From scarcity to abundance, the new creative surpluses on TV

22b3d3da86aef9a2ea7ab5c038ec6c15Spoiler alerts for:  
Game of Thrones
Luther, Homeland
The Good Wife
House of Cards
Nashville, Scandal
Arrow, Teen wolf

Rest in peace:

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones

DS Riply (Warren Brown) on Luther

Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland

Will (Josh Charles) on The Good Wife

Zoe (Kate Mara) on House of Cards

Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and Lamar (Powers Boothe) on Nashville

James (Dan Bucatinsky) on Scandal

Moira (Susanna Thompson) on Arrow

Allison (Crystal Reed) on Teen Wolf

The characters of TV are falling.  No one is safe.  Zoe on House of Cards appeared to be a character so dear to our hearts, so embedded in the HoC narrative, she was safe from harm.  This made her death on a subway platform in the first episode of the new season especially shocking.

The old convention was clear.  TV was bound by a contract.  Once the audience had connected to a character, once we had identified with that character, the character got a pass.  Nothing bad could ever happen to them.  They were safe from harm.  Especially on a subway platform.  Well, everywhere really.

But now that so many of these TV characters are dying, something is clearly up. Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly sees dark motives.  She believes that shows use these deaths as a way to goose ratings and build buzz.  These deaths, she suggests, may be  “gimmicks.”

Maybe.  We could look at this another way.  In the old TV, characters represented an investment and an achievement.  In spite of its creaky, often predictable mechanics and talent shortages, TV  managed to make a creature we found credible.  Life was created.  (Even if it did resemble the work of Dr. Frankenstein.)

In fact, writers weren’t all the good at creating new characters.  And we, as viewers, weren’t all that good at grasping these characters.  This was, after all, an era of creative scarcity.  In this world, characters got a pass not for humane reasons, but because they were triumphs against the odds.  Once we writers and viewers had conspired to cocreate a character, whew, job done, and let’s not put this miracle at risk.

But these days, show runners and writers are less like Dickensian accountants, and more like drunken lords of endless liberality.  “You don’t like that character, well and good.  How about this one?  Want another?  I’ll work something up over lunch.”  The new creative potentiality on tap in TV is virtually depthless.

Why?  Better writers have come to TV.  All writers have more creative freedom.  Every show runner is eager to take new risks.  They recruit the writers who can help them do so.   Actors are demanding new and juicier roles.  The industry is a little less an industry and now a creative community, where the depths of talent are so extraordinary something fundamental has changed.  This world (and our culture) has gone from one of scarcity to one of plenty.

And we viewers are helping.  We got better too.  We are smarter, more alert, better at complexity, unfazed by novelty, and apparently, so possessed of new cognitive gifts that you can throw just about anything at us and we will rise to the occasion.

We viewers may once have struggled to master the complexities of a show, and resented anyone who taxed us with new characters.  Now that’s part of the fun.  Throw stuff at us.  We can handle it.  Indeed, increasingly, we demand it.  Viewers are happy to meet new characters and see what they bring to existing and emerging narratives.

Perhaps killing off characters is not a gimmick after all.   This might be a way TV manages to keep itself fresh and engage the new cognitive gifts of their viewers.

This is one of the things we can expect to happen as popular culture becomes culture.   TV was once the idiot brother of literature, of theater, of cinema, of the Arts.  No self-respecting writer wanted to go there.

Then, quite suddenly, they did.  (I think of David Milch as Writer Zero, the first man of astonishing talent to buck the trend and make the transition.)  And in the 35 years since Milch made the move, many have followed.  These days just about everyone is banging on the door.  Even people who thought they wanted to write for Hollywood.  And this takes us from that “make-do” model that prevailed on both sides of the camera.  (TV did the best with what it had, and viewers made do with the best they could find.)  Over 35 years, we have seen the death of good-enough TV.

As the migration of talent continues, everything changes.  Creative scarcity gives way to creative abundance.  Pity the shows that have yet to get the memo.  And watch, ultimate spoiler alert, for more of your favorite characters to die.   With our new creative surpluses, there are more where they came from.  Plenty more.

6 thoughts on “From scarcity to abundance, the new creative surpluses on TV

  1. Eric Nehrlich

    You may want to spoiler alert this whole post for those that aren’t up-to-date on these shows since a few of those character deaths happened in the past several weeks.

    Also, speaking of creative abundance and the growing sophistication of audiences, I think Orphan Black is a great example of that. It used to be that TV characters had to be stock types with broad shadings so that the audience could easily tell them apart. Now we have Tatiana Maslany playing several different characters (more if you include the combinations where she is playing one character pretending to be another), and critics love the complexity and nuance in that performance.

  2. Grant Post author

    Eric, good idea, spoiler alerts now in place. Orphan Black is a great example. And thank god for a new generation of actresses who are up to the task. And isn’t Maslany astoundingly good? Thanks, Grant

  3. peter spear

    This is fantastic. I absolute agree that this is no gimmick, but a real raising of the stakes as you’ve described.

    If David Milch is Writer Zero, the I think some nod should be given to Steven Soderbergh for the first example of this kind of celebrity expectation shattering: Contagion. If you’ve not seen it, take a look and let me know when you get to the moment. I also think that “This is the End of the World” is another extreme example of this defiant celebrity-leveraging.

  4. Grant Post author

    Peter, thanks! I haven’t see Contagion but I will have a look. I liked the way Soderbergh said that he wasn’t just interested in Big Films but little ones, that he refused to choose. Will also have a look at This is the End of the World. Thanks, Grant

  5. Spencer Adkins

    Not a real spoiler but it was a signal when Person of Interest killed off Det. Carter at the end of the previous season. The writing and characters only got better this past season.

    The writing is impressive and if you like design, look at how they meticulously craft the actual views of the world through ever watching CCTV cams, and the POV of the computers that “run the world” themselves… Right down to the “good computer” interface and the “bad computer” interface. In fact the introduction of new computer systems AS characters is the center of suspense this past season.

    More proof of your theory that TV writing is improving IMO.

  6. The Urban Blabbermouth

    I think Person Of Interest quality is the same before and after killing off Det. Carter. She was killed off so the story could go in a different direction: from crime/cops to world computer world domination dystopia. Why change? Maybe the creativity was running put for crime/cops?

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