Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What's In A Title?...

There was a lot of talk during the TCAs this week about the titles for a couple of shows. Thanks to things like Twitter and Tumblr, we are learning to be more concise. What is a show's title but the most concise way to tell the public what the show is about? But what happens when the title really doesn't reflect much of anything: does that cause intrigue, resulting in buzz, or does it simply make people shrug and flip onto the next thing?

Traffic Light from FOX, in particular, got a lot of TCA scrutiny, and the panel actually took a moment to explain the metaphor. Other than just being the same title from the Israeli show on which this Americanized version is based, the three colors of a physical traffic light refer to the three guys in the series and their various stages of relationships. David Denman, the married father, is the red light, saying no to all incoming girl traffic (most notably in a scene at a backyard birthday when he thinks a young woman is hitting on him when all she wants is to pick his brain for work); Nelson Franklin is moving in with his girlfriend but still not fully committed, so he is the yellow; Kris Marshall, ever the fun-loving single guy, is the green, saying "let's go" to anyone who crosses his path. Well, within reason. I assume. The show is part relationship romantic comedy and part buddy comedy and for a brief moment in TV history, it was called Mixed Signals, which seemed to fit the genre a bit more obviously. But should the producers be worried that this, um, odd title will result in a lack of viewers turning up to FOX to tune in? At this point it could go either way...

A show that has not seemed to suffer at all from its limiting title is The Good Wife for CBS. The title embodied the pilot premise: a woman whose high-profile husband has very publicly scorned her holds her head high and does what she has to for her family, while still standing by her man. The series has evolved into so much more with that woman, Alicia Florek (Julianna Margulies) flourishing in her new career. The show is still much more about her than her husband and his own problems-- hell, Chris Noth isn't even billed as a series star-- but we watch her truest triumphs in the courtroom, not the living room, so she is much more than just the wife the title advertises.

While Cougar Town has recently embraced its title, it has only done so in the tongue-in-cheek, we-know-it's-a-terrible-cross-to-bear-so-we're-making-fun-of-ourselves-to-take-back-the-power sort of way. The series did start out with Courteney Cox' character dating younger men post-divorce, but that was a quick and easy hook to be topical that was just as quickly and easily discarded in favor of a much stronger ensemble piece about, well, a group of friends. They drink wine, not coffee, but it is still a matter of Cox getting back to her roots. Whether or not the title imitated the original concept or the show or the concept imitated the title, the audience was able to get past it, starting to embrace the quirky series in the middle of the first season and becoming full-on obsessed with it this year. Cougar Town no longer is no longer a title to be whispered in shame.

But other series haven't fared as well. Shawn Ryan and FX' Terriers confused even this television-savvy consumer. The promotional campaign didn't help, either, featuring a seemingly snarling dog front and center in a palm tree landscape. Maybe, like Traffic Light, that was meant to be a metaphor, in saying that these rough-around-the-edges private eyes' bark was worse than their bite. Or something. It wasn't enough, though. The show was brilliantly written and superbly acted; its storylines were more unique and witty than anything on broadcast cable or network television. But it still wasn't enough; people still didn't show up. Unfortunately we do judge books by their covers, and we do judge television shows by their titles, even when we shouldn't.

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