Good TV

I got married, etc.

Hi readers. Since we last spoke, I went and made myself monogamous. I have never worn a ring in my life - I’m not a huge fan of wearing things on my hands (unless they are fingerless gloves and I am totally HACKING the PLAN3T), but other than that married life is fantastic. I owe you all a full recount of everything that went down, so I am going to hold out on you until we get the pictures from the photographer. I promise I will make a big, beautiful HTML page will all of the full resolution photos available for download. Wouldn’t you just rather hear about it all in one shot anyway?

We had a quaint honeymoon in Rockford, IL. The real honeymoon was a 20 lb loaf of bread with half legs that we named “Ollie”

oliver.jpg

Figure 1: Eat your heart out.

Other than ordering pizza and romping with this little bundle of heartworm medication, my wife and I began our march that week through all five seasons of the acclaimed TV show Breaking Bad.

Too good to spoil

We absolutely love it. Additionally, watching such an amazing show has got me thinking about my standard for good TV. After mauling it over, I have come up with three rules good TV must always follow.

I also have plenty of examples, but that comes with a spoiler warning. Ethically, I have chosen the show Dexter to receive the brunt of my spoilers because, frankly, the show is a complete waste of time and you are better off finding that out without the eight season investment of your precious time. In all other cases and examples, I think I can get by without hurting any of the shows I consider too good to spoil.

1. All characters should be intentionally reusable and able to stand on their own.

What I mean by this is there should be no characters that only exist to send more important characters down a certain direction. My favorite example of this sin is in a character in Dexter named Rankin - a boating convenience store clerk. To provide context, Dexter is scraping the bottom of a multi-episode emotional breakdown that is keeping him from killing. Dexter has a short interaction with Rankin that ends with Rankin leaning in and shouting at Dexter - this is a direct quote - “Your dead wife can suck my” (and you can infer the rest).

Dexter kills the man. The less thoughtful part of American may have sat at the edge of their seats, but I was furious. Did the writers of Dexter really think they could break Dexter’s cold blooded murder cold spell with a disposable character ? The reason I was offended so much by this plot device is that Rankin only existed to antagonize Dexter. He had absolutely no human readable reason to say that to Dexter. Not even a horrible, selfish person would think to say that kind of thing to Dexter.

rankin.jpg

Figure 2: I don’t care if that IS your catch phrase Rankin. Dexter is going through a lot right now.

Another awful example of cardboard characterization in the show is Cody, Rita’s bizarrely generic grade school son. Cody is a walking Ken doll who only serves to show us that Dexter can frolick with kids. I will give the writers credit in actually using his emo older sister - I think her name was Assturd - in something other that a Hey look Dexter is such a family man what a great guyyyyyyyy scene.

What I mean is that characters should be able to stand alone. You can’t just manipulate the emotions of your viewers by bringing in meaningless characters like Rankin to do things that no one would ever do in real life. No one could ever care about Rankin. If Rankin was a protagonist of his own spinoff show, no one would ever watch it.

A great example of a character everyone hates (done right) is Skyler White. She is intolerable for the first threeish seasons of Breaking Bad, but there is actually something wrong with her.

The reason why Skyler is so selfish is because she suffers from victim playing. No matter what situation she is in, she can skillfully manipulate her own perspective so that she always believes herself to be victim. This allows her to always avoid seeing her own faults. It’s a real psychological behavior, and it is why you cannot stand her.

I think specifically of a scene in which Skyler is trying to break into an apartment that is not hers. She does this by skillfully overwhelming a locksmith guy with ‘how bad her day has been’. This kind of manipulation comes easy to victim players.

The point is that the writers took time to weave in actual behavior patterns to each character - and not just with Skyler. I feel every character in Breaking Bad could easily be the star of their own novella.

saul.png

Figure 3: Especially this guy. I would read the hell out of that novella.

2. No seasons should end with a cliffhanger. Period.

Picture a room full of writers. They are under a lot of pressure to finish up a season in a way that will lock viewership for next season. They get up to the last episode. In the final blocks of writing, they face a dark temptation. What if we killed off this character, the BAM. Screen goes black? .

