Life Cycles of TV Shows

I watched an episode of PERSON OF INTEREST last night that I had recorded on my DVR, and I got a decided sinking sensation.  As many folks know I have been a huge proponent of this television series.  Frankly, I thought it was the best show on television.  As I worked my way through the first season and compared it with the second season I was deeply impressed by the plotting of the arcs.  How tension was developed and sustained.  Mysteries deepened.  But now that we are into the third season I’m becoming very concerned.  A lot of shows display the fact they are getting tired by recycling movie plots, or redoing It’s a Wonderful Life.  Having a major character fall in love and then kill the love interest, etc.  The malaise that’s afflicting Person of Interest is the Scooby Gang Problem, or as George R.R. Martin calls it, “the charm bracelet effect.”

What do I mean by this?  It’s a diffusion of focus.  When the show began it was just Mr. Reese and Harold.  The two cops were present but one was only reluctantly inside the tent — Fusco, forced to help John and Harold because he was a corrupt and dirty cop, and Detective Carter, a straight arrow cop with a fascinating background who was hunting for the mysterious Man in a Suit.  She begins to help them, but with strong reservations.  We also met Zoe in season one — a corporate fixer who Reese finds attractive, and an interesting villain, a young woman called Root.  In episodes in season two we met the sociopathic killer, Samantha Shaw.

Now here we are in season three, and everybody is in the Scooby Gang — John, Harold, Zoe, Carter, Shaw, Fusco.  Even Root is peripherally hooked in with our heroes.  Last night’s episode tried to wedge everyone in to the story with the result that how the problem presented was actually resolved felt more cursory then logical.  It felt more like everybody needed a line even if they weren’t actually doing anything other than just being present on screen.  Perhaps they felt like John Reese had begun to show too much human emotion so they brought in an even more stone, cold killer in the form of Shaw.  Fusco has been reduced to comic relief.  I’m more interested in the mystery surrounding the Machine and it’s relationship to Root, so I’m going to hang in there for a few more episodes, but I’m getting worried.  This show worked because of the relationship between the two central characters — Reese and Harold.    By surrounding them with what feels like a family, dysfunctional though it may be, the writers are diffusing what drew me to the show in the first place.  The relationship of two deeply damaged people who help each other find their way back to humanity.

I don’t mind these characters.  Individually they are all interesting, but they don’t all need to be in every episode.  If you have a large cast you use them judiciously.  Jim Butcher does this beautifully in the Harry Dresden books.  Harry has a large circle of friends and enemies, but they don’t all turn up in every book.

As for where the charm bracelet came in.  Back in the day when George and I and a number of other writers in the N.M. community played pen and dice roll playing games, George used to get very frustrated when we would all go to deal with every issue.  Unless we were all gathering for that final battle it really wasn’t necessary, but we did it anyway, and it didn’t make for satisfying game play.  When we started to break this habit the games became for dynamic and felt far more real.  The problem persisted a bit into Wild Cards, but here George and I just had the power to say “no”.  You don’t get to bring in all these other characters into your story.  If you do it becomes a muddle and the theme and heart of your story gets lost.

That’s what I’m worried is happening to Person of Interest.  They’ve lost their heart.

2 Responses to Life Cycles of TV Shows

  • David Dorais says:

    It will interesting to see if the series remains near future/thriller/science fictional enough to both hold my interest and survive long enough to have panels at ComiCon and Sasquan…

  • La Rube says:

    My analysis ay simply be too simplistic, but it is the nature of capitalism that everything becomes more mediocre. Or put another way once an opportunity is presented the system must squeeze maximum wealth from the opportunity. Artists create the opportunities and the folks that are in charge of brining the art to the media are very good at their jobs.

    In the case of television once a show captures an audience and “gets legs” it is an opportunity that has to be exploited. The next step is to do market analysis and figure out how to get the most customers or “followers”. This usually entails adding new characters to capture a “demo” that was not previously being captured. Or perhaps the main character(s) are not appealing enough to enough folks (beyond the folks that created the buzz of course!) so add a character that is an offset for the folks that like the concept of the show, but do not find the character or actor “good” enough to compete with other options available. So add another character; or as sometimes happen change the character of the main protagonists to attract more folks. The change can be addressed as a “development” in the person’s life; a mere adjustment to the dramatic situation in which they have been placed… etc…

    So it is little by little… more and more profits… subtle change by subtle change until what was is no more… Original viewers may become dissatisfied with the changes, but most will continue to commit to the characters of the “Scooby Gang” far beyond their point of discomfort. If some are lost, it is worth it to bring in even more. If asked one can always add some intellectual discussion of how the storyline has led the “creative” folks to take the characters in way they never imagined… It is just like “real-life”… All the twists ad turns and unexpected events… It makes the characters more believable… etc etc WOW…

    I do not object t capitalism… it is just that when the basis for decisions is demographics (as I believe it usually is) rather than the creative process… the art suffers… However the process brings us the art in the first place… Demographics shape everything that appears on TV… especially the pilot… but many shows seem to maintain their creativity without falling all thw way down the rabbit hole…

    I suppose ultimately the discussion of capitalism’s effect on art is just to old and hackneyed itself to be worth discussion…Let’s just enjoy the fruits of what it brings… and when the shark jumping happens change the channel…

    One example which not many would agree with I suppose… I watched Lucy Lui as Dr. Watson last night… Her character has thrown herself completely into Holme’s world… She is a detective in training… Dr. Joan Watson is sitting in a child’s playground with her married friend while she yells at her children for seemingly slight infractions of code… She tries to maintain a conversation with her old friend while responding to Sherlock’s texts that ask her to review death scenes and make a quick analysis and response! I felt it was a wonderfully juicy moment for the character… She is proud of her skills in judging the salient point of the scenes she is sent for review while continuing to discuss life with her friend.. Certainly creative, interesting and new… The same “systems” brought me that moment…

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