My father often enjoys telling me about the ‘golden age’ of television. A world in which a mere two channels existed, where all was black and white, and where programming was produced to inform rather than dance around in front of people with an attention span of eight seconds. There’s no doubt that the face of television has drastically changed. Hundreds of channels are quickly rifled through by an idiot with a remote, hoping to catch a quick glimpse of something shiny or better still an explosion. Has the intelligence once found in television story-telling been lost for good?
Popular dramas of the present day manifest in forty-minutes of twists and turns. American shows such as Heroes, Lost, and Desperate Housewives thrive off of their large casts and long series runs. But are these necessary for telling a story? ABC’s Lost is probably the best example of where a 24 episode season run does nothing but hinder the story being told. An entire greatest hits of infamous episodes have seen literally nothing happen and questions raised that drags a viewer through another ten episodes before receiving a satisfying (or even not so satisfying) answer.
Desperate Housewives’ first season followed the exploits of four best friends in a stereotypical suburban America and the dark secrets that hide behind the neighbours’ drapes. The show is now in its sixth season and you can’t but question just how many family secrets exist on one averagely sized street. Plotlines have included retarded, psychotic sons being chained in basements, friends burning each other’s houses down, a daughter falling in love with a disturbed, murderous boy, and the burying of babies under swimming pools. Scenario’s which sound ridiculous in this context, but yet on the screen, viewership remains high enough and profitable enough to condone more and more seasons.
Desperate Housewives is the best example of the ‘corporate formula’. A large cast gives a higher chance of a character being thrown in who someone will like. It also gives writers more plot options later in the show. Once the first order of thirteen episodes is up, it’s back to the writing desk to replicate the success of the episodes that just aired, and it’s this hunger for an order of more and more episodes that could be placed as the problem.
Prison Break saw the young, likeable Michael Schofield hold up a bank and get sent to prison, all in order to then break his older brother (framed of murder) out. The show was well written, had an interesting variety of characters that questioned a viewer’s loyalties and sympathies. Most successful was the tensioned pace, that kept people returning every week to see the gang finally break out of prison in the last few episodes of the first season. It seems too good to be true, and that’s because it was. Why? Because there were a further three seasons. Running around was done, and wait…they were put in ANOTHER prison, which they then inevitably had to break out of. The fact there were a whole three seasons drawn out was simply because the formula was good, and audiences kept returning no matter how futile the plot became. One series saw the love interest die, only for her to return when ratings dropped.
It’s so refreshing to witness a show that tries something different and tells a story rather than tick boxes on a weekly basis. Most of these shows fall onto premium networks such as Showtime and HBO, Band of Brothers, The Wire and Weeds are to name a few, but of course they come at a cost, a subscription cost to be precise.
It seems apparent that storytelling is purely influenced by money when it comes to network television in the US. However, are television networks such as ABC to blame for dumbing down these shows, in order to give audiences what they want? Surely if they play off of what the majority of the audience wants does the blame seemingly in fact land upon us? The small list above proves that television certainly isn’t losing its intelligence, we’re just too lazy to go out and find it.