Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Top 5 Shows I'm Putting On Hiatus

When I moved a couple of years ago, I opted out of setting up a cable package. I figured there would be plenty of times when I would be working during the evening, and that it would make more sense to catch up on things on Hulu and whatnot. So I've gone the quarter- or maybe even half-hipster route in that I still have a TV but no signal, and watch plenty of stuff online or via Netflix. Perhaps even too much stuff, it sometimes seems.

The list of shows I keep up with is gradually shrinking. Rescue Me wrapped up last year, others have been canceled, and even though I took up watching Alcatraz there should be a net loss before long once Breaking Bad brings things to a close. As I've kept up with shows, however, I've realized there are some series that I shouldn't really be committing to. They still have their moments, but it's clear that they've lost direction or that the networks are trying to milk it as much as possible beyond its best years. It's possible that I'll dig them back up again sometime later, but for these series I've decided that it's time to put things on hold and stop giving them any sort of viewer points in the hope that they'll obey the "Please Wrap Up" sign:

5. The Walking Dead


I hadn't heard of the comic book series this TV show is based on, but I've tended to enjoy the various zombie survival tales that have showed up in the past few decades. It seems the comic is one of the most expansive storylines in this genre, following a group of survivors as they deal with both the undead and hostile bandits. The pilot, and for the most part the first season, didn't fail to disappoint. A creepy atmosphere, incredible zombie creations, impressive sets, and so on.

You'll notice how storyline and character aren't included in this list, which is a little troublesome. I'm not sure how it's handled in the graphic novels, but the series suffers from the fact that while zombie movies can tell a survival tale in a couple of hours, a TV show has to keep an ongoing narrative. Unfortunately, that means that when the survivors find a safe haven where they can settle down for awhile, they do so. And then the story slows right down, too. Most of the past season of The Walking Dead has involved the characters hanging around a farm, occasionally killing or getting killed by zombies, and otherwise whiling away their time feuding with one another. The characters themselves have been drawn much too thin, as the show accumulates a massive cast and generally assigns a few cursory attributes to each person and calls it good.

This season just wrapped up recently, and I'll have to see whether I renege on this decision. There have been some improvements as of late, with some good scenes and surprising moments. But if this last season is any indication, I worry that each time a new one starts it will simply involve the survivors hanging around a new shelter and arguing.

4. Weeds


I started watching Weeds when five seasons had already aired, and by that time I'd already been sucked in by Breaking Bad. So even from the first episode, Weeds seemed just a bit too cutesy in some aspects. It made some arguments or jokes on religion and Middle America and a lot of other topics with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Still, it brought in a lot of good characters, amusing dialogue, and some clever storylines. At least until it decided to break out of the cloistered community of Agrestic where the series was originally set and send the characters cavorting around North America.

The early seasons of Weeds worked so well because they managed to weave so many factors together. There was the absurdity of Nancy Botwin turning immediately to the drug trade after her husband's death, the dramatic undercurrent of the stress Nancy faces as a widow trying to provide for two children (and the dangers of drug trafficking itself), the many signs that Nancy has no idea what the hell she's doing, the haughtiness and hypocrisy of the Agrestic community itself, and the general interplay between the various characters.

And then it just seemed like the show didn't know where to go. Agrestic burned down as something of an offshoot of a turf feud with a group of bikers, several (but not all) of the characters found themselves in another California community, then the Mexican cartel got involved, then there was a road trip all around the country, and suddenly we're in New York with a fraction of the original cast (although a couple older ones were clumsily shoehorned in). The original focus of the series has vanished, and what we're left with is characters who are generally unlikable and have no clear motivation. And considering that Nancy's children are now grown up and have proven themselves able to care for themselves, and that the most recent season started with Nancy being freed after serving a prison stint for murder, it's clear that even the titular marijuana isn't really a focal point or point of danger anymore. The show is coming back for at least one more season, but hopefully it's the last.

3. South Park


South Park
is the success story aspired to by any student who gets by and even does well in school but spends at least some of class doodling raunchy cartoons. The series from creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone saw the gradual rise in quality typical of any good TV show anywhere. Even if some of the early episodes may have relied a little too heavily on potty humor and catchphrases (there's a reason South Park is probably most watched by people around my age, who first heard of the show in elementary school), it grew to become uproariously smart and entertaining. Parker and Stone mercilessly skewered countless people and topics and approached subjects in ways few people would have thought of.

