I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but it seems that we humans really do have an appetite for destruction. I’ve never really thought about the phrase outside of it being the title of my all-time favorite album by my all-time favorite band which is strange given my propensity for giving far more thought than most things warrant. Now that it’s apparent, it’s like it was always there and I just couldn’t see it. Like the “fucking schooner” in the Magic Eye picture* or Timothy Busfield as the brother in law in Field Of Dreams, once you see it you wonder how long it’s been like that. We slow down to catch glimpses of car crashes, and bundle stock disaster footage into prime time programming. Heck, some people actually suffered from forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder just from WATCHING extensive coverage of the events of 9/11. All of us in some way (myself included) crave watching things fall apart (or burn, or explode). It has probably been that way since mankind was still in its infancy. Lightning fires in the landscape most likely captivated man until he could control its power, undoubtedly leading to his wonderment at the possible swaths of destruction that now rested in his hands. It’s something we have been doing since our own infancy as well. Anyone who has been around children can tell you that feigning injury is a surefire way to make a child laugh, and that building towers out of blocks routinely leads to mini re-enactments of Godzilla laying Tokyo to waste. Accompanied by giggles of course. It’s in us from early on because it’s been in us since early on.
As Jen Engle illustrated, our thirst for debacle (at the very least our fascination with it) isn’t limited to tragedies or imploded bridges on TV. We also gobble up the juicy details of celebrities lives slowly unraveling while second guessing every decision they make right down to what they are wearing to walk their dog. Reading US Weekly is the same as binging on YouTube videos of juvenile mayhem, or even lighting your neighbor’s pool house on fire. In ways we create “celebrities” just to tear them down. I would go as far to say that we enjoy watching chaos and ruin in the lives of strangers that we don’t identify with, perhaps viewing them as below us because of moral deficiencies or their lack of teeth or bras. This is evidenced by the continued production of daytime trash-reality like Jerry Springer and Judge Joe Brown as well as recent TV success stories Jersey Shore, Honey Boo Boo and Teen Mom (Network success that is. The people on these shows sometimes achieve minor celeb status and modest wealth, but given that the dignity they give up in doing so essentially equates to committing suicide on camera, I would hardly call them successes). The gossip industry that flourishes in Western society is pretty much a continuation of that child that keeps building towers and knocking them down out of sheer amusement (amusement that they sell for huge profits).
I’ve tried hard to divest myself of these urges, but I’m starting to think that you can’t fight nature and that instead of telling myself that I’m somehow different from society at large, I should just shut up and accept that I love watching the fall. While not consuming the reality shows directly, I watch the clip show, The Soup, which means I love reality TV but don’t have the time to watch it. Guns N’ Roses is my favorite band, partly because of the way that they completely fell apart. And watching television shows that I used to love even though they have turned into poorly written farces that barely resemble anything that they used to be (just like Guns N’ Roses) can be super fun.
Sometimes the shows that promised us so much (and much of the time delivered) take turns that we never saw coming or that we didn’t want to see coming. Maybe a new character is introduced (or inexplicably killed off) or we are brought to a new locale (also usually inexplicably). Either way we, the viewer, usually find ourselves being asked to accept plot devices and stories that make no sense and typically undo seasons of what we thought were careful writing and characterization, reminding us that death comes for all TV shows as surely as it does for everything else we know and love in this temporal existence. We die, Grandma dies and our favorite programs will cease to be good. There are obviously some exceptions (you can debate among yourselves), but shows will always hit a point of no return, where it gets incrementally shittier and shittier. Sure this is nothing new. A lot of people would call this decline “jumping the shark” and most of the time they would probably be right. I’m talking past the point when the show begins its descent from whatever pinnacle it had reached, when it looks like its just floundering, incoherently turning Emmy-winning roles into what feels like it could be people in animal costumes. That is how far past the good old days we are at this point. I’m talking about the end and the times right before it, when only the stubborn and clueless dare to tread.
There have been countless television series since the medium’s inception that have jumped completely over the shark and out of our consciousness and a lot of the time people forget how weird things became at the end. While technically a spin off, The Golden Palace was essentially a season of The Golden Girls that puts our favorite elderly spinsters in charge of running a hotel, without Dorothy of course (she had married Leslie Nielsen and moved to Georgia). Even a young Don Cheadle, in a totally different kind of hotel than the one that would make him famous, couldn’t help us forget that we were watching a pointless continuation of a story that could have ended somewhat well. Perfect Strangers, which had built its brand on a wacky foreign character, tried to introduce a child at one point (a common shark jumping signifying event), and in its final season had moved the entire gang out to a Victorian house instead of the Chicago apartment that had been home for six seasons. Likewise, spinoff series Family Matters, caught lightning with Steve Urkel and when times got tough the writers turned to what got them there in the first place: more Urkels, now in the form of his cousins and the smooth Hyde to his Jekyl, Stefan Urquelle. Times only got tougher. We may fondly recall Punky Brewster being about a little girl wearing crazy clothes and extolling the virtues of “Punky Power”, but by the end of its fourth season (!), the show had changed Henry’s business twice, culminating with “Punky’s Place,” a burger place at the mall that came out of left field but which provided a backdrop for madcap teenage storylines. Even Punky herself seemed tame in comparison to the girl squatting in Henry’s apartment building (when did he stop managing that?), now wearing typical teenage fashions and crushing on boys. The list is endless: Beverly Hills 90210 was about the Walshes who were all absent in the final season; Two and A Half Men killed off the main character and just threw in Ashton Kutcher just to make sure that there was a nut job character to replace Charlie Sheen; the Tori episodes of Saved By The Bell, Saved By The Bell: The College Years, and Boy Meets World which could have been an animated series by the time they called it quits during THEIR college years.
