In one sense plenty. Got knows I watch enough of it. There is more to choose from than ever what with network and cable, premium channels and homemade internet channels. The problem is separating the wheat from the chaff, the actual originality from the twentieth recycled version of the same stale old genre. You can chew up a lot of time trying out stuff that turns out to be worthless. Jarrell once said a novel is a long prose fiction with something wrong with it. TV series often have a lot wrong.
Occasionally an otherwise worthless show can be saved by one element. Without the puckish James Spader prowling languidly about in “The Blacklist,” it would be hopeless. The head of its allegedly super duper spies is clearly an idiot. His fair haired boy’s only function seems to be to get beaten up weekly and our heroine is fetching in a sad-eyed way but represents one of the newer clichés of TV action shows.
For decades the function of the ladies was to trail along behind the man of action, to be Bond girls at best. But now they are tough as nails, smart as whips, and in charge. This switcheroo would be welcome except for the fact that they are all way too implausibly young, dewy and gorgeous to have risen to their present rank, especially in the notoriously sexist world they are supposed to be kicking ass in.
This we will call the McEnroe Effect or YCBS – “You Can’t Be Serious!” Yet there she is, Beckett in “Castle”, a reed-thin model in “Crisis,” which is clearly not worth staying tuned for, and on and on. Only the former Dallas cheerleader Sarah Shahi in “Person of Interest” persuades you she might actually chop you into messes if you fooled with her. And do it with a smile.
But the whole premise of “Person of Interest” is pretty deep in YCBS territory. Claire Danes in “Homeland” is almost old enough and non-Sports Illustrated Swimsuit enough to seem a plausible CIA employee except for her florid craziness. If Snowden had displayed half her symptoms he would never have gotten near a secret.
But the Danes character is another example of an increasingly annoying trope — the Byronic hero or heroine. It isn’t enough that they be a pro and catch the bad guy or whatever the plot requires. No, they have to come equipped with a dark wound from the past to provide unnecessary and unconvincing psychological depth in between lame gunfights and random shags, as the Brits say.
So, the otherwise stellar “Elementary” feels the need to make Sherlock’s drug habit into a major plot element whereas the original just took a little dope when he was bored. Nor is Watson immune. She too has a needlessly lachrymose back story involving her expulsion from the medical profession. But why bother? Isn’t it obvious it’s a lot more fun assisting Jonny Lee Miller’s fabulously quirky Sherlock than dealing with hospital bureaucrats, whiny patients and thuggish insurance companies? What doctor wouldn’t chuck it for the chance?
I love “Shameless” in part because the dysfunction isn’t tacked on for gravitas. It is the entire over the top reason for the show to exist. In this case, it is the enchanting Emmy Rossum’s struggle to rise above the rising tide of dysfunction that makes the show not just hilarious but touching at the same time.
“Big Bang” is still fine, but it is getting a little long in the tooth. Or its arrested adolescents are. If teen CIA babes are silly, middle-aged gameboys can begin to turn creepy. “Justified” hasn’t yet reached its sell by date but it could happen. Tim Olyphant and Walton Goggins as equally bent lawman and crook are par for the course in any script derived from the late, great Elmore Leonard, and the setting in caricature Appalachia is as much fun as Leonard’s usual Detroit and Florida, but when Raylan and Boyd aren’t on the screen the show goes slack. And how long can Justified keep our interest?
This points to the great flaw with most TV series. There is an eternal conflict between the key to great story telling since Homer – beginning, middle and end – and the corporate imperative to keep the thing alive as long as it brings in a buck which leads inevitably to soap opera: Plot that is beginning middle, middle, middle, one immense taffy pull of one thing after another with no end in sight.
“True Detective” addressed the problem by going the mini-series route. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were excellent as two antagonistic partners who had flaws, but not the usual ones, that played out in unexpected ways. Unfortunately they were after yet another creepy serial killer in another menacing outback – instead of Justified’s” Appalachia or “Top of the Lake’s” New Zealand, this time it was bayou country rife with roadhouses, religious zealotry and good old boy justice. And by the way, if there were as many serial killers in real life as on TV, there’d be no one left to chase them down.
As bad as the “all middle” series is, the series that purports to be aiming toward a final big revelation that will explain everything is almost always worse, delivering not a satisfying bang but a disappointing whimper. “Fringe” was great but eventually disappeared down the rabbit hole of its own complications and the big finish was a giant anticlimax. “Under the Dome” is clearly going that direction and contains not a single plausible character. “The Following” is a trifecta – YCBS from end to end, Kevin Bacon at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Bond girls (that is, too damned old and frail to be mixing is up with villains), concerned with yet another boring serial killer and no end in sight since he keeps coming back from the dead. To quote Bill Holden in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” – ‘Kill him!” I’m hanging in with “Helix” but I greatly fear the big reveal will fizzle.
Other recent offerings don’t encourage viewers to stick around. “Chicago PD” is paint by the numbers Dick Wolf, “Intelligence” is strictly for Marvel heads. “The Americans” began well in Le Carre territory, but when deeply undercover espionage agents start beating, killing, torturing, committing bigamy and otherwise standing out like a sore thumb even their kids know they are not your usual PTA members. It has turned into a USA show like “Burn Notice,” “Suits”, “White Collar” where the YCBS premise sinks the boat after one episode. “House of Cards” was never as good as the much funnier British original, but Lillyhammer amuses.
And I am looking forward to the return of “The Returned,” a genuinely uncanny French import about members of a small mountain village coming back from the dead but not quite themselves. No relation to the terrible-sounding “Resurrection.” And then there’s a new season of “Blue”, a Julia Stiles home brew show with episodes of ten or fifteens minutes from the WIGS network, available via You Tube. Stiles is good, Uriah Shelton as her son is great and how much time have you lost if it all adds up to nothing.