Friday, September 16, 2005

We won't be fooled again

While politicians manipulate us, break our spirits, and break our hearts, they're not alone in that enterprise. It's that very special time of the year when the networks take their crack at us. Bombarded with new offerings, some of us will be seduced by shows offering intriguing premises* or favorite stars. Others will be lulled into watching new programs because we're bored or too weary to resist. Whatever the circumstances, some of us will fall in love with new shows. We'll make appointments with our new beloveds; we'll set our VCRs or DVRs to make sure we don't miss them. We'll talk about them at work or parties. We'll blissfully forget the stresses of our own lives and lose ourselves for that hour or half-hour each week.

And then, the odds are quite good that -- regardless of quality -- once our new shows have become a comfortable part of our lives, the networks will pull the plug.

For years I let them batter me around, offering no real resistance. Shows came and went so fast that I now barely remember what I lost. Then a few years ago, CBS offered That's Life!, a charming family show whose cast included Paul Sorvino, the now-hot (career-wise) Kevin Dillon and -- almost unbelievably -- Ellyn Burstyn. The story of a single 30-ish woman (played by Heather Paige Kent) caught in the tension between her determination to live a life other than that predetermined by cultural and familial pressures and her genuine love for that often exasperating family, the first season was -- not to sound too ooky, but -- sweet, heart-warming.

But apparently not enough people were watching because "changes" were made in season 2 that were presumably intended to improve the show but instead cut its heart out, and it was put down at the end of the second season.

I still feel gypped. I still want to know what happened to those folks.

After that, I made a resolution not to watch any more new shows, at least not until they became bona-fide hits with the younger demographic, which is all the advertisers care about anyway.

Like all resolutions, however, this one was hard to keep.

In 2003, I started keeping company with the charismatic Bonnie Hunt and Life with Bonnie. Sometimes outrageously funny and sometimes good enough (which is more than we can say about many comedies), the show brought Hunt a nomination for a Golden Globe in 2003 and 2004, and an Emmy nom in 2004. And I wasn't watching this one alone. Many people I knew spent their Friday nights with Bonnie, and all of us were just a little stunned when ABC pulled the plug (although the show had been making some desperate-looking moves, such as having "the gang" make the bizarre move of buying a pizza joint there at the end). I was torn between being glad that I'd had the show for two years and being mad at myself for letting myself get involved again.

The year earlier, in 2002, I became addicted to what is surely the best show ever to die prematurely, Boomtown. Textured and cerebral, it probably confused some people since its crime stories were told from multiple perspectives in recursive style. In other words, viewers had to pay attention and think. Ratings were low, and in 2003, NBC ran two episodes, then canceled the show. Like That's Life!, Boomtown had been tinkered with in the months between seasons. The multi-perspective flash-forwards and flashbacks were mostly excised, and the show died on the operating table. It's almost just as well it was canceled.**

I've been fairly cautious since then. I did start watching Lost last season after it seemed to be solidly pronounced a hit. Other than that, I generally stay away from new shows. (Admission: did start watching and enjoying The Closer on TNT this summer, but again not until it got good reviews and good ratings.)

Because television programming is driven by economic concerns and not by artistic merit or other qualities -- and sometimes not even by popularity -- television networks literally eat their own young. In doing so, they alienate people like me who would rather not get involved if the relationship isn't going to go anywhere. And if the viewers don't show up, the shows don't have the desired ratings. This unproductive cycle is the networks' own doing.

And yet my resolve is just a little weak. I know I'm going to get burned, but I'm considering checking out My Name is Earl next week. The show has the potential to be either rancid effluvium or a half-hour worth my time. As someone who's been wronged a time or two and still waiting for the offenders to show up and make amends, I'm slightly intrigued by the show's premise. So I'll probably tune in.

And eventually, if I like it, NBC will probably make me sorry I did. ________________________________________
*Ok; maybe I'm stretching it.
**To my delight, Boomtown's first season was released on DVD. The economics of this mystifies me. There weren't enough people watching the show, but someone thought there was interest enough to invest more money in it. But I'm not complaining. I own it.

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