Giving Up TV for Advent

December 04, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

One year when I was a kid, I tried to give up TV for Lent. I got through about three days then had to amend the abstention to exclude a number of beloved programs. I'm no longer a practicing Catholic and I realize one doesn't give up things for Advent, but it wouldn't be much of a sacrifice at all to turn off the TV for the next month and use it for only watching DVDs and showing images of a burning Yule log. In fact, the burning Yule log might be more interesting than most of the programming being offered by the networks.

I'm a little depressed to consider the poor quality of broadcast TV. Even the shows I used to like are coming up short. I have stopped watching Pushing Daisies for one reason: it has been axed. To me, there's nothing more frustrating than returning with loyal regularity week-after-week only to experience television interruptus. What's the incentive to watch something that's going to die an unnatural death before its time? Pushing Daisies isn't going to get a chance to tie up its loose ends. They'll be left dangling for all eternity.

I got a few e-mails last week asking me what I thought of the 24 TV movie, Redemption. I waffled a bit in my replies, making polite noises about it not being as bad as Season 6. I am now prepared to reverse that opinion. It was as bad, if not worse. The more I think about it, the less impressed I was by Redemption, which combined bad drama with boring action. I was watching it on my DVR so I could fast forward through the commercials. 30 minutes into it, I realized I wanted to FF through the program. Not a good sign. The TV movie was supposed to provide insight into the character of Jack Bauer, but I didn't get any. If Redemption is indicative of 24's new direction, I think it's time to whack Jack and let the series come to an end. They probably should have done that two years ago.

The best TV series are almost all those that recognize their finite nature. Good shows that linger tend to damage to their legacy. Rarely does a long-running TV show get better beyond year three or four. The Sopranos, although not a broadcast show, is an example of this. During its first two seasons, there was nothing better on TV. Creator David Chase had originally mapped out the tale over three seasons, but ratings and money caused him to drag out plotlines and that resulted in a lot of filler material. The show lost momentum, energy, and viewers. Had Chase stuck to his original plan, perhaps The Sopranos might be regarded as one of the best-ever television shows.

My current long-time favorite, House, is suffering the pains of age and familiarity. The program has become so formulaic that it's almost laughable: patient arrives, House makes the wrong diagnosis, more tests and symptoms, new diagnosis (also wrong), more test and symptoms, rinse and repeat until the final five minutes when House becomes inspired and makes the correct diagnosis. There's rarely any variation. The interaction between characters has become perfunctory and uninteresting. The chemistry between Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard is rarely taken advantage of. And there are far too many secondary characters for any of them to having meaningful storylines. Plus, the producers, in their zeal not to soften the title character, have gone in the other direction. Initially, House was a sour, antisocial individual. Now, he's a misanthrope who's difficult to appreciate even as an anti-hero. House is in serious need of an overhaul.

If you don't count Mythbusters, Survivorman, and Storm Chasers, that's the extent of my television watching. I have received numerous recommendations from readers, most of which relate to programs on HBO or Showtime. And, beginning in January, I will be adding a few programs to my weekly roster (Battlestar Galactica and Big Love, in particular). However, truth be told, I have lost the desire to look for new TV shows, no matter how good they are reputed to be. Making weekly appointments no longer entices me the way it once did, and anything of any value will be available on sale in a boxed set of DVDs. (That's how I got The Wire - five seasons for 60% off.) And what would happen if the TV industry collapsed altogether? I don't think I'd miss it much. Movies, as bad as they can sometimes be, are a more rewarding form of entertainment to me, and it's rare that I'd rather watch something on TV than read a good book. Meanwhile, TV executives are still living in a world 10-20 years out of date. Some day, like Rip Van Winkle, maybe they'll wake up and figure out that things are different than they were when they went to sleep, and that sacred cows are now slaughtered as often as they are honored.