5 Signs The TV Show You're Watching Is About To Suck
It seems to happen out of nowhere. The mood in the room changes. The light of the television that once shone so brightly seems a little dimmer and sadder. The TV remote feels heavy in your hand. A pit opens up in your stomach as you desperately try to rationalize spending so much time on something that now seems so absurd. Your favorite TV show is about to suck, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
Luckily, I have spent years forgoing human contact in an effort to bring you this: a definitive list of ways to tell if your favorite TV show is nose-diving into the toilet. And, beside it, ways that similar shows have narrowly avoided such hideous fates. My fiancee's voice is a distant echo. My dog growls at me like I'm a stranger. But I have seen TV's twin destinies, and like a bathrobed prophet, I bring you visions of the future.
When A Main Character Leaves Or Stops Caring
Eric Forman is easy for me to relate to, because he isn't really good at anything. The main character of That '70s Show is nerdy but not smart, cocky but not confident. He embodies the worst corner of every stereotypical sitcom personality trait, and if you watch That '70s Show today, you'll see that it should be retitled Somebody Punch That Skinny Kid. For a few seasons, Topher Grace helped to make that show bearable.
Eric Forman: bearable, hit-able guy.
And then he left to pursue a film career that has included the third-worst Spider-Man movie and first-worst film to ever be titled Valentine's Day. His void was filled by a character named Randy, and until we see the deleted eighth season episode "Randy Is Slowly Choked To Death By An Invisible Laughing Hand," I will never be able to forgive That '70s Show for what it did.
When a main character ends up departing and it wasn't pre-planned, shows scramble to put a Band-Aid on it. X-Files hadn't been interesting for two years by the time David Duchovny left, and filling his absence with Robert Patrick's steely gaze did nothing to make Season 8 of The X-Files seem like a bad spinoff of Season 2 of The X-Files.
When the T-1000 can't save you, you're truly doomed.
Steve Carell leaving The Office gave us a performance by Will Ferrell that may as well have been replaced by Will Ferrell screaming, "Like me! I am THE FUNNY MAN!" at the camera for four episodes. Even The Andy Griffith Show tried to replace Don Knotts with Jack Burns. If you ever look at a grandparent and they have weird, silent horror painted across their face, they're not remembering the war or any past trauma. They're remembering Jack Burns on The Andy Griffith Show.
Even worse is when a main character refuses to give any kind of shit for the remainder of the show's run. Jason Segel's performance in the last season of How I Met Your Mother is the acting equivalent of a second-grader counting down the minutes until the bell rings. The closest thing that I can compare it to is Harrison Ford in Return Of The Jedi. If Ford had been on set for just an hour longer, every take would be him walking over to George Lucas and spitting on him.
"I'm sick of this franchise."
In some cases, when a character leaves unexpectedly, the show can actually benefit from it. When Paul Schneider left Parks And Recreation at the end of the second season, the show became even better, mainly because the writers didn't have to wonder, "Should Paul give a slightly amused glance or a droll glance? Guess we'll leave it up to chance," at the end of every joke. Raymond Cruz, who plays Tuco in Breaking Bad, asked to leave the show way before the writers were through with him. And while it would've been entertaining to end every Season 2 episode of Breaking Bad with Tuco beating another one of his own henchmen to death, we may have never gotten Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring, who to this day is the greatest Lex Luthor in media history.
RIP Tuco. May heaven be tight, tight, tight.
When The Location Changes
Changing a TV show's location can do one of two things: It can freshen things up, or it can viciously pull the charm out of a show until you're left with nothing but a sad husk. With shows like Prison Break and Nip/Tuck, location changes did the latter. If Prison Break had lasted for one season and had stayed primarily within the prison walls, it would probably be remembered far more fondly than it is now. The centralized prison setting kept it from splattering all over the place like a paintball gun filled with plot cliches. But as the other seasons progress, the show clumsily rushes forward, unable to grasp onto a premise that is as strong as "Guys trying to get out of prison." Sure, it's simple, but it makes for far more compelling television than "Guys trying to do, well, anything that's not prison-related."
Also, the "tattoo is a map" shit was the coolest thing 16-year-old Daniel had ever seen.
