Things I Don’t Like About Television, Episode 5: Diminishing Returns

Have you ever watched a drama, comedy, or variety show that you found highly entertaining, ultimately to see it sharply decline in quality before being canceled? This might not be the case for all shows, as there are other ways a show can be ruined beyond repair. Maybe it’s been on too long or the head writer left after a few seasons. In any event, the program will lose all things that initially attracted you to it, leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

Running Shows into the Ground

This is pretty much the complete opposite of premature cancellation. In this case, a show is kept on too long only for each season to decline sharply in quality.

Now, experts may differ over the amount of years shows would need to last in order to be considered successful. It really depends, as some writing teams only have plans to tell certain stories in less time than others. Hence, a show would be run into the ground as producers and network executives would push to have a show meant for only a 3-season run to last for more than double that. As such, the writers will run out of ideas and the characters — who may have been fully developed during the natural lifespan of the series — may run in circles or be pushed to act out of character along the way.

Examples include Family Guy — which will be discussed in a later post. According to a forum pal of mine, Supernatural should be included here, too — although I could never get into that series. I have chosen to talk about The Simpsons and South Park in depth here.

Why are you still 10??!!! And why is this show still on?!

The Simpsons

The Simpsons is the first show I think of in this case. Sure, most cartoon characters never age. If they do, they may only age by two years over the course of the series or star in a brand new series. I am calling out the Simpsons because the non-aging factor is particularly glaring.

This show has been on since 1990 and Bart Simpson is still 10. That is kind of messed up when you consider the flashbacks. He was supposedly born in 1980, so that would make him 36 years old in 2016. Also, Homer and Marge went from being teenagers in the 1970’s to being young adults during the Grunge era.

And yes, The Simpsons has been on too long. The age issue is just one of the reasons why. Another reason is that the show is not as funny as it once was. One day, I caught on old, old episode of the show and laughed heartily at one of Principal Skinner’s lines. In the early days of the show, the writers relied more on subtle yet effective humor. For well over a decade now, the writers have been going more for cheap laughs.

I will say that the 2014-15 season looked like an improvement over the past few seasons, but that’s it. However, the newer material doesn’t hold a candle to the first few years of the series.

Speaking of Being on too Long…

South Park

South Park is also somewhat guilty of this. It is in its 19th season and I think that the humor had run thin by season 18. More on that in a minute.

What made South Park brilliant were the character interactions among the boys and Chef, as well as the truths about children themselves. (I remember seeing an interview with the creators of the series, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Parker was talking about how children tend to be self-serving and fowl-mouthed, which was certainly true when I was growing up, and especially true now.) There was also a caustic humor absent of other shows on television at the time, so South Park really stood out.

I never really watched this show regularly to begin with, but I loved catching reruns of the earlier seasons at one point. I eventually lost interest in the show because of the hit-or-miss humor of subsequent seasons — and the absence of Chef.

While I don’t want to say that certain topics should not be tackled by the writers — and edgy humor only works when the writers are not afraid to go anywhere — some jokes just aren’t really worth being told. I cannot find the humor in jokes based around racial or anti-gay slurs. For instance, there was a moment in one episode when Stan’s dad, Randy, repeatedly screamed out the N-word on Wheel of Fortune when the clue was “a group of annoying people.” Also, another episode was devoted to arguing why people should be allowed to use “f_g” as an insult.

Another thing I didn’t like was how Chef’s character was sent off. Isaac Hayes left the show shortly before he died, and it was due to an episode that made fun of Scientology. Fine, if the character would no longer be a part of the show, there was nothing Parker and Stone could do, but turning him into a brainwashed pedophile and then literally destroying the character was a bit much and unfunny.

Other characters have been ruined with the long-running show, as well, namely Eric Cartman. He was always an asshole, but the writers really pushed his anti-Semitism and general ugliness to 11.

