Friday, October 19, 2012

Outstaying Your Welcom

By Russel D McLean

I’ve often talked about how, in a perfect world, I’m bringing the J McNee novels to a close after five books.


All good things should come to an end, and I’ve never been a fans of series that outstayed their welcome. What’s got me thinking about it recently has of course been the return to UK screens of 90s sitcom, Red Dwarf. I loved Red Dwarf for six series and then it vanished. For three years it was off our screen and then it returned. And something was missing. The jokes. The humour. The characters. I could never point to what it was explicitly, but something felt off from the delayed seventh season and the show never quite recovered*.

It happens a lot with long running series. Unless the series attempts to evolve like say, Doctor Who, a show that truly changed with the times right down to rewriting the central character on several occasions, then a staleness can settle in after a while. Its known as “jumping the shark”, a phrase that entered popular culture when Happy Days suddenly became irrelevant to its audience after a strained episode where Fonzie, literally, jumped over a shark.

The point is that some series can run on beyond the point of their own relevance. And its often because an audience or readership demands that the series stay, but the creative spark has been extinguished or else has burned to almost nothing. It doesn’t happen in TV shows, but also in novels. Some long running series characters encounter the problem of stories that no longer feel relevant or characters who no longer have anything to say. Yet readers demand the return of these characters.

Its one of the reasons I admire George Pelecanos. He writes about the same characters for two, three or four novels, and then lets it go. He allows his characters to sya what they have to say and then moves on. Its admirable. And its the reason his writing is so powerful.

Coming back to TV, I love seeing TV shows with a gameplan. The Wire may have warranted a sixth series, but I’m glad it never got one. Babylon 5 completed its five year plan, and then fell apart completely when it tried to expand its own universe. Life on Mars never needed any expansion beyond two series because, frankly, it said everything relevant to itself in twelve episodes (Yes, I know about Ashes to Ashes, but that was an entirely different show in many ways). All of these shows set out too say something, said it and then (in general and discounting spin offs) got the hell out. Part of their appeal was that they stayed around as long as they needed to. But then you look at a TV show like The X Files; a show that outstayed its welcome by several years. It never reached a real climax, but it was soon apparent that it was lost for new and refreshing ideas, falling back on recycled ideas and falling behind the very TV shows that its helped to influence. And the less said about a TV show like Lost, that tried to keep itself going for as long as possible with no real game plan (you can’t tell me they knew where they were going; none of the plot holds up as having been planned from the start) the better.

Sometimes, its worth getting out before an idea gets too old, before a series loses itself in the race to remain on the go. With McNee, I only want to write about this character as long as I have something relevant to say with him, as long as I can allow him and the supporting cast to continue changing (albeit iin some ways subtly) from book to book. And even if I decide I have more to say about book 5, there is a game plan and certain elements that have been building since THE GOOD SON are going to be wrapped up by book 5 in a very definitive way.

I’d rather be The Wire than The X Files. I’d even rather be DeadWood - a show cancelled before it could say all it had to, but that left on a real high note before it lost the lustre of its early promise - than continue to expand an idea long past its sell by date, Or maybe I can create a property like Doctor Who; a series that manages to reinvent itself as something completely different every few years, that pre-empts the need to end by changing itself with the times and with the needs of its audience. But such an invention is rare, tough to craft and tougher to maintain. In general, the best rule is to let go of a character when the time comes naturally, rather than expand and continue past the point of no return.

*although to be fair, it seems to have regained a little something with the new series, perhaps through lessons learned from what went before - - maybe because the long, long rest (and the near disaster of its last attempted ressurection) has allowed the creators to rediscover something of what they had before.

1 comment:

Al Tucher said...

Complete agreement here, Russel. I enjoyed the first season of Revenge (largely because of Madeline Stowe, who is the hottest evil matriarch ever), but I'm afraid the show is already spinning off in too many directions at once.

I have four (unpublished) novels about prostitute Diana Andrews, and two more planned, but the series has an arc that will end there.