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JWR 4.35 - 10 Ways to Make a TV Show Shitty


My buddy Aaron told me to check out The Gates on Netflix some time ago.  After I realized he wasn’t joking, I took some time and watched it.  There are only 13 episodes; the series was cancelled after its first season.  It was so-so: Some good things, some bad things, but as I watched, I started thinking about the things they were doing that made for an un-enjoyable experience for me and I noticed I’ve seen those same problems before in other TV shows (just not so frequently and all in the same show).


So I made a list.  Here are the 10 ways to make a TV show shitty…


1. Everybody’s a…Something


I watched Chuck since the beginning and it was clear from very early on that everyone you met was a spy.  We found out that Chuck’s father, his mother, his best friend, and everyone that walks through the fucking doors of the BuyMore was, is, or was going to be a spy.


Anybody watch True Blood?  You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a supernatural being.  “I’m a vampire.”  “Well, I’m a werewolf.”  “I’m a shapeshifter.”  “Oh, yeah?  I’m a faerie.”  “But I’m a maenad.”  What’s the fuck’s a maenad?  I still don’t know.


Not to be outdone, The Gates had vampires, werewolves, good and bad witches, a succubus and a chick who kept her heart in a box—not a heart-shaped box, however.


I’m not crazy about all these different supernatural entities coming together under the same mythology—call me a bigot.  I can understand wanting to mash up vampires and werewolves, but hasn’t that been done enough?  Being Human mixed vampires, werewolves and ghosts (possibly others, I stopped watching). 


The only reason to keep introducing new types of supernatural beings (like True Blood does every season) is to keep the viewer coming back.  This is no different than introducing new characters like traditional shows do.  “Our ratings are dropping; let’s give our couple have a baby.”  “People are bored with the same old dynamic.  Let’s bring in a new student…no, a foreign exchange student.”  If your show is good enough, you won’t have to rely on tricks to keep viewers interested.  Bringing in more and more characters or stupid supernatural beings no one’s ever heard of only poorly masks the deeper problem of your show sucking.


2. Teen Angsty Bullshit


Terra Nova.  It could have been a great show.  Dinosaurs.  That bad motherfucker from Avatar.  A couple cute girls.  It had, I believe, the biggest budget ever for a TV show.  But it mostly sucked because they focused too much time on the stupid kids. 


Look, if you want to do a show about teenagers, do a show about teenagers.  They exist.  They even get good ratings.  What a bunch of the producers of Terra Nova decided on was this: Because we’re spending so much money on this TV show, we’re going to need huge ratings.  So, in addition to the dinosaurs, let’s have a faction of humans that have broken away from the main group, a marriage in trouble at times, the same marriage on good terms at other times, teenage rebellion, teenage romance, a little girl who’s curious and adorable, and a guy in a wheelchair.  They tried to reach every single demographic they can…except blacks.


The Gates did the same thing: there were the adult storylines and the teen romance/unrequited love/changing bodies crap.


I heard Kevin Smith call this kind of entertainment “four-quadrant.”  It’s a term more commonly used for movies and it refers to something being appealing to all four major demographics: male, female, young and old.


I get it: A lot of money is invested in movies and television and the producers are essentially hedging their bets by attempting to get as many viewers as possible and, in the case of television, being appealing to as wide a range of advertisers as possible.


It’s like when a car company makes a cool car that looks a bit unique.  Each successive year they tweak the design a little, they make it a little softer each year, until a few years down the road they have an ugly car with no personality and the same engine as the original year that only old ladies buy.  Terra Nova was the 2006 Nissan Altima of television.


3. Do a Musical Episode


Fuck your stupid musical episodes.  Some of the worst shows ever have done a musical episode: Ally McBeal, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Scrubs, That ‘70’s Show, and Grey’s Anatomy.


Now there’s Glee.  I hope the idea here is that we can contain musical numbers to just one or two series (Smash, anyone?) so those of us who don’t want to see them know which shows to avoid.


Look, it’s fine if you like musicals.  The Blues Brothers is about the only musical I can take (oh, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was fucking great), but they were musicals from their inception, comedies, and were actually funny.  I don’t get why you’re going to fuck up the illusion you’ve created with a show like Buffy and do a musical episode (the songs were caused by a demon that made the cast break out into song).


