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 NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Quantico, 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?