Finally, what bothers me about South Park is its overreliance on topical humor. The makers are at an advantage over other shows because episodes of “South Park” can be made relatively cheap and fast, but not every passing fancy needs to be lampooned. Additionally, what I have noticed from more recent episodes is how the humor has changed. Yes, some jokes are very funny, but those drive the episodes. If you were to look at earlier seasons, the characters drove the episodes and the additon of topical lampooning made for a slower burning, lasting humor.

Now, having said the above, the comedic approach for Season 19 of South Park is promising. The current direction is to make fun of the general political and verbal environment, particularly in terms of political correctness and the Regressive Left. These are things that need to be discussed and lampooned. I caught a couple of episodes so far and found them to be quite good. I would have to view more of the newer episodes to make a full and fair judgment the season.

Creator Abandonment

This is, of course, a case in which a show’s creator or original head writer (or pair in either case) leaves the show at one point. The writing almost always suffers.

One example is Smallville, but that shows decline happened in Season 9, 2 seasons after Alfred Gough and Miles Millar left. I will discuss “The Boondocks” in depth here.

The Boondocks Logo

This animated series had never been an easy show for me to view due to the use of the N-word (and seeing and hearing Uncle Ruckus at all), but much of the humor was spot-on. The series, based on the comic strips of Aaron McGruder, effectively dealt out social commentary in each episode. Much of it was naturally aimed at the black community in the United States, as well as American greed, politics, and political correctness.

The humor worked for a few reasons:

1. There was a solid core of characters. While he would have his crazy revolutionary moments, Huey Freeman was more often than not the voice of reason. His narrations were featured in various episodes and carried the morals of those episodes. Riley Freeman was the disrespectful, irresponsible wannabe. Robert Freeman was rough, yet loving grandfather, who made no secret of his taste for women. Tom represented the nice, conservative (?), and responsible black man. Employed as a prosecutor, he was more or less a good friend to the Freemans. Tom was married to Sarah (a white woman) and they had a daughter, Jazmine. Sarah often put Tom in check when he went off the deep end although she had her moments. Jazmine was basically the normal young girl. She was naïve, yet lovable in her own way. I never liked Uncle Ruckus, as he represented the self-hating black person, but there was a breakthrough later on. In the third season, he was challenged by Robert on his views of black people and the show began to delve into how he was brainwashed by his own mother. He was still antagonistic toward blacks, but his stance started to soften.

2. The voice acting fit the characters. The main cast featured John Witherspoon and Regina King (as Robert and the boys, respectively). Guest stars included Charlie Murphy and Samuel L. Jackson. ‘Nuff said.

3. The morals of episodes were often self-contained. While some themes and recurring storylines would be featured in some episodes, there was never an overarching theme for a season. There was never any need.

4. The show flourished under McGruder’s direction. He would leave after the third season, and the show suffered as a result.

Taking a look at the fourth season and final season, something was missing from the show:

It begins with the characters. Robert did make a fool out of himself in previous seasons, but his level of desperation was never as bad as it was in the fourth. Huey was never a terrorist, but in one episode, he was trying to make a bomb. Uncle Ruckus took several steps back as a character after it was established how and why he developed anti-black sentiments in the third season; he was making progress to accept his own skin and the black community little by little.

The money theme of the season undermined the episodes. In this way, the show was going for cheap laughs, which was never the case before. The episodes were self-contained, but there were no real morals extolled. There was nothing really to gain with the exception of the flashback episode, easily the best of Season 4.

Since Season 4 was the last from The Boondocks, the decline in quality was even sadder.

Jumping the Shark

The term “jumping the shark” has been around for decades. It originates from a moment in Happy Days when the character Arthur Fonzarilli (played by Henry Wrinkler) literally jumped over a shark while on water skis for a stunt.

Generally speaking, a show has “jumped the shark” when it makes one move in order to stay relevant. Ironically, that signifies a point of no return for the series and the show will never recover from that moment.

I would apply this term to Best Week Ever, which really made a series of questionable moves, although one finally tanked it.

