Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Return: 4 Reasons It's Okay Your Favorite Shows Died

Hey all. I'm back. I quit for a while and I wasn't sure I wanted to keep bloggin'. But screw it. I do. That's right. I refuse to die. I must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.

And with that in mind, here are five reasons things shouldn't necessarily keep going on.

4 Great Shows That Got Canceled (and 5 reasons why that's a good thing).

A lot of everyone's favorite shows were TV shows that were short-lived, that died an unjust death. We all want our favorite to go on for years and years. But here's the thing: we have plenty of evidence that they shouldn't. Is is sad we don't have twenty years of Arrested Development? If they'd been able to turn out episodes like "Taking A Stand" or "Shock and Awww" for twenty seasons, yes. But, in the spirit of my return, let's look at how the shows that died as martyrs are maybe better dead.

4. Firefly
This is the one that's always brought up. It was 14 glorious episodes (well, 13 1/2-- "Objects in Space" kinda sucked and the half of "Heart of Gold" where Joss Whedon tries too hard to prove he's a feminist is pretty gross), and Fox murdered it.
And not even Adam Baldwin could stop them.
It was simultaneously one of the best Westerns and one of the best science fiction shows of all time, and almost a decade after it was canceled fans refused to accept it. We got a movie (which was pretty strong), some comics (which were not), a... pen and paper roleplaying game? God, Firefly fans are nerds.

It came out right as Hollywood was starting to embrace the geek, but never really got the legs to become the franchise everyone wanted it to be. Imagine a world where, instead of every Marvel superhero getting a movie (Thor? seriously?), we had a Firefly film franchise. Nathan Fillion in a new movie every year, playing Jesse James in space, gradually robbing the entire goddamn universe.

And also making, like, 5 sequels to Slither.
Think how much happier the entire internet would be. We could turn on our TVs every Tuesday night to a brand-new episode of Mal Does Awesome Things and Wash Is Still Alive.

Counterpoint: Cowboy Bebop
Hey, you know what other show combined grungy sci-fi and Westerns while simultaneously playing to basically everything geeky and still managing to be incredibly cool? Cowboy Bebop. It's one of the handful of anime (alongside Akira and Miyazaki films) that you don't have to be a colossal turbonerd to get into, it's received pretty wide critical praise, and the soundtrack kicks all manner of ass. Seriously, so much ass.
Pictured: probably smarter than Jayne.
Like Firefly it threw a ton of great stuff in a blender (Charlie Parker, Sergio Leone, Bruce Lee, William Gibson, Jackie Brown, Han Solo) and produced a pretty exemplary show. And, like Firefly, it had a short, one-season run  (26 half-hour episodes and a movie, so pretty much the exact same length).

You know what it had that Firefly didn't have? An ending. A really great one. The series opens with the main character, Spike, thinking about his past life as a Triad smuggler and enforcer. Elements of this past life pop up throughout the series. As a bounty hunter, he is reminded over and over that people who have done the things he have done inevitably pay for these crimes. The series' best episodes constantly drive this point home: Jet, an ex-cop, hunts down a psychopath he arrested whose current crimes he holds himself responsible for. Faye is buried under crushing medical debts she will never, ever pay off. The show hammers over and over this idea of debt and responsibility, and then, when it reaches a good enough length, has the guts to pull the trigger on it.
Well, shot their finger-guns at it.
I know that everyone who watched Serenity thought, as soon as the finale started "oh my god what if these characters die?" But can you imagine if they had? Like I said, Mal's basically a more heroic Jesse James, and why should he be exempt from that fate? If the man's dedicated his life to working against a system, what kind of life is he going to have once that system starts crumbling? If, instead of ending with "let's have lots more adventures! (ps please renew our series)," that show ended with Mal dead, but ultimately victorious, knowing that-- like the Operative --he was creating a world that he had no part in? His crew saved, but him intentionally staying behind because he knew that once he won this fight he no longer had a purpose? Not only would we not have to be resentful because there wouldn't be any more Firefly, we would have had the best goddamn finale in the history of science fiction.

3. Arrested Development
Oh man. This one hurts to think about. I freaking love this show. I think it's the best that television comedy has ever been. And yes, it is a goddamn crime that it only got three seasons to share its beautiful, beautiful material with us.

