Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

When a TV series turns into a zombie of its old self

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Remark: I started this post quite some time ago. A lot of things have come between since then, including two posts on the related topic of franchises and sequels ([1], [2]) that cover at least some of the originally intended ground. Today, I decided to finally get it done—which actually mostly consisted of throwing half the draft out, and making some minor expansions. (The quality, as a result, might be a bit subpar.)

Being home with a summer cold, I spent the morning catching up on iZombie, a crime show with a strong comedic side and one of my favorite TV* series over the last year or so.

*There is also an original comic upon which the TV series is based; however, I have had no exposure to this comic.

This turned out to be a horribly disappointing experience, with the developments I had seen and feared over the last season eventually culminating.

When the series began, it was a wonderful variation of the x-of-the-week theme (s. below), it had a main character who secretly was a zombie*, zombies were extremely rare and unknown to the public, and the actual “high concept” part of the series was not zombies, but the partial adoption of the victims personality and memories by the main character (Liv)**. The latter was used to solve murders, Liv working in a police morgue and combining her access to brains of murder victims with her inside contacts at the police.

*The zombies of iZombie are very atypical, most notably in that they are normally unaltered in terms of intelligence, personality, etc., compared to their pre-death/pre-infection selves. Good: If this had been another bullshit work with mindless, slow moving, and hyper-aggressive brain-eaters, I would have stopped watching after the first episode.

**A side-effect of a zombie eating brains. Extremely unscientific even by the standards of the zombie genre, but it made for good stories.

A typical early episode would revolve around Liv trying to come to terms with being a newly made zombie and practical problems coping, trying to help the police with vital tips without revealing her nature, and dealing with the personality changes brought on by the brain-of-the-week. This resulted in interesting story lines, great comedy, and a large amount of variation.

As time went by, the “newly made zombie” theme unavoidably faded—she was no longer newly made, she had had time to adapt to her new circumstances, and her closest allies eventually found out the truth (the opposite, like with Lois Lane and Superman, borders on the ridiculous).

Unfortunately, the other aspects that characterized the early episodes increasingly and unnecessarily disappeared: The brain-of-the-week theme was weakened in favour of unimpressive arches dealing with zombie crime, zombie organizations, zombie hatred, and the potential revelation of zombies to the public; too many people learned that (specifically) Liv was a zombie for the secrecy aspect of the show to work well; and the sheer number of zombies rose and rose. Towards the end of the latest episode (3.13) a mass infection has taken place, zombies have been announced on television, and no matter what happens next, the original show is effectively dead. If the series continues, it will have about as much in common with its original as an “ordinary” zombie has with the living person who preceded it. I turned the episode off during the TV announcement and I will not watch any continuation.

The changes that iZombie has gone through are, unfortunately, quite common. Of these, the disappearing x-of-the-week in favour of longer arches is the one that depresses me the most, having seen a number of TV series lose* in quality or be ruined outright in this manner. Notable examples include “Stargate SG-1” (planet-of-the-week) and “Dollhouse” (identity-of-the-week).

*However, a series can still grow better despite such a trend: It is quite common that a series sees improvements in the skills of directors, writers, actors, composers, …, over its life (because the old staff improves with experience, because a bigger budget allow better choices, because weak links are replaced with stronger over time, …); equally common is that positives of a show not originally present appear over time, e.g. new recurring villains or interesting (fictional) technologies. These effects can compensate for or even outweigh negative effects. “Stargate SG-1” is an example of this. “Dollhouse”, unfortunately, is not, and ended up wasting the potential to be one of the greatest TV series of all times—with very high scores both as entertainment and “food for thought”.

The x-of-the-week is arguably the highest form of art in television, with the greatest potential reward for the viewers, plenty of room for “artistic aspirations” (or whatever snobbish term you prefer), and with excellent entertainment and variation potential*. If done correctly, we have a viewer who is both brought to think and kept entertained/interested week after week.

*Of course, it is possible to achieve this without using the x-of-the-week format. However, this format more or less forces the makers, if they want to do it well, to focus on quality and to prioritize well-crafted and innovative single episodes over mass production; the repeated variation-on-a-theme allows a greater depth of exploration over the course of the series; and the “x” often brings benefits through opening possibilities otherwise not present. Compare e.g. iZombie with the brain-of-the-week to a hypothetical iZombie just having a zombie solving crime—the latter being a case of a populist “high concept” work without any practical benefits from the “high concept”.

However, it is likely also the most taxing on the writers, who has to come up with something new and original every week, while keeping the quality high. This is likely one* reason why so many series start with an x-of-the-week theme and drift towards story arches**—arches are comparatively easy and can be drawn out with little creativity, but they are also less rewarding for the viewers. In some cases, a point is reached when a show degenerates into a soap opera.

*I will not attempt to analyze the reasons in detail, but one obvious other reason is the wish to keep people coming back to “find out what happens”.

**There is nothing wrong with using story arches. In fact, when done correctly, they can bring a significant extra value, especially in areas like romance, where a single episode is rarely helpful. The problem comes when they take over the show, when more time is spent on parallel arches than on the current episode per se, when a single arch is so dominant that we effectively have a triple or quadruple episode, or similar. “Buffy” is an example of another series with notable screw ups here, e.g. the end of season 5, but that was just a too outstanding series for me to voice strong complaints.

Another common problem is introducing too many characters that work poorly: For natural reasons almost all TV series (even many of the “assembly” kind) tend to start with a small group of core characters that are strong contributors to the shows early success (be it through good casting, careful character creation, or because show with weak initial casts/characters tend to fail early). With time the group of characters naturally gains new members, and while it sometimes loses old (especially among the temporarily intensely recurring)—and keeping the quality up can be hard. Unfortunately, some series do not stop there but appear to simply throw in more and more characters willy-nilly, be it in a misguided effort to create variation or to see “who sticks”. Potentially recurring (let alone regular) characters should be chosen with great care and be few in number. iZombie failed miserably in this regard. To boot, while many of the recurring characters were well cast, others appear to have been chosen based on quality of hair or amount of muscle mass.

