Quality Over Quantity in TV

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CBS Crime Drama Formula-It Works.

Start with a highly respected character actor from another series franchise or flagging film career. Throw in some other supporting players of a similar pedigree and you get the broth for the winning recipe CBS has held close to the vest for the past ten years. The main ingredient of course is a variation on a procedural plus some quirky method of solving the crime.

The granddaddy of this type of shows is of course CSI starring, William Peterson. Along with its sister shows, CSI Miami starring the titled-head and always coy, David Caruso and  CSI New York with Gary ‘Lt. Dan’ Sinise. These series bring the gore into sharp focus and have made microscopic blood and fiber analysis part of the common vernacular. These shows have done exceedingly well for the network while not really elevating the level of writing or developing characters beyond their office roles. Basically the appeal of these shows lays in there ability to appeal to the biggest audience.

NCIS starring ,Mark Harmon, is only a slight variation from the CSI mold. Notice, if you will, how the ‘S’ comes after the ‘I’ in the title of the show. Plus they added the ‘N’ for Navy which makes it way different. Did they just add the Navy aspect because they thought they could combine CSI with JAG? Hmm, I think the answer is yes. Still this show has been very successful and a planned spin-off is in the works.

Without a Trace has a great premise with, Anthony LaPaglia, leading a very talented bunch of actors on the search for missing people. Like the rest of the shows they use some forensics and some good detective skills. What this show has that the CSI franchise lacks is solid acting work. They do a nice job of giving the actors time to develop personae without corny divergences.

The Ghost Whisperer diverges the most from the general path of these shows, but it remains solidly within the framework. Starring, Jennifer Love Hewitt, from Party of Five or how I like to think of her as Jackie Chan’s love interest from The Tuxedo. Yikes. She stars in this CBS cry fest as psychic investigator trying to make peace for the dead people that haunt her. Still at it’s heart it is an investigative show only with the dead people participating in their own forensic work.

Numbers uses the sexiest device of all to try to solve crime, math. When all else fails and the world is in danger, bring in the people you know will get the job done. Those who know the one thing that criminals can’t stop. Calculus. Rob Morrow, from Northern Exposure and David Krumholtz, star as brothers. The former an FBI agent, the latter a college mathematics professor. They team up in a brains and brawn setup so that when the math falls short, the brute gut-instincts of Rob Morrow can kick in and he can save the day. Man, when you have Rob Morrow as your muscle, your may be in big trouble. But what do I know? Casting Morrow against type is a bold move that you have to respect. The show has also been a hit for a few years now. Way to go CBS formula.

In the new series The Eleventh Hour, Rufus Sewell stars as a scientist hired by the government to investigate the misuses of science around the world. This is a clever use of the formula and in many ways it is a thinking man’s CSI. It is also produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the same team that supplies CBS with CSI.

Cold Case moves only slightly away from the pattern in that there is no anchor star. The lead is played by the lesser known, but very capable Kathryn Morris. She exudes confidence and maturity in her role, with the depth of a more established actor. The premise here involves cases from a bygone era that have yet to be solved. The promotional ads for this show have started to include the year that the show focuses on. A lot of the same techniques like forensics and solid detective work are used as effectively as the other shows. This show focuses possibly too much on the flashbacks. While the flashbacks are part of its virtue and can be interesting they are also its crutch.

The only hour long drama on CBS that deviates fully from this formula is The Unit. The Unit is a special forces military show that is high adrenaline and does what Jag did when they weren’t in a court room or what NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy tried to accomplish but failed to. The action is great and the patriotic fervor is appealing even to this cynical viewer. But it certainly is the odd duck of the network.

