I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about today's television viewers and how much they want to get out of a show based on the baggage (or perspective for you non-cynical folks) they already bring to it. A couple of my personal favorite dramas these days have been coming under by other critics, and most of what they are disliking are the exact reasons I am liking so much. Is it a case of "we just want different things" from the shows? And how does that bode for my own show, should it eventually ever go somewhere?
Let me explain: the primary shows I am referencing here are Smash and The Killing. Smash is a relationship drama set in the world of musical theater. The pilot episode was very a much a "setting up the world and the characters" type of pilot; we were introduced to everyone at the start of building this Marilyn musical, not thrust into their world while they were already a year in and forced to keep up. Therefore, we saw a lot more of the ins and outs and behind-the-scenes of the process in the pilot than we have sense. Perhaps that led some to believe the show would be more heavily focused on such elements in every episode. I wouldn't have been disappointed if it was, but I'm not disappointed that it's not, either.
Whereas, with The Killing, the tag was "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" so when season one ended and the audience, even if not the protagonist, Detective Sarah Linden, still didn't know, many felt cheated. Suddenly the twisty, emotional journey we went on all season seemed to be rendered irrelevant without the immediate payoff. I don't see what the big fuss is. The Killing is a crime drama-- not a procedural. We are seven seasons into How I Met Your Mother and we still don't have the answer to the titular question of just what low self-esteemed young woman hooked up permanently with narrator Ted. Yet, most seemed to have forgiven that.
I certainly don't feel lied to or mislead by either show. Sure, there are elements I wish I could change to both-- characters I think need tweaking, or blatant killing off, story points that could be tighter or, time permitting, given more time to be explored. To me, neither show lied about what it would be, so I can't be mad at it. If the types of shows they are just aren't your thing, or you don't think the characters are executed particularly well, that's a different story-- and not one I am arguing in this particular post. To me, the best television is the kind that stirs thoughts and discussions, and yes, opposing reactions anyway. Life doesn't come neatly wrapped in a bow, so why should television?
Still, it makes me wonder about my own pilot. Though I've been garnering positive reactions from those I've been showing it to for pre-pitch notes, I do have to acknowledge that it lends itself toward Smash's way of doing things. It is not a musical, but it is set in the world of entertainment. Since the pilot script itself starts the show with the main characters first meeting each other and entering into their relationship (a conscious decision rather than showing them a year or so in; I want the audience to fall in love with them as they do with each other and see everything that they see in each other to understand why they've fallen in the first place), it does rely kind of heavily on the Hollywood elements at the moment. But it is not a show about Hollywood, just one that is set there. It is a relationship drama featuring some Hollywood "types." I can see people watching the pilot and thinking they're going to be focusing on the ins and outs of "behind the scenes" business deals, but they're not. Not on a week to week basis. And should I ever get the chance to show people episode two, I hope they will enjoy the characters so much that that doesn't matter to them, but you just never know.
Being on the blogging side to this business, I know how I respond to shows when I assume them to be one thing and then they turn out not to be. I have certainly gotten irrationally angry when shows with premises I loved didn't play on the elements I wanted them to right away. I'll tell you right now two of the major offenders just this season were Alcatraz and Awake. As a creative type myself, though, I'm always inclined to blame the business side of things-- to say the writers compromised some of their grand mythology-driven visions to fit a network's brand or placate their fear of serialization. I have no way of knowing if that's true or just what I tell myself because I'll always side with the artist over a suit, no matter what. I also know how to anticipate the criticisms and the questions. I can tell you right now, when I was outlining this series idea and first season arc, I could hear some of the critical questions that would surely be brought up at TCA. I feel anticipating them, and making sure the series acknowledges and answers them (not just that I do if directly asked) should give me a leg up. But you just never know what people will connect with versus over what they'll want to cause controversy.
Television is anything but a passive medium these days. We get out of television as much as we're willing to put in; if we have preconceived wants or needs from a show, sometimes, no matter the show's intentions, no matter the show's set up or promises, we'll just never get what we're looking for. To me that doesn't mean the show is bad-- or even that you should stop watching it-- it just means you should look elsewhere to find your very specific want or need.