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.

New Thoughts on “New Girl”

I know you’re probably thinking that New Girl is such a simple show that it doesn’t really require any thought let alone two posts! But there’s something about this show that continuously makes me question why I like it, and I think that’s a good thing because it suggests that it’s doing something different. I watch Community and Parks and Rec and it’s clear to me why I enjoy them – smart writing and  sharp, well developed characters, amongst other things – but New Girl doesn’t really have those qualities, at least not consistently. So what gives? Why do so many people love New Girl?

In my previous post, I argue that it’s because they love Zooey Deschanel. I don’t think that’s wrong. Certainly, the show initially garnered more Zooey fans than not, but now that the show is eight episodes in, it’s likely only those that actually enjoy the show are still tuning in. It has to be more than just Deschanel devotees. Since my last post, I’ve been musing on the idea that Jess is a context-less character – we have no idea why she is who she is – and that this breaks all the rules of good character development. To get an audience to identify with a character said character must have identifiable hopes and dreams and a backstory. Jess has none of these, other than maybe a very short term goal of thawing a turkey or having sex. Yet, people still love her.

Then, I cam across this article: “Who’s That Girl?”. Good article, but I don’t agree with it. In response to this article, here are my newest thoughts on New Girl:

I think Jess’ lack of a background is interesting, and while her character cannot logically be unique since she is devoid of context, I think the success of the show in spite of/because of this is worth commenting on. I agree that New Girl’s popularity is largely predicated on Zooey D. being the star, but I know many people who had never seen her in anything before this (myself included) and love the show.

Now that the show is eight episodes in, I doubt that many have stuck around just for Deschanel, which suggests there is something inherent in her “adorkablness” that speaks to viewers. In fact, I like that her character has no background to explain why she is who she is. It violates the main rules of character development, yet people still love her. Weirdness for weirdness sake and character erosion to the point of caricature jives with today’s audiences who have grown used to shows whose content is narratively shallow – meta conversations about other pop culture topics or self-reflexive references – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jess’ lack of uniqueness is the most unique thing about the show, although I don’t think they really realize it. They should capitalize on it, besides the references in the theme song.

I too am hoping for a different Jess, but not necessarily one with more ambition or more desire, but rather one that plays confidently and intelligently with her role as a “logo girl”.

Is ‘New Girl’ A New Kind Of TV Show?

In the 90’s, Seinfeld, the show famously about nothing, reigned the airwaves. It was ground breaking for both sitcoms and sitcom viewers. It was self-aware and unafraid. Viewers grew accustomed to, and eventually embraced, the show’s particular narrative language where plots were forgotten from week to week as if they had never happened. This world of no consequences was relatively new to TV audiences at the time, but has now become the norm for many shows (Arrested DevelopmentFamily Guy, etc.).

And, at first, I thought New Girl might be something like that. A show that dabbled in the absurd and didn’t dally in seriality. But quickly, I realized it wasn’t. Each episode doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the characters remember what came before, if evidenced only in the way that they relate to each other (the tension between Nick and Jess grows each episode). No, New Girl is no Seinfeld in structure or quality. But it could be something entirely new.

New Girl’s success is based solely on Zooey Deschanel and her “adorkable” celebrite. Sure, the dudes are a funny group of guys – I’ve become quite fond of Schmidt – but Deschanel is the reason the show is still around. Over the past few years we’ve seen the rise of the auteur-showrunner (like New Girl’s Liz Meriwether), but does New Girl represent the advent of the auteur-actor; an actor who, based on their presence and personality alone, brings viewers back week after week?

Strengthening the notion that viewers are only tuning in for Zooey D’s zany antics is the show’s content, or lack thereof. Each episode has the barest of plots, and so far, it always follows the same structure: Jess has a cooky idea or does something embarrassing and the guys hate her for it, but by the end of the episode they come around and end up admiring Jess’ unswerving dedication to quirkiness and being herself. There’s not a lot to love here, except Zooey.

But not everyone loves New Girl, and the most cited reason why (in my experience) is very telling. It’s not that they don’t like Jess, it’s that they don’t like Deschanel. In fact, it’s impossible to separate Deschanel from her character Jess. Jess is who we assume Deschanel is; we assume that she is just as “adorkable” in real life (side note: the real Jess incarnate is, in fact, Meriwether).

So supposing New Girl is a new kind of show, then it requires a new kind of viewer. Many TV spectators today are quite savvy and relish complex or non-traditional narrative structure (like in the X-Files or Lost ), but New Girl promises neither. It creates a new pact with an audience: show up each week and enjoy Deschanel’s one-liners and wide-eyed expressions and expect little else. And judging by the ratings, audiences have signed on.

But it isn’t there yet. New Girl is so, well, new that it still has a choice to make: continue down this path of the auteur-actor into increasingly zany and absurd moments and perhaps forge a new kind of sitcom, or turn to the safe zone with traditional plot-driven episodes evenly distributed over the ensemble cast. Neither is inherently better than the other, except maybe with regards to longevity (shows on the fringe, like the in-limboCommunity, don’t last long).

So New Girl: What you doing? Hey girl, where you going?

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