The two shows that are particularly guilty of this problem this past year have been BURN NOTICE and DEXTER. These are still amongst the top rated shows at their respective networks and were quite influential when they started out. Now both have passed their fifth seasons and have become utterly awful in the same way. Let’s call it Old Show Syndrome.
Old Show Syndrome is often when a show gets complacent and creaky and the writing deteriorates into the creative equivalent of Alzheimer’s, where the writers seem to forget what it was that made the show good and popular to start with. The first thing the rot infects is in how the main characters are written. Case in point: when BURN NOTICE began, its hero Michael Westen was a spy wrongly blacklisted and dumped in Miami with no money, credit or resources to back him up, was the smartest guy in the room, possessing a mixture of sheer intellect, street smarts, animal cunning and a dash of egomania to be able to improvise his way out of any situation because years of training just makes him ultra-competent. His trigger-happy girlfriend Fiona and wise-cracking retired Navy SEAL vet Sam backed him up when ordinary people in trouble come looking for help from a bad-ass superspy. That’s the format of the show that has stayed the same for over five years now. The problem is that the writing has become so slack and lazy that what made the main characters appealing in their first place – their smarts, their wit, their coolness under pressure – has been completely forgotten and they have become idiots who react in stupid ways in order for the plot to happen. Westen has become a complete boob endlessly manipulated by the smirking baddie behind the conspiracy to frame him and get him blacklisted. And Westen just grimaces and sweats and runs around like the baddie’s bitch and Fi and Sam are equally bumbling and clueless as they flail around under the plot’s thumb and wail and emote over clichéd a contrived soap opera love story where characters who trusted each other implicitly for over three years suddenly stop trusting each other just because the plot calls for it. The heroes from the first three seasons would have calmly played along and spotted several angles from which they could plan to fight back. This has to happen in order to end the show’s final season, but there’s no wit or smarts or competence in the characters anymore, the main reasons the show was popular in the first place. It’s like the writer’s room had given the heroes a collective lobotomy and have just copy-pasted old plot ideas from the previous seasons without any real thought.
“Damn! Where did my smarts go?”
BURN NOTICE has been significant in being the unexpected hit that helped put the USA Network at the top and paved the way for its subsequent hit shows, and during the first two years of its run, the other networks were going around looking for their own equivalent of the show. LEVERAGE on TBS seems to be a reaction to it, following a similar format of con men with hearts of gold out to scam evil people and companies for the underdog. Even the recent PERSON OF INTEREST on commercial network CBS fits the format, so it’s a bit depressing to see the source show lose everything about it that made people want to watch it in the first place.
The same can be said for DEXTER, a cable show about a serial killer who kills murderers and evildoers and keeping his secret hidden from his friends in the police and normal society in general. The show ended its sixth season without the ironic dark comedy and air of satire that made the first two seasons so popular. When the show began, the show felt darker and edgier, with its antihero’s detached observations on normal social conventions coupled with a supporting cast that was spiky and wary of each other.
In recent seasons, the sense of irony and satire has fallen away to be replaced by a cozier, more conventional soap opera feel as the not-that-interesting supporting cast had more and more subplots about their personal lives that frankly bore the shite out of me, and Dexter’s own predatory cunning also began to fall away. Dexter stopped being clever and calculated, despite the script keeping up that façade, and became an idiot in order for the plot to happen, so the writers contrived reasons for him not to kill the serial killer baddie of the year in order to prolong the story as long as possible, culminating in the utterly clichéd climax of the killer taking Dexter’s son hostage. Add to that a completely contrived subplot about Dexter’s sister developing incestuous feelings for him as the reason she could never find Mr. Right and enough plotholes to drive an entire Nascar rally through, I just shook my head at the sheer laziness of it all. You could attribute this to the fact that DEXTER has gone through showrunners (the writer-producers who determine the overall tone and plot arc of the show’s season as they lead the writing staff) like toilet paper, losing the original writer who ran the first two seasons and each subsequent showrunner has changed the tone and emphasis of the show ever since, to the point of feeling like a conventional clichéd show from a commercial network rather than an edgy cable show.
We’ve seen that happen with BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Many people complain about how bad THE SIMPSONS have gotten, its satire becoming more and more obscure as it enters its second decade. There are a number of shows (reportedly) that do continue keep up a certain standard of quality, but generally, the longer a show goes on, the worse it tends to become, until it becomes a pale shadow of what made it good when it first came along. It might not be totally the writers’ fault, as they are under constant pressure from network executives who give the long and copious notes every season – hell, every episode – on what should be changed, beefed up, cut out, pressure from stars who have become the irreplaceable element of the show who now have executive producer credit and more power, and all kinds of other circumstances. As punters, we don’t know, nor do we need to know. What we know is that the show now sucks.
But the default of screenwriters settling into the lazy thinking of having characters just be complete morons in order for the plot to move ahead is a particularly depressing and common one in the years I’ve been reading and evaluating feature and TV scripts from both Hollywood and the UK. In the case of hit shows, it suggests exhaustion, burnout or complacency when they stop trying to be as clever as possible and just go for hackneyed plots that force previously smart characters to suddenly become idiots. I’ve ranted about this over and over again, because this doesn’t stop happening. It’s one thing when a show is like that from the start, but when it becomes that way after a few seasons, that’s usually a sign that it’s on its last legs, and this is very clear with BURN NOTICE and DEXTER, whose networks have announced the next two seasons will be their last. At this rate, though, they may lose a lot of viewers before the final seasons come along, when they should end the shows with viewers wishing it wouldn’t go, instead of sighing in relief that the shows finally keeled over and died.
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