Tomlin: Hello, Richmond. We’ve been saddled with today’s lofty debate as to whether or not we are expecting too much from today’s television. After all, with the Breaking Bads, Mad Mens and Game of Thrones(es?) of the world, good television is certainly much more cinematic in 2015 than good television was in 1993, when it was Andy Griffith being folksy or Scott Bakula quantum leaping into someone new each week. So what has the change been? Sheer production value? Or is it a noticeable shift toward more tightly-written, weightier scripts for television programs? Perhaps both?
Bramblet: Tomlin, it is certainly both. First that is quite a (quantum) leap to make from Andy Griffith to Scott Bakula. I can’t speak personally to what television was like in the 1950’s and 60’s, but it seems as though all television was event television. There were no DVRs, if you missed something, you’d have to hope they played it on rerun. The same goes for the following decades. If you wanted to watch something, you only had just a few options. Now with 800+ channels, certain shows have to stand out, with both better production and tighter scripts. The problem is that everyone gravitates to the Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc., so if it isn’t up to those standards, it either gets mocked or is somewhat left behind. Even more so, the era of situation comedy somewhat has fallen by the wayside.
Tomlin: Your point on situation comedy is more true to this topic than any other television genre. The expectations of a televised comedy in 2015 are insanely high. There are fewer and fewer multi-camera sitcoms, with the Arrested Development-style single-camera sitcom becoming the norm — which leads even television sitcoms to appear to have a more cinematic quality to them. But look at the difference between The Unbreakable Kimmi Schmidt and, say, ALF. There is literally zero chance a show like ALF would run as a modern-day sitcom. ZERO. Unless it was as some sort of weird Adult Swim parody. We expect so much more from comedies than we used to. I recently heard Bob Saget talking about the Full House remake, and he mentioned that the way he would like them to do it is to make the production a simple, unoffensive, family-friendly affair like it used to be. I know there’s virtually no way that’s going to happen with Netflix’s reboot of the show, but when he said that I can’t deny thinking “wow, yeah, that would be kinda nice, Bob Saget.” It would be good to see something like that be non-meta and a legitimate throwback. Girl Meets World tried to mimic its forefather Boy Meets World, however, and I’m not sure it’s succeeded. Not that I’m watching Girl Meets World. But I at least sometimes applaud someone trying to take it back to a simpler time. Sometimes it’s nice to watch something that you don’t have to watch in EXACT order — and these days even our sitcoms are serialized.
Bramblet: Sorry, I got lost for a second by singing the Too Many Cooks theme song after you mentioned Adult Swim, then the extremely catchy theme song of Girl Meets World. As someone who DVR’s GMW (as we call it… I don’t know I’m assuming…), it could be the closest thing we have right now of at least a reboot sticking close to its original series. But then you go back to production value and think maybe Boy Meets World was better because of the nostalgic glow (see monday’s post) that surrounds it. While I think we definitely are expecting too much from television right now, something to definitely look at is something that we didn’t expect anything from, and it has really surprised us. I was up this morning watching YouTube as I do every morning, and I got in a YouTube black hole with Undateable. At some point we might swing back around to sitcoms not getting a fair shot in the drama driven landscape, but this show is good. There are a lot of sitcoms now that try to bait us in with star-power, your Odd Couples, your Two and a Half Men, your NCIS: New Orleans (Scott Bakula), but when a multi-camera sitcom gets it right, with Chris D’elia as your leading man… that’s a surprise. It has that kind of throwback feel (production-wise) to mid-90s NBC sitcom, like a NewsRadio or Just Shoot Me, and it seems like just a bunch of comedians just getting to do their thing. And for the most part, it works. So, while we expect too much, being surprised by something is the most refreshing thing for me right now.
