It’s easier to imagine television shows somewhat akin to a tank full of pet fish. Some are brightly coloured, some are plain, and some have those googly eyes that make me wonder if fish can have thyroid problems. From time to time, groups of suited men come up to the tank, have a ponder, and then, almost as if at random, scoop up a fish and whisk it away. Or just go for an unsubtle classic harpooning.
What makes some shows survive to swim another day, while other seemingly stronger, more popular and more attractive fish are quietly flushed? When it comes to sci-fi, I have definite opinions. However, with shows like Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls and Scrubs, I think some different forces are at play.
Veronica Mars combined the best of Nancy Drew and Twin peaks. The protagonist wasn’t irritating, didn’t constantly say “James”, and it managed to have dark humour without descending into the ridiculous. It had a murder mystery without having the tired-and-formulaic-but-familiar-so-we-will-keep-watching-it feel of Law and Order, and even spawned a ‘Supercouple’ in Veronica and Logan, which, in most other cases, generally gives a show some staying power. However, three seasons in, the guillotine fell and we were left on a cliffhanger. One that apparently will never be resolved, as all the rumours of a pending film turned out to be untrue.
So what went wrong?
I think that somewhere, either metaphorically or literally, there is a general checklist of things shows need to do, and do exceptionally poorly in order to get on board the train to axeville. In writing season 3 of Veronica Mars, a non-refundable ticket was purchased.
Changing the opening credits or theme music: Theme music is integral to the success of a program. Whilst it might seem like a small thing, usually lasting for less than a minute, it can be the difference between whether someone decides to keep watching something they’ve stumbled accross whilst channel surfing, or flicking back to ‘Name That Fruit!’* The Simpsons has an almost iconic opening montage, whilst the three minute drudgery that is the Twin Peaks opening credits made me want to cry whilst smacking my face against the fast forward button. 20+ seasons vs. 2. Scrubs changed its opening credits for a few episodes, but soon switched them back after being flooded with complaints. When it changed them permanently in season 8, axing ensued.
Messing with the Supercouple: Noone would watch Bones if there was no chance for Brennan and Booth. Angel and Buffy stretched out their angst for two separate television series. Spike pined for Buffy even when she didn’t appear in any of his Angel episodes, and I nearly stopped watching The O.C. when Summer dated Zach instead of Seth. Deep down, we probably all just really just want to tune into Neighbours and wear friendship bracelets and matching outfits. However, not wanting to be severely mocked or judged, instead most of these goob urges are carried out vicariously through following fictitious couples of varying levels of dubious believability.
Transitioning to College: People don’t like change. It makes them feel like shouting “DAMN KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN” even when they are 22 and living in an apartment building. When you’ve finally gotten used the the settings of a show, having everyone uprooted is a bit of a shock to the system. When Rory moved to college on Gilmore Girls, her character became much more irritating and the whole thing got a whole lot more nonsensical. Even her written self rebelled, leading to a season of her character camped out in her grandparents’ pool house organising parties. Big setting changes are difficult, forming much of the basis of the problems with Season 8 of Buffy.
Introducing too many new characters: Final season of Buffy: a whole host of potential slayers came in. Final season of Angel: lets add an entire law firm to the cast. Final season of Scrubs: why not have a whole set of new medical students and just have cameos from the former cast. There is only so much emotional investment you can give a program. Stretch this too thin, and the apathy monster descends.
Season 3 of Veronica Mars had the protagonist moving to college. The theme music changed to a lounge music version of its former self, and the opening credits were slow moving photographs of the cast looking both aggressive and smug. It was confusing! It was orange! It looked like a Chlamydia awareness campaign. After waiting two seasons to see Logan and Veronica get back together, they were immediately broken up for some vague reason, and they each respectively started dating two of the too many new characters.
Apparently when the show was in danger, the writers pitched an entirely new direction for season 4. The half pilot for this can be seen on the DVDs. It’s about five years in the future, Veronica is in the FBI, none of the old cast is anywhere to be seen, and everyone is wearing pant suits. Pardon? Thank you for pitching CSI: Neptune.
I was sad to see the show go, but looking at season 3, it shouldn’t really have been a surprise. It was less pixie spy magic, more…something die tragic…? Much like that attempt at a joke. Oh well.
Veronica Mars: we used to be friends.
Elizabeth can also be found at her blog Harold is Cool.
*Jasper Fforde was right about the way tv is going.