Saturday, September 14, 2013

TV Watch: In series TV, how much is too much?


This week we said good-bye to Burn Notice.

by Ken

* This week we said good-bye to USA's Burn Notice, after however-many seasons and however-many episodes. (If you care, you can look it up as well as I can. LATER: Okay, I looked it up: seven seasons -- of 12, 16, 16, 18, 18, 18, and 13 episodes.) My instinct is that it went on a couple of seasons too long, and this despite the creative team's diligent work at creating new and different hells for ex-CIA spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) and his crew -- (ex-)girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), old pal Sam (Bruce Campbell), later-in-the-run add-on Jesse (Coby Bell), and of course Michael's indispensable mother Maddy (Sharon Gless) -- the plots kept coming out the same. And while the detailing was probably as fastidious as in seasons past, it just didn't matter to me. In these late seasons when I half-watched an episode, I didn't feel any need, as I used to, to go back and watch the whole thing properly.

It was certainly clever to make this season's "villiain," James (John Pyper-Ferguson), something closer to a good guy than most of the supposed good guys. That wasn't the change that registered for me, though, which was having Fiona really and truly trying to put Michael in the past and get on with her life. Now that was a change, perhaps because what kept the show going, and kept me watching, was the tight bonds among that core ensemble. In retrospect, the addition of Jesse in Season 4 was a masterstroke. It not only added a core character but added one with no past ties to the others, so that the bonding process with them became an intriguing process in its own right.

The show certainly never embarrassed itself, and had a number of compelling and original seasons, and maintained a certain viability to the end.

* Also this week, USA's Royal Pains, featuring Mark Feuerstein as newly minted Hamptons "concierge doctor" Hank Lawson, completed its fifth season (seasons of 12, 18, 16, 16, and 13 episodes), and here again you can't accuse the creative team of repeating itself. But their idea of "new" ideas has always veered to the preposterous, like the whole business of zillionaire Boris Kuester von Jurgens-Ratenicz and his on-again, off-again hereditary illness, made bearable by Campbell Scott's unflappable dignity in the role.

Again they've held on to an appealing "core" group, but additional supporting players have been shuttled in and out. I've been increasingly put off by the element that probably the producers and much of the audience considers one of the show's fascinations: the leering ogling of the Hamptons' richfolk. At the end of the show, we were told to watch for a new season in summer 2014. I can wait.

* Fawlty Towers racked up a total of 12 episodes in two seasons (1975 and 1979), three-plus years apart. John Cleese, who co-wrote all 12 episodes with Connie Booth, has explained that the reason there weren't more episodes is that they were so hard to write. I've always found it fascinating that in the first season they were still married, and in the second season they weren't.

If there's anyone who disagrees that those 12 episodes represent one of the greatest achievements in TV history, I'm guessing we wouldn't have much to talk about. By the way, I note in the Wikipedia article that BBC execs of the period have fallen over themselves saying that they didn't see anything funny in the scripts. Raise your hand if you're surprised.

* Recently I wrote with awe and delight about a DVD re-watch of seasons of Friday Night Lights, the amazing series focused on a small town in Texas and the role high school football played in its life, with career-defining performances from Kyle Chandler as coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton as his wife, Tami -- and a large and superlative surrounding cast. The show was on NBC's chopping block after most every season but managed to make it to five seasons -- of 22, 15, 13, 13, and 13 episodes).

In a DVD audio commentary for one of the early seasons, executive producer Jason Katims and co-executive producer Jeffrey Reiner talk about the unusual way their show was produced: shooting enough material to produce an initial cut maybe a half-hour longer than most shows do even before they cut down to the 42 or so minutes of a network prime-time drama. The key was to provide material to create the best possible show in the editing process.

That has to be an expensive way to produce a show, and I assume has something to do with the network's paring down of the later seasons. But in a later audio commentary, I'm guessing for the Season 3 premiere, Katims and Reiner talk about how much they liked the 13-episode "arc." It did mean they couldn't do the kinds of individual-character digressions they'd done before, but it also meant that they could really plan out that "arc." Reiner wasn't around for them all, but the team produced three sensational 13-episode seasons.

* Speaking of the importance of the editing process, Six Feet Under creator-producer Alan Ball has said that it played a huge role in his show, which had three seasons of 13 episodes followed by two of 12 on HBO. As I recall, he credited the intensive editing experience with the capacity to transform a good episode into a great one.

One of these days I plan to rewatch SFU start to finish. My recollection is that there were a lot of great episodes.

* If you haven't seen E! Entertainment's hour-long tribute to Modern Family, obviously occasioned by the show's leap into syndication this fall, as it enters its fifth season of new episodes), you should try to. There's the obvious pleasure of tracing the history of a show in which all the important decisions, but there's also a fair amount of information that may surprise you, as it surprised me.

Notably, there's the information that once the show got into production, co-creators and co-showrunners Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, both of whom were used to running shows on their own, found themselves stepping over each other during actual production, with too much time being consumed by it to produce its order of 24 episodes (which all four of its seasons to date have been -- it seems to me that 22 or 23 has become a more usual number). The solution they arrived at: They alternate episodes as showrunner.

Now 24 half-hours a year seems to me a brutal drain on a creative team's resources. Can you imagine John Cleese and Connie Booth, plus however many other writers they would have had to bring in, cranking out a few 24-episode seasons of Fawlty Towers? Modern Family seems to me the exception that proves the rule -- far from exhibiting signs of strain, the show seems to me if anything stronger than ever going into Season 5.

Obviously it matters that the show relies on a large cast of characters, which makes it that much less unlikely that any individual character is played out. It matters too that Levitan and Lloyd have assembled a team of outstanding writers, and that for story ideas they're drawing on their accumulated experience of family life. But I wonder if it doesn't also help that the co-showrunners, who I assume are both involved in the planning of all the episodes, each have on-the-ground responsibility for only 12 episodes.

I can't wait to start rewatching the older shows. I've written about my experience with The Big Bang Theory, which I like a lot in first run but didn't come to really appreciate until I began seeing the same episodes over and over and over in syndication. I had no idea (a) that they would hold up that well and (b) that I would keep discovering new cherishable things in each episode.

Is Modern Family going to hold up in syndication as well as, say, The Big Bang Theory?


For a "Sunday Classics" fix anytime, visit the stand-alone "Sunday Classics with Ken."

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