If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV?

Spoiler: No one ruined TV, but there are lot of contemporary trends that had to start somewhere, and I still think one of them started with Abrams.

If you spend any time on the internet reading about TV (or if you just read my blog – hi mom!), then you know that Ryan McGee’s piece on televisual structure “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode” is receiving lots of attention, and not just from the likes of amateur critics like me. Important thinkers are weighing in, including Jason Mittell, one of my favorite media scholars.

Mittell’s response “No, The Sopranos Didn’t Ruin Television” is, as usual, a well thought out rebuttal. Mittell takes issue with McGee’s selection of The Sopranos as the impetus for novelistic television and suggests The Wire as a much better choice. More interesting, in my opinion, is Mittell’s assertion that many of the shows McGee cites as struggling with novelistic structure are actually plagued by much larger problems, including poor character development or bad production management.

This made me realize that perhaps I needed to re-frame my earlier post “Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model“. For example, I cited Terra Nova as an abject failure of the Abram’s model. While I still believe that it failed on a structural level, it’s important to recognize that there were other, potentially bigger, problems. Two spring to mind: too many executive producers and unlikable/unsympathetic characters. Would I have enjoyed watching the show more, despite its narrative failings, if the characters had been better? Absolutely. I would watch awesome characters battle dinosaurs sans plot any day.*

(*This reminds me of my earlier posts on New Girl. I love the characters of that show so much that I’m completely unfazed by its lack of plot. The rest of the critics seem to disagree with me.)

Another thing that Mittell said made me question my Abrams model:

…failures cannot be summed up in a trend that blames successful innovators for imitations that fall short.

Isn’t that exactly what I was doing? Blaming Abrams for making successful shows that others with less talent tried to imitate and couldn’t? Sort of.

First, I don’t exactly hold J.J. Abrams responsible for the sins of those who have come after him, but I do think that his continued production of shows that build off of a Lostian format in a not entirely sound way only serves to exacerbate the problem.**

(**As a reader pointed out after my first piece, a great exception here is Fringe.)

But what does Mittell mean by “successful innovators”? Narratively sound and satisfying? Popular? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m going to bet on the former. After all, lots of narratively superb shows fail (I miss you, Terriers). But the larger question is was Abrams “successful” with Lost? I would argue that he wasn’t. The narrative petered out in the end,throwing wild and random developments at the audience until it was clear that the writers were as lost as we were. While successful at propagating the Lost mythological structure due to the show’s enormous popularity, Abrams was not a “successful innovator” in the way that Mittell intends the term.

So, can we still cite Abrams and Lost as the beginning for the current trend of shows that attempt but  fail to balance a larger mythology with weekly episodic installments? I think so.

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2 thoughts on “If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV?

  1. Pingback: Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model | You, Me, and TV

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Another great post Lindey, you’re quickly becoming one of my favourite media scholars! I think that you’re right to stand by Abrams as catalyst for cultural change, because he was in the very least successful at seeding this innovation towards serialization; even if it was as much the idea of him as it was the man himself that truly enacted this evolution.

    I use that particular term with a purpose, because whoever and whatever is to blame for the innovation, ( and I’d personally say that Abrams, the David’s and the Internet are the primary trifecta) Television is better now than it has ever been in my eyes and in those of most critics ( keep your ears open and you’ll hear the term ’Golden Age’ thrown around in reference to it on an almost daily basis). No, it’s not perfect and this style of plotting is one of the most pernicious of its flaws, a real pet peeve of many people, but the medium as it stands is now the apex predator where it once lived only on scraps and the smallest of fishes and serialization is a key factor in this.

    Sure these changes towards serialization and novelization in television structure are not without their faults or dangers – nor was walking out of the sea or leaping into the sky – but at the very least they are causing us to become better, more involved members of the mediums audience. This potential to continue in perpetuity is what separates television from other mediums and so I am all for creators capitalizing on this element as those following the HBO model do. These novelized shows are in their own way television at its purest and though such a strong taste can be hard to take at first it is ultimately the most enjoyable.

    The issue arises, as you say, in those sections of compromise, in shows that strive to both exploit serialization and attempt to tell accessible stories on a week to week basis. When it works – like in Terriers or Justified – it is wonderful, but when it fails it can drag the whole show apart. Network dramas have a history of diluting cable premises to little success and this is exactly what a lot of these Abrams model shows seem like to me; an attempt to have your cake novelized and eat it to. The one structural upside to these though is that they can serve as an intermediary: If seeing the slightly soaped mythos of Lost enables you to then stomach something as strong as Luck then they have served a noble purpose. That Lost was, at times, a strong show unto itself is simply an added bonus.
    So if The Sopranos or JJ or The Wire or H8ter ruined television (Seriously, where is all the critical discussion about H8ter? It’s not a hard show to be critical about) then I say “Thank god, ‘cause Television as it was is nothing compared to this.” Yes these shows tore down some of the walls and scorched some of the earth in Television land, but the very nature of evolution ensures that when it grows back out of those broken ashes to re-build itself the beast will be all the better for it and to my mind that is exactly what has happened here. I just hope that the next time we tear television apart the audience still exists to pick the right preferred traits, or even better yet that they have grown another step because of the more daring nature of this novelistic television and are able to finally set a perfect stage for shows to play out on.

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