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Friday, February 6, 2009

Bounce back or bite the big one: Cautionary TV tales for the unenlightened

When Sara Boyd stomped into our Press-Gazette newsroom Monday having been thoroughly disappointed with "The Office's" super-hyped Super Bowl episode -- she's like the Incredible Hulk, you wouldn't like her when she's angry -- you'd have thought someone just shoved a knife in her back and stole her imaginary boyfriend.

And in many ways, that's what it feels like when beloved TV shows start to go down the tubes. It's betrayal, plain and simple. A joyous weekly ritual filled with riotous laughter and real emotional investment turns into a maddening display of hair pulls, head slaps, eye rolls and bitter-tasting tears straight outta Bret Michaels' "Rock of Love" skank bus.

After all, no amount of baking soda can hide the fact that you have Chinese take-out containers from 1987 in your fridge. Everything has a shelf life. Especially TV shows.

Ricky Gervais knew it, so he stopped the British "Office" at 14 episodes. Some shows like "Freaks and Geeks" and "My So Called Life" had the plug pulled prematurely by network suits, while critically-revered all-timers like "The Sopranos" and "Seinfeld" had much ballyhooed send-offs that resembled a Hall of Fame athlete riding off into the sunset with a Super Bowl ring.

Since the majority of shows suffer from critical mistakes, Channel Surfing decided to examine a few favorites that grabbed a shovel with glee while digging their own grave, and others that put it down so they could re-write their obit before Father Time officially tapped on his watch.

"The Office"

I think we've heard enough of my ranting about the latest episode of "The Office," but let me be clear -- this wasn't the first time the Dunder Mifflin gang let me down. The show has been weak for awhile now -- only momentarily coming up for air before drowning again in its pool of awkward plotlines and all-too serious moments. It's not that the show is bad (bad shows: see "Gary Unmarried"); it's just that it's not what it once was.

Perhaps it's the pressure of following the glorious golden year we'll call Season Numero Dos. Compared to Season 2, this year's show is an embarrassment. But it's not too late. Now that the dreadful tale of Andy, Dwight and Angela's love triangle is kaput, we can get back to the basics -- Don't forget Michael's famous words: "Keep It Simple, Stupid." No more twisted plotlines about Meredith being an alcoholic or doing the nasty for Outback Steakhouse goodies, no more stepping out of character for Michael, and no more contrived Jim and Pam drama. Seriously. Just stop it. Do yourself a favor, writers -- re-watch Season 2, take notes and KISS.

-- Sara Boyd

"Scrubs"

Mickey Rourke's got nuthin' on John Dorian. "Scrubs" has experienced a Lazarus-like rise from the dead during its final season -- also its first on ABC. More of a quirky feel-good hit than an all-time great comedy, the wheels really began to fall off in Season 6 when the writing staff struggled to match J.D.'s personal growth with his comfort level as a standout doctor. Instead of keeping situations light and offbeat, the show headed down the dreaded family track by mixing boring baby drama with forced slapstick. Bottom line: it was sloppy and unwatchable.

However, the mistakes have been magically erased thanks to Bill Lawrence's renewed vigor following the show's exit from NBC scheduling hell. When writers take the time to retrace steps and address a longstanding gripe -- the J.D.-Elliot make-up, break-up dance -- by having the characters refer to its Ross/Rachel-like flaws, you know a show is embracing Obama-like change. Pull the fork out. The show's final season should serve as an inspiration to left-for-dead comedies everywhere.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Three words: Buffy. Spike. Boinking. That’s what finally drove a stake through the heart of this beloved and genre-defining series, but there were symptoms of decay already. The show’s sixth season (its first on UPN after getting dropped by The WB — never a good sign) began with the resurrection of the titular vampire slayer, who died at the end of Season 5 sacrificing herself to save the world. But this reborn Buffy, given new life by her friends and a little help from some dark magic, wasn’t the same. She was morose, lethargic, not as quick with a quip as she used to be. (I guess that’s what happens when you get pulled out of heaven and shoved back into the cold, cruel world.)

This was never a show to back away from weighty issues — alienation, school violence, cancer — dressed as they were in mystical metaphors. But Buffy’s newfound depression infected every aspect of the show, bogging it down in dreariness, and leading to her aforementioned “angry sex” with vampire Spike. The season never recovered, even after Buffy broke it off with the bleach-blond blood sucker. By Season 7 (the show’s last), with showrunner Joss Whedon off working on his ill-fated sci-fi western “Firefly,” the damage was done, and the magic was gone.