The two shows that stand out as examples of the CBS Formula are Criminal Minds and The Mentalist and both for different reasons. Criminal Minds uses those elements that work on the others very precisely every week. The ensemble acting, like the crimes they solve, go together like pieces of a puzzle coming together. Thomas Gibson is the straight laced lead agent for the FBI’s BAU(Behvioral Analysis Unit) with Joe Mantegna as his more instinctual second. The other standout on this show is Matthew Gray Gubler as the overachieving super nerd Dr. Reid. Gubler’s approach and ability to inhabit his character’s intelligence make him very convincing. In fact the writing is so superb that you truly feel like you are seeing into the minds of the people they are pursuing. The writing, direction and execution of the editing are seamless and I have enjoyed every episode.

Both Criminal Minds and The Mentalist feel like perfected experiments in the CBS formula that has been developing over the past 8 years since CSI came on the air. Both shows are comfortable in the heavy and light moments between the characters and have capitalized on the charisma of their stars on top of the quality writing.

Simon Baker stars as Patrick Jane, a former TV psychic who exploited his talents of observation and deduction to make people believe he could make contact with the dead. He also used that ability in assisting on real criminal cases. That is where his arrogance  came to bite him. When Jane publicly mocked the serial killer he was helping to investigate, the killer made things personal. This plot arc is fascinating and leads to a crisis of ethical motivation for Jane. After that incident he began working full time for the CBI, the California Bureau of Investigation, where he is still hunting down the serial killer. Baker uses his charisma to remarkable effect each week.

Really this show rides on the shoulders of Simon Baker, who is a magnetic star. The show does have a better than average supporting cast that includes Robin Tunney, who avoids many cliches as Jane’s supervisor. Another subtly engaging turn comes from character-actor, Tim Kang, as a wry and effective agent. The creativity of the scripts bely the unbelievability of the scenarios that arise on each episode, which is something that CSI is lacking.

The use of this formula has been extremely effective for the network and delivers solid ratings on a weekly basis, even in reruns. CBS has cornered the market on this type of programming, but I worry that interest in this format will start to to wain. They may be stuck without a creative backup plan the way NBC wasn’t prepared for the decrease in popularity of the sitcom. Remember Must-See-TV? It was great and very reliable, but it is gone and NBC’s ratings are now consistently low.

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December 1, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Television | , | 4 Comments

Gordon Ramsay-Quality Food, Sure. Is It Quality TV?

Every once in a while I allow myself to get drawn into a show I would never usually try. The availability of these shows on sites like Hulu and Fancast has given me the option of sampling these alternate programs. Insomnia is a catalyst of sorts, but once i get going on a reality show and there is a whole season accessible, I am hooked.

It started with Kitchen Nightmares which began as a BBC show. Fox picked it up with a new American series. It is really quite compelling in the way it shows the average American under foibles-microscope. That, in general, is what works best when it comes o reality shows. Find the knucklehead and make him see the error of his ways, then broadcast that spontaneous psychotherapy to the millions that identify with it. Gold.

Ramsay’s virtue is that he is a Michelin three-star chef with about a dozen successful restaurants around the world. He is known across the board as a stickler for detail and will bust skulls when necessary. He can take biggest ego down a notch for sure and all to find the best in everyone. You tune into this show for the fights and humiliation but you also get an even bigger helping of positive energy and heart.

His other Fox Series is the approprately named Hell’s Kitchen. Though it isn’t actually filmed in the West-side Manhattan neighborhood as it’s monicker leads on, this show takes place in dueling kitchens with the pressure growing as subsequent episodes build. Here we have a more competitive reality show format than the other, but what stays consistant is Chef Ramsay’s cooking standards. It would be easy to label him as a blustering bully. In reality what ultimately comes accross is a new respect for what amazing efforts go into the restaurants we mostly take for granted.

Both of these shows are worth catching if not during the original broadcast then as you like from on Tivo or online. I sat in front of a tiny computer screen and found both to be compelling. Guilty pleasures are ok even ones produced on a Fox-affiliated network.

