Half-season fumbleyayah, and the British Way

With the writers’ strike in the U.S. now over and both parties jump-starting series and feature film productions formerly trapped in stasis, incomplete, or poised for actual production, it’ll be interesting to see whether the TV networks will redesign the TV season to reflect what’ll be a glut of new episodic programming.

Will lesser-known, lower-rated shows come back? Will the post-Xmas season be saturated with cruddy reality shows until March? Will back-to-back airings of series like 24 and Lost set a trend whereby many returning shows will air with fewer repeats between new episodes? And will series creators be able to reinvigorate shows and realign the quality control dial after certain lost their way?

I’m sure much as been scribbled over how Heroes kind of lost its mind and ended on a fast-acting cloud of ‘Huh?”

Put another way, the series failed to live up to the amazing standards that made its first year one of the best series debuts ever. One can trace similar falters – the mess that became Twin Peaks Year 2 when David Lynch left the show’s reigns in the hands of too many eclectic writers and directors; and the disaster that followed Murder One after star Daniel Benzali didn’t return for Year 2, leaving Anthony LaPaglia saddled in a season that was sterile from its inception – but Heroes’ dilemma stems from several stressors that almost wrecked a perfect series.

Setting aside the obvious – How can a show top the spectacular success and freshness of its debut season? – there was creator Tim Kring’s seemingly infrequent involvement with the show, which may have been due to a number of factors: the network exerting its own influence on where the series should go; the inane (but typical network idea) to lard the show with new characters who, among the veterans, could be spun off in related shows (thereby ruining the careful universe of Kring & Co.’s design); and the Nikki and Paolo factor: the sudden narrative smash-cutting to new characters who, like Nikki and Paolo in Lost, were lame, and did little to enhance the season.

Nikki and Paolo are perfect metaphors of when writers lose sight of the design, stray a bit too far, and are forced to integrate resultant character clutter throughout a season; in the case of Lost, the fan reaction to Nikki and Paolo was so severe (a sudden episode devoted to a pair that popped out from nowhere was not a good move) that the duo had to be killed off quickly. (There was also the fact the mid-section of Year 3 was a mess of red herrings showing that no one knew where they were going because the network wanted Lost to go on for several years, beyond its natural evolution. And don’t get me started on Charlie’s retarded self-sacrifice WHEN THE OPEN HATCH WAS TWO FEET AWAY. Moron.)

In the case of Heroes, the N&P factor is tied to new characters – Alejandro Herrera and his twin sister Maya, whose sole purpose is to get main villain Sylar from Mexico to New York – and old characters that have devolved into narrative deadwood: Nathan Petrelli (who gives the worst oration of his career before the show’s writers exacted their revenge on the character and, uhm, actor Andrian Pasdar), and the family unit of Niki Sanders, son Micah, and pop D.L. who offer little towards the plotting beyond the finale that also satisfied the writers’ revenge for another deadwood character.

The contrived use of amnesia also pops up in the season opener with Peter Petrilli trapped without a past, tentatively living with Irish crooks, and eventually getting his memory back in one rapid swoop (more on that in a moment).

Amnesia, like the ‘ol kidnapping storyline, has long been a popular tangent writers have used in soaps (where it can get dragged out for months), or in TV series (where it can either cripple a series, as with cop Sonny going bad in Miami Vice for a quarter season; or wife Teri Bauer stumbling through a Californian mountain town after getting conked on the head), but its main function is to keep a character busy until needed, whereupon they’re dragged back into the plot and participate in the Grand Finale. So while Peter did introduce us to the tenuous villain Adam, his escapades and romancing in Ireland and in the future flash-forwards were largely fluffy, and lame.

Whether or not the looming writers’ strike exerted a particular pressure on the writers to cram rough, undercooked threads into a half season is unknown, but Year 2 is a mess of rushed plotting, fast episodic resolutions, puzzling revelations, fatty tangents, and lame side-threads that are all feebly interconnected to a dominant storyline that literally resets the half-season to the end of Year 1, minus several characters we all knew had to go.

So the question is, can the writers undo the mess, or will they simply get back to the meat of the series and largely ignore the majority of tangents that were deliberately designed as disposable, so as the remaining episodes would deliver the goods as planned?

Certainly one system that’s worked for writers is the British format that maps out a series’ entire run over seasons limited to 8 or 12 (which has been used in lean U.S. shows, like The Shield and The Wire, with great success).

Among the current U.K. successes is Doc Martin, and as we move towards the release of Year 3 on DVD in the U.K. (with Year 1 being the current in North America), we figured we’d start from the beginning and work our way from the Doc’s debut as Doctor Bamford in the theatrical film Saving Grace – a radically different incarnation of the anal tightwad fans came to love by alienating himself from the entire village by the end of the first season episode, and the two TV movies that marked the first efforts to create a series of the friendly, pot-smoking Doc who loves animals, kids, and people: Doc Martin, and Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie (both of which were released on DVD in Australia, and are now out of print).


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