What Makes Good TV?
So there I was, sitting around with nothing to do at work. Again. Since I’ve gotten in trouble twice in the last month for reading comic books on the job, I figured there was nothing left to do but grab that copy of Entertainment Weekly that sits so alluringly on our counter enticing the star-struck masses to gawk and ogle.
As you can tell, I’m not the biggest fan of EW. The fact that they have feature stories on the latest red carpet fashion trends makes me gag. Besides that, they’re just a solid entertainment rag. But there’s one portion of EW that truly shines: the last page.
The last page of EW is dedicated to a single page opinion piece by a rotating set of writers including Diablo Cody (screenwriter of Juno) and the immortal Stephen King. Every article is insightful, or funny, or wrought with interesting things to think about.
This week’s last page is “Unpopular Demand” by Mark Harris. He makes a distinction between “Eye TV” and “Ear TV;” those shows you watch versus those shows you leave on in the background while you do other stuff. This got me to thinking: what makes good TV?
Over the course of the next 45 minutes of nothingness, I formulated the following list of things that can make TV entertaining:
- High Production Value
Examples: Fastlane, One Tree Hill, Sarah Connor Chronicles
The lowest common denominator for any TV show is how good it looks. If it’s pretty, it’ll at least pull a few viewers in. One of my favorite high production value shows that had (literally) nothing else worthwhile about it was Fox’s Fastlane. The show did have Bill Bellamy and Tiffany Amber Thiessen as big names, but beyond that, it was pure visual beauty: Fast cars, neon lights, gunfights, and pretty people.
Of course, pretty people alone is enough to keep people watching. One Tree Hill is a prime example. As my friend says, “it’s one of the worst shows on TV, but they’re so pretty.” Even I can’t argue with that.
Examples: Joey, Private Practice, Torchwood, Frasier
The easiest way to pull in viewers is to have something already established. Spin-offs and big stars are an easy way to do that. The Sarah Connor Chronicles has Lena Headley (300, Brothers Grimm) and Summer Glau (Firefly). Frasier spun directly off of Cheers, one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. Torchwood took the pretty alien captain from the new Dr. Who.
Of course, all of those were reasonable shows in their own right. Other spin-offs weren’t fated so well. Private Practice, a spin-off of the insipid Grey’s Anatomy, is destined to die a slow painful death thanks to idiotic network execs. Joey, which flopped hard coming off of Friends, also drew viewers initially, but died quickly. At least then they knew to put it out of its misery quick.
- Interesting Characters
Examples: House M.D., NCIS, Life, Dawson’s Creek
I’m sure some of you are looking at those examples and thinking Dawson’s Creek belongs in the previous category for its pretty people quotient. The difference between Dawson’s Creek and shows like One Tree Hill is that, if you watched the show, you cared about the characters. Sure, the writing was mediocre and the acting merely alright, but those were people you could relate to. You needed to tune in each week to see if Dawson would finally realize Joey is the right one for him (proving once again that I gave up after season 1). Interesting characters extends beyond simply characters you care for. House is a brilliant anti-hero–snide, cynical, uncaring–and yet his antics alone are reason enough to leave the TV on. NCIS’s Anthony DiNozzo is just one of six characters on that show who have distinct and interesting personalities.
Examples: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Riches, CSI, Jericho, Friday Night Lights, South Park
Everyone knows what a hook is when it comes to music. It’s that one catchy little tune that gets stuck in your head. It might only be a few bars of a song, but you’ll listen over and over just for that.
In TV, it’s similar. It’s a premise that’s interesting, or a theme that keeps cropping up. For Friday Night Lights, one of my favorite shows still on TV, the hook is small town football glory. It’s not what keeps people watching, but for many, it’s what started them. For Jericho, it’s the post-nuclear setting. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which, I might add, is the funniest and most irreverent show on television, uses the theme of the worst people on earth to keep you laughing. South Park has its foul mouthed school kids.
Most shows have some sort of hook, since that’s how they get pitched in the industry, but a hook is rarely enough to keep people watching. Would CSI or Law & Order be as long running and high rated if they just used the cop show hook alone? Of course not.
Examples: The Shield, Six Feet Under, Raines
Perhaps my favorite show from last Spring, which lasted a grand total of 7 episodes, was Raines, a beautiful shot cop drama starring (wait for it) Jeff Goldblum. I watched the first couple episodes expecting it to be a quirky comedic show, but Goldblum’s performance simply blew me away. He could go from snide cop to in tears in seconds and do it believably. When the show was canceled, I was the one who was in tears.
Most great shows have good acting, but a truly great performance can carry a show. Michael Chiklis in the first season of The Shield is a prime example. After the first season, there was a lot of good acting, but Chiklis stole the show during its initial run.
Examples: Heroes, Lost, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Some of you may argue that it’s not plot that these shows have, but great writing. Nay, that’s not the case. I love Joss Whedon as much as the next Browncoat, but his dialog is often hammy and predictable. Tim Kring spins a good yarn, but I couldn’t imagine half the Heroes dialog actually happening. The fact is that each of these shows has a great continuity and a fantastic plot.
I know Guillermo Magnifico scoffs at this, but I truly believe that Lost is one of the worst shows on TV… and yet I can’t stop watching. It’s like crack. Which isn’t to say that it might have great writing, cause if they payoff at the end of the series is everything that it’s been promised, it might be the best written show ever. For now though, it simply compelling characters in a fantastic plot.
Which brings us to the best thing for any show:
Great writing trumps all. A well written show with mediocre actors will always be better than a poorly written show with great actors. This is why the writer’s strike was so important. Without good writers, TV and films suck. Just look at Uwe Bol films.
That being said, having just one of these items isn’t enough. You really do need a little of everything. Rome, my favorite show of all time, had great writing, great acting, high production value, a hook, a fascinating plot, and interesting characters. All that adds up to greatness.
So if you’re some Hollywood bigwig or some TV exec wanna-be and you’ve stumbled across this, keep these things in mind when making decisions about what to toss on the air.