November 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The New Golden Age of “Radio”

When I was a kid growing up in “glorious” Cold War-laden eighties I was often found plopped in front of the TV for hours at a time. Almost as often I could be found in front of a tape deck listening to either a comedy album or better a classic radio show like The Jack Benny Show or Fibber McGee and Molly. It was a habit that was started by my nostalgic mother. She has said that “If he’s going to spend so much time focusing on entertainment, it might as well be something clean.”

 

Of course the comedy albums were not all clean, but I certainly built up a ton of respect for all of those comedy shows that were so well written without resorting to blue material. It became not only a formative portion of my life, but left me wanting more of the same. That era radio of had sailed and contemporary examples were hard to come by. The Bob and Ray Show was the latest example and that was gone by the seventies.

 

Then there came the Ipod. With a new piece of technology has come the blessing and curse of all types of programming to suit all tastes. The curse being that there is a ton of garbage to wade through. Much like the upper channels of your cable listings, it is thin with quality. Cable could take a cue from the a la carte manner in which one can pick and choose how ones Ipod can be loaded. Because once you skim the cream off, you can make the best of your programming choices.

 

With the best aspects of podcasting there is a ton of knowledge that you never thought you needed. There are all sorts of news shows you can download from around the globe thereby seeing the virtues of the coverage you may have missed. Small, one or two man comedy teams set up small shows to podcast their goofy antics to the other singularly nerdy people from all corners of the world. I may be overstating it, but I have found some of these discoveries cathartic. All kinds of gold lay uncovered. Plus, best of all, some of my old radio show favorites are available for podcasting.

 

The Podcast really is the underestimated new golden age of “radio.” Of course the FCC will start moving in on this any day and ruin it with unnecessary standards any day now.

 

Some of my favorite podcasts are listed below:

 

Jordan Jesse, Go! – An irreverent goof-off fest with intelligent and earnest friends.

 

The Sound of Young America An interview show featuring offbeat people in the arts, comedy, literature and film.

 

This American Life– This show features true stories of this American life linked by a common theme.

 

KCRW’s The Business– A show recapping current issues facing “The Business” of the Hollywood entertainment industry.

 

The 40 Year-old Boy– One man’s musings or rantings about the struggle to grow up.

 

The Ricky Gervais Podcast– To truly get a sense of this pioneering podcast you must buy the back episodes. This one features the creators of the British version of The Office and their remarkably dim-witted, round-headed producer.

 

WNYC’s Radio Lab– The hosts of this show pick a common interest scientific subject and make it beautiful to learn more about it. This show must be listened to and absorbed like a vivid dream.

November 13, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Podcasting, Radio | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NBC’s Debacle Machine-Or Give Shows a Chance

Once the home of the new, fresh and exciting ER, NBC as of about ten years ago has gone stale in the realm of hour long drama. Even the venerable “Must-See-TV” has disintegrated into “Must-See-9:00p.m.-Thursday-TV.” It really seems like the attitude with the entertainment brass is to produce shows that deserve a lot more script tightening. What inevitably happens however is they throw a ton of production budget at an unprepared show, move it around the schedule wildly to see if they can grab an audience and then dump it before it builds anything more than a cult following.

Case in point, Freaks and Geeks. Clearly the network thought is was getting the new Wonder Years. What they got was an edgy, pointedly funny, nerdfest. It was too specific for a large audience to pick up on as quickly as the NBC needed it to, so they axed it. If they had used the same logic with another quirky, specific show we would have lost Seinfeld before the third episode. Only in the second and third season, did Seinfeld get some traction. But that was the old NBC model–wait and give a show with a good script time to prove itself and the ratings will come.

Now lets see where we are this season. We have a show called Knight Rider, which is NBC’s attempt to revive another kitchy show from the early eighties a la Bionic Woman from last season. Both of these shows were favorites of mine when i was growing up and I liked them for their action, yes, but more for their kitch value and suspension of disbelief. They didn’t take themselves too seriously. Ok maybe Hasselhoff did, but that was worth making fun of at least. These remakes however strip the fun from the shows and replace it with too earnest characters in far too many explosion filled action sequences. It doesn’t work. Who is buying it?

