Tuesday, March 15, 2016

When a thing stops being a "thing"

I was channel surfing recently and stumbled across SURVIVOR. I sampled five minutes of it (I think by this point they’re surviving in the Botanical Gardens at UCLA) and moved on. But it occurred to me – I miss SURVIVOR. Even though it’s still on the air and I could watch it anytime – it’s not the same.

I miss when it was new. An argument can be made that SURVIVOR began the whole reality show trend (but I don’t want to damn them with faint blame). At the time it was innovative, original, and best of all – a “thing.” People talked about it the next day. The contestants became national celebrities. It was a shared event. Richard Hatch was parading around naked on TV long before Lena Dunham (and with a similar body). The first season finale drew a huge audience. Jeff Probst didn’t get on your nerves yet.

Now they’re on their 50th edition, or 103rd edition, they’ve recycled contestants, they’ve created these bogus competitions (bed wetters vs. sleep walkers), and the audience has dwindled from all of America to relatives of the new contestants.

It’s got to be tough for shows that used to be a “thing” to now just muddle along (although THE SIMPSONS have managed okay the last twenty years).

What is now considered a “star” on DANCING WITH THE STARS has been broadened to include Universal Tour Guides.

This is AMERICAN IDOL’S final season. At one time we knew all ten finalists. Now we don’t even know the winner. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood became legitimate stars. Jennifer Hudson (who lost) later won an Academy Award. The Top 10 would go on summer tours and sell out major arenas.

I suspect the next American Idol will get a gig at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Most “things” become “things” right out of the gate. They capture the zeitgeist for whatever reason and blast upon the scene. Then the luster wears off or they kill Lady Sybil. On the other hand, THE DAILY SHOW was on the air long before it became a “thing.” A change in host and over time Jon Stewart really caught on. For a few years (and a gazillion Emmys) THE DAILY SHOW was THE way to follow the news.

And then Trevor Noah took over, and although the show’s content is pretty much the same, and the numbers haven’t dropped precipitously, it’s just not a “thing” anymore. Same time, same channel, sans zeitgeist.

“Things” are fickle, “things” are fleeting, “things” rarely have a second wind. MAD MEN had its day and it was 1962 not 1969. Same with GIRLS, THE VOICE, HOUSE OF CARDS, Chelsea Handler (thank God), and Republican Debates. And enjoy it while you can GAME OF THRONES, WALKING DEAD, any Kardashian or “Housewife Of.”

But take heart.  For SURVIVOR, AMERICAN IDOL, MAD MEN, and the others – Millennial nostalgia will someday become a “thing.” Like I said, I’m already nostalgic for SURVIVOR and it’s still on.

24 comments:

Carol said...

My husband and I have been watching The Great British Bake-Off, which is a total 'thing' in the UK. It's fun to see how much a cultural event it is, with people getting invested in the outcome of the contest, and the way it flows out into other parts of life.

I'm old enough to remember how the MASH finale did that. My parent's went to a party for the final episode, and my mother normally couldn't care less about television shows. She even had a tee shirt. (That I eventually stole!)


Jim S said...

Very few shows get to go out on the top of the wave. You're right about Mad Men. If they said, Hey we've managed to sign everyone up for another year before what was actually the last season aired, I would not have bothered to watch anymore. I can't believe how that show became a chore to watch.

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, started small and built big. Ratings, and the show, were the best at the last season. Very unusual.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

LOVE can be like that 'thing'.
You see that person and they're all you can think about, and you want to be with them 24/7 until, um...well, hmmm, they aren't that thing any more, and you are onto another thing. Anything. Hunting, gambling, facebooking, even working...

Some of us, love a thing before it's a thing, and then it's less of a thing...because everyone else loves that thing and who wants to be THAT person?

btw...

We still love SURVIVOR, and now watch it as a family, instead of a couple.
Because basically it's a game show, with some human drama.
We rarely remember last season's winner, but for the hour each week, we enjoy watching competitive humans dealing with each other for cash and prizes, and being either Loyal or backstabbing.


Ray said...

What is now considered a “star” on DANCING WITH THE STARS has been broadened to include Universal Tour Guides.

Ask for Babs.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

This is a great, great post. So timely. Totally agree with you on Survivor, American Idol & Dancing with the Stars. The wife & I used to watch all 3 and love it, especially Idol its first few years. Now I can't believe they're still on. It says something about the state of network broadcasting. It's very hard for a show to stay fresh & innovative during its run. Breaking Bad comes to mind. As do The Shield and The Wire. Mad Men (which I loved) was running on fumes its last 2 seasons. Same with The Sopranos (did I really just type that?) I think House of Cards is suffering from this now. It's still good- it's no longer a "thing". --LL

Breadbaker said...

The Brits know how to stop shows because they don't assume everything will be like Coronation Street or Dr. Who and run forever. My current passion is an Israeli dramedy called Srugim (a rejected title was Sex and the Holy City) whose producers, despite excellent ratings stopped it after three seasons because they had said all they wanted to. In the US, they'd simply pick a new showrunner and add two new characters and care nothing for anyone's vision.

Pat Reeder said...

Remember when John Carpenter's "The Thing" was a thing?

I remember a lot of these things, but I don't remember there ever being stars on "Dancing With The Stars."

cd1515 said...

I suspect these "things" die out mostly because they get watered down and over-used by greedy networks.
a weekly show gets big, then it's suddenly 2, 3, 4 nights a week, and people get sick of it.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Ken's comments on DWTS reminds me of this comic from years ago:

http://idget.comicgenesis.com/d/20111027.html

And I believe this was during the same season the biggest non-star was on the show: Bristol "Baby Factory" Palin.

J Lee said...

MTV's "The Real World" probably started the current reality show trend, but "Survivor" took the personality conflicts we come to watch and upped the collisions by turning it into a game show and forcing each contestant to be in conflict, whether they wanted to or not.

But the problem's the same as it is with any long-running TV show -- once you've done the easy stuff, how do you top yourself to keep people watching? It gets tougher and tougher to find new angles without coming across as contrived and too nakedly manipulative for the viewers (though I suppose if he doesn't win the presidency, NBC would have no problem getting viewers in 2017 for a Donald Trump-helmed "Celebrity Apprentice -- Chicago", which would probably be more dangerous for the contestants than "Fear Factor", let alone "Survivor".)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I feel that way about THE GOOD WIFE. It really never recovered from blowing up, over the space of the end 2nd/3rd season, two of the three key relationships that drove the show (Will and Alicia, Alicia and Kalinda). Since the fifth, when they perforce blew up the third (Will and Diane), they've really struggled.

wg

Unknown said...

Seