They can’t all be critical darlings loved by fans and barely kept alive by sympathetic executives. Here are three shows that should take their success and make something more of their rapidly stagnating selves.
Procedurals are easier to explain to executives and sell to the public than long-form narratives.1 Miss an episode, no problem – the same characters (or caricatures) will still be there when you get back, doing the same understandable actions. An overarching plot, meanwhile, is no guarantee of success – Grimm has gone sideways trying (poorly) to do a little too much writing, and just look at the last two seasons of White Collar.
There is a happy middle ground, one that won’t confuse the mass of casual viewers but will give the tv-lovers amongst us something to chew on beyond empty calories. Ground the show, do something to build from episode to episode else all the charming dialogue and pretty faces and even Intriguing Character Traits grow stale.
The three shows below share key traits: they’re all safe, so they shouldn’t fear changing things up a little.2 They’re all intriguing, fun even, more than run-of-the-mill premises – nary a doctor or lawyer or rumpled detective in sight – that are floating so free the episodes could be shown in any order at this point. And all three have showed – in some cases multiple times! – hints of good stuff, writing and plotting that uses the episodic format without becoming its slave.
Go forth and improve, ye stories of the smallish screen…
Agents of Shield (ABC)
From moment one this show hasn’t felt lived-in; the sets and the settings lack depth, almost as much as some of the characters.3 Whedon’s other shows4 prove the old saw that the environment can be a character, and a valuable one at that.5 Yet I’m not going to suggest a new art director – the solution here is to bring back Book.
The pilot episode teased us with a glimpse of Firefly‘s Ron Glass as a doctor or something connected with the central S.H.I.E.L.D. office or something who deals with – you know what, the specifics don’t even matter. Ever since the team took off in their completely independent air base and started running around on all their completely independent missions they’ve been even more isolated from any sense of a ‘real’ world with stakes and history and grounding for the characters and, sadly, one awesome cameo in five episodes doesn’t change that. For once, I want some more bureaucracy in my life – populating the world with a few more characters or specific repeated details6 will build out the world even more than making the SHIELDjet feel more like Serenity.
Although I’m sure people would totally be into that. I’m just saying.
Sleepy Hollow (FOX)
Here’s my entire argument, graciously made for me by the Fox Broadcasting Corporation:
This looks like an exciting, layered series with protagonist and antagonist characters churning together, until you do a quick breakdown of the numbers:
- almost 1:45 of this five minute video is from the pilot.
- 45 seconds primarily involve a resolved plotline about a specific now-destroyed object.
- zero seconds (best I can tell) are from episode 5.
The fix here is simple, and hopefully soon to come – this show needs Big Bads, and quickly. You’d *think* the Four Friggin’ Horsemen of the Apocalypse7 would be a big enough bad, but not the way this show’s been wandering about. There is no fear here – the good guys figure out how to handle that week’s bad guy each time; something needs to survive from week to week and it might as well be a threat. More of the Headless one. Maybe more Moloch puling the strings behind some of these weekly beasties. More John Cho.
Seriously, more John Cho.
The Blacklist (NBC)
The problem with The Blacklist is the blacklist. Each episode is titled after a name (and number, because James Spader is one very OCD semi-villain) on said list and that name (and number) appear as each episode’s title card. It makes the list itself, and these discrete entries on said list, the show’s main pillar. And it’s a perfectly fine pillar, but the majority of attention seems to be paid to said pillar when the real interesting stuff is on the buttresses and windows and sconces that are the ostensible other parts of the show.
In non-architectural terms: the show sets up three could-be-good plots and leaves them flapping in the wind most weeks while everyone runs around dealing with the ostensible fourth plot, the omnipresent criminal threat. We got a few good solid episodes about Agent Keen and her stabbed8 hubby and the tensions her new job places on the relationship. But now that tension is over for… some reason.9 We got a really intriguing and delightfully choreographed10 introduction to an outside conspiracy of some sort and then got a man eating an apple for two episodes.11 And we haven’t had a real reason to think Reddington has a real plan since the roughly one minute of footage from where this clip starts. And that was minute three of the series.
The Blacklist is a perfect candidate to test whether there really is a happy middle ground between episodic and serial in this day and age. Can they downplay the episodic routine, especially since it’s not that strong,12 and instead paint on some more glittery fun every episode – without becoming maudlin or spurious with the plot arcs?
Here’s one way to do it – next week, they foil the criminal plot but don’t catch or kill that week’s number. The threat’s made a little less pat, but the episode still ends like an episode does. Then there’s the real test: are they aware enough of what they’ve done right so far to include another delightful ladder dance?
Gawd I hope so…
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- Just look at CBS… ↵
- Sleepy Hollow in particular has no excuses having been renewed for a second season following its third episode. ↵
- That’s getting better, but my complaint about settings still stands: this thing feels like a cheap web series, but with obvious money. ↵
- Okay, maybe not so much with Dollhouse. ↵
- I KNOW THIS ISN’T JOSS’S DOING PER SE PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE INTERNET!! I’m just making the point that making a place feel lived-in adds a lot to a show. ↵
- Idea: when Coulson makes his weekly toss-off that he’s talked with HQ and they are whatever, why aren’t the characters making quick comments on specific never-seen people back at HQ? They don’t even have to explain much about these non-characters – the key here is just to repeat them so they become a part of the world. ↵
- You can bet your boots I’m going to start calling them the Four Friggin’ Horsemen in my recaps. ↵
- Don”t worry! He’s remarkably fine now! ↵
- Ostensibly it’s because she figured out he was being set up instead of being an actual spy hiding things from her, but the arc was too manic to justify me not rolling my eyes. ↵
- Seriously, I wish I could find a clip; the break-in team scene was so good. ↵
- Seriously, that seems to be his ominous character trait. ↵
- The list isn’t an omnipresent threat, it’s a collection of could-be threats with no sense of rhyme or reason. ↵