A setting can do more than just create worthwhile plot devices. It can carry a mood that feels unexplainable until you leave it behind. Nip/Tuck seemed like the kind of show that, even in its dullest moments, would never stop being something that your conservative great aunt would complain to you about. Its first four seasons are set in Miami, but it later moves to L.A., effectively changing it from "A sometimes interesting and often absurd look at plastic surgeons in Miami" to "A show set in L.A." Creating a show that's set in L.A. about the wacky people that live there is such a tired idea that the scripts should've grown bed sores. No amount of craziness can distract from the reality that your show is now based around the fact that, and I don't mean to get too edgy with this observation, some L.A. people are vain.
Die in a fire.
If you look at comedy shows like Archer or Eastbound & Down, changes in location kept the shows fresh when, logically, they should've reached their "Sell by" date. Archer moves from New York City to Miami and eventually to Los Angeles, and Eastbound & Down goes through the redneck spectrum of Shelby, North Carolina; Mexico; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Charlotte, North Carolina. In both cases, none of the transitions were simple "Same shit, different time zone" deals.
Even The Walking Dead, which seems to move at a rate of six episodes per day, was able to take a shift from a farm to a prison and run with it. A show about people making distrustful glances at each other became the nasty, claustrophobic battlefield that it was always meant to be. And then it stagnated there too, because The Walking Dead never learns from its mistakes as much as it just adds more decapitations to them.
Nice setting you got here. Be awful bad if something was to ... stay there for way too long.
When The Pacing Changes
Pacing is super important because it's often what makes a show an actual show and not just a collection of scenes that happen to all have Bryan Cranston in them. When the pacing of the show changes (whether it be the time being accelerated forward or the momentum of the show being altered), it's often a jarring, messy experience. When the writers of Rome were told, while working on the second season, that a thoughtful yet boob-filled look at history wasn't exactly putting new shoes on their kids' feet and that they were getting shut down, they rushed to fill the last few episodes of the second season with multiple seasons' worth of stories.
Season 3 would've been like this, only made out of cardboard and burlap.
Thus, Rome became a clip show, kind of like how you never quite know what's going on with the day-to-day lives of the people you went to high school with as you meet them over the years at varying stages of their beard-length. In its final weeks, Rome was the guy who seems to have a new career every time you meet him at a bar, but it only seems that way because you haven't been in your hometown since 2011.
When shows base a majority of their stories around a single conflict and then suddenly remove that conflict, they can be sent spiraling through time. The Tudors was never going to be The Wire-level television, but goddamn did they do as much as they could with the "Are they gonna bone? And will they like it?" arc of hot Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
And then they boned. And it was just OK.
But when they killed Boleyn off, Henry VIII's narrative became not unlike the way that Seinfeld handled his girlfriends. "She chews too loud! And she can't sire me a son! What's the deal?" The plot that headed to Henry and Anne boning and hating each other at least gave the show a focus, and made the fast-forward through the Middle Ages tolerable. Without it, The Tudors, like Rome, seemed like a history-book reading assignment that you decided to just flip through, even when time was passing at a similar rate to the way it had in the pre-porking years.
Un-setting a show's internal clock can do great things for certain pieces of television. I hate to keep talking about how great Breaking Bad is three years after it ended, but, well, get used to it. I don't hate it. After more than two straight seasons of the chess game between Walter White and Gus Fring, Breaking Bad seemed to ignite rockets on its back, and it shot forward through a season of revelations, neo-Nazis, and fucking Todd. The mix of time jumps and accelerated storytelling accentuates the notion that, even though we are finally seeing a Walter White that has slammed his giant nutsack on the table and announced, "Bring it!" to Albuquerque, we are also seeing him in an inescapable freefall.
It also gets rid of Todd faster, which was the main thing.
Time jumps have also benefited shows like Boardwalk Empire. The way that time moves didn't necessarily change, but leaping a few years into the future makes everything seem more urgent. A show that tends to float through the Prohibition era suddenly becomes a countdown. And no matter how awesome Steve Buscemi's character is, history has shown that when Steve Buscemi dies, that motherfucker gets it. Steve Buscemi death scenes should be treated like passing comets. Get out a lawn chair and tell your kids to go somewhere else if they don't like it. Something special is about to go down.
This is so ... (gasp)(wheeze) rad ...
When Executives Change Something Integral
Sometimes people who will never write a word of a show's scripts or shoot a single scene will change the show forever. When some executive decides, "Eh," a show that was formerly a standout in a crowd of "He's a nerd, but she ... isn't" programs can plunge into irrelevancy. Don't get me wrong -- Twin Peaks was always a weird show, and I can't wait to see the batshit typhoon that it becomes when an older, stranger David Lynch brings it back in 2017. But it became significantly less intriguing when networks pressured Lynch to wrap up the show's main murder mystery in the middle of its second season. By effectively solving the murder of Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks transforms into a show about crazy small-town folk with nothing engaging to do.