Best Week Ever

After its I Love the 80’s specials, VH1 established itself as the best at making clip shows with panels. The specials for the 1970s and 1990s never lived up for the discussion of the decade in between, but other specials on past videos and artists were fairly good. Best Week Ever followed this format, and I loved it.

I had first saw the year-end special (Best Year Ever for 2006) and eventually watched the weekly installments. I thought it was brilliant. I loved the collection of comedians and my favorite segment was The Sizzler with Chuck Nice. Eventually there were some Best Day Ever segments on VH1, but that was overdoing it.

Now, this is where the show went wrong: Near the end of its original run, Best Week Ever changed its format. It went from being a clip show with a panel of speakers to regular clip show with one host. That host was the weakest link: Paul F. Tompkins, whose name was then in the name of the show. Before, the other comedians made Tompkins tolerable. By having him be the host, there was more of him during the half-hour, and he was dreadfully unfunny. And my favorite segment of the show was basically gone, so VH1 had zapped all the fun out of the program entirely.

The show apparently rebooted earlier in 2014 with only a few of the old panelists, but was it canceled in April. I never caught those episodes.

A General Lack of Direction

I would place a show in this category if its decline is not necessarily connected to its longevity or a “jumping the shark” moment, or primarily due to those things. More likely, the writers on the show had no long-term plans for certain characters or blew their load in the first two seasons of the series. This is compounded by the departure of the show’s main actors. I would place Charmed and One Tree Hill here as examples.

Charmed

In the case of Charmed (a program that is re-run on TNT), there were a myriad of problems that led to its decline in quality. (Spoilers!)

  • The biggest thing imho was the edition of Cole (played by Julian McMahon) and his relationship with Phoebe (played by Alyssa Milano). That presented the Halliwell sisters with an unnecessary conflict and led the next issue…
  • The death of Prue. Although many people will agree that Shannen Doherty can be a difficult person, Prudence Halliwell was simply the best character on the show. I say this as someone whose favorite character was Piper (Holly Marie Combs). I think Doherty did enough to make Prue a sympathetic character and Prue has the best power of the three sisters (telekinesis). No offense to (who played Paige), but the death of Prue ushered the long, drawn-out end to the series. It was already declining in quality — again, due to Cole and his insipid storyline — but the falloff was vast.
  • The writers had no clue what to do with the sisters’ growing powers. Prue was given astral projection. Piper could blow things up in addition to freezing time. Phoebe became an empathy to supplement her psychic visions. At the very least, Prue should have had the ability to blow things up; that would have made more sense. I was also disappointed because the sisters didn’t have the type of powers (or the daughter) they were shown to have in a potential future.
  • The writers had no clue what to do with the secret magical world. I didn’t care about the councils at all or the equalists, or whatever the hell they were called. At one point, the writers had run out of ideas, so some of the villains of the week came from greek mythology and fairy tale. Really. More importantly, some interesting leads were killed on the spot. It would have been nice to know more about how other witches dealt with their powers or to see other witches oppose the Halliwells. Additionally, warlocks should have been more than demonic entities that took human form.
  • Finally, promising characters should have been allowed to stick around longer. Characters like Andy (T.W. King) a young witch, and a White Lighter were killed. This was done too quickly and might not have been necessary at all. Each offered a chance at dynamics with the sisters. It would have been great to see them balance these relationships while maintaining secrecy with the world at large.

One Tree Hill

One Tree Hill ran into problems in the first season alone. It had more than ten characters to juggle and their storylines went into too many directions for my liking. On top of that, Dan (Paul Johansson) killed his older brother, Keith (Craig Sheffer). I had liked Keith, so that move also took much of the heart out of the show for me. Additionally, Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) and Peyton (Hilarie Burton) left after Season 6 with no explanation. Those were my two faves, so I wouldn’t care very much to follow the show after that.

I have only mentioned a few series, but of course there are more series that I and anyone else can think of. Next up, I would like to talk about the abrupt departures of characters…or not?

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