The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Television


I’m a strong believer in the idea that art quality is inherently subjective, that people can like whatever they like, and watch whatever they want to watch. And I’m not one of those cane-wielding grumps who insists everything was better back in the old days. I actually think TV today is, overall, smarter and deeper and funnier and better than it’s ever been. (Current favorites include Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Jessica Jones.)

But there seems to be a particular sub-type of TV that grates on my nerves, for reasons that can be hard to identify. I’m thinking of NCISGrey’s AnatomyQuantico, and The Flash – I’ve only seen a few episodes of each, so I can’t judge their overall quality, but from what I have seen, they seem to share a number of traits that bug me in small, mostly subconscious ways.

Here are the things that bother me most:

Constant ambition and jockeying for position. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, and it can be a great plot/character driver. But when everybody’s perpetually obsessed with the next rung on the ladder, the show quickly becomes (for me) repetitive and shallow. Say what you will about Star Trek and its spinoffs, but this was one flaw they never had. Starfleet officers spend 1% of their time scrambling for promotions, and 99% of their time doing their damn jobs.

Constant drama and petty squabbling. Drama is good, but it should feel necessary, inevitable. Otherwise it’s just childish. It drives me crazy when every scene in a show features adults who act like they’re in high school (or worse, since real high school isn’t constant drama either). You want to grab these people and scream Suck it up and be a grownup and move on! Even Buffy, which had plenty of drama, was rarely that bad, largely because of Giles and his zero-tolerance policy on teen angst. And that was a story actually set in high school.

Constant failure to communicate. Again, I get it – people can be bad at communicating, and stories should reflect that. But does it have to happen twenty times per episode? How many times can somebody refuse to listen before you stop feeling sorry for them? How many times can somebody lie for someone else’s “own good” before you think they should’ve figured out that it never works? And isn’t it possible, just once, just for the sake of variety, that a character could listen to another character without inventing some extra subtext that gets their undies in a bunch?

Constant gravitas. Shows can be serious, heavy, and dark. That’s fine. But break it up a little, tell a joke – and better still, laugh at yourself, at the show itself. Don’t take your own story too seriously. I still remember the year that Steven Martin hosted the Oscars. He walked out on stage, looked around at all the millionaires and billionaires and fancy clothes and rapt cameras, and then – his very first line of the evening – he said, “Well, I’m glad to see they’re cutting back on all the glitz.” He appreciated the Academy Awards for what they were, both the good and the silly, and he didn’t mind saying so.

“Smart” characters written by not-so-smart people. Or at least, written by people who aren’t smart in their character’s area. Look, you don’t like science, fine, don’t write about science. But please, don’t have a show that features scientists as main characters (looking at you, Flash) and give them dialogue that would make a middle school teacher cringe. (People often criticize Big Bang Theory for not being “smart” enough, and I agree it’s dumb overall, but it has enough funny moments that I still enjoy it.)

Improbable attractiveness. I enjoy watching hot women and classy-looking guys as much as the next person. But sometimes it gets a little ridiculous. There are five main girlfriends in Big Bang, and they could all be models. (I would imagine some of them are.) Every class of future lawyers, doctors, and FBI agents seems to be filled entirely with young men and women freshly sculpted by Pygmalion. Not only is this weird, it also highlights the fictional nature of the show and makes it harder to take any of it seriously.

I only had six things. It’s true. I said seven because it sounded better, but that was a blatant lie. Do you feel betrayed?

4 responses to “The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Television

  1. in defense of Big Bang Theory…

    1. the scientific references felt much ‘smarter’ and were more frequent and smooth in the earlier seasons. Fatigue (given their 9 seasons and counting) and/or general popularity has, IMO, resulted in the “dumbing down” of certain aspects of the show recently.

    2. while BBT certainly has had its share of “improbably attractive” guest stars, Penny is the only one who has been consistently sexualized with her attire, dialog, and behavior, and I would argue that that has subdued with time. Bernadette and Amy Farrah Fowler are long time main characters that are quite conservative in their visual appearance for the majority of the show.

    3. while this is somewhat of a counterpoint to 2…In all honesty the premise of the show IS about an improbably unattractive guy developing a relationship with an improbably attractive lady. It would make sense that there would be some attractive ladies in the show.

    on other notes….

    “Constant drama and petty squabbling”

    this is the reason that I don’t like watching several TV shows. they seem to start out great, but eventually devolve in to stupid, drama driven plots. I never got in to Game of Thrones because it was too much petty drama for me. Sure, it was artistically beautiful (and boobs) but it wasn’t enough to distract me from the underlying drama engine.

    • Well, I do like (and watch) BBT also. 🙂 As for sexualization, I agree it’s not terrible, I’m just saying that the improbable attractiveness – even apart from any sexualization or lack thereof – is noticeable and sometimes distracting to me.

      I also loved the first episode (I think it was) when Sheldon was telling Penny that Superman would slice Lois Lane into three pieces if he tried to catch her. (“The physics are ridiculous.” “I know, men can’t really fly.” “No, let’s suppose they can…”)

  2. “Constant ambition and jockeying for position.”

    The position of ST on this idea can be seen in how central it was in the parallel Enterprise (you know, where Spock had the beard). Those Starfleet officers did pretty much nothing else (“cutthroat competition,” as it were) .

    “But please, don’t have a show that features scientists as main characters… and give them dialogue that would make a middle school teacher cringe.”

    I do wonder if any TV show could match the movie Prometheus for for suggesting that “scientists” are all morons and lunatics.

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