Tomlin: Agreed. That said, though, it’s really amazing to have shows on television that are roughly the equivalent of great feature films. I credit a lot of this to The Sopranos, which sort of invented the serialized, cinematic movie-as-television model and introduced us to the television-changing convention that a main character can be killed off in the middle of a show’s run. If we’re being honest, that really changed the game as far as turning the television landscape into a nailbiting, anything-can-happen medium. It begat Six Feet Under, which begat The Wire, which begat Deadwood (are you noticing the HBO trend here?), which begat Lost, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, you name it. Suddenly our heroes don’t always win, which I think intrigues us. And that makes for some great television, especially when paired with a pro writer like Vince Gilligan or David Chase. But on the flip side, it’s made it a lot harder for a drama to make it. People who watched The Bridge or The Killing seemed to love those shows, but it’s difficult for some of us to add yet another “great show you gotta watch” into the mix, so I think those shows ultimately became the sickly wildebeests of the herd. How great is it, though, that the goal now is to write a show so unpredictable and dramatically sound that it has to rise above Breaking Bad? I like that new standard.
Bramblet: Our heroes DON’T always win, which is great in dramas nowadays . A good portion of the leads in our AMC/HBO dramas are not good people. They are highly flawed, some overly so, and they do not deserve to ride off in the sunset on a white horse. However, we have hit a precipice in terms of what is almost expected with our dramas, especially the finales. So much so that if it is not a “tie up all loose ends”, he’s either dead or he’s alive, unambiguous result, it tends to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Which in turn, casts a bit of a shadow over the legacy of the show. Think about how many people hated the Soprano’s finale. The fans gave every Sunday (or binge watched via Netflix discs), they had to this program and they wanted closure. The fans expected too much, and were let down when they didn’t get closure. (Hey kids, don’t stop believing). Especially in today’s time, when you get to pick and choose what you pay for: Netflix, hulu, HBO Now, etc., do people feel entitled to get the outcome they think they deserve for paying for the programming? Does this give viewers a false sense of ownership in the program they have “invested” in? Is that why there is that sense of expectation?
Tomlin: I will certainly cop to that attitude; if we’re being honest, I admit that I’m less apt to go back and watch a television program I missed if I know the general public didn’t like the finale. As a writer myself, I believe that a good ending to a narrative is crucial. I was late to the party with Breaking Bad, and it ended while I was still watching it — but knowing that it had a good finale kept me invested. I’m not sure how I would have felt midway through if I started seeing people on Twitter hating the ending. I might have bailed. I watched The Sopranos in real time, and I’ll admit that while it’s cool to act like the ending was so great — and in some respects I don’t disagree with those who appreciated it — my point was that David Chase fell too in love with Tony Soprano to end his story. As a writer, you have to have the balls to end the story and I felt Chase couldn’t do it so he took an easier way out. That doesn’t take anything away from The Sopranos, however. But I think after The Sopranos set the stage with that ending, as a viewer I felt like knew I didn’t want to see any more endings like that one. So in that respect, yes, I’m expecting that if you’re going to spin a tight narrative, end it in an equally tight way. I get that there’s ambiguity in real life, great. If I wanted to watch “real life” that ended up going nowhere I’d be watching Party Down South. I don’t need these morality lessons on my HBO and AMC. It’s general life stuff.
Bramblet: I like that we keep going back to HBO and AMC, as they have become the standard bearer for what is good quality television. And while I enjoy a good procedural every now and again, looking at you Criminal Minds, I think having 15 episodes of Law and Order on a daily basis has really put that genre to rest. I think two that we’ve left out here in terms of good standards is both PBS and BBC (America). Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and Mr. Selfridge are all well thought of dramas for being the period pieces that they are. Sherlock is a smash hit, which has propelled the already popular Benedict Cumberbatch into pure stardom. With BBC America, you get Orphan Black, which was a surprise hit, along with Doctor Who, Broadchurch and others. These channels, specifically, slip under the radar, purely because people are not looking for them. When people find these channels and these shows, their expectations are not very high, so what they get is good quality television. So in terms of expectations, who knows what you will find and like when you hit a channel where you have no expectations at all?
Tomlin: Yep. The FX Channel — with Louie, Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story — has proven this as well. So you’re saying we should maintain high expectations for shows which earn them, but keep expectations low for fledgling shows to see how they pan out before casting them off? I would agree there. I can get behind that.
Bramblet: Exactly, because if we didn’t give shows a chance before casting them off, not a single show would earn the respect they may deserve. Otherwise, we really do have too high of expectations for television in this current era.
Tomlin: Guess we’ve put this to bed then, eh?
Bramblet: I think we’ve wrapped this up nicely. Now let’s just sit here in this diner and wait for the rest of the Funkhouser crew until…