June / July 2004

Reality TV and Entropy


With Angel dusted as of May 19, 2004, Joss Whedon's Buffyverse is dead on television...

Two years ago at this time, viewers witnessed Chris Carter's TV universe (which included The X-Files, Millennium and The Lone Gunmen) fold in on itself...

And although it has (barely) been renewed for a fourth season, Star Trek: Enterprise will most likely fold in 2005, making that year the first season in eighteen years not to feature some variation of the long-lived Star Trek universe.

Fans can (and do) debate the merit of these franchises, but the plain fact is that these examples symbolize a trend. Angel and The X-Files are endangered species - soon to be extinct: the network genre series.

It wasn't that long ago I wrote in this column of an age of plenty that included The X-Files, Buffy, Angel, Witchblade, Farscape, Firefly, Dark Angel, Millennium and other unique series. But those heady days are gone indeed, and the recent announcement of the 2004-2005 network TV schedules represents the final nail in the coffin.

Not one new genre program can be found anywhere, in any time period. On any night.

Not on the "big three" - ABC, CBS and NBC.

Not on that upstart, Fox.

And not on those newbies on the block, UPN and WB.

Even as late last season, these networks were still trying to launch new genre shows, even if they failed. Haunted, Birds of Prey, Jake 2.0, Tarzan, the new Twilight Zone, and others may not have gone very far, but they ended up on national TV, at least briefly.

So what are we left with now?

Revealing the kind of (rare) patience that helped it nurture The X-Files into a multi-season, multi-media franchise, Fox has surprised many industry insiders and renewed the Eliza Dushku series Tru Calling, which evidenced dramatic development and improvement over the duration of its freshman season. With deeper stories, more involving characters and an infusion of series "mythology," Tru Calling ended the season on a high note and could indeed develop into an Alias-like hit - if Fox sticks with it.

Elsewhere, Smallville enters its fourth season on the WB along with the eighth (arrgh!) season of the ridiculous Charmed. And on the Sci-Fi Channel we have more of the same - more Stargate. Yawn. Frankly, it's getting more difficult to feel excitement about any of these shows at this stage of the game. They weren't so hot in the first place, and now just seem, well, old hat.

So where are the bold, new, inventive shows to stimulate us? The new programs to wow us and carry us through the end of the decade; to capture our imagination (like The X-Files); to re-invent the genre (like Buffy); or give us the next chapter in a long history (like Star Trek)? With nothing new and promising in the production pipeline, how long will it be before the networks even attempt a respectable science fiction series again? If the 2003 mini-series Battlestar Galactica - with its primping super-model cast and Pier 1-style (read: cheap) production design, represent the future of the genre, count me out!

How bad have things gotten? Well, the sad truth of the matter is that even franchises with once-popular brand names can't seem to make their way to prime time. One might think that pilots with names like Dark Shadows and Lost in Space (both commissioned by the WB) promise at least a modest built-in audience. Both franchises have boasted movie spin-offs and re-makes before, so there is enthusiasm for the core tenets of these shows.

But nope, they don't even make the starting line-up. They are D.O.A.

I don't relish being a doomsayer, but the death of quality science fiction has arrived. And I blame reality television. Here's why: the producers of shows like Average Joe or The Apprentice or The Bachelor don't need to pay actors or writers. They don't have to create elaborate alien worlds. They don't need to incorporate amazing special effects. These shows are cheap, cheap, cheap, not to mention successful in the ratings, and that means they are infinitely preferable to network executives than something like Star Trek: Enterprise, Farscape, or Firefly.

Science fiction doesn't compete well on TV, and it never has. When Glen Larson's original, expensive, and spectacular Battlestar Galactica was cancelled by ABC in 1979, it was one of the top-rated shows of the season, but was simply to expensive to produce, and a cheaper sitcom could fill the spot - and cost the network significantly less. Today, this problem is amplified. Reality shows are cheaper even than sitcoms. In fact, reality shows are killing sitcoms too! Dramatic shows survive only by brand name. That's why we have so many versions of Law and Order and CSI, and new editions of The Practice. Be prepared for John of Arcadia or Really Cold Cases in the future, if trends hold. The point is that networks want shows on their schedules that are immediately recognizable as something that viewers will like.

The way things are going, there will be nothing but back-stabbing behavior, ridiculous romantic entanglements, plastic surgery make overs and talent contests on American television. Science fiction, the genre of imagination, will be extinct.

Except on DVD.

With new releases like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season six), Millennium, Land of the Lost and V: The Complete Series, DVD seems like the future...even if it is only a regurgitation of the past, a valhalla populated by old glories.

Nonetheless, that's where my TV will be tuned during prime time for the 2004 season.