Saturday, May 7, 2016

To the Bitter End? Reflections on Quitting TV Shows

Chris Noth and Julianna Margulies on The Good Wife, which will air its final episode tomorrow night on CBS.

How many times have you found yourself struggling to finish a novel, or gritting your teeth through the last quarter of a movie that’s gone from promising to painful over the course of its running time? We've all bailed on something that’s failed to keep our interest, but usually if we’ve invested a certain amount of time and gotten a decent amount of enjoyment out of a particular work, we stick it out to the end in order to be able to assess it in its totality.

However, that way of analyzing the relative costs and benefits of staying with a work until it’s over tends to go out the window with television. I’ve been wrestling with the decision to quit or keep watching a number of shows recently, something which is at least in part a function of this so-called era of Peak TV, in which there’s always something else on that’s more vital and compelling (or so we’re told, at least, by friends and critics alike). True, the knowledge that a show may have entered a death spiral, at least in terms of quality, is usually discouragement enough to keep us from committing to more of it. At the same time, the longer-term, more involved nature of the medium means that we come to grow attached to characters (and perhaps the actors portraying them) more readily than we might in a two-hour movie or play, and are therefore willing to forgive some lapses in quality. Besides, expectations for how TV shows treat plot have changed over the last decade or so: where once we expected them to just carry on until they ended, now we operate, for better or worse, on the assumption that there will be some sort of narrative and/or thematic payoff to longstanding storylines and character dynamics, even if they have grown increasingly strained and implausible by the end. TV’s rise in prestige means that there’s an increasing tendency to want shows to feel artistically complete.

The main show that’s been testing my ability to hang on is The Good Wife. For significant stretches of its run, it’s been the best drama on TV, bar none, which is all the more surprising given that it’s not only a network drama that’s obligated to turn out far more episodes per season than a cable show, but that it’s on CBS, a network with a reputation for being particularly staid and conservative in its prime-time programming. Julianna Margulies – who plays the titular “good wife,” Alicia Florrick, a disgraced politician’s (Peter Florrick, played by Chris Noth) wife who returns to practicing law after his conviction for misconduct – has been the show’s main attraction for seven seasons, taking her character on an arc from apparent naif to a more hard-bitten, cynical presence in the show’s later years. That’s not to shortchange the rest of the fantastic cast, most notably Christine Baranski as Alicia’s sometime boss Diane Lockhart.

Julianna Margulies, Christine Baranski and Josh Charles
The Good Wife started out strong, then stumbled in its fourth season, and it looked as though the show might spiral into irrelevance in its twilight years. Instead, it went through a creative renaissance in its fifth season, raising the stakes by pitting Alicia and her former rival Cary (Matt Czuchry) against her love interest Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and Diane as the two junior lawyers set up a rival law firm. In the midst of this conflict, the show then killed off Gardner (a result of Charles requesting to leave the show), adding an extra layer of emotional turmoil. The result was one of the best sustained run of episodes in any recent TV drama, and it looked as though The Good Wife might be able to go on indefinitely.

Unfortunately, the last two seasons have been a big step down from the highs of that fifth year. One of the things that I usually find enjoyable about The Good Wife is that it’s been willing to eschew the need to look as though it knows where it’s going, focusing instead on increasingly neglected art of creating fairly self-contained case-of-the-week episodes that nevertheless serve to deepen and advance characterization and longer-term narrative arcs. However, even by those standards, the show has seemed increasingly unfocused, plunging Alicia into a political campaign that seemed out of character for her, then taking away her electoral victory through a series of obscure machinations (a fruitless arc which it then effectively repeated with Peter’s character this season). In addition to Charles’ absence, the departure of Archie Panjabi, who played Kalinda, Alicia’s confidant and her law firm’s investigator, due to personal friction with Margulies also left a hole in the makeup of the cast. The late addition of Cush Jumbo as Alicia’s friend Lucca, as well as the presence of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the new investigator/love interest, has tried to paper over these holes with two appealing actors, but the writing staff has seemed at a loss as to what to do with their characters.

And so it seems that The Good Wife, which always struggled for attention in the shadow of flashier cable dramas, will come to an end in a more traditional fashion, petering out in its final season rather than building to a sensational, climactic finish. At this point, it’s fair to ask what the payoff is for having watched the last season or so: what’s the benefit to having slogged through the remainder of a once-great show, other than for the sake of completism?

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on Empire.

