higher – keep loyal viewers hooked, attract new viewers, don’t repeat things from the first season and be ready with a meaningful conclusion if (god forbid) it ends early. Thus far, they have managed to walk that tightrope with dazzling precision and I have total faith that the many questions raised thus far will be answered in due time. Unlike say, Lost, where I have no belief whatsoever that they can plausibly dig themselves out of the hole anymore. There is a perfect example of why TV is so tricky. The first season was well balanced between back stories and unraveling mysteries but now it has devolved into an increasingly ridiculous puzzle with no end in sight. And that’s exactly it - from the producers’ perspective there is no end in sight. Lord knows if I had the number 5 show on TV my focus would be, “how do we keep this going?” not “how do we wrap this up?” The artistic choice is gone and they are now beholden to the audience to continue even if it could all be brilliantly and best concluded at the end of this season.
To a lesser extent, the audience response can also determine the detailed direction a show takes. More specifically, character pairings, or “ships” as we internet-savvy folks like to call them, are often steered according to fan desire. Would anyone have been satisfied by Friends ending without Ross and Rachel getting together? As a Dawson-Joey shipper, my heart was broken in half by the ending of that show, but the overwhelming fan base seemed to be Pacey-Joey shippers. (I could go into why it is completely unacceptable to have the titular character of the show not get the girl…but I won’t). The second facet to this theory is that audience response is almost directly correspondent to the actor playing the role. Here again is where the EP loses control over his or her baby. You cast an actor based on several auditions, a screen test and maybe a reading with someone already hired. How on earth can you really be sure that this person will be able to handle any twists and turns that come up? What if you decide a protagonist should turn bad or a villain become sympathetic? Here again I turn to Veronica Mars for an example. At the onset of the show, you have two boys, Duncan and Logan. Duncan is the sweet, if distant, former love of Veronica and distraught brother of the murdered Lilly. Logan, to use Veronica’s words, is the school’s “obligatory psychotic jackass”. So why after the course of a season, are the internet boards overwhelmed with Logan-Veronica devotees (LoVe shippers, as we like to be known) and only meekly populated with fans delusional enough to support VD? As Jon Lovitz would have declared, the reason is “Acting!” Throughout the first season, Jason Dohring as Logan crafted a charming, layered and magnetic character whose on-screen chemistry with Kristen Bell’s Veronica was smoking. Whereas Teddy Dunn, as Duncan, is so robotic in his responses and inscrutable in his intentions, the writers had to give him a fake type of epilepsy complete with emotion-numbing medication to explain his bizarre lack of characterization. Fans have taken to all sorts of speculation about the reasons for Duncan’s behavior, willing to believe it is all part of a carefully constructed plot. But here again is where Rob Thomas, EP extraordinaire, cannot control everything in his universe. Teddy Dunn is just a weak actor and now, no matter how much the writers would like to craft a magnificent storyline for Veronica and Duncan, the majority of the fans are protesting anything that stands in the way of LoVe. Yes, my opinion is sure as heck biased, but I would direct you to TWoP for full Backup. (hee. That’s the name of her dog)
My point is (I heard that. Yes, I have one) that with several crucial factors beyond their control, TV EPs have the most difficult task to create something great. Clearly, there is a lot of crap on TV. But there are also shitty movies and lame books, too. When a TV show is well-written, convincingly acted and sustains a consistent level of quality over the course of years, that is truly awesome.