A great era of science fiction
and fantasy television
is coming to an end this season. The streak is over. I know this is a silly thing to talk about -- there are certainly more important things going on in the world -- but I am a person who has traditionally disliked TV. As a teenager, I never watched it. Cops
, whacky families
-- that was television when I was growing up in the 1980’s
. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s
saw the re-introduction of lawyers
into the fray, but it wasn’t until the debut of the X-Files
and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
(woefully underrated, easily the only good show in the Trek
franchise) that TV began to get good.
I’ll admit it -- I’m an unabashed film fan. I subscribe to the auteur theory -- I believe movies can be art. In college, I wondered why television couldn’t become art -- with its ongoing format, TV has the potential to tell long stories and deliver satisfying character arcs, but more often than not it chooses not to do this. If cinematic storytelling techniques were used more often on TV, it could be even better than film. But instead, it goes for the cheap, the easy, the mainstream -- it allows itself to pigeonholed as “the idiot box” and “the electric tit.”
But not so in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Bolstered by the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, genre TV rose to the fore and generally pushed the envelope on television storytelling, making it something you could actually admire. Long running stories with plot payoffs came to the fore -- and the idea that the audience is smart enough to keep up with ongoing storylines started becoming the norm. Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted arc storytelling, the idea that characters actually remember what happens to them from week to week. As a kid it frustrated me to no end that Jean Luc Picard never followed up on whatever character revelation occurred the week before -- it was always off to a new planet, a new alien species. Didn’t actions in real life have consequences? I wondered. Why is it that TNG’s characters rarely followed up on anything?
Around 1994, three shows emerged that changed this: The X-Files, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. Babylon 5 was perhaps the most adventurous, but hampered by some bad actors in the cast, low-budget sets, and terrible CGI effects, I could only admire its attempt at delivering a “telenovel,” but never quite get into the show. The X-Files and DS9 offered weaker arcs than B5, but were produced at higher production values and with better casts. Of course, The X-Files would never properly resolve itself -- its last three seasons or so were genuinely awful -- and DS9 would never quite realize the arc structure it was trying to achieve, but both shows offered a reason to watch TV. The second season of Chris Carter’s Millennium is also noteworthy for its fusion of mystical religious themes with a truly fascinating apocalyptic conspiracy arc, but its lackluster third season erased the brilliance of its second year.
Then came the real revelations: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel, and Farscape. All three offer splendid character-driven story arcs, new takes on genre ideas, and great casts and writing. But what makes them truly noteworthy is the concept of a “season arc,” where an entire story is told over the course of a season’s 22 episodes. This is far more sustainable than the X-Files tedious alien conspiracy arc, utilizing the best multi-episode storytelling has to offer without having things drag on too long. Of course, each season is linked and builds on the past, but they’re also more or less self-contained, too, delivering a story with a beginning, middle, climax and denouement.
But wrong turns seek to undermine at least two of these three great shows. Buffy’s sixth season diverged too far from its core concept to sustain its cult audience -- many fans jumped ship after a depressing year of watching their beloved characters hurt each other and themselves. And Farscape in its effort to keep pushing the envelope became so strange, so incomprehensible, that there’s no way a mainstream or casual viewer could have watched the show without scratching their heads and wondering just what was going on (note: I’m not saying that Farscape’s fourth year hasn’t been great, it’s just been too odd for regular people -- SciFi’s changing the timeslot only hurt the ratings, as well).
Angel is the only show of the three that continues to outdo itself -- it’s surprising, funny, sexy and scary. When the end of the world threatens, you feel like it’s really going to happen. Even with the loss of its brilliant executive producer, David Greenwalt, it continues to push the envelope. But its ratings aren’t great, and the WB has moved it to an almost sudden death timeslot on Wednesdays.
While Angel’s future is still up in the air, Buffy and Farscape are certainly goners. Despite a massive protest by fans on a scale beyond even the original Trek protests of the 1960’s, Farscape has still been cancelled. And while the contract for Buffy’s lead actress, Sarah Michelle Geller is up for renewal, the ratings have declined so much that it is becoming increasingly unlikely that UPN will renew it, or fund a spin-off series.
This year has only offered up one good new genre show -- Joss Whedon’s painfully misunderstood space-western Firefly. Easily on par with Buffy and Angel’s first seasons, Firefly has been underpromoted by Fox to the point that I doubt many people have heard of it. What’s worse, they’ve aired the shows’ episodes out of order and have yet to run the original two-hour pilot explaining the set-up. Asking the audience to figure it out as they go is unfair -- especially when trying to get mainstream viewers to commit to a show that doesn’t make a lot of storytelling sense because of programming mistakes. Although it would be nice to see it continue, I doubt it will.
Which leaves the 2003 - 2004 season looking pretty grim. Reading about the pilots announced for the next year, it’s all the same -- cops, lawyers, doctors, families and (thanks to the Sopranos) criminals and mob guys. It’s sad to see American TV decline after nearly a decade of good programming -- programming that makes me willing to admit that yes, I watch TV. Or at least, I did.
Now I can happily rejoin the camp that denounces TV. Yes, television is bad -- it’s trite, cliched and predictable. Ultimately it’s just there to attract eyeballs for the commercial advertisements so that Americans can run out and buy more junk they don’t need. But we’ve seen that it could be good -- that it can tell meaningful stories in an interesting way. It’s just that entertainment corporations aren’t willing to invest in different ideas -- ultimately the mundane wins out. It doesn’t have to be that way. Hopefully they wise up and realize that all these great shows have proven it can be so much more. I haven’t even touched on the great dead “mainstream” television shows of recent years like Freaks and Geeks, Felicity, Undeclared, or the floundering and might-as-well-be dead Grounded for Life. With even genre programming dying down, it’s unlikely we’ll see any chances taken in more straightforward TV formats. It’s a pity, really, but not unsurprising.