Change and Decline in US TV Drama: Related or Simultaneous?



Of all works of art and forms of entertainment, a television drama series has the hardest time maintaining success. The reasons are fairly straightforward: a film may be a flop, but it ultimately only lasts an hour and a half on average. A book may be unknown; but it may pick up some publicity the following year. Even a literary series or saga, which have always been popular, can evolve into a total of 3,200 pages (as did Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu), and still retain is readership seven, eight, and a hundred years down the line.


But television drama series, whether artistically crafted or not at all crafted, rarely retain the popularity they had in their heyday. Their heyday, if they’re lucky, lasts two years; sometimes even three. During this time they receive an array of Emmy awards, worldwide recognition, they are dubbed into twenty, sometimes even fifty languages. A series is the most talked about work of entertainment in its day, because its popularity ranges from university professors to newsagents; sometimes from eleven-year-olds to octogenarians. In certain cases story arcs make the news. Betting shops place bets on who killed whom. No Hollywood actors, even if they star in high-grossing, Oscar-winning films, are as well-known and appreciated as the actors in this series, even when the actors in the series have only just had their big break, and had previously spent their time playing one-off characters in single episodes of far lesser known shows.

And then the dust of the magic wears thin. Ratings slow down, another show takes over, a brand new younger generation grows up, and suddenly nobody has heard of him or her, let alone the storyline that occupied covers of half the magazines on a newsstand. DVDs are available, and so are plenty of videos online; but people don’t rush to buy or watch them. Why? There are other things to watch. Other actors have now filled those actors’ shoes; other actors are getting the Emmys.

So why is it that Hollywood films, which last just one and a half hours and are shown in cinemas for no longer than a run of six weeks, and literary sagas which take years to read, and five-minute pieces of music written two centuries ago, never outgrow their time, never make their presence overly felt – and yet the average television series, enjoying global popularity, is only usually a fleeting fancy? One could just say that even beautifully written television dramas are not art. But leaving out the artistic factor, it makes little sense. Yes, literary heroes and heroines, when written well, are eternal. But television series, when written well, invite the viewer to peer into the lives of their favourite characters for half a year, (sometimes four months), annually for five and sometimes seven years. We can love a novel forever, but we don’t live with a novel for six years. We may make a decision to play a symphony every Wednesday night at eight ‘o clock. But it’s not the same as watching a beloved character’s life change, collapse and rectify itself from week to week, year to year; it’s not the same as discussing this character and series with one’s friends from week to week and year to year.

There is a major difference between timeless works of art and television series, and the answer has something to do with their not being art, but not always. Television series change, and when they change, they change dramatically. That is not to say that the drama changes – though of course it does; but more than anything, the production, administration, costs, salaries, sets, cast members change. Why do people read Proust from Volume 1 to 7, never usually expecting his writing to deteriorate? It’s Proust. Why would it deteriorate? Why do people stop watching a television series – which takes just forty minutes, sometimes an hour a week to watch, once a couple of years have gone by? The writers have changed. The characters are authored by completely different people. This actress, consumed by her success, has demanded more money and consequently been asked to leave, or decided to leave. Guest directors have made the camera work all funny, and, moreover, fuzzy. Suddenly something that once seemed so comely, so familiar, like seeing an old friend once a week, something with which one could accompany dinner or that could make one’s menial tasks feel so much better, becomes a pain to endure, an embarrassment to witness, and ultimately worst of all: sheer boredom.

But from this point of view one might ask how all these things are connected. Life has to change, our acquaintances must change, and the events in a narrative must also change. So why is it that when, in a simple medium like American television drama, change occurs, it usually leads to decline? And when doesn’t it?

Change in American television is a risky thing. A few years ago, when interviewed, creator of Desperate Housewives Marc Cherry stated that, the longer you continue a series, the more you write for the fans. They are, after all, the stronghold. While the occasional viewer might switch something on out of nothing to do, or watch a series only if a billboard’s advertised it, a fan will devour every episode and, it has been the modern trend – comment about it online, sometimes exchanging thoughts about it via various forums in the company of people on another continent. But one has to ask how much this is the right approach. The fans know the show best of all, that’s unquestionable. They know the characters inside out and remember the characters’ storylines from three years before.

At the same time however, this leads to staleness. Just as in real life we get accustomed – to people, friends, teachers, colleagues, places, so when it comes to television, producers automatically, perhaps subconsciously, expect their viewers to become familiar, and thus be more forgiving and more pardoning. A poor episode in a series’ first season can alienate the undecided viewers; those who aren’t sure whether or not they want to devote that hour of theirs to this series can decide not to. A poor episode in a series’ third season will probably do little. The ratings might go down by a few hundred thousand in the States; but equally those same fans who opted not to watch that episode will probably tune in to the next one. In real life, if we meet a person we like very much who for example, borrows our car within one month of knowing us, and then loses our car keys, we might lose a little bit of our respect towards that person. If a friend of ten years loses our car keys, it’s doubtful that the friendship is then at the end of its tether.

This seems to be the trend with any television drama. Typically, a television drama will, as times goes by, give itself allowances. Where previously it gave us storylines about murders, suicide, blackmail and mystery, now it will feel free to give us storylines about two major characters’ children competing in a high-school beauty pageant, or a major character suffering from a complex or an insecurity we’ve known they have since the first episode. If you observe American television dramas through time, you’ll notice that few of them include many flashbacks in their first few episodes unless they play a major part in the unravelling of the plot. A year goes by, and then two years, and suddenly flashbacks are all over the place, because the viewer seeks to know where he or she came from, what their real story was – even if it’s been related to us in the narrative already. We’re interested enough. Producers and writers then, understandably, play on that interest; they work on it.

At the same time, however, the fans only really make up a proportion of the viewers, and the occasional viewers also require a boost. Every season the television series, if successful, has to make a new promotional campaign; every season has to have a different colour, a major change in one or two or three characters, a whole new series story arc, and several mini story-arcs. It’s difficult. No wonder almost no one pulls it off.

Look out for the next installment, considering change and decline in The Sopranos.


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