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When TV shows outstay their welcome
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November 28, 2000
When TV shows outstay their welcome
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
It's one of the creepiest, most depressing spectacles in popular culture. We're talking about the death-in-life that great TV series succumb to once they've run out of steam but not out of air time.
The classic example, of course, is "L.A. Law," a smart and sassy drama that won America's hearts in its early seasons and then became a national case of heartburn as it was prolonged way past its expiration date, thanks to desperate plot twists and alarmingly hard-sell promotion.
When one of these babies - "L.A. Law," or "Homicide," or, these days, "NYPD Blue" and "ER" - starts to show so much wear and tear that euthanasia is the only reasonable alternative, the network honchos behave as though Western civilization were about to be snuffed out.
Perhaps the most telltale sign is when the promos start featuring scenes processed to give them a somewhat ghastly shade of blue. Invariably these are scenes where beloved characters become violent with each other. The breathless male voiceover tells you it's going to be "an episode you'll never forget" in a series that's "as good as it ever was." (That's actually more or less what they're saying these days in "ER" promos.)
It's sort of like those old aspirin commercials with the pounding hammers and electric bolts that were apparently designed to give you a headache so that you would have a reason to go buy the product.
"ER," "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law" have one thing in common: They all started out as successful series. "'Homicide" is a different matter: It was never successful, except critically, and the desperate ploys came in because the network had a dream of making it successful by main force.
Ironically, your dyed-in-the-wool "Homicide" fan - especially critics, who all loved it - didn't seem to notice that the show had gone drastically downhill by its second or third season.
In the first season what you got was handheld camerawork, everyone in the squad chain-smoking, deliberately inconclusive story lines and, overall, a documentary feel that was bracing and different.
Enter the network, stimulated by viewers' and critics' testimony that this ratings albatross was a great series - a notion NBC took as a mandate to try every trick in the book to make the series conform to the usual standards.
The detectives quit smoking. They were forever dealing with serial killers and child molesters, if not terrorists. Andre Braugher, who had made such an impression on fans in the early days, when he was but one element in an ensemble cast, was brought out front and center and given all the juiciest story lines. The writers even let him have a stroke (and he was the one detective who wasn't forced to quit smoking). One by one, members of the cast deemed insufficiently glamorous disappeared from the show. Every dramatic moment came accompanied by swelling music that told you exactly how you were supposed to feel about it.
Fans didn't notice. They especially didn't notice that Braugher, for all his dynamite presence and fascinating eyes, was not exactly possessed of the greatest range in the history of emoting.
These shows (even "Homicide") start out catching a lot of attention by being smart and funny. When "L.A. Law" premiered, for instance, you actually found yourself talking to your friends about it. Later, when the bloom had faded from the rose, you had the feeling that the show and its network handlers felt cruelly abandoned by old friends and in desperate need of turning back the clock to a time when their show was the talk of the workplace.
The people over at "ER" are understandably panic-stricken by signs that the show isn’t the preferred living-room companion it used to be, because so much money (something on the order of $15 million) is being paid for every single episode. How panic-stricken, you ask? So panic-stricken that they decided to have a main character killed by a knife-wielding psychotic at the end of last season. And there come those ghastly blue promos, with Carter turning into a violent drug addict or Mark apparently dying in a helicopter crash.
Never mind lawmakers - let's have term limits for successful TV shows.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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