For the doctor shows, they invariably explain it away by saying the patient was suffering from such-and-such and the musical numbers were in his head.  On That ‘70’s Show it was that stupid dick Fez’s imagination that generated the musical numbers.


At least on Family Guy and The Simpsons the songs are (usually) limited to one in an episode every so often and/or they are pretty short.  And, it often fits with the show better because the storytelling (especially on Family Guy) is unorthodox already.


And I’m okay with weird episodes.  House, Millennium and The X-Files had an occasional episode with an unconventional narrative.


Remember Cop Rock?  It was a musical, police drama that aired on ABC in 1990.  Who had that idea?  Who greenlit it?  Who got it on the air for eleven episodes?  I mean…cocaine, right?


4. Depend on a Cliffhanger


If you make a show that retells the parable of King David in modern times, but you set it in a reality that is different than the reality we exist in and use quite a bit of Shakespearian-inspired language, do you think the chances of this show being renewed for another season are more or less likely than a show whose main cast member went on a prolonged woman-terrorizing, cocaine-fueled binge wherein he stated his blood was that of a feline and his DNA that of a Greek god? 


If you said “Less likely,” you are correct.


Kings was a very unique show for a major network (NBC).  It had so much going for it including an excellent cast of actors who could truly act, great writing, awesome looking sets and an intriguing story arc.


But there were other things it had going against it: a thinly concealed parallel to the story of King David as well as other religious themes (this isn’t to say that Biblical allusions and the like are negative, but they can drive people away), an ongoing story line that keeps new viewers from joining in late, and Macaulay Culkin. 


So, you made a show that you love.  You believe in it.  And you actually get it on the air.  You get an order for thirteen episodes.  Would you:

A: End the last episode on a cliffhanger.

B: Give the season an ending that wraps up the story satisfactorily, yet also leaves room for that potential next season.

If you said, “A,” you are correct!


Do you think a network gives a shit about your show?  Do you think they’re going to hem and haw about canceling your show if you end on a cliffhanger and you’re not making them a profit?  Do you think the 1.8 million viewers who watched the last episode are going to matter to a network looking for numbers about five times that?


The only time a show should be allowed to cliffhanger is when they’ve already been renewed.  Like Lost


Lost got an order for seasons 4-6 during its third season run.  In that rare case, they knew how long the show was going to go before it was half over.  Most shows only get renewed for one season at a time and more and more often these days, a show doesn’t know its fate for the next season until after the current season is over.


5. Too Much, Too Soon


Lost only worked (and some will argue it didn’t work at all) because it slowly added layers of complexity and characters.  Essentially, each season was contained within itself.  At the end of the first season, the survivors blew up the hatch they found in the ground.  That literally opened up a whole other world to explore the next season.


On the other hand, The Event threw you right into it and didn’t give you time to care about anyone.  I watched the first episode and partway through said, “Who gives a shit?” and changed the channel.  And look what happened to The Event.


It’s a delicate balance.  You don’t want to move too slowly and you don’t want to give away too much too soon and you don’t want to confuse your viewers.  Hey, nobody said it’s easy to make a show that’s worth watching.


6. Strange Things Happen, but Nobody Believes Me


During an episode of The Gates, something ridiculously stupid happened.  The police chief was alone in the station and the lights flickered and he saw someone walking around another part of the building through some windows.  He asked the officer who takes care of the station’s surveillance system if anything odd happened and, after she checked, she didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.


She acted like he’s just seeing things and he’s kind of embarrassed and things go back to normal until it happens to him again later—Wait a minute!  Isn’t this the show with werewolves and vampires and shit?  The officer he’s asking for assistance from is the one whose heart is kept in a box outside her body.  What the hell is going on?  Why is it that on a show about extraordinary things, nobody considers the possibility that when something strange happens, it’s actually something strange that has happened?


“Oh, Captain…I think you must just be tired,” she says with a smug grin.


“Fuck you, bitch!  I got werewolves and vampires oozing out of my dick!  I think we should take another look at that tape.”