A lot of people--including the show's creators-- point to its cancellation as a perfect example of what's wrong with American audiences. It was a smart, complex show that rewarded careful viewing, played a huge amount with metacomedy, and operated on multiple levels. The showrunners had thought-out, longterm plans, and so many jokes going on that it's impossible to catch them all in one sitting.
Example: Franklin has his own microphone. Think about that for a minute.

And now, of course, the long-rumored revival looks like it's actually going to happen. It'll be a few years late, of course, but these characters we love and their complex comic universe are finally going to return. Surely there's not another case of this happening that I'm going to comically point to as evidence that we should be concerned, right?

Counterpoint: Futurama
Look, the first four seasons of Futurama are masterpieces. Then it was... well, unjustly canceled by Fox (who seem to feed off of nerd tears). And then they got the movies which were... okay, taken, but Bender's Big Score and Into The Wild Green Yonder were decent, if a bit fanservice-y.

But then the show came back, in full force. Renewed, given more freedom, the entire staff of voice actors and writers back. It was gonna kick ass, it was gonna be Futurama as we'd all loved it, it was going to move Fry and Leela forward and give Bender more adventures and do great things. It certainly wasn't going to be one of the most disappointing things I've ever seen.
It wasn't going to devote its season finale to jokes that were unfunny ten years ago, delivered with the grace and timing of a car crash.
The Futurama revival is probably the greatest warning to comedy writers ever: don't revive your show if you've forgotten how to write it. There were good jokes in it, but I can only think of one or two consistently good episodes. Nothing even approaching the level of "Roswell That Ends Well."

It also committed the cardinal sin of sacrificing its characters and love of toying with continuity--which were, like Arrested Development, always the show's strongest suit--for the sake of laughs. Suddenly Zoidberg has been working at Planet Express sixty years (despite celebrating his "five, ten, or twenty years" anniversary previously). Bender is immortal, even though one of the defining episodes for his character dealt with his fear of being forgotten after his death. The crew travels back in time and changes history, despite time travel both being impossible except by fluke accident in their universe and already established as operating through self-fulfillment.
This happened
More to the point (and less nerdishly) the show became really heavy-handed. The plots got flimsier justifications, the satire went from being clever to being cartoonishly hamhanded (compare "Future Stock" to "Attack of the Killer App"). It feels like the writers knew what episodes from the first four seasons were good, but not why. Their attempt to do a touching episode about Fry's past plays sappy music over his father telling him how much he loves him, which, considering Fry's parents were shown to be so awful that they barely knew he existed, is a clumsy and transparent attempt to follow up "Jurassic Bark."

I don't think this will happen to Arrested Development. I hope it doesn't. But we should remember that just because a show's coming back doesn't mean it will be the show we want it to be.

2. Breaking Bad
This one's a little different-- series creator Vince Gilligan has a definite end in mind and the fact that the next season will be its last is only partially because it is too damn expensive for AMC to keep making. But still. I'll miss Walter. I'll miss Mike. I'll miss Jesse. Even if they don't all die horribly.
Not a possibility I'd put money on.
While I know that the show's not ending "before its time" I'll still miss its presence. It is massively smart TV, and is willing to take us through bleak moral waters. It's got some fantastic actors in it, has them playing complex, interesting characters. TV will be a more interesting place without the story of Walter's continuous moral decline, Jesse's struggles for identity, and the blood debts they owe each other.

I do wish that it could be a continuous presence. TV needs a show like this around, one that makes our sympathies uncomfortable and has us constantly second-guessing its characters. I would love to see a show that explored this kind of darkness and these kinds of crimes, and had a network willing to keep pouring money into it and never, never stop making it.
Dear Hollywood: I would like 8 seasons of Mark Margolis drowning children. Thanks, Jasper.
At least, I think that. And then I think of...

Counterpoint: Dexter
Dexter is basically the exact show I'm thinking of. Although it never got as good as the past two seasons of Breaking Bad, it was everything I wanted: a dark, morbid show with a sly sense of humor, constant tension, a troubled and troubling protagonist played by a brilliant character actor, and a willingness to push how much the audience could sympathize with a protagonist who became increasingly monstrous.

