Great TV series aren’t easily duplicated

[25 February 2009]

By Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

We’ve hit the season when news from Hollywood about possible new fall shows gets the TV world all kaflubbered and jumping to overstatement by declaring trends.

The declaration this year, from everyone from studio and network brass to entertainment reporters, is the one you’ve been hearing in some form about pretty much every industry. You and I, and our fellow economically besieged Americans, are looking for comfort food.

That’s words they all use, “comfort food.” Wouldn’t you expect at least a few of these cultural pundits to come up with a different cliche?

That, of course, would take original thought, and not getting swept along in the common wisdom. Good luck finding that.

In any case, the reason for this trend spotting starts with the success of CBS’s “The Mentalist,” which is averaging nearly 18 million viewers and growing, and is the third highest rated scripted show this season. And the networks are developing a lot of similar, straight-forward series for next fall.

Making a show like “The Mentalist” is a solid idea, but I’m talking quality, not style. And if there’s any real “trend” to be found in TV tastes, it’s that nothing major has changed. Not this year and not in a few years. What people are looking for is good shows.

“The Mentalist” is popular because it’s a very good show. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s witty and zippy and star Simon Baker is charming. Fox’s “House” is massively popular, too, and it is exactly brain surgery. It’s also anything but comforting, but it’s smart and fast and rewarding. The link between the two? Quality.

One of the biggest flaws of Hollywood thinking, and particularly in the TV industry, is the knee jerk reaction to see any show’s success as a genre trend or an example of some over-arching national hunger. In truth, most hits are simply triumphs of writing, casting and execution.

That’s a problem throughout media - honestly, in news media, too - where there’s a certain inability to evaluate why some things we do connect and others don’t. That’s in big part because any pop culture success is a blend of luck, timing, and, usually, talent that can’t be easily copied.

In TV, the problem can be massive, because network and studio execs are often business people, not creative folks, and can’t really recognize the right-brain side of the success formula.

So they look for models to duplicate. A couple seasons back, they saw that “Lost” and “24” were hits, so all the networks pumped out complex serialized dramas. Every one failed.

What the TV programmers missed was that “Lost” didn’t start out looking like a complicated, brain-battering serialized puzzle. It looked like “Survivor” with a script and a little mystery going on involving a polar bear.

But “Lost” was and is brilliantly executed. It has some mesmerizing acting, and it pays off viewers in all kinds of ways - with a development, a twist, a moment of action or emotion – that’s satisfying and keeps viewers coming back.

The same was true for early “24,” and for this revived season. Viewers aren’t just jerked around by a string of perilous twists, we’re given moments, some of them big, some of them small, that make us come back for more. My favorite this season was Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) meeting the president, and she asked how could she be certain she could trust him. “With all due respect,” Jack said, “ask around.”

Great line, great re-stating of his heroics, and simply very cool. That’s also the deft touch that makes for popular and compelling TV. It mixes pacing, understands how to satisfy viewers, connects in human ways, then leads back out to mysteries or adventure or legal fights or plain old comedy. And there’s never a formula. Good writers always feel their way.

So if we’re talking trends, most of us have always wanted some escapism, just as we always wanted some connection to reality. Great TV is genuine and original and entertaining, but it’s never what the last show did.

Who knew that a series about a 1960s ad agency like “Mad Men” would be so mesmerizing and so clearly Emmy worthy? Who thought a show about politics like “The West Wing” could be so great? But there’s greatness in some basic comedies, too, or in takes on mobsters or doctors or cops or lawyers, when they’re written and produced and acted with panache.

That’s the only trend. We want good shows. Those are always good medicine.


Speaking of trends, this comes as no surprise and probably is related to the economy. Nielsen Media Research said this week that the average viewer watched 151 hours of TV each month - more than five hours a day - in the last three months of 2008.

That set a record and was up four hours from the same time in 2007. Nielsen also said watching TV on the Internet (nearly three hours a month) and on mobile phones (close to four hours) was up, too.

A couple other parts of the report also confirmed what we all kinda know. Time spent watching TV increases with age, viewing video online is highest among young adults, and mobile video watching is highest among teens. Oh, and the work day (weekdays 9 a.m. to 5.p.m.) is prime time for Internet video. I could tell you more about that, but I gotta go. Someone just e-mailed me a YouTube clip.

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