— Adam Reinhard

“Desperate Housewives”

The revival of Marc Cherry’s dramedy about the women of Wisteria Lane is the comeback story of the year. In its fifth season, creator Cherry pulled a flash-forward trick that would have paved a way to an early death for most shows, but instead, “Desperate Housewives” is back to being funny again. Whew. Finally, we’re over all that needless soap opera, unnecessary “mysteries,” pointless new characters and bizarre natural phenomena that we’ve had to endure in the past three seasons. Now that Cherry has the reins again and an end in sight — he’s agreed to an eight-year run for the show — the time warp into the future is the best possible thing to happen to the inhabitants of always-sunny Fairview.

It’s perhaps not a formula all shows can necessarily follow, but it’s one that works when the writers and producers agree the show needs a course correction and put their best efforts into rebooting it. Don’t believe me? Just watch creepy and menacing Dave Williams (the brilliant Neal McDonough) this season.

-- Malavika Jagannathan

"Six Feet Under"

If you're going to be on HBO, you have to be prepared to face a pretty high standard. And "Six Feet Under" met every conceivable challenge during its first two flawless seasons. But when Lisa Kimmel (Lili Taylor) was introduced as Nate's doting wife, the show began a sleepwalking routine that all but resembled the pair's loveless marriage. In retrospect, the plot shift made sense. Lisa's personality was grating to Nate, so it was grating to viewers. And since he was only with her because they shared an unplanned baby, that same level of resentment and apathy was bound to spill over to the audience.

Several plot devices were on shaky ground, all leading to Season 4's "That's My Dog," arguably the most polarizing episode in the show's history. If Lisa was "Six Feet Under" stuck in neutral, "That's My Dog" was the show driving off a cliff. A "very special episode" that saw openly gay David (Michael C. Hall) flirt with a kidnapper, smoke crack, get doused with gasoline and take a gun barrel to the mouth, it was the epitome of shock value; the shark jump to end all shark jumps. If you believed in the emotional payoff, you hailed its daring and stuck with the show. If you were appalled by the nonsensical shift in tone and realism (as I was), it might have served as a deal breaker for the rest of the series. Somewhat amazingly, it wasn't a final nail in the coffin (ironic for a show about a funeral home, I know). "SFU" tortured David a few more times with the memory of that harrowing evening, but by Season 5, it managed to retreat to a safe place, leading to a stable reality and a more than satisfying finale.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski

"Roseanne"

Even if you weren't a fan of "Roseanne's" coarse humor, you'd have to concede that the Conners' trailer-trash lifestyle in Lanford, Ill. was a welcome respite from gushy family sitcoms that believed everything could be solved with a spoonful of love. Contrary to what you might have found in your church pews every Sunday morning, not every family was squeaky clean. Yes, the Conners deserved to have soap shoved in their mouths on a daily basis. Frankly, so do most American families.

Hard knock reality came in the form of taboo topics like poverty, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, masturbation, race and class identity. And despite it being understandable that most viewers would want to use TV as an escape from real-life headaches, it was still funny to see someone else struggle with everyday hardships. That's when money changed everything. The final two seasons introduced a new Roseanne baby (yes, she had another kid), parodies of "Rambo" and "I Dream of Jeannie," and worst of all, a $108 million lottery jackpot for the Conners that was supposed to replicate Roseanne's own rags-to-riches rise. More fantasy plots came out of the woodwork -- including Jim "Ernest" Varney as a Prince? -- and even John Goodman wanted nothing to do with the surreal twists, so he was phased out. Ratings plummeted, longtime viewers were aghast and Roseanne made no apologies for the free fall. Not surprising since the celebrity spotlight left her out of touch with the working class she once championed. In essence, rich-in-real-life Roseanne Barr killed blue-collar-on-TV Roseanne Conner.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski

“The Simpsons”

I haven’t watched “The Simpsons” regularly for probably 10 years, and there are a lot of you reading this who can probably say the same. It’s cliché to bemoan the series’ drop in quality after its eighth season (some will argue it was still genius-level through Season 10), so I’m just going to tell you the exact scene in which I lost my faith. I have no idea what episode it’s in — or what season, even — but there was a scene where the people of Springfield are rioting in the streets. Cars are getting tipped over, things are erupting in flames, the whole works. A small group of angry rioters crashes through the storefront window of a music store, storm in with flaming torches … and come back out as a marching band, tooting a happy tune.

The staggering lameness of that one gag is still enough to turn me off to this day. It was basically a point of no return. That was when I knew “The Simpsons” would never be the great show of my youth. Yes, I’ve watched episodes here and there since, and I even paid to see the movie (because, hey, it was a “Simpsons” movie), and while they’ve been varying degrees of funny, the spark is gone. And after 20 years, I don’t see it ever really coming back.

— Adam Reinhard

“The West Wing”

What happens to a show when its creator — nay, its life force — exits the scene? Welcome to seasons five, six and seven of “The West Wing.” When creator and writer Aaron Sorkin departed the show after the fourth season, it drove the political drama about the fictional Barlet administration from can’t-miss to maybe-I’ll-TiVo-it status through no fault of its own.