It constantly asked us how we felt about its main character. Just like we shouldn't want Walter White to get away with what he does, we shouldn't want Dexter to exist. He kills bad people, but only because it gives him a sexual thrill and a feeling of power. At its peak, the show could make you so incredibly worried he was going to be caught, and hate yourself for wanting him to stay free.
Turns out we'll cheer for anyone who wants to kill Trinity, though.
Like Breaking Bad, Dexter had a story to tell: the former is about how Walt's pride and need to be important is inevitably turning him into a figure of fear and death, and the latter about how Dexter struggled with human urges, only to be forced to accept that he could never exist without being something toxic to everyone around him.

And then it told that story. And kept going. Season 5 is decent, but Season 6 was just a meandering mess. Because once you've resolved the question of what our protagonist is, once you've gone as dark as you can go, there's no point-- without the continual moral conflict it becomes Michael C. Hall as Stabby Batman. And while that's cool and fun, it doesn't advance the medium and it's nowhere near the show as it could have been.
This shot justifies a lot, though.
If Cowboy Bebop is a lesson that a show should build towards a thematically-appropriate ending, Dexter is a lesson that it should make sure that's the ending. And, while I'll miss it, I'm glad Breaking Bad is refusing--just as Mike advised--to take half measures.

1. Twin Peaks
 Oh man, Twin Peaks. Show me someone who doesn't love this show and I'll show you someone who doesn't know what makes life good (or, inexplicably, Roger Ebert). It's quirky, charming, and it was the first show to elevate the complex, multi-character melodrama from soap opera to art, paving the way for basically every serial drama on TV right now.

It was David Lynch coming off of Blue Velvet and building up to Wild at Heart, and it was a level of strangeness and imagination that you never see on broadcast TV. Even more importantly, it was an institution: one of the most popular shows of its day, with a whole cottage industry sprawling over books, cassettes, collectibles, and a theatrical film. Imagine a show with the market saturation of Lost done by one of the most brilliant artists of his medium.
This show beat Cheers in the ratings.
And then, of course, the network ruined it. They made Lynch reveal the mystery too soon, leaving the show treading water. And then, after this period of mediocre episodes, they canned the show just as Lynch finally got it back under control, leaving it on a cliffhanger that promised real conflict and drama to come and raised a huge amount of questions about the show and its universe.

Counterpoint: The X-Files
The X-Files  betrays a fairly heavy Peaks influence. The quirky mystery, the  nightmarish quality, the charming, implacable agents staring down the mysteries of the cosmos. Hell, Duchovny got his start on Peaks, as one of the bright spots of that show's slump.
You now have no excuse not to be in love with David Duchovny.
And The X-Files was great. It jumped from mystery to mystery, went weird places, had lovable characters, and was a beautiful blend of pulp adventure and surreal horror. It could handle camp comedy, gruesome horror, and unsettling dread. It helped usher in the modern era of television that requires more viewer engagement and active watching (not to mention getting Vince Gilligan enough cred to start Breaking Bad).

You know what it wasn't good at: answering its mysteries. Whereas Twin Peaks never had a chance to answer a lot of its central ones, The X-Files proved why this was a good idea. Fans of The X-Files wanted Mulder and Scully to hook up, they wanted the mythology resolved, they wanted concrete answers, and they never realized that the show's best parts were its refusal to do that. The things that made the show work were its characters and tone, the fun of exploring the unknown. The charm of both shows was both based on the way they made viewers think and probe at the work.
"Did someone say 'probe?'"
I would love to know what happens to Agent Cooper after the Twin Peaks cliffhanger. But, let's be honest: no answer would be good enough. Twin Peaks was a town built on dozens of mysteries and secrets, and any attempt to answer them all would be guaranteed to be frustrating. And more than that, it would be a betrayal of the show's spirit, as surely as revealing the truth rather than leaving it out there was when The X-Files tried it.

Twin Peaks was a show about how mysteries were journeys, about how the important thing wasn't the solution but the questions raised in pursuit of it (Lynch was originally planning to never even reveal Laura's killer for this exact reason). Cooper doesn't need to know how the Black Lodge works or what BOB is, he simply needs to confront them and defend his humanity. If anything, ending the show on a point of ultimate ambiguity--leaving it existing in such a way that it would constantly spur questions, theories, and a perpetual unresolved mystery--was exactly what it deserved. The whole point of this column has been that what we, the audience, want isn't necessarily what's best for the work itself, that it's better to be wanting more than disappointed. And Twin Peaks exists on that principle more than any other show I can think of.
Also, when God closes a door, He opens a window. And outside that window is Wild At Heart.