What these television failures have in common is that in the end, their attempts to keep the series moving proved to be disastrous and were most likely network attempts to tinker with shows on the bubble to try to hold onto ratings (and therefore advertising dollars) even though the quality that was produced had become so poor. Because the quality of the content itself is so poor, the only thing that could possibly be intriguing or entertaining about the end of all these shows is the spiral. How bad and how far they fell replaced the actual content, becoming the new content, at the very least assuming its function. The fall is all that matters at this point, in the same way that their ruin replaces the career output of Hollywood starlets like Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes and Britney Spears.
That’s why I’m excited to see True Blood and Dexter this summer, which is something that I never thought I would say again.
Dexter (premieres Sunday at 9pm on Showtime) and True Blood (on HBO, but also Sundays at 9) are not 90’s sitcoms taking place in an era where the bar was pretty low. These shows are technically dramas and air on premium cable on Sundays, historically a place where television was more than that, and yet they also could not avoid the trappings of television longevity. In the past I would have mourned their passing and told myself to look away so it wouldn’t hurt as bad or swear the show off my DVR, but now my new-found acceptance of my love for decay and ruin leads me to embrace the silliness that comes next. It’s impossible to turn away now. Writing has gotten sloppy and repetitive, the characters either stagnant and one dimensional despite seasons of growth (or they are just plain unlikable). Both programs crossed the event horizon some time ago and are spinning out of control faster and faster and waiting for the crash is especially exciting.
Dexter is a classic case of a show that was fresh at the time it came out, garnering acclaim from critics and viewers alike, only to find itself treading water following what was undoubtedly its best season. You can literally divide the series into “before Trinity” and “after Trinity.” Leading up to season 4, Dexter had found its voice when the title character struggled with making real connections with others, Rita especially. One could say that the dip in quality began early on when the two were married and her pregnancy was announced, but those fears were brushed aside as viewers watched John Lithgow exquisitely give life to what would become the series’ most memorable character besides Dexter himself. Lithgow would win both a Golden Globe and Emmy for his portrayal of Trinity killer Arthur Mitchell and the show also had nominations for both Michaell C. Hall (Dexter in the show – five times overall) and for Outstanding Drama Series (four times). Prior to and including Season 4, Dexter had been a legit dramatic series (albeit a darkly humorous one) that had given Showtime a legitimate masterpiece in storytelling. That’s how remarkable that season was. Until it all changed. I don’t know if it was the loss of core characters and thus core storylines and themes or if nothing could possibly look any good compared to the brilliance of those 12 episodes (which I know isn’t true as I’ve seen Breaking Bad and Mad Men, both nearly perfect after five and six seasons respectively). Everything that came after lacked that SOMETHING that initially captured the imagination of viewers and endeared them to the troubled, morally ambiguous yet noble protagonist. We were left to deal with our losses just like Dexter had to in season 5, but what we found was nothing new. Everything felt like we had already been there, culminating in a two-season arc that feel a lot like a “Ross/Rachel” scenario in that they kept making us wonder “Will it finally happen? Will he get caught?” After a while, I’ve stopped caring about the central question of the entire story. I don’t care if Dexter stops or if he gets caught, I just want a conclusion. This past December I didn’t even care about that, vowing to never watch again until I found out that Season 8 was it and that it was being aired in June instead of the typical fall premiere. What this meant was that even the network had given up. This show isn’t even good enough to help get viewers to Showtime’s new darling, Homeland, nor was it important enough to benefit from it. Like House before it, Dexter has fallen from its position as an Emmy mainstay and is just splashing around like that dolphin in the polluted NYC canal. And just like that tear-jerking video, I will make myself watch this.
Unlike Dexter, True Blood keeps rolling on much like the reanimated blood bags it calls main characters. Admittedly, it has never been “good” in terms of acting OR writing, but it could be thrilling at times and the characters were intriguing. As seasons pass however, you wonder how much mileage they can get out of doing what they have always done best: hot, naked, supernatural sex scenes, cliffhangers galore, and crazy ridiculous plot twists. Given that reliance on these types of things is standard fare for shows that have begun to their descent, I can only assume that THIS downfall could be the most brilliant of them all, because how much more ludicrous can this show get? Fairies giving birth to what amount to litters of human-fairie hybrids? Happened. Werewolf three-ways? Check. Vampires engaging in blood rituals of a religious nature? You bet. If that wasn’t bad enough, the acting is actually getting more one dimensional, sucking out any depth that the characters had in previous seasons (of course that pun was intended). There is a small part of me that wonders if the campiness is intentional, and while some of it may be written that way, it’s apparent that not all of the wackiness was deliberate. It isn’t like fellow supernaturally-themed series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer,whose campiness and humor were always winking at us (typical of Joss Whedon). You can’t hide being bad by pretending to be bad when that wasn’t really your tone to begin with.
This is why I appeal to the darkest, debacle-loving part of your humanity and implore you to watch True Blood and Dexter this summer. Stare into the abyss and take pleasure in watching these carcasses swell with larvae and explode with maggots. Metaphorically, of course (although considering how much blood plays into their mythologies, there will probably be a lot of carcasses). Don’t look away because you need to see it, at least some part of you wants to. I know it looks bad and it is, but that just means it’s getting great. Plus….Breaking Bad doesn’t start until August.
*Author’s note: Kudos if you said to yourself “That’s not the quote from Mallrats.” Just trying to make sure y’all are paying attention.