Sorry, Log Lady. That includes you.
Batman: The Animated Series was never a bad show, but it did become a vastly different one after the network decided that Robin needed to be in every single episode. Apparently, there's nothing that kids love more than to see their favorite superhero bombarded with puns from someone with a higher-pitched voice than he has. It was still a really good Batman show, but adding Robin meant taking away any chance that we'd see any more stories based around Batman confronting some kind of deep inner torment. Instead, we did get to see Batman and Robin beat the shit out of way more mob henchmen, and the day that more punching stops making things better is the day that I wake up without a smile on my face and without a fist on my arm. In all things, one must punch.
ABP, Robin. Always. Be. Punching.
Networks did right by The Munsters, though. If you've ever wanted to see what a soul looks like while it's dying, watch Joan Marshall's performance in the 14-minute unaired pilot for the show. She was eventually replaced, probably because she acts like showing even the slightest bit of enthusiasm would blow her up like the bus in Speed. Also, executives decided that the show needed to lose the color that made every actor look like they'd just been the victim of chemical warfare, and they replaced the original opening theme with a song that you know Herman Munster liked to fuck to. That is some werewolf baby-makin' music.
There's a sweet spot in Family Matters right after the producers of the show saw dollar bills raining from the sky above Jaleel White's head and right before Steve Urkel became the monster that devoured the whole thing. They knew that Steve was the breakout character and proceeded to put him in every frame of the thing. And while Family Matters would eventually become The Steve Urkel Show (And Don't You Dare Say Otherwise), there are a few seasons in the middle where it's clearly better than its biggest early-'90s rival, Full House, instead of just slightly better.
"I'm the eater of worlds, Laura."
When It Becomes Clear That It's Going Nowhere
Dramatic series that propose grand stakes need to follow up on those grand stakes. And when they follow up on them, they need to make sure that the next grand stakes that they lay out somehow build on the previous grand stakes, because otherwise what's the point? Smallville underwhelmed audiences for 10 straight seasons because it staunchly refused to go anywhere of importance. Some people enjoyed praising the small steps like "But in this season, he learns how to be a team leader!" That's nice, but if I wanted to watch a guy that's not dressed up as Superman achieve personal goals, I could find a better option in any show that isn't Smallville.
Pictured: The biggest scene in Smallville's whole run.
Supernatural and The X-Files both go through the same motions. At least Smallville has the allure of possibly seeing a Superman villain hint about one day being a bigger Superman villain. Supernatural works fine as the madcap adventures of two guys with better haircuts than me. But as soon as it tries to force its narrative into seeming like a grand, serious epic of rising magnitude, it loses everything that currently makes the show watchable. This fall, it will move on to its 12th season, and so far it's been five seasons of actual stuff and six seasons of producers hoping that the two leads don't audition for a Marvel movie.
As long as they're well-written, sitcoms can go on forever. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia doesn't follow the traditional TV show arc of "Used to be good. Now it's not." There are some seasons that are weaker than others, but even in its 11th season, it proves that a show that's seemingly going nowhere can be infinitely better than a show that declares a false finishing point at the beginning of every year. The people behind Sunny have a stranglehold on the concept of "Five drunk sociopaths that bicker," and they refuse to let go. And while it's not as glorious as Supernatural's "Some demon is here, and trust us, he's waaaaay worse than the last three" concept, at least it doesn't make me want to scream, "AM I ALIVE? IS THIS ALL THAT LIFE IS?" into my apartment.
When the whole world is ashes, there will still be Supernatural.
Daniel has a blog where he writes things. I give it a B+.
Zoroastrianism used to be one of the biggest religions in the world, but their idea of heaven had a slight twist on it: to get there you'd have to cross a bridge. Sometimes rickety, sometimes wide and sturdy, if you fell off you'd go to the House of Lies for eternity. Fun! Not terrifying at all! This month, Jack, Dan, and Michael along with comedians Casey Jane Ellison and Ramin Nazer as they discuss their favorite afterlife scenarios from movies, sci-fi and lesser-known religions. Get your tickets here and we'll see you on the other side of the bridge!