Antoher show I was hoping to like was My Own Worst Enemy. This show was greenlit without a pilot, which means that they were relying on the pitch form the producers and the casting of veteran film actor Christian Slater. I wish they had produced the pilot because a lot of the nuance this show lacks would have been discovered in that process, I am sure. Now, this show has some great sequences and a surprisingly good performance from comedian Mike O’Malley as Slater’s colleague, best friend and fellow covert agaent. The glitz that NBC has given this show, has done little to the give heart they also failed to give to the Bionic Woman. What they don’t seem to realize is that what you have to concentrate on are moments. In action dramas it is the poignant moments that pave the way for suspension of disbelief and allow the viewer to forgive plot incongruities. That doesn’t happen in Bionic Woman and as yet hasn’t happen on My Own Worst Enemy. I’m still watching and waiting, but not for long fellas.

Last season, forgotten amid the writers strike, but more likely the schedule juggling was a show that did accomplish this. It was called Journeyman and even though it was another recycled premise, that of Quantum Leap as a man unwillingly transported back and forth in time putting things right, it worked. It worked because it had grit and developed relationships between sympathetic characters. I haven’t seen an episode yet, but ABC has co-opted the premise once more with the new Life On Mars. We’ll see if they give that gripping, but oft canceled premise a chance.

October 28, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Quality of airtime in the Campaign Season.

Since the 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy we have see the importance of how a campaign handles perception. Both Nixon and Adlai Stevenson before him betrayed the conventional wisdom of the newday of marketing. Ad men in 1952 made a succint and impactful case for Dwight Eisenhower with the “I Like Ike” catchphrase and jingle. Meanwhile, Stevenson bought 30 minutes of airtime to appeal, dryly, with his standard stump speech. No one watched those “infomercials” and due to other mischances to connect, Ike won handily.

Nixon, of course famously shunned the use of makeup on the first televised debate in 1960, while Kennedy had his own personal make-up and hair team. Kennedy won by a slim margin. That margin may have been the thousands of dead people that voted for him in the Chicago area thanks to Kennedy stalwhart Mayor Daley. Perhaps it was way a fresh faced Kennedy came accross on TV. Either way, It was clear that marketing and charsima on television were to become a mainstay of the electoral process.

This election cycle is no different. What experience Obama lacks in the legislature he makes up tenfold with chemistry and a telegenic personality. McCain also has learned lessons over the years, the many years,  that give him experience in the art of perception. Unfortunately It isn’t about policy, as Adlai Stevenson hoped. Policy has become a minor feature compared to who has control of the “news cycle.”

The news cyle used to be a weekly concern and whoever got the best negative attack ad or lucked out with the best photo op by Friday afternoon would rule the weekend. That too has changed in the past 15 to 20 years with cable news. Cable news has ensured an almost constant back and forth game of new campaign promises or rebuttals and newly released personal photos or relationships. It has influenced how voters view the candidates because of immediate impact of polls and ratings. We can see the reaction and see all kinds of pundits rate the validity of the latest campaign video. We are barraged with all of these images and messages that would have been impossible to diseminate through papers or on the radio.

The constant news cycle also means that producers are always scrambling to find the dirt on all potential candidates. That may also change the makeup of people willing to put themselves up for public office. Gary Hart was a victim of the intense scrutiny when a picture of him with a woman other than his wife showed up on the news. Kennedy, with all of his infidelities would have been screwed.

October 16, 2008 Posted by | politics, Television | , , , | 1 Comment

Mad Men-Or Why Can’t I Stop Watching?