As of late, however, it seems the show has been following a formula of finding something recent in news or trends and mocking it. The show still adds some originality to these stories, but virtually every episode for the past few seasons seems to have at its core some recent movie or political issue. There's been at least one article where Parker and Stone have said they're getting stressed out coming up with new ideas for the show. And considering how they've had successful side projects, namely the movie Team America: World Police and the Tony Award winning Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, I've also seen suggestions that the duo would prefer to quietly wrap up South Park and move on to other things. When the last season finale dealt with the main character coming down with crippling cynicism after his 10th birthday and his parents getting divorced, reviewers generally saw it as a reflection of the creators' increasing frustration with the show and there was even a rumor that it was a surprise series finale.

And then suddenly they did a bit of a reversal and proclaimed how much fun they were having making the show during a Daily Show interview. Shortly after that, the show was renewed not just for another year or two but all the way through 2016. I've generally had a problem with shows getting renewed for multiple seasons, especially comedy shows that rate well but are much more susceptible to decline in quality. To renew for five years just seems like they're dragging it out well past its lifespan. Best of luck, but I think I'm going to sit these hopefully last seasons out.

2. Dexter


Network television debuts some kind of shows in waves after one model catches on. Remember when Survivor and Big Brother did well and so every godawful reality show got greenlighted? I read a lot of books in those years. As of late, it's been cop shows as Law and Order and CSI each had a few successful spinoffs. These in turn have been followed by a slew of replicants as networks decided we apparently want to follow the fictional cases of any criminal investigation group anywhere.

So it was a bit of fresh air when Showtime began Dexter, a series based on Jeff Lindsay's novels. Sure, it involves a lot of people in the Miami Metro Police Department's homicide division. The hook is that the titular character is also a serial killer, molded since a young age to control his homicidal urges by going after murderers and other criminals who manage to worm out of the justice system. It was a cop show with a clever premise, and you became captivated by both the individual episodes' stories as well as the underlying season theme involving Dexter going after another serial killer.

The risk, of course, is that this model gets a little formulaic after you've seen a few seasons. Right around the fifth season, Dexter started to slip. Characters had been bumped off and the show's few attempts to replace them have fallen flat. Other characters are still underdeveloped and underutilized after six seasons. It wouldn't be fair to say the show has consistently declined in quality from season to season (I liked the fourth season better than the third) but the latest, sixth season was pretty much universally panned. Between problems such as an underwhelming villain, a mid-season twist predicted by fans after just a few episodes, and a few vestigial plots that went nowhere, there were plenty of viewers suggesting that they wouldn't come back for season seven.

The show has been renewed for two more seasons, and the cliffhanger at the end of the latest one was certainly enticing. But if the latest run of episodes is any indication, it just won't be worth it to check them out.

1. The Office


The British model for sitcoms sometimes seems to be: 1) Get a good idea, 2) Produce some hilarious television, and 3) Call it good after two seasons so the show can wrap up before getting stale.

This is certainly the case for the original run of The Office. The primary plot involved a documentary crew following the employees at a dismal office, focusing in particular on the romantic tension between unmotivated salesman Tim Canterbury and secretary Dawn Tinsley. Much of the supporting cast was more loosely sketched, though Ricky Gervais made an unforgettable performance as asinine boss David Brent while Gareth Keenan also became an easy fan favorite as an overzealous, oddball employee. The whole thing wrapped up in a mere 14 episodes, with Tim and Dawn finally getting together and Brent ousted from the company but finally achieving some maturity.

The American version had its weaknesses when it first came out, such as the pilot essentially being a word for word remake of the original's first episode, but it eventually found its own footing. It was at its strongest when it kept the same focus as the original, following a similar romance between characters Jim Halpert and Pam Beasley. The show managed to develop the characters in a new way, and bring in a successful reimagining of Gareth and Brent. It also worked on developing the other office workers with their own personalities. It all made for some great episodes and a successful enough show that even some British viewers have said they prefer it to the original.

But, once again, American TV seems to enjoy a formula of extending successful shows well past their natural lifespan. The Jim-Pam thread pretty much wrapped up at the end of the third season, and much of the motivating factor for the show went with it. There were some decent plots involving Michael Scott and the ailing health of the company. Jim and Pam's story collapsed into an everyday domestic tale of marriage and children, and when the show decided to forge on even after Steve Carrel left you knew it wasn't likely to have anywhere near the quality it once did. This past season has just been a meandering collection of episodes that halfheartedly contemplates whether or not to bring back a long dormant relationship between Dwight and a coworker and starts up a few more love stories as well. The show has pretty much completely aimless, wrapping up its most compelling plots and having no idea where to go without them.

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