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Lost, Desperate Housewives, et al

I like TV shows. I don’t like TV, as a rule, but I like TV shows. Television is loud, boorish, disruptive, and 99% crap; but there is ever so occasionally some programming worth one’s time. Same as anything, really. You pan enough dirt and you’ll find gold eventually. The beauty is the serial format. It’s not unique to television, and TV certainly didn’t invent it, but the serial has flourished —with over a billion shows and nearly four hojillion viewers— in the warm, flickering glow of the tube.

Serials are a wonderful thing. Compare them to big one-off productions like movies, where sequels usually disappoint, and you can really appreciate an entertainment medium where you have the time to invest in your characters. The heroes, the villains, the wallflowers; they all have stories, and given enough time you can get to know them all. Serials may also, conceivably, run for decades; but this is where the flourishing can take a bad turn. Some situations just shouldn’t be sustained for decades. Some stories need closure sooner, rather than later.

As if the title didn’t tip you off already, Desperate Housewives and Lost are on top of my list of ‘shows to be worried about’ right now. Consider the premise of each show. They are, respectively:

  1. “Why did Mary Alice top herself?”, and
  2. “What the hell is the deal with this island?”

Each premise (a mystery) is either long-solved or patently unsolvable. The shows persist because the network wants more success, more acclaim, more money; and eventually each show will run out of steam, lose its audience, and be relegated to the wastebasket of television history. Ridden straight into the ground by the network types who so celebrated their success.

Obviously, the guys who cash the checks feel a few more seasons can’t hurt. More seasons = more money, as we’ve already established, so it’s not a tough call to make when the money is your primary motivator. But pity the writers, directors, and actors who are suddenly tied to a license that can go nowhere but down. The same logic rules the music business, where one-hit-wonders are routinely granted seven-record deals on the off chance that their next album will do as well as their first. I don’t believe this is a business model anyone should want to emulate.

But when I’m curled up in bed at night, crying myself to sleep over the plight of the Teri Hatchers and Matthew Foxes of the world, I fantasize what would happen if ABC had the cojones to do something crazy:

“Hey everyone, I know you’re all excited to be here and to start filming. We’ve got a great cast and the script is looking hot; we’re super confident this show will be a big hit. But there’s a catch. You have one season and one season only to turn it out, no exceptions. If it’s a success you will all remain on the payroll, and you will begin another project in the new year. Same writers, same directors, same actors, same gaffers, same caterers — different show. Hop to it.”

Could that work? Of course it could. I, for one, welcome the chance to see the cast of Desperate Housewives in a teacher’s-lounge comedy next year. Eva Longoria would have to play someone’s mother, though, lest the urge to write her into a story arc having an affair with a student (if she were cast as a teacher) be too great.