As an insomniac I have a lot of late night hours to kill and if I find a show that grabs me, like The Wire did, I will download and watch the entire series 3 episodes per day until the series is exhausted. Mad Men is one of those shows. I resisted watching at first because I thought it would be another Wonder Years. Not that that was a bad thing… Oh Winnie Cooper. But a period series done badly can be a really bad thing…like The Wonder Years season 4.

The overwhelming critical accolades and the good word of mouth convinced me to give ‘er a go. So I downloaded the first episode and haven’t looked back since. Each character has been brought to life with the loving care of a parent, the scrutinty of an FBI background check and the honesty of my mom in confession.

Don Draper, played subltly by Jon Hamm appears at first glance to be the Every-executive and out of touch dad of the sixties. He is perfectly groomed and rugged in appearance, but just look below the surface and wonder why he drinks and smokes so much. Elisabeth Moss plays Peggy Olsen, Draper’s new “girl friday.” She is cute and demure and is eager, but she is also sad, needy and strong.

A friend of mine told me she wouldn’t watch the show because of how sexist it is. That is true to a point. Under all of the “coffee, tea or me” and 10 feet thick glass ceiling is the reason the sixties had to exist and why they surely had to evolve and end.

The behaviour of these characters is something short of watching a train wreck, they are flawed and funny and all kinds of interesting. You get invested in all of the supporting players too. The struggle to make it in a cut-throat business and the generational influence of the older and younger generations on the middle-aged Draper.

Anyway, this is the kind of show I was desperate for in the mid-90’s and am so glad to have now. It is one of the most well-rounded shows I have had the pleasure to watch and when I am caught up with the most current episodes in season 2, I think I may need to start smoking again, because I am soaking up so much nicotine from the screen.

October 9, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Television | , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog Assignment For 9/22 Part 2-Still Diverging

Next I took a look at Show Tracker from The LA Times

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/showtracker/

This blogs stock and trade is to report the breakdown of what happened on a particular show, be it political or funny, relevant or irrelevant. It seems they have a team of bloggers contributing singly or in tandem. One blog had just a run-down of David Lettersman’s top-ten list of Things overheard at Sarah Palin’s debate camp. It was in repsonse to McCain’s last-minute appearance cancelation.

In another post, a set of bloggers dissect an episode of The View where Elizabeth Hasselbeck was feeling left out of the politicall discourse with her co-hosts. It is interesting how the blogs short form really works as a small news piece in the guise of fluff.

The bloggers get to the point and make it easy to understand the goal of the individual entries. Further, the LA Times has a great deal of credibility in the Hollywood industry as well as the publishing and blogging world. (http://www.burrellesluce.com/top100/2008_Top_100List.pdf)

October 2, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Television | Leave a comment

Blog Assignment For 9/22 Part 1-A Divergence

So I checked out The Medium, a blog from New York Times writer Virginia Heffernan. The focus of her blog seems to be whatever sparked her interest as she clicked mindlessly on stumbleupon.com. In one entry she is nuts about an internet only series about The History of Drunkedness. In reference to a bit about a drunken Pres. William Henry Harrison she bemuses, “I’m now confident I will never have to learn another thing about him. ”

She also takes wicked shots about a Gwyneth Paltrow interview where she was promoting her new self-improvement website. “My life is good because I am not passive about it,” Gwyneth states to the the interviewer matter-of-factly. “Who cares,” Heffernan writes in response to that interview, “I feel undernourished already.” It seems like she has found a strong, opinionated niche for her blog, it is for the sarcastic, intelligent, “new-sincerity” set.

Her credibility in the world of blogging has a lot to do with the support she has from The New York Times. I am not sure if she can necessarily be trusted because she deals very much in opinion. From what I have seen in the quality of her writing, she can be trusted to give a strong and insightful position.

http://themedium.blogs.nytimes.com/

October 2, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Television | 1 Comment

Limiting the quantity may lead to quality?

The bottom line when it comes to producing high quality televison may lay in producing fewer shows with the impact being better results. For example, the average network show produces 22 episodes in a season. the critcally acclaimed cable show Mad Men produces only 13 episodes per season. 

