Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bernardin on Searching for the Golden Age of SF Television

Marc Bernardin, screenwriter for Syfy's Alphas, wonders why genre TV shows haven't exhibited the high quality of other laudable small-screen offerings. Excerpts:
We are, most people would agree, in the midst of a Golden Age of Television. Since the late-1990s, the programming that's been pumped into our homes has been as good as it's ever been -- and, in many respects, better than the movies that have long sat atop the Pop Cultural Quality Pile. But why aren't we also in a Golden Age of Genre TV? ...

I'm talking great in the way that The Wire was great -- the universally lauded Best Show Ever To Exist On Television -- or The Sopranos or The Shield. Or the way that Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Good Wife or Louie are killing it week-in, week-out.

Why are there no genre shows performing at the same level? Why are we not able to turn on the TV any day of the week and find something shiny to watch? Here are some theories ...
Read the whole thing. Bernardin offers three thoughts on the subject, namely that SF is too cerebral to slip past corporate suits without getting dumbed down, too pricey to produce properly in most cases, and too adored by fans who'd rather nitpick than promote it. Each of his suppositions has merit, yet I'd argue that Bernardin misses a more obvious reason: Genre TV tends to fail because it forgets the fundamentals of storytelling. Lost and The X-Files didn't fall apart because of a lack of funding or interfering executives. They collapsed under a weight of unfinished storylines and unsatisfying spectacle. Every sort of story succeeds because it contains engaging action in an interesting setting populated by relatable characters who reveal universal human experiences. If SF television can hew to those basics, I see no reason why the golden age shouldn't start now.

(Picture: CC 2008 by catchesthelight)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'm confused.

He admits that Battlestar Galactica (a great show) exists, that Dr. Who is close, and that Game of Thrones is probably another great show. But his objection is...that there are more crime dramas that excell than SF/fantasy?

Certainly, crime (The Wire, Sopranos, The Shield) rules the roost. Probably because the "expensive" category--it exists all along the continuum from dumb to smart, but costs only what you want to pay it. But it seems to me that speculative shows are in the midst of this golden age of television, just like everyone else.

Loren Eaton said...

Honestly, I didn't list the shows he found to be great for two reasons. First, he didn't differentiate between cable and network TV, which is a big divide. There are very few high-quality SF shows on the major networks, and for the situation to be more balanced, I think you'd need to see a few more there. Second, he's too generous with what he calls a great genre show. From what I understand, Battlestar Galactica completely copped out with its ending. He also likes Lost, that abominable series that stole six years from me and gave me nothing in return. NOTHING.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I wouldn't say BSG precisely copped out at the ending. Or at least the ending took nothing away from the show, it just wasn't a great episode.

But for 3.5 years, BSG was one of the best shows on television.

The network-cable divide may be more significant, though. There, I think money is the issue. Arguably, that's what made Heroes brilliant--it gave genre aficionados what they wanted (at least initially), but it didn't cost a whole lot. I think Dollhouse could have been similar--despite its SF premise the average episode required the sets and stunts of a detective/adventure show--but Whedon flubbed it by building up interest too slowly, and Fox was quick to bring the axe down on the second season's promise.

Speaking of bringing the axe down on one's beloved, I think Game of Thrones illustrates why execs are leery of alternate worlds. The opening credits alone took a highly skilled team over 6 months to design, animate, and direct. The cast consists of a Who's Who of upcoming talent and award-winning character actors. It covers multiple sets. All that is a lot to bet on an emerging drama, but if you don't spend the money you end up with the second-rate, nerds-only light entertainment that the SyFy channel maks. HBO could afford to loose that money. NBC couldn't.

Though if there's a ray of hope, it is in Doctor Who. BBC Wales isn't exactly rolling in the dough. Yet somehow they had the persistance to stick with a profitable SF show long enough to get its feet on the ground. And once Moffat took over, they matched his lyrical storytelling with an effects budget that lets him do everything he wants (except pirates) just about right.

But I think the key to Doctor Who is its smallness--it tells the story of three characters, not a world, not a civilization, not a conspiracy. People can relate to that enough for it to investigate well-intentioned abuses of power ("A Good Man Goes to War,") the brevity and preciousness of life ("The Doctor's Wife," written by Niel Gaiman), or even multidimensional ethics ("The Girl Who Waited"). It can ask big questions because, at its heart, it is small--the story of two representatively English characters and the mad alien who shows them the universe.

But if you're going to use a large cast of diverse characters to tell the story of humanity's search for the promised land of Earth (BSG) or the power dynamics of kingship and the difficulties of honor (Game of Thrones), you can't make serious art without serious funding. Especially if you also want to blow people away with beautiful nebulae or castles, silent space dogfights or brutal medieval battles.

The difference, in essence, is that SF writers can go as big as they want, and the only thing it costs them is a migrane. A TV director, on the other hand, needs a lot more support to up the scale of his production. So unless speculative fiction figures out better ways to stay small (Dr. Who) or stay on Earth (Heroes, Dollhouse, Fringe), they may never find much of a presence on the cash-strapped broadcast networks. And of those shows with a go-small mindset, only Doctor Who works as legitimate thought-provoking-yet-entertaining SF.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

One other thing--I'm not sure we live in a golden age of network TV. Sure 24 was groundbreaking in the way it tortured and executed the traditional narrative structure of action movies, but I haven't seen anything groundbreaking on the networks since. In the meantime, cable networks have shown that excellent entertainment doesn't need a single protag, that viewers can be taught to follow complex stories, and that TV viewers can appreciate stories that ask complicated questions about humans and human society without providing easy answers. This came about because they were willing to risk money on expensive actors, skilled screenwriters, &c. The broadcast networks have generally had neither the funds nor the courage to take similar risks.

Loren Eaton said...

I've gotta keep this short because I'm travelling and poaching from public wifi. Regarding Battlestar, I admittedly haven't seen it, but I'm pretty snakebit about investing multiple seasons' worth of time into a show with a stinker of a conclusion.

You may be right about the main problem with network TV being that it suffers from a lack of courage. However, I doubt it has to do with a lack of cash. Executives love a sure things and (alas) genre looks inherently risky for the near future.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Battlestar's ending is quite different from Lost's.

Battlestar's ending did a decent job of answering up all the mysteries, a great job of giving characters closure, and tied things together with a fun epilogue. (It also had an unexpected take on the existence of God, but that'd be spoilers.) The only thing it didn't do is excel as an individual episode. If you expected the greatest BSG episode ever to be the last one, then you'd be rightly dissappointed. But I'd never let its ending dissuade you from watching the show.

Or, for the true hardboiled fan of darkness, you could stop at the ending of season 3.0, where the show almost ended as a result of the Writer's Strike. What an ending THAT would have been.

Loren Eaton said...

I may have to check it out, then. The premise sounded really interesting, although Fringe is luring me now that it has a couple seasons out on DVD. I hear it's the spiritual sucessor to The X-Files, which got me interesting in horror, although it really bombed out in the final couple seasons.