It seemed like a sure thing: basic cable’s most consistent quality-programming provider adapts a popular Danish murder-mystery procedural and casts the very talented Mireille Enos (formerly best known as Jodeen Marquart on Big Love) as its steely lead. For its first several episodes, The Killing lived up to its hype. The case was riveting, the characters seemed complex, the acting was uniformly fantastic, and the show’s slow pace was welcome change from cop shows that managed to put a bow on a difficult case by the end of each episode.
But as the season dragged on, we started to wonder whether the writers would ever choose to develop the main characters; while we finally got some insight into Enos’s Sarah Linden a ridiculous 11 episodes in, we still understand frustratingly little about dead-girl Rosie Larsen. We gradually realized that this show has little respect for characters in general: Over and over again, the writers took a seemingly normal character, suddenly revealed something damning about him, and then cleared him of the murder. It was the last straw when, in the finale, the police arrested Darren Richmond and Sarah found out in the last few moments that her partner (who we were supposed to hate, then sympathize with, and now apparently hate again) fabricated evidence. Good dramas are built on strong, coherent characterization. The Killing is a mess because it treats them as pawns rather than people.
We remember how excited we were the first time we heard about Weeds. Mary-Louise Parker in a dark comedy about a mom-turned-pot dealer in suburban Agrestic, California? Sign us up! The first few seasons, which stuck to that set-up and featured hilarious supporting performances by Elizabeth Perkins and Kevin Nealon, were classic. That all ended, though, when Agrestic went up in smoke and Parker’s Nancy Botwin and family took their freak show on the road. Quickly, the plot became fragmented and sensational, with each new season upping the ante for ridiculousness. Some bright spots (namely Justin Kirk’s Uncle Andy) keep us watching, but Weeds becomes a guiltier pleasure every year.
The first season of Lost was so good. J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse had created a truly addictive drama, beginning with a shocking and mysterious plane crash, then slowing down to follow the stories of each fascinating character in the ensemble cast. As time went on, though, and unanswered questions piled up, we had to wonder whether the showrunners knew where they were taking us. The third through fifth season were a roller coaster ride, ending in the massive let-down that was Season 6’s irritating “split reality” conceit. Lindelof and Cuse had promised us the show’s finale would justify years of confusion, but it turned out Lost really was a Christian parable, the island was purgatory, and everyone eventually worked their way up to heaven. We still wish we could have the time we wasted on this show back.
Let’s be clear: Gossip Girl was never a “quality” show. But, at the very beginning, it was a whole lot of fun — the TV equivalent, perhaps, of sitting down with a fat, glossy issue of Vogue and letting your mind go blank as you flip through the pages of sparkly dresses and vacuous celebrity profiles. The first two seasons, when the Upper East Side gang was still in high school, were full of teenage politicking, class-conscious insider/outsider drama, and gratuitous eye candy. Now that they’re in college, the writers have pretty much run out of material. Chuck and Blair may be the most interesting characters on the show (not that they have much competition), but watching them go back and forth, on and off, breaking up and getting back together on almost every episode, is just boring.
Remember the first season of Project Runway? The heroes — fairy princess-in-a-male-body Austin Scarlett and endlessly witty winner Jay McCarroll — and villain — scheming Wendy Pepper — were so great you couldn’t make them up, the clothes were always interesting (if not consistently gorgeous), and the judges’ decisions made sense. Plus, the show introduced us to the most wonderful man on reality TV, Tim Gunn. Fast forward to Season 6, when Project Runway moved from Bravo to Lifetime — and left fashion capitol New York for, well, Los Angeles. By its eighth and most recent season, the judges were passing over hugely talented designers in favor of a mean girl who made a lot of diaper-shorts and brown harem pants, and Gunn was touring the country to talk shit about them.
It was great to watch Glee rise from risky pilot to one of the most popular shows on TV; who didn’t want to see the freaks, nerds, gays, and drama kids finally get their moment in the sun? The series’s message of accepting and celebrating what makes us different is a great one, and early, character-driven episodes were a satisfying blend of funny and poignant. By the show’s second season, though, it seemed like Glee cared more about big-name guest stars and flashy musical numbers than actually, you know, having a plot. The damage is far from irreparable, so we’re crossing our fingers that showrunner Ryan Murphy rethinks his priorities in time for Season 3.
Like Gossip Girl for moms, Desperate Housewives has always been a surface-y confection. Originally praised for its pretty, often funny, melodrama and critique of upper-middle-class suburbia, it was a hit with viewers and critics alike in its debut season. But, as showrunner Marc Cherry began to cede the story to other writers, it became just another nighttime soap. The fourth most popular show on TV in its first year, with nearly 24 million viewers a week, it ended Season 8 in 26th place, having lost over half its audience. And yet, for some reason, it’s still coming back for round nine in the fall.
For a while, it looked like Heroes would save NBC from its perennial last-place spot among the major networks. The comic book-style drama about regular people who develop super powers was a pulpy, fast-paced thrill ride in its first season. But, despite its early success, writers decided to switch things up by slowing down the story and fragmenting into largely unrelated subplots. By the end of Season 2, fans were so dissatisfied that creator Tim Kring had to apologize to them in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. ”The message is that we’ve heard the complaints — and we’re doing something about it,” said Kring. Unfortunately, it was already to late to save the show, which hemorrhaged viewers and was finally canceled after only four seasons.
America’s Next Top Model
One of reality TV’s great survivors, America’s Next Top Model debuted in 2003 and is still going strong eight years — and 16 “cycles” later. We still have a soft spot for the first season, which saw true characters like brainy pre-med Elyse Sewell, prude Christian Robin Manning, and over-the-top future VH1 fixture Adrianne Curry form alliances and compete bitterly. The problem is that the pool of actually interesting model wannabes is unsurprisingly limited, and now that the show airs two complete seasons every year, the characters have become a blur of stereotypes. There’s always the girl who is trying to fight her way out of poverty, the one everyone suspects has an eating disorder, the house bitch, and the plus-size model who has to work twice as hard as the rest of the cast. Finding new challenges — that is, new ways to make the girls uncomfortable — has resulted in some serious miscalculations (remember the blackface controversy)? And, of course, there’s the fact that Miss Tyra’s ego inflates a tiny bit more with each new episode, meaning ANTM cameras are more often trained on her megalomaniacal “smize” than the contestants anyway.
We’re sure someone will rake us over the coals for this, but it’s true: It’s not like The Simpsons is unwatchable, even now. It’s just that the show’s heyday is now over a decade behind it, and every new episode is a sad reminder of how much we loved it back in the ’90s. Twenty-two seasons in, it’s time for Matt Groening to leave us with our fond memories — and, hopefully, move on to something else great.