I finished watching all 200-plus episodes of Stargate: SG-1 on Netflix and, aside from realizing that Richard Dean Anderson is a total bad ass, I noticed that there is a learning curve for the USAF.  After a couple seasons of weird things happening, people started looking for unorthodox answers.  On one episode, one of the team members was experiencing some strange occurrence and he decided to keep it to himself until he had no choice but to share it with his team and the base CO.  Once he explained what he was experiencing, they went into lockdown.  He was all, “You believe me?” and the general told him that after all the crazy shit they’ve seen, of course they believed him.


Then the story continued and they searched for what was causing the bizarre stuff.  The plot can move along; you don’t have to sit there and watch that character go through the same thing again and again and try to hide it from others or not have everyone believe him. 


7. Bullshit Science


Okay: X-Men, Alphas, Heroes are essentially the same show.  You have a bunch of humans with crazy abilities.  But each character has a unique ability that’s their own ranging from pretty cool (shooting laser beams out of your eyes) to fucking stupid (telling the future…but only by painting it) to ridiculously ridiculous (controlling the weather) to boring (getting very angry).  How come I’m the only one who’s bothered by this?


Whatever causes the special abilities (mutation, alien influence, drugs, genetic manipulation, etc), shouldn’t these special people share the same ability?


On Babylon 5 the mutated humans shared one mutation: telepathy.  A few of the more advanced “teeps” showed telekinetic abilities, as well. 


I watched the first episode of Alphas and the gang had to solve a murder: a witness was killed with a bullet while inside a police interrogation room that had no outside walls, no windows, only one door that was never opened and a camera that recorded the murder. Despite what everyone thinks, cops aren’t stupid.  The team of Alphas wouldn’t have been needed to solve the murder which turned out to be a bullet fired from another building through the ventilation duct into the interrogation room (yeah, I don’t know who installed the ductwork in that building either).


Even if the cops didn’t notice that the vent, for some reason, went directly to the outside of the building at the precise upward angle so someone from the rooftop of the adjacent building could fire a bullet into the room’s occupant’s head, they would have been able to do some CSI shit.


I’m usually okay with physics-breaking and supernatural junk, but some stuff is just too sloppy to forgive. 


8. Not Properly Licensing Your Music


Hey, cheap ass studios, when you license songs to appear in your television shows, think about also paying for the licensing fees to have that same music in it when the rights to rerun the show get picked up by another networks and when it’s sold on DVD.


Freaks and Geeks, Keen Eddie and Life were three great, great shows all cut down early, and each of the shows used some pretty amazing music in their episodes.  Only Life actually made it to a second season.  Freaks and Geeks went the extra mile and got licensing for its DVD releases, however it costs significantly more than most other single-season boxed sets of television shows.


The original music for Keen Eddie and Life was replaced for the DVD versions.  Maybe you like sloppily thrown together TV that sucks, but I like to watch good shows that are carefully thought out and lovingly created by producers and writers who care about everything from the guest stars right down to the soundtrack. 


Pay for music licensing.


9. Laugh Tracks


All a laugh track does is break up the natural rhythm of a scene.  Comedy is timing.  I don’t need to be told when to laugh. 


10. Whitney Cummings


It’s fine that Whitney Cummings has a TV show.  Plenty of less talented people than her have done the same: Emeril Lagasse, Jim Belushi, Tim Allen, Christian Slater…


I do, however, find it distractingly counterintuitive that her network really pushed how funny she is in the commercials for her show, but instead of showing her saying something funny, they have tended to show her in a skimpy nurse’s uniform, little gym shorts, lying on a bed…


Don’t get me wrong: she has a nice body.  It almost much makes up for her annoying voice and whatever’s going on with her face.  However, if the show’s about putting her in little outfits and not being funny, let’s not lie to everyone about it.  Let’s not say, No, she’s hilarious.  And here you can see her panties when she bends over.  It’s not like Pamela Anderson didn’t have a sitcom a few years ago.


What is funny is that there’s a porn star named Whitney Stevens and a comedienne named Whitney Cummings.



Copyright © 2012 John Lemut