Tuesday, 1 January 2008

The Boob Tube: Flaw & Odour

I read in the free TV guide that comes with my local paper that long running crime drama Law & Order will be coming back with some major cast changes and will be one of a handful of non-reality shows offering any new episodes in the foreseeable future.

Now I am what you call a lapsed Law & Order fan. During college I used to religiously watch the reruns of the show when they aired on A&E. Jill Hennessy being a particular favourite performer on the show at that time.

Sadly, my love for L&O died.

No, it wasn't the spin-offs, they're pretty good shows in their own way, and I've enjoyed them.

You see the problem I have with L&O is that they got lazy.

Really lazy.

And silly.

Very silly.

When L&O started it was a breath of fresh air after a decade where TJ Hooker was the most realistic crime drama on TV. It dealt with realistic cops and prosecutors dealing with realistic cases. It also tackled controversial issues with reasonably intelligent discussion among the characters. Even if you didn't agree with the point of view presented in the episode, you could at least respect that it was discussed and not rammed down your throat.

Now the first couple of seasons were lean times for the show, but NBC stuck with it, and soon it caught on with the general public. For the next decade the show was NBC's flagship drama, spawned two spin-offs, and gave NBC the testicular fortitude to allow my all time favourite cop show Homicide: Life On The Street run for 7 seasons.

It even became immune to the vicissitudes of TV stars, having a cast that changed almost constantly.

Then things began to change.

The writers got lazy.

You see, during L&O's glory days, you could count on the case being carefully constructed, and the identity of the killer was very rarely obvious from the beginning. And these stories often had a twist that blew everything out of the water.

That's gone now.

A few years ago I spotted a pattern that appeared in almost every script.

Any character that showed any outwards signs of being religious (specifically Christian) or patriotic, was always guilty of the crime. Even if the cops were chasing someone more believable, there would always be some rather lamely contrived twist to bring it back to the patriotic Christian guy as the murderer.

It got even worse after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Soon, almost every crime occurring in New York City was being committed by Republicans, Christians, or the result of some horrible atrocity being committed by the US military on innocent people in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The show that was once praised for being realistic, unpredictable, and intelligent, had become fantastical, predictable, and to be honest, kind of silly.

Then the ratings started to slip.

Then the ratings started to collapse.

As I said in my post about Hollywood's portrayal of Christians the audience can forgive insults to their intelligence, but they won't accept being insulted for being themselves. And they're not going to watch a show that does that week after week.

Especially when they can guess the ending by spotting a cross or a patriotic poster on a character's wall.

Even apolitical people like myself got sick and tired of the drop in quality and voted with our remotes.

What caused this shift in a once quality program?

Some attribute it to the immense hatred Hollywood has for President George W. Bush infecting the show like it infected a recent rash of critically praised, but financially disastrous 'political' films.*

Some consider it a rather cynical ploy on the part of creator/executive producer Dick Wolf to remain in the good books of the media elite. The reason for this ploy is Wolf's dirty little secret.
(He was Dubya's roommate at boarding school and later employed Republican Presidential candidate Fred Thompson on L&O as DA Arthur Branch)

Of course both may be wrong and Wolf might be acting out some sort of revenge for being tea-bagged by Dubya during a school hazing ritual.

However, in TV, like a trial, motives aren't that important. It's the results of those motives that matter.

The results were a dramatic loss in ratings for all 3 L&O shows. L&O:SVU fared the best, but that was because it's sex-crime of the week format kept it from being as overtly political as the others. But L&O: Criminal Intent got bumped to the USA network, and L&O itself was held off until mid-season because they network really didn't know what to do with a former ratings juggernaut turning into a black hole.

Now the Writer's Strike has heralded the return of Law & Order and the reprieve from cable exile of Criminal Intent.

Will they have learned the lessons burned into them by their problems and delays, and return to what made the show great: well plotted stories containing realism and intelligence? Or will they go back to treating the audience with contempt and pander to their millionaire buddies in Malibu and Manhattan by going for the cheap applause?

Only time, and new episodes will tell.

*It's also a great way to excuse lazy writing. Nothing scores critical praise quicker than a shot at a political figure the critics don't like, no matter how poorly made that shot really is.

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