Telltale Signs Your Favorite TV Show Is Running Out of Ideas

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We love True Blood. We really do. But despite our enduring affection, we’re also feeling decidedly uncomfortable about the way the show’s heading. After a fairly strong beginning, Season 4 is starting to get awfully silly — and, more worryingly, it’s showing some classic symptoms of Running Out of Ideas Syndrome. This affliction is something that affects the writing staff of pretty much every TV show sooner or later, and not many of them have recovered from it, so we’re fearful for where True Blood might go from here. As a public service announcement, we’ve also listed telltale signs of a series that’s running out of ideas after the jump. Be vigilant! Your favorite show could be next!

Overuse of dream sequences

Classic example: Dallas

There’s been a troubling number of dream sequences in True Blood of late: Jessica kills Hoyt and gets it on with Jason… No! Wait! It was just a dream! Sookie gets it on with both Eric and Bill… No! Wait! It was just a dream! This is always a bad sign, a cheap device to generate dramatic tension without diverging from what’s shaping up as a ropey plotline. Still, nothing will ever rival the gold standard for script-writing volte faces (or hopefully not, anyway) — the writers of Dallas contriving to dismiss an entire season as a dream.

Casting a cute kid/baby

Classic example: The Cosby Show

OK, so audiences love cute kids, right? That’ll get people watching again, yeah? Urgh. Shows that are based around cute kids in the first place are generally offensive enough, but shows that have a cute kid shoehorned into the plot in search of ratings… Well, it rarely works, put it that way. In the case of True Blood, we cite the demonic baby being lugged around by the spirit that possessed Lafayette (which, honestly, was the single most ridiculous thing we’ve seen on TV for quite some time — we hope that Nelsan Ellis gets lots of bonus cash for wandering around gibbering in a comedy plantation accent for two episodes).

Special guest appearances

Classic example: The Simpsons

Plenty of great TV shows have starred previously unknown actors, and even with the recent influx of biggish-name Hollywood actors into TV, the best shows have succeeded because of their writers and creators, not their stars. So generally speaking, it’s a bad sign if you start to rely more on the identity of your actors than the integrity of your plot lines to attract audiences. The best example of this is The Simpsons, where the number of “hilarious” celebrity appearances increased steadily over the years, so much so that you could probably plot them on a graph that proved the number of celeb guest spots per season was pretty much exactly inversely proportional to the quality of the scripts. Happily, there’ve been none on True Blood. Yet.

Too many plotlines

Classic example: Season 2 of Twin Peaks

There are of course exceptions to this rule, but in general, we’d argue that TV shows work best one of two ways: they either have a single strong, recurring narrative thread, or they have a single strong theme that ties each episode together (like, say, Party Down). In the absence of either, writers often tend to compensate with volume, trying to tell too many weak stories instead of one strong one — the result is a surfeit of characters vying for screen time, and an exasperated audience. The two seasons of Twin Peaks illustrate the contrast well; while the show was always character-driven, the first season centered around the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer, with the plot sidelines ultimately tying back into this main narrative. Once the mystery was solved, the writers tried to compensate by developing too many stories, some of them plainly absurd (like Nadine going back to school), and the show completely lost focus. Again, True Blood is showing worrying signs of this — so here’s hoping that godawful little brother really did finally get killed off last episode.

The contrived return of old characters

Classic example: Dallas, again

So ratings are declining and the producers aren’t happy. What about getting some of the audience’s favorite characters back on the show? The good thing about being a writer is that you can explain away pretty much anything — or try to, anyway. And so it is that we’ve had some truly absurd resurrections over the years, like the apparently unkillable Dirty Den in East Enders. The best ever, though, has to be Dallas (again) — the whole ridiculous dream plot line was basically a device to allow the return of a character who’d been killed off a season earlier.

Unconvincing cliffhangers

Classic example: The X-Files

Cliffhangers are only dramatic if the audience at least acknowledges the possibility that the impending disaster that’s left looming until next episode (or next season) might actually take place. This is why “Oh God, the main character might die!!!!!” cliffhangers are rarely effective — you know that they won’t. So it was with the “Mulder killed himself!” conclusion to The X-Files‘ fourth season. Since everyone knew that David Duchovny was returning to the show, the question was never whether Mulder would actually be gone — rather, it was how the writers would contrive to bring him back. This isn’t exactly a recipe for dramatic tension.

Recycling ideas

Classic example: Friends

If nothing else works, you can always fall back on what’s worked in the past — bringing back old characters is, of course, closely related to this idea, but here we’re talking about recycling entire narrative lines. For an example, look no further than Friends — whenever ideas waned, the writers fell back on the Ross-Rachel relationship dynamic (coincidentally, the show’s least interesting idea in the first place)… again, and again, and again. Happily, there’s been little of this in True Blood as yet, although there’s an argument to be made that it’s guilty of the opposite — a kind of ideas-based arms race, whereby each season tries to be more outlandish than the last.

A movie

Classic example: Pretty much all of them

Really, has a TV show ever returned stronger and better once a spin-off film has been made? Apart from maybe South Park? If anyone starts talking about a True Blood movie, be very afraid.

Jumping over a shark on waterskis

Classic example: Happy Days

OK, change the channel. It’s all over.