“The West Wing” came to television at a time when the American public was highly disillusioned with the Presidency in the wake of the Clinton impeachment trial. It endured the election of 2000, confronted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 head-on and adapted its storylines to match the current goings-on in the world. Most of that was unmistakably Sorkin’s vision. So, when he left — and you’ll have to pardon this 150-year-old comparison — it was like when Vice President Andrew Johnson replaced President Abraham Lincoln. Just not exactly quite like the original.

Under Sorkin, “The West Wing” was almost Shakespearean with episodes like “Two Cathedrals,” “War Crimes” and “Posse Comitatus.” After his departure, the show remained relevant, but the characters lacked the vibrancy they had when Sorkin was still writing lines for them. In short, it became just another ordinary drama. There’s little a show can do when its creator retires, but I recommend packing up the bags and leaving on a creative high note. Why bother faking a masterpiece?

-- Malavika Jagannathan

"Friends"

Don't get me wrong, when it comes to "Friends," I can't get enough. But after nine consistently funny seasons, it became readily apparent that the writers ran out of material and energy near the end. Season 10 of "Friends" -- or what I refer to as two bonus episodes and an extended gag reel -- was pretty pathetic. Every Thursday, my friends and I would gather in front of my giant, wood-paneled circa-1972 television anxiously awaiting a new episode. (To clarify this didn't take place that long ago, I just had a ghetto TV in college -- someone once asked me if it was "coal-powered." I kid you not.)

I'd say about once a month -- if that -- we were actually given a new episode. And yet sometimes, it'd be "technically" new, meaning it was a clip show with five minutes of new material and then the same, tired clips from the show's past. "Friends" was on life support. The viewers knew it had to end, the actors were already looking at movie scripts and the producers were getting lazy. Though the final episode did well in the ratings, it just wasn't the triumphant exit from television the fans were hoping for. At that point, it was more like putting the show out of its misery.

-- Sara Boyd

"Seinfeld"


Eminently quotable more than a decade after its controversial finale aired, "Seinfeld's" place in TV's pantheon is more than secure. But there is debate among even the staunchest "Seinfeld" supporters about the show's final two seasons sans Larry David.

A mad genius who proved with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" that George Costanza was basically a watered-down version of himself, David deserves as much credit, if not more, than Jerry Seinfeld for the show's ridiculous success. Case in the point: the show's final two seasons leave a strong impression that Jerry might have known what he was doing by leaving $5 million on the table and walking away at his ratings peak. Episodes like "The Merv Griffin Show," "The Butter Shave" and the reverse order "Betrayal" were a stark, surrealistic shift from the more minutiae-infused, grounded reality that guided the David years. True, the show always dealt with inane topics and spun comedy gold out of absurdity. But even David admitted in "Seinfeld" DVD extras that it was weird to know the show had continued without his massive creative imprint.

Does that mean the final two seasons were worse than those that came before? Not necessarily. Instead, it proves that faced with the task of overseeing all storylines for the remainder of its run, Jerry didn't want to risk ruining the show's pristine legacy (void of hype, "The Finale" really serves as a fitting farewell ... argue below if you must). Instead, he opted to leave the room on a Costanza-like high note.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski

We've only scratched the surface here. Heck, there's probably someone out there who'd argue that "Full House" really went into the toilet once Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky moved into the stuffy Tanner attic instead of DOWN THE BLOCK while adding those bratty twins to the mix. (For the record, no wife would ever make that sacrifice with her in-laws ... nice snapshot at marital bliss, TGIF.)

Got your own suggestions? Leave a comment, people!

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3 Comments:

I should add that after last night's "Office," I have a bit more confidence and just a tad more hope for the show.

Last night, it was back to classic Dunder Mifflin. Michael threw candy at people, Jim and Pam were in separate plotlines and Dwight decorated the conference room with barely inflated balloons and masking tape.

This should've been the post-Super Bowl episode. It was classic, the timing was dead on and dare I admit, it made me laugh out loud.

-- Sara

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At February 6, 2009 at 11:18 AM  

I also thought it was pretty rock solid. (I still haven't watched the Super Bowl episode.) I even liked the "to be continued" move towards a Michael-Holly resolution/reunion.

"It is your birthday." Ha.

But nothing topped "30 Rock." One of the funniest half hours of TV I've seen in a long, long time. Jon Hamm + Liz Lemon + Rohypnol + "I want to go to there" = comedy genius.

-- Tom

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At February 6, 2009 at 11:39 AM  

The Cosby Show lost my 7 year old self when Olivia came on board. I hate contrived, sassy kids.

Buffy had a bigger stumble leading into Season 4. The silent episode was the high point.

By Blogger Ms. Quarter, At February 6, 2009 at 6:38 PM  

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