Cliffhangers are cheap, easy to write, and often go unpunished in TV. Everybody talks about the next morning because, in truth, they add a lot of tension to a series finale. But nobody ever talks about the consequence of that tense moment in the next season.

So your show returns after a long hiatus, and you are so excited to curl up in your snuggie and enjoy the long-awaited continuation of your favorite show. But the season premier drags. There is a lot of business talk and hemm-hawing, which doesn’t really advance the plot much. The show ends and you are disappointed. How could a show that ended so well last season open drop the ball so hard this season?

Remember that cliffhanger? The writers flew too close to the sun, dear reader. They could have saved all that cool tension and plot potential for this season, but instead, they had to write a cliffhanger. Now they have to start a brand new season and there is nothing but cleanup, followup, and resolution to kick off a new season of inevitable mediocrity.

Cliffhangers come from writers that are not thinking about the future. Great TV shows do not use them.

Those who watch House of Cards can tell me off the top of their head what happened in the premier of season 2 that changed everything . Now picture it happening in the finale of Season 1. Sure - it would make the episode more exciting. You would call it a night and fall asleep thinking about how awesome your new favorite TV show is. But by the next time you sat down to binge watch it, you would have to sit through at least three episodes that do nothing but reel about the big cliffhanger from last season.

You can’t just kill characters, then black out the screen. You can’t just announce that one of the characters was a robot all along, then roll the credits. Sure - your viewers will return next season, but you have just made it exponentially more difficult to please them.

Take the show Dexter. Season 1-3 all ended elegantly. Dexter kills the baddy he has been hunting all season, then a relaxing clip of him sipping a beer on his boat plays us out over some groovy latin smooth jazz.

But not season 4. Nope. The season begins to end just as the others have, save for five seconds panning over his murdered girlfriend. Sure - America went crazy. But no body remembers much about the show after that because the writers no longer had anything to offer. They hadn’t designed Dexter or any of the character to deal with a cliffhanger like that, so what follows is awkward, fabricated, and down-spiraling.

3. TV shows should end lovingly.

I am a big fan of Seinfeld. One of my favorite things to do is putz around on the Internet while all 9 seasons play on shuffle on a second monitor. Given that pastime, I have probably seen every episode at least eight times.

But there is always one episode that I skip - the finale. The final episode of Seinfeld. It breaks my heart, reader, but I cannot stand this episode.

In this zainy misadventure, the gang are arrested for making fun of a fat guy, then convicted to jail sentence at the testimony of every character that they have crossed.

Some would call this fitting irony. Hey - a show about nothing actually ends with something. I call it abuse. I followed a group of friends through nine seasons of petty banter and hilarious social commentary, and had, in a sense, made a home in Jerry’s apartment. What irks me about the final episode is how far away it is from home. There is nothing familiar about the ending scenes. There is no homage paid to the faithful backdrop of 129 West 81st Street, 5A . The show ended awkwardly, abruptly, and far from home.

Do you know how it should have ended? The episode before would have been perfect. It was simply a montage of great scenes from the show, followed by a classy farewell from the king if funny himself. I say just close the curtains there.

One show that ended surprisingly well, considering its spotty track record was Scrubs - and I can fully disclose it because it’s not really revealing of anything. JD leaves Sacred Heart hospital after a long tender flashback of all the good times he’s had. Then, as he exits the hospital, he sees his future projected on a banner, where we are vaguely promised that he eventually goes on to marry his on-and-off lover Elliot and stay in touch with all his good friends into old age.

(and I know there is another season after that. I have not watched it because I refuse to acknowledge that it exists. I would advise you do the same).

scrubs.jpg

Figure 4: In the last season, JD dreams that he is the puppet of a team of writers that have absolutely nothing interesting to add to an already great TV show.

Your TV show should end lovingly. As a TV writer, you have a sacred responsibility to reward your loyal viewers with the resolution they deserve - especially if your show was about mostly nothing.

Conclusion

I haven’t seen the ending of Breaking Bad yet. We are only on Season 4. But knowing that it is officially the highest rated series in TV history, I’m feeling pretty good about things.