If The Good Wife took the more traditional route of finally running out of creative steam after a sustained period of excellence, Fox’s hip-hop soap opera Empire exemplifies a different phenomenon: the new show that burns brightly upon arrival, then subsides into mediocrity. Empire was one of my favorite shows when it debuted last year, featuring a deservedly acclaimed performance by Taraji P. Henson as Cookie, the long-imprisoned matriarch of the Lyon family, a feuding family headed by legendary rapper Lucius Lyon (Terrence Howard). The show followed, in broad strokes, the successful template of recent hits such as Shonda Rhimes’ soap opera Scandal: enjoyable performances, byzantine plotting, and a concern with the experiences of African-Americans and other groups that had usually been denied center stage in older network dramas. Perhaps one of the most admirable things about the way in which Empire’s first season, which centered around a battle for succession among Lucius’ three sons (Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett, and Bryshere Y. Gray), was the way in which it felt like its outrageous set-pieces and sensational plot twists occurred within a coherent framework, albeit a bizarre one that only made sense in the context of the soap opera genre. No matter what strange narrative curveball the writers threw at us, it always seemed grounded in a fundamental sense of who the characters were, and how their relationships functioned over the long term. The focus on the Lyon family also helped; although Steve Vineberg made a good case for its continued quality a few seasons ago, I bailed on the ABC country music soap Nashville after its first year because it began to feel too sprawling to cohere and keep my interest.

The first season’s finale may have been the moment that Empire cracked beyond repair. The showrunners took their penchant for plot twists too far, suddenly overturning longstanding family dynamics in scene after scene. It also resolved the battle for succession (albeit only temporarily), which removed one of the most compelling constants in the intra-family feuding. The second season has had its charms and its delightfully wackadoodle moments, such as Cookie donning a gorilla suit as part of a protest in the season opener. However, even though it remains fundamentally the same show, it’s simply undergone one too many twists, undercutting the sense of the characters as consistent, relatable figures. Unlike The Good Wife, Empire doesn’t fit into the traditional templates of legal, cop, or medical drama, so it can’t function on a case-of-the-week model, leaving it up to the increasingly nonsensical plot and strained character dynamics to sustain it. 

Empire’s troubles reflect what appears to be a growing preference for miniseries and other limited-run TV formats. In part, this is a response to a practical problem: many big-name actors want their time commitment to a show to be finite. On the other hand, there’s also something in the creative makeup of Empire, and shows like it, that dictate that they will initially burn brightly but then peter out, riding the diminishing ripples from their initial wave of popularity for a few more seasons until wrapping things up. In such an environment, it’s obvious why the appeal of the miniseries has grown: it’s a compromise between the time limitations of a movie and the open-ended nature of a traditional series. It is also, perhaps, a reflection of the growing expectation that we should be able to assess TV shows as more-or-less complete works: I’ll admit that if Empire had a definite expiration date, I might be more willing to stick with it to see how it wrapped up.

Iain Glen and Peter Dinklage on HBO's Game of Thrones.

Indeed, that impulse to see how things turn out explains why I’ve stuck with another show that I’ve long been on the fence about. HBO’s Game of Thrones certainly doesn’t need my support: it’s massively popular, and could probably run indefinitely were it practically feasible. However, it’s also not an especially good show. There are some brilliant individual performances, such as Peter Dinklage’s turn as the intelligent, diminutive Tyrion Lannister, and the show’s production values are unrivaled, but the dialogue is frequently leaden, and some of the characters who appear to have the most value for the long-term narrative arc are deadly dull, both in terms of their characterization and in how the actors who portray them (barely) bring them to life on camera. There’s also the problem of the sprawling nature of the story, which means that major characters get only about ten minutes of screen time per episode before it’s on to the next, completely unconnected storyline. On top of this, Thrones has a well-documented penchant for bleakness and sadism; the former quality was initially refreshing in a fantasy series, since it called into question many of the basic tropes of the genre, but more recently the latter impulse has predominated, making some scenes virtually unwatchable.

Still, there’s something about Thrones that keeps me watching in spite of myself. As with The Good Wife, it may in part be the assurance that there’s an end in sight, that the promise of a defined conclusion in the near-to-medium term will offer some sort of compensation by giving me the ability to assess the whole series as a unified work, rather than wonder how much longer I can slog through it, as with Empire. On the other hand, there’s also the tantalizing hope of a creative renaissance for the show, even a partial one; the dizzying array of characters that enter and exit the show allows for the addition of some talented actors, such as Jonathan Pryce, amid the otherwise hit-or-miss cast.

The TV industry is changing rapidly, and the rise of Netflix and Amazon, who release seasons of their shows all at once, may eventually render the question of whether and for how long one ought to stick with a particular show somewhat irrelevant. Until then, that question offers viewers an ongoing dilemma, one to which there’s rarely a clear-cut solution.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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