A more famous example is “The Big Bang Theory”*: It started with four nerds and a blonde. By now we have another two women, a fifth nerd, and a baby for eight-and-a-half core members—to which must be added a few recurring characters and the normal one-off characters**—and this with a run-time of roughly twenty minutes per episode***. Too boot, the average quality of the cast is not that impressive, with roughly half being reasonably skilled contributors, roughly half being dime-a-dozen. (I will not mention names.) In contrast, “Friends” started with six actors and ended with six-and-a-half (another baby)—and did so with a longer to considerably longer episode run-time. The average quality of the regulars was considerably higher and many of the recurring characters were extremely well-cast and strongly contributing (including Tom Selleck and Bruce Willis).

*This show could also likely serve as a good example of a TV series moving too far from its roots. On the other hand, this can be given some justification through just reflecting the natural developments of the characters and their lives as they have moved from mid-twenties to late thirties. Still, today I watch it more out of force of habit than anything else—and had the series ended a few years ago, it might have been for the best. “Friends”, in contrast, was still kicking ass when it went of air. (Notwithstanding that it too had changed in some ways, over a similar time and age frame.)

**Although these are rarer than in most similar series, likely because there is only so much screen time available.

***OK, “Modern Family” does pull something similar off very well, but it has a higher tempo, a stronger cast, and better stories.

Of course, one of the greatest problems is members of the extended “jumping the shark” family: A series starts to struggle over the years and increasingly desperate attempts are made to keep the viewers through making changes, thereby, more often than not, driving away the old fans even faster. (And without gaining many new fans: People are far less likely to jump in in, say, season eight than in season two…) Instead, a series should pick one of three options (or a combination of them): Let things play out, even at the risk of cancellation; re-focus on the old strengths and hope for the support of the old fans; or call it a day and do something more worth-while.

“Scrubs”, another old favorite of mine, is a good example: It started as a reasonably funny series, which had its greatest strength not in comedy but in the realistic* depictions of hospital life and the problems of hospital workers, and what we could learn from that. Within a few seasons, the serious themes were largely gone, but it had grown a lot funnier. Over time, however, the humor grew weaker while leaving the silliness (of which there had always been too much for my taste). In the end, for the last season, most of the characters were axed and a subset were moved to a new setting** with a new group of main characters—a disastrous end to the show***.

*As confirmed by many who actually work in hospitals and can speak from experience (unlike yours truly). And, no, “realistic” does not mean e.g. shot with a grainy camera, filled with blood, or depicting tragedy—it means giving a depiction that comes close to reality. There is fair chance that e.g. that war or gangster movie that the critics call realistic is quite far from the truth…

**Strictly speaking, the old building had been torn down and replaced, and the role of the hospital changed somewhat, while remaining in the same location. However, it could have played a hundred miles away and virtually nothing in the season would have changed.

***The more the shame, as this last season had shown quite a lot of potential had it been the first season of a new series. They should have killed the original series one season earlier, possibly borrowed (or not…) the odd character, and then set up an entirely new series.

I just hope that BBC does not screw up the upcoming* series finale of “Doctor Who”: This season has not been stellar** and there is apparently a switch of Doctor forthcoming—exactly the type of situation, where so many series try to save themselves through “jumping the shark” or a doing major revamp, but only succeed in committing suicide.

*Back then—by now it is long past. The switch appears to be postponed until the Christmas Special. Doing a brief Internet search, it appears that one of my fears have been confirmed and a woman has been cast. (Cf. e.g. my remarks on women in “Star Trek” in [2].) This is not an automatic disaster—there are women, notably “Missy” Gomez, who might pull it off. The current choice, the unknown-to-me Jodie Whittaker, might or might not have the skill, but even if she does, it is virtually certain that she has been cast for the wrong, politically correct, reasons. (Not only because of general trends, but because the revived franchise has a long history of pushing “gender issues”, starting with the first season and the bi-sexual, Doctor kissing, Jack Harkness, and later his spin-off “Torchwood”—where, based on contents, “Torchwood” could very well be a synonym for “Faggot”…) To boot, The Doctor is simply a male character to me—just like Sarah Jane (or Buffy, or Echo, or Janeway, …) was a woman. Combined with the recent weakness of the series, I am frankly uncertain whether I will give her a chance or just stop watching, pretend it never happened, and not risk damage to the previous parts of the franchise (cf. [1]). (Besides: Why not simply do a spin-off featuring a Time Lady while keeping The Doctor male?)

**In fact, there has been a noticeable drop in episode quality after the Matt Smith => Peter Capaldi switch, but the last season in particular. The current main companion is also the weakest of the entire post-2005 series. (However, Capaldi himself I would likely consider the best of the post-2005 Doctors and definitely the best actor. Then again, he is about to leave the show…)

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Written by michaeleriksson

October 28, 2017 at 11:30 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] earlier posts (cf. [1], [2], [3], and possibly others.) have dealt with themes like (over-)continuation of franchises; and I feel […]

  2. […] I recently got my hands on the first few seasons of “Orphan Black”—and was initially very impressed: A novel concept, wonderful performances* by Tatiana Maslany, and characters put into interesting situations (see excursion below). Series like these prove that it is not necessary to just dust of the same old idea or franchise to squeeze out a few extra dollars. (Cf. previous posts, e.g. [1].) […]


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