Killing Creativity: TV Too Good To Last
By Matt Roush -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/25/2004 8:00:00 PM
Last week, we gave you Pulitzer Prize-winner Howard Rosenberg. This week, TV Guide Senior Television Critic Matt Roush joins B&C's rotating roster of those whose work will appear regularly on this page. His weekly Roush Review in TV Guide is the most widely read television column in the nation. Here's his first for us. Enjoy.
Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like we had a choice. Arrested Development. So what else is new?
These aren't just the year's two best TV comedies. Their titles pretty well sum up this most unforgiving and cruel TV season, at least for those who give a damn about the creative future of the medium.
We learned to curb our enthusiasm early on this season. That's when NBC scuttled the unorthodox, challenging, and brilliantly acted crime drama Boomtown—after only two episodes into its second year. It was already evident the network didn't really believe in this Peabody winner, which played with time, perspective, and character in a fresh way alien to a formula-driven lineup dominated by the multi-tentacled Law & Order behemoth. NBC cut Boomtown's first season short and had begun meddling in the creative process to dumb the show down to make it more (shudder) accessible.
While hardly a surprise, the sudden vanishing act was a crushing disappointment for anyone foolish enough to dream that Boomtown might be nurtured on Fridays in the tradition of NBC's landmark (and also chronically ratings-challenged) Homicide: Life on the Street.
It would be the first of many such discouraging developments for shows that dared to be even slightly offbeat. The best freshman drama of the fall season was ABC's Karen Sisco, a wry crime caper inspired by Elmore Leonard with a sizzling star turn by Carla Gugino (Spy Kids) as a sexy-funny U.S. marshal. Nearly everyone expected Karen to get crushed on Wednesdays opposite Law & Order. And it did. But ABC promised to relaunch the show this spring in a more hospitable environment, while the show underwent (shudder again) some retooling.
The tool was an ax.
ABC soon dumped the show for good, and only eagle-eyed cultists were able to catch three shelved episodes on USA Network. (For the record, they were very cool.)
A depressed viewer e-mailed me recently, suggesting that, in the current environment, "I figure Seinfeld would last four episodes, Northern Exposure four at most, St. Elsewhere 13, Cheers maybe 22 (with six of them burned off in the summer), and Hill Street Blues one season and three episodes at the start of the next." Sad but probably true.
The networks have given preferred treatment to reality shows over scripted series—a no-brainer, considering the heat and buzz generated by so many of these reality high concepts. Survivor, The Apprentice, American Idol, The Bachelor, even America's Next Top Model are all bona fide hits, most of them deserving of their guilty-pleasure status.
But look what Fox has chosen to give a big push to with its unstoppable American Idol franchise. Certainly not Wonderfalls, a strangely amusing cult curiosity that mixes the mysticism of a Joan of Arcadia—the heroine talks to animal-shaped knickknacks—with the beguiling quirkiness of a Northern Exposure (Niagara Falls subs for Alaska).
Instead, Fox gave a comfy post-Idol launch to the spring's most universally reviled reality show: The Swan, a ghoulish and obscenely exploitative combination of Extreme Makeover and a beauty pageant without a heart. During each episode's creepy climactic unveilings before a Grand Guignol mirror, we're encouraged to think, "Well, she's prettier, in a drag-queen sort of way, but not pretty enough for the pageant."
Meanwhile, Wonderfalls is already and inevitably history, having been buried in dead-end time periods on Friday and Thursday nights. Doomed from the start. To add insult to injury, look what took its place on Thursday: a replay of The Swan.
TV's graveyard is littered with scores of missed opportunities over the years, critical darlings shunned by a disinterested Joe Public and quickly banished from sight by those with little vision. But the frustration seems more acute this year. The quick fix of reality TV is an understandable lure in these uncertain times, but, in the long run, how many potential future classics have we just lost?
Which brings me back to Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development—which, for a while, aired opposite each other on Sundays, another of the season's nasty ironies.
Neither is what you would call a breakout hit, but Curb is protected by the luxury of airing on HBO. And, while Fox has given Arrested Development an unusually long leash by this season's standards, even rewarding it with a one-time shot after Idol, this farcical gem pretty much defines the term "on the bubble."
Should Arrested Development join Boomtown, Karen Sisco, and Wonderfalls as one more of this mean season's casualties, we may look back on the 2003-04 season as the year the bubble burst.
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