Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Another one bites the dust

So farewell then to The Event. Another great US import that started out promisingly, only to disappear up its own convoluted backside before being ignominiously cancelled by ruthless network executives. In a few months' time you'll buy able to pick up the inevitable DVD boxset, but you'll still be left dangling by the cliffhanger ending.

But who's really to blame when these high profile shows bite the dust in their first year? Is it the fairweather fans, or the lack of a well-planned story? Personally, I blame Jack Bauer. CTU's favourite agent didn't just transform the way the world perceived torture, he also revolutionised the way we watch TV. Well, maybe not personally. He was always far too busy using jump-leads to restart his heart, or ramming a damp hand-towel down an Iraqi's throat to extract a confession. But the makers of 24 ushered in a new era of complex plotting and season-long story arcs that changed our viewing habits altogether.

Think back to the most popular shows of the eighties. Knightrider, The A-Team, CHiPs, Airwolf - the one element that characterised all those era-defining programmes was the formula. Morally upstanding heroes solving problems for the downtrodden and put-upon, usually in indecently tight trousers. It was all slickly produced and deliberately unchallenging, largely because of the way that American shows were always broadcast.

Traditionally, a season runs from September through to May. That's around 35 weeks, and with 22-24 episodes per season, it leaves a lot of dead time to fill while new episodes are being filmed and edited. Every few weeks the shows take a break, leaving network schedulers to dig out old episodes to air until the new shows are ready. Standalone episodes therefore work much more effectively, since they can be aired out of sequence without causing fans to wonder where they hell they are in the overall story. So it works fine for shows like Desperate Housewives, where fans can easily pick up the fact that this is the episode where they all act like venal, conniving harridans, before having a change of heart in the last five minutes. It's a lot harder when you actually need to pay attention to what's going on.

By the time 24 reached year four, its popularity was on the rise, but traditional scheduling was causing ratings to dip whenever the show took a break. So the producers took a big risk and held off the season premiere until January. That way, they had enough episodes in the can to run the whole series uninterrupted, as they finished off the outstanding chapters of the story. Not only did this mean that audiences were able to follow all the double-crossing and deceit, the writers were able to maintain their focus much more effectively, giving it a sense of momentum that had been lacking in previous years.

The showrunners over on Lost were clearly taking notes, since they took a similar decision in its fourth year. Although the ratings continued to decline on the island-set time hopper, they didn't completely drop off, since loyal viewers were at least able to follow the multi-dimensional adventures of our curiously well-groomed survivors.

With Lost and 24 now consigned to the groaning DVD shelf in the sky, executives have commissioned new shows like Flash Forward and The Event to offer viewers compelling new season-long narratives. Unfortunately, they seemed to have missed the importance of scheduling in mapping out their 17-hour epics. Flash Forward made an impressive debut, with an explosive, effects-filled premiere that made Lost's first episode look like a Dogme 95 outtake. But the regular breaks, and a three month hiatus half-way through the season saw viewers desert the show in droves. Attempts to rebuild the writing team and reboot the show failed miserably, leaving the show to limp across the finish line at the end of its first and only season.

This year, The Event made the exact same mistakes, leaving almost four months between the two halves of its inaugural outing. By the time it returned, fans hadn't just forgotten the most recent twists, they had trouble remembering the characters' names. The Event became a non-Event, even though formulaic police procedurals like the CSI franchise managed to breeze into yet another season of forensic tomfoolery without breaking a Botox-inhibited sweat.

As Ross and Rachel found out in Friends, the words "we need to take a break" invariably spell disaster for any relationship. It's just a shame that TV producers couldn't learn that simple lesson from one of the nineties' most successful shows.

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