Perhaps it is only a coincidence that the shows that pour all of their energy into 13 episodes tend to have a better quality standard. Or perhaps it’s a sign that their producers have more focus and not the marathoners pace of the network guys.

Producer/performer Ricky Gervais gained a ton of critical praise for his recent limited series Extras. That show produced only 13 episodes over its entire run and is considered one of the best comedy shows of all time. The same can be said for his previous series, the British version of The Office with only 14 episodes. It’s harder to jump the shark if you don’t stay in the water too long(www.jumptheshark.com.) Not to say the American version is bad. On the contrary, The American show is smart and edgy in its own way, but I worry that it will overstay it’s welcome like Scrubs did.

In addition to the quality being condensed into tighter scripts and story  arcs, The limited nature of the shooting schedule means that actors who might not normally commit to a 22 episode run, will make time for smaller more curated shows. For example, Dame Judy Dench appeared for 13 seasons in a comedy series called As Time Goes By, while simultaneously doing her best work as a film actress. 67 episodes in 13 years, thats a breeze on a tight schedule. You would never ever expect to see Meryl Streep play a regular character on The New Adventures of Old Christine. It is a good show, but it would never attract her because of the 22 episode commitment.

I am not saying that all of the shows that produce under these conditions are great. I am only saying that if the effort were put into 10 to 12 solid episodes per season, we might have a higher quality product than we are used to.

Another effect would be that different shows could run at different times of year on a revolving basis and we would have time to miss that show while it was in hiatus. Writers would not be forced spread their resources out over 22 episodes or by putting their talents only into the episodes that run during the sweeps rating period. It certainly would not be boring. A Fall and a Spring season might make for a lively and entertaining change of pace.

September 29, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Television | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Quality Control

After watching documentaries in class last week about Philo Farnsworth’s invention of television and the development of radio, I started thinking about current or future involvment of “suits” in the creation, production and distribution of television.

I just wonder how this influences the quality of the TV we injest. It seems to me that the noble pursuit of technology, as in Armstrong’s quest to enlighten the populace, gets watered down and homogenized for easy consumption by the masses and quality gets lost or is an afterthought along the way toward the profit margin.

When executives put themselves into the creative mix it is usually the sign that creativity has ended and the business of making the product dance for its supper begins. Like Sarnoff holding FM down with his thumb for ego and bottom-line’s sake, how much good television are we missing from the shows that don’t make the cut after pilot-season.

It doesn’t surprise me anymore when good or great shows are pushed out to make way for reruns of American Gladiator. Sportsnight is a great example of a show that was ritualistically killed off with the old “schedule shuffle.” Similarly, Arrested Development, a quirky and niche-humoured show on Fox was shuffled about and survived only as long as its 3 year run due to intense fan support and critical accolades.  

A lesser known show called Action with Jay Mohr of CBS Gary Unmarried ‘s was a stunning and funny look at the undoing of a Hollywood producer. It was biting and clever and should have been given a shot by the Fox network. It lasted, however, only through its initial order of 13 episodes–why? There was a great cast and good writing, but it was controversial and off-color, so it got canned for not appealing to a lower common denominator. Now on cable there is a show with a very similar theme that has become a huge critical and commercial success. Its called Entourage.

Maybe with a generational shift and awareness of past mistakes in programming, executive influence will be seen by the networks as stunting. Evidence of that can be seen in the hands-off approach NBC’s The Office has gotten. Ultimately, I think we will get less quality when there is a bottom-line, pencil-pusher sitting there waiting to kill something with an original voice that might alienate the ad-revenue guy sitting next to him if that guy starts rolling his eyes. Then CBS Chairman, Les Moonves, can just give another horrible, base show like Big Brother to his wife, Julie Chen.

September 22, 2008 Posted by | Entertainment, Television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment