Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Non-Cancellation Blues

Hooray! Supernatural is back on form!

Well, for one episode, at least. Thursday night's tale of fallen angels and corrupted souls was the best the show has offered up since the third episode of this year, taking the show out of a slump which has pretty much lasted more than a third of the season. It's interesting to note that both "In The Beginning" and "Heaven And Hell" are both very heavy on the show's internal mythology, and the advancement of its story.

The last time I mentioned the show, I was only a third of the way through the first season, and I made some comparisons between it and The X-Files. Since I had only seen eight episodes or so at the time, I was mainly noting the differences in tone and approach for the two shows. Now that I'm three and a half years in, the differences between their development is becoming more and more obvious. In fact, there's a more general phenomenon to be considered here: the non-cancellation blues, otherwise known as "What the fuck are we going to do this year?"

It is, of course, entirely obvious that a TV show can have only one of two destinies. It can get shit, either in relative (The West Wing) or absolute (24) terms, or it can be cancelled before it has time to get shit. Those are the only options. The absolute best thing that can happen to a show is that it gets to exist long enough to explore its concept and characters thoroughly, and then get axed before it has time to begin the sucking.

Not everybody seems to get this. I don't know if this is the truth or just the bias of greater exposure, but it seems sci-fi fans get it least of all. For them it seems that the axing of any show that they have not yet learned to despise is an affront to all decency.

This is why so much of the whining about Angel getting the chop pissed me off. Every time someone used the phrases "Cut down in its prime" or "Hadn't reached the end of its life-span" my eyeballs started rolling so hard you could have used them as G-force simulators for insect astronauts. The damn show lasted five years, all of which were very entertaining (though there are significant parts of the show's fan base who hated at least one of the last three seasons), and then got knocked on the head before it had time to shake itself apart.

Given that, once you get to a certain point (in my case, after three years), then unless a show is attempting to tell a single, long-running story (of which more later), the news of its renewal becomes somewhat bittersweet. More time to tell good stories, yes, but also more opportunities to a) lose the plot and b) piss all over everything that has come before. And nine times out of ten, at least, they seem to take one or both of the latter options.

The question that occurs at this point is why do so many shows into the dumps after their first two or three seasons? I've always assumed it's because sooner or later show-runners have to make a choice as to whether they're going to shake the format up, or keep it the same. The former might mean losing whatever X-factor you originally had going for you, and the latter runs the risk of your programme going stale. It's a dilemma every show that survives long enough has to face.

Back in the day, it was almost always the policy to freeze your programme in amber. There's a reason the phrase "reset switch" came about. By ensuring nothing ever really changed from year to year, you made sure the baby couldn't go out with the bathwater (to be fair, this was also done so that the show could be broadcast in any order by idiot schedulers without it mattering). Since the early nineties, though (and that's a starting time that can be argued with), it's become increasingly common to either fashion a long-running plot throughout the show, allowing progression in that way, or to revamp the show with every passing year.

X-Files tried the former. So did Babylon 5, though the comparison is hardly fair since Straczynski knew where he was going but tied himself in knots trying to get there, whereas Chris Carter just made shit up and hoped no-one would notice. The problems with this approach are obvious. Despite Straczynski apparently mapping everything out in advance and writing in "trap-doors" that could allow an actor or actress to leave the show and it not destroy the storyline, B5 as a whole is generally considered an ambitious failure, in that Season 4 failed to live up to the standard of earlier episodes, and then dashed to the finish line, leaving Season 5 something of a directionless mess (though, in retrospect, I think an under-appreciated one). There was just too far to go, and too many things that could go wrong, a lot of which did.

Carter had the opposite problem. If you just make it up as you go along, sooner or later you'll have painted yourself into a corner. Radioactive mind-controlling oil and killer bees and cloned workforces and lies that were true and then were lies again and flying saucers that were helicopters or were they kept being mixed into a plot that eventually collapsed entirely under the weight of its own bullshit. Years later, and we're still running into the same problem (I'm looking at you, Ronald D. Moore).

My point is that a single, long-running story isn't necessarily going to stop the law of diminishing returns from kicking in, and it can provide a lot of headaches into the bargain, not the least of which is finding yourself unable to actually finish said tale, a la Carnivale.

Much as I loved the first three seasons of Babylon 5 (and thought the fourth was pretty good, too), and thoroughly enjoyed the X-Files until I realised the writers were basically just bashing random keys on particularly sinister typewriters, then, it's probably for the best that the current vogue is for year-long storylines. One shake-up may or may not work (I still maintain Season 5 of Buffy was a total fucking disgrace, even though most fans seem to think it was the best season after the main characters graduated high school), but there's always the chance next year's arc will be more interesting.

That's how we get back to Supernatural. One of the show's true strengths is the quality of it's season storylines, and how well they manage to build upon them each year without falling prey to the problems experienced by B5, or The X-Files. Or even Battlestar Galactica, for that matter, which amongst its many other faults following the exodus from New Caprica suffered from piling up too many mysteries which it was ultimately unable to satisfactorily explain.

In contrast, Supernatural's formula is so simple it's brilliant. Each season's story combines a major supernatural crisis with a deeply personal component for one or both Winchester. In the first season the disappearance of their father and the murder of Sam's girlfriend was combined with the mystery of the identity of the yellow-eyed demon who murdered their mother, and its connection to the burgeoning psychic powers of various youths including Sam. In Season 2, the demon both murdered their father and attempted to open the gates of Hell, and got Sam killed in the process. This set the stage for the third year, in which the Winchester brothers hunted those demons that escaped while the gates were briefly opened (Yellow-Eyes having had only a few moments to gloat before he was done in by a magic bullet), whilst simultaneously trying to get Dean out of the Faustian deal he had signed with the demon Lilith, in order to bring Sam back to life (this was a wonderful inversion of survivor's guilt, with the brother who had died feeling guilty about the brother who hadn't). Ultimately they failed in the latter goal, and Dean was dragged into Hell.

This season, Lilith is trying to break the seals that imprison Lucifer himself, which leads to the angel Castiel releasing Dean from Hell so that he can help in the coming war. On one level you have the possibility of the upcoming apocalypse, and on the other you have Dean's memories of Hell, in which he was first tortured for thirty years (Hell apparently being not dissimilar from Narnia time-dilation wise), and then spent another ten actually torturing others, in exchange for a respite from his own suffering. There's also the slight matter of the angels not being a fan of Sam's psychic abilities, and the possibility that Azazel, the yellow-eyed demon, might have had a more developed game plan than anyone realised.

I'm really enjoying this 66 seal storyline, certainly it's more involving than the demon-chasing of last season. It also features a horribly powerful and vicious demon apparently played by Rutger Hauer possessed by Marlon Brando, and also Castiel and Uriel, two of fiction's most awesome angels. There should be a spin-off featuring those two. "He's an angel possessing the body of an uptight white guy. He's an angel possessing the body of a wise-cracking black guy. Together: they ignore crime, because it isn't worthy of their lofty attention." I'd call it Churlish Angels, but then naming things isn't really my strong suit.

Anyway, the point is that if I wasn't enjoying the show this year, I'd know something else will show up in Season 5, something that will presumably be informed by what has gone before, but not be totally reliant on it.

I reckon that this is the best answer to the non-cancellation blues. Certainly whenever Supernatural strays off its main storyline and tries a self-contained episode; things start to go wrong. Either the story is overly reminiscent of an earlier episode, it's trying so hard to not be derivative it doesn't actually manage to be any good, or it's one of the "comedy" episodes that the show does so well (you haven't lived until you've seen a giant animated bi-polar teddy bear trying to kill itself with a shotgun), but on which it's becoming overly reliant. In that sense, at least, it's drifting into the same trap as the X-Files, though at least the funny episodes aren't all Supernatural has going for it, and said episodes manage to be funny without having to parody the wretched mess of the show's own bloated, walking corpse.

I guess there are two factors at work here. How do you keep a show heading in an interesting direction, and how do you keep the rest stops along the way refreshing. Supernatural has a convincing answer to the first problem, but so far not the second, which is something of a concern (the fact that their network is reducing the budget every year isn't helping either, there are stories of the cast having to wear their own clothes and the crew having to bring packed lunches). Still, as long as I don't have to watch another episode featuring a ghostly racist truck (I am not making this up), we should probably just count our blessings.


Tom said...

Are you arguing this applies to all TV shows, or just American ones? The only reason the supposed dilemma exists is because American networks try to wring out every last cent with 20 episodes a year for as long as they can get away with it. The obvious solution is to quit while you're at the top of the game and there's no hint of an axe in sight. But that would conflict with the profit motive.

There at least signs of hope for American drama in BSG and Lost - even if you don't like the way they've turned out, there is some reassurance in having a definite end date. The trend towards on-demand rather than scheduled TV will eventually push all drama in this direction, and before long it'll be essential for a show to have some idea of its beginning, middle and end in order to be commissioned. At least, that's my hope.


Kim said...

I agree with Tom, the narrative flow of most shows reflects network interference rather than writer goals. Whilst allowing a writer free reign has never been an entirely good idea, neither is writing to demographics, sweeps or budget projections.

The problem is less apparent with UK and Australian series that write to the more practical 6-13 episode structure and hope but don't expect to return. US shows, The Wire and Band of brothers were written like this and the dedication to a story arc is very apparent and makes excellent viewing.

SpaceSquid said...

Tom: I was thinking exclusively in terms of American shows, yes. I agree that it can't be applied to British shows, for the reasons you've given. Of course, while I agree that the problem is caused by the networks' policy of 20+ episodes a year, my point wasn't really about why the issue arises, so much as wondering how it can be dealt with when it does.

Kim: I'm not sure that network interference is as large an issue as you suggest. Whilst I'm happy to accept that it's an issue, and that it has ruined shows in the past, I think there are two separate issues here: how do the writers join the dots the network has given them, and how do they write something that is entertaining year after year. I'm not sure the two are necessarily as interdependent as you think.