Guest Column

TV's Crash-and-Burn Problem

New series tend to launch with great ambitions and then wear out their welcome. Right now, ''Smash,'' ''Awake,'' ''Missing,'' and ''Touch'' are all trying (and failing) to stay interesting

A couple of years ago Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing and screenwriter of The Social Network, boiled down the difference between writing for movies and writing for television to two words: TV, he explained, is ''all middle.'' And the number of new dramas currently suffering through birth pains or death throes offers vivid evidence that he's right: Coming out of the gate strong is never enough.

Once the "all middle" phase of a show's life begins — usually around minute 5 of episode 2 — dramas can go one of two ways. You watch either for the pleasure of seeing the same basic idea played out every week (examples: any crime show, any hour on CBS that doesn't star Julianna Margulies) or because you want to know how it's all going to turn out (any soap, any pay-cable drama, 99 percent of the stuff that wins Emmys). But it's almost impossible for a series to have it both ways — and no fun watching shows try. Here are 2012's biggest booby traps:

The big quest that leads to instant paralysis
Have you seen ABC's Missing, the drama in which Ashley Judd is searching for her kidnapped teenage son? If you haven't, I can fill you in on everything you've missed so far: Ashley Judd is searching for her kidnapped teenage son. That's all — in fact, that's all that's possible. He's not going to turn up dead, because then the show's title would have to change to Dead, which is uninviting, especially when paired with Grey's Anatomy. He's not going to be returned safely, because then the show's over. That leaves just two possibilities: a holy-crap game changer (He isn't really kidnapped! He's not really her son! That woman is really Wynonna Judd!) or the likelier reality that every week Ashley Judd will look for her son, not quite find him, and learn a minute more of backstory about why he disappeared. When resolving the plot means destroying the show, audiences tend to catch on fast.

The big idea that's just an excuse for a little idea
NBC's Awake is the show that every TV critic in America wants to love. The pilot served up a killer premise — after a car accident, a police detective toggles between alternating realities, one in which his wife survives and one in which his son survives. What the hell happened? Which world is real? Are they both real in a parallel-universe kind of way? Is neither one real in a Lost-finale way? Is Laura Innes, scowling ominously as if she's still playing that alien from The Event, pulling all the strings in a Fringe-meets-Alias-meets-The X-Files way? Can we look forward to years of weekly micro-analytical recaps written by somebody who understands this stuff better than I do? Probably not, because what Awake actually cares about is a pretty repetitive gimmick in which the hero grabs clues from one reality every week in order to solve things in the other and then chews over What It All Might Mean with dueling shrinks. Awake, weirdly, has decided to use the fascinating idea at its core as mere background for a series of routine crime stories. It hooked us (well, apparently a very small number of us) and then asked us not to care too much about the hook. That's a problem.

The big vision that we don't trust
Fox's Touch is about a Magical Numbers Boy (we're not supposed to call him autistic because using autism as a gimmick would be in terrible taste!) who doesn't speak but uses the mysterious numerical patterns that only he sees to help his father (Kiefer Sutherland) solve...things that are...sort of...connected to people who...aren't otherwise connected...except by whatever these patterns expose. It's Babel. And Crash. Or just babble-and-crash. The Touched by an Angel vibe is supposed to be supported by a big ongoing metaphysical mystery. But the show's creator is the guy behind Heroes. Once burned, etc.

The big goal that every character on the show cares about somewhat more than you do
Smash, we need to talk.

Originally posted Apr 13, 2012 Published in issue #1203-1204 Apr 20, 2012 Order article reprints
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