TV Talk #1: Barriers to Entry

Wednesday, March 18, 2015
(Alright, man, you can do this. It's like riding a bike! Some sort of internet-bike made of text that can only travel in the blogosphere, and also has hyperlinks. So not really a bike at all. But still!)

Hello, Internet! It's been a while. I presume you haven't changed much -- still as belligerent and full of cats as always. The last time I posted to this blog was almost two years ago: in those distant, halcyon days, I was still sleepwalking my way through a college degree, people still cared about Gangnam Style, Isis was just an Egyptian goddess, and nobody had yet tried to pass one of the Jonas brothers off as a legit R&B artist. Truly, it was a golden age. But now, two years, thousands of dollars in student loan repayments, a handful of jobs, and one Guardians of the Galaxy later, and...well, it seems like a much bigger span of time than it really was. It really does feel like a lot's changed in the last two years, but do you know what hasn't changed? Television.

Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are still probably the two biggest shows on the air, Family Guy is somehow still going strong (despite Seth MacFarlane's repeated attempts to destroy it, like some kind of ersatz Victor Frankenstein whose wayward monster is made up not of dead bodies, but references to Back to the Future), and while Breaking Bad made its final bow back in 2013, we now have the just-as-good-no-really-I'm-surprised-too prequel series Better Call Saul to fill the void. Sure, some surface stuff has changed, but for the most part we've hit a kind of equilibrium. Now that everyone and their mom has a streaming service, there's more content than ever, and that content is more varied than it's ever been. No matter what you're into, there's probably a show about it, and that show has probably just been picked up for a second season on Netflix. Oh, sure, it's easy to say it's not gonna last, but you know what? People were saying that back in 2013, and the bubble hasn't burst yet.

But with so much content, and more specifically so much niche content nowadays, one thing has seemed to go out the window: that longstanding network institution of "accessibility". Shows don't have to care about Nielsen Ratings anymore, they don't have to try and appeal to all the major demographics, and as a result they have more breathing room to be weird, or complex, or serialized, or difficult, or whatever they really need to be. That's really cool, but it's also kind of a double-edged sword: the barrier for entry into a lot of TV's biggest shows is huge now, near insurmountable in some cases. The showmaking atmosphere seems to have gone in the complete opposite direction of that four-demographics crossover appeal, to the point where it seems like most shows only reward the doggedly faithful. There's nothing...wrong with that, really (no such thing as perfect pasta sauce and all that), but it does make getting into any particular show a daunting challenge. You can't just "pick up" a show anymore, you have to invest in it. If you aren't willing to spend all of your free time binge-watching and reading wiki articles to catch up, then tough luck, pal. Have fun outside the zeitgeist.

I made the unfortunate mistake of not getting in on the ground floor of that aforementioned Game of Thrones phenomenon, and with every passing season the barrier to entry for that show gets larger and larger. I still have two and a half seasons to power through -- and really, I should go back and revisit the first season given that it's been a few years -- and GoT is so densely serialized and has so many plates spinning at any given time that I can't just "throw it on in the background". At this point, I can't tell a Bolton from a Martell, and that's a big problem if I want to drop in on the 5th season premiere next month. Unless I put in the effort (which at this point would require more homework and independent research than I did in the entirety of my college career, probably) I'm just locked out. And that's kind of a bummer, especially when it feels like the rest of the universe is getting hyped for April 12th. I've been meaning to get into Game of Thrones, I think I would like Game of Thrones...but it just doesn't feel like I have that kind of time, especially when I'm also trying to keep current on half a dozen other shows...and I have to work. And I also have to eat and wash myself and make contact with other human beings, on occasion.

Have I mentioned I really like this show today? No?
It's easy to blame this predicament on our pop culture's increasingly ravenous appetite for convoluted and interwoven narratives, and sure, my feelings on our trends towards binge-watching and serialization are best described as "needlessly complicated", but those things aren't the only barriers to entry for shows in this brave new frontier. I love Hannibal, but it's hard for me to recommend it to a lot of people not because it's too serialized (the show does a pretty good job of making episodes stand on their own...most of the time), but because it's almost oppressively bleak and has a loose, dreamlike internal logic that ruffles the feathers of your average Red-Letter Media quoting, selectively nitpicky modern TV nerd who thinks that realism is more important than truth, and that George Lucas is history's greatest monster. I love Community, but I also realize that I probably only find it as funny as I do because I spent the latter half of my teens living on TV Tropes, and went $50,000 dollars in debt on a play-writing degree that, despite my best efforts, succeeded in teaching me about the structure and genre stuff that it makes fun of. Without that background or something similar, Community probably comes off as pretentious and dull.

And I'm not saying that every single TV show should have all its plot threads streamlined and all its edges sanded off to make it palatable for any old audience member who might breeze past it while channel surfing -- people still channel surf, right? -- that approach has already been tested and it also doesn't work. On-level, I think I prefer the messy, impenetrable "no such thing as too much" mentality we have right now to the bland, family-friendly homogeneity we used to have.

But that doesn't mean that it might not be useful for showrunners to consider the barriers to entry that surround their works, especially as the seasons start to wear on.

It's an immense challenge, especially for dramatic shows, to both craft a compelling season-long (or series-long) narrative and deliver individual episodes week-to-week that are engaging and entertaining apart from their relation to each other and to the "seasonal arc". It requires a firm grasp of both character and place, a deep well of stories to draw from, and acute knowledge of your narrative's limits and capabilities. I can only think of a couple shows that pull it off, and they don't usually pull it off for long. But if you can thread that needle, even for a little bit, you'll make something that's truly special -- something that earns the moniker of "must-see" -- instead of being just another thing that "I've been meaning to get into..."



  1. Glad to see you back. Two years is a long time to deprive the world of your awesomeness


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