Saturday, July 13, 2013

Television Postseason Postmortem: The Tuesday Night Massacre

Penny Hartz, contemplative

This season on television bore witness to an utterly brutal and heartrending slaughter, and in this case, The Rains of Castamere barely figured. No, this little massacre took place on Tuesday night, as two great networks scheduled evenings of hip, quirky comedies aimed at the hip childless consumers so prized by advertisers, either not seeing that the overlap in demographics would inevitably cause massive casualties or feeling so confident in their schedules that they didn't care. Every year sees cancellations, and there were plenty this season, but I want to focus on these three, partly because for me they were this year's most painful final bows, but also because I think there are some unsettling ramifications for the future. The Golden Age of Television isn't over yet, but winter may be coming.

3.Don't Trust the B____ in Apt. 23. This one ranks as the least sad because, in retrospect, it was clearly never going to last too long. At least not on ABC, a network which more or less sticks to the middle of the road, often with good results. Hence this raunchy, cartoonish, darkly funny and yet weirdly sincere story of an unlikely friendship was not likely to last, and became one of the first casualties of what we will refer to as the Tuesday Night Massacre. It was a burst of color and creativity in an all-too-humdrum world, and it danced away as swiftly and mysteriously as it arrived. Let us treasure the memory forever, and hope that showrunner Nahnatchka Khan gets another shot soon, that Krysten Ritter ends up back on TV as quickly as she can, and that Dreama Walker's next big part is not a disturbing examination of our obedience to authority.

2. Ben and Kate. It's not entirely clear what did this in- whether it was competition, poor marketing, a lack of critical buzz, or perhaps people confused it with Royal Wedding coverage. In any case the axe fell swiftly, despite the sweetness of Dakota Johnson or Lucy Punch's wonderful sardonicism. It was perhaps too brief a run to become too attached, but it's sad to see something this good-hearted be shut down so early. Someday Fox will learn patience, but it is not this day.

1. Happy Endings. And here's where the gloves come off, because not only is this one solely on the American viewing public as a whole, it says something very troubling, and also, seriously, what the HELL people. This was not a difficult program. There were no elaborate storylines, no metatextual analyses of genre structures, this was aimed firmly at the Friends crowd and followed in the ancient tradition of just loading in as many funny jokes as the writers could think of, performed by an astonishing comic ensemble which seemingly emerged from nowhere.

And I think what happened was that it was too funny. Much like CBS and the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker production Police Squad! (which later saw new life as the inspiration for the Naked Gun films), this was not a show to leave on in the background while doing the dishes or folding laundry. The sheer density of jokes and wordplay and childish shenanigans demanded an audience's full attention and they're just not willing to give it.

Hence the worrying implications. Comedy writers now must face the strange burden of not being too good at their jobs- whenever they get on a roll, they must walk it back, throw in a few obvious breaks and deliver punchlines like they're landing a jumbo jet. Not only is quality not a necessary or sufficient component for ratings, it may, at some extremes, be a detriment.

At least that's the theory. Maybe it's a freak anomaly of scheduling. But for a straightforward funny show featuring funny jokes both verbal and physical, performed by attractive and capable performers, to fail this significantly is not a good sign.

In the midst of carnage, there are miracles. Community not only held on for yet another season, thanks to what we must now refer to as NBC's ongoing tire fire of a schedule, but after prodding from its cast hired back showrunner Dan Harmon. Hannibal emerged late in the season as a brilliantly designed and meticulously shot study of psychopathy disguised as a crime procedural, and survived thanks to a rather ingenious financing plan by which the network was paying a small fraction of the show's overall cost. The Neighbors started with a gimmicky premise, played it with absolute conviction, and emerged as something goofily engaging. The good times are far from over.

But I'm starting to check my watch.

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