The Best of Television, 2012: Part 5: - Sometimes Shows Get Worse

I’ll post my Top Twenty television shows immediately after this entry, but I noticed a theme as I was putting the list together, and couldn’t help but point it out. It seems three of my top ten shows, including both of the top two, are:

a. had their second season in 2012

b. were inarguably worse shows than they were the year before.

“Sherlock”, “Game Of Thrones”, and “Downton Abbey” all returned last year to great fanfare. Sometimes it takes a little while for these sorts of shows to catch on, but word had spread, DVDs were passed about, and Netflix accounts and free HBO trials were taken advantage of. Each of these shows had a significantly bump in viewers for their second season premieres than they’d had for their first season finales. And each show found themselves facing real backlash before they’d even reached midseason.

The degree in variance among the three shows ranged from “slightly disappointing” to “significantly worse.” BBC’s “Sherlock” was only mildly damaged, with two just-below-standard episodes whose weaknesses were forgotten by the time an appropriately nail-biting finale rolled.

“Game Of Thrones” was more deeply wounded, though much of that was to be expected. It had been lauded for its brave decision to follow the arcs of the novels it was based on and execute its main character at the end of Season One. TV writers were orgasmic. “It just shows you that anything can happen!” And, anything could; including the show predictably struggling to find cohesion without a central figure to hold things together. The show became so disjointed that entire weeks would pass by without us knowing what several of the major characters were up to, which is a rough strategy for a show built around a giant, interconnected narrative.

Still, faithfulness to a much-adored novel is a weakness I can easily forgive. Much more galling were the decisions Julian Fellowes made on “Downton Abbey.” Television pundits were shocked when people started showing up in droves to watch this decidedly sudsy turn-of-the-century drama (the show is up to a very un-PBS eleven million viewers per episode, almost three times what NBC is doing at the same time, and was the second-highest watched show on Super Bowl Sunday), which pretends to be about class struggle and social politics but is mostly about people in period costumes having unrequited romances. The class struggles and social politics only come into play if they can create roadblocks to those romances, so that the characters can stare longingly at each other at formal family dinners.

So what did Fellowes do in his second season? Crank the soap opera elements up so high the feathery charms of the series collapsed under the weight of desperate plot machinations. Matthew has disappeared! No, now he’s returned! Now he’s gone again! Now he’s paralyzed! He’ll never walk again – until two episodes from now! Just in time for his fiancé to die! Just down the hall from where that other servant died last episode! But there’s no time to focus on that! A soldier with a burned face has appeared from nowhere! And he has amnesia! Is he someone from Edith’s past? Who knows? He’ll disappear at the end of the episode so that some other pile of nonsense can happen!

I didn’t make any of that up.

I mean, viewers understood that this show was all nonsense, a sugary concoction that had little tie to the era it was recalling. The mistake is to not let the audience pretend they don’t realize this, and letting amnesiac burn victims wander in and out of plotlines does tend to spoil the effect. 

So why are all three shows in the top ten? Who knows? I guess I’m as fickle as the breeze.

Or maybe it’s that while the shows took a hit, they didn’t lose whatever quality it was I loved most about them. Or all three shows were so good that they could stand to take a quality hit. Or I just really like British actors. I’m not sure.

I guess it doesn’t really matter. I’ve had lots of shows that I’ve battled with decisions that they’ve made or directions that they’ve taken. Doesn’t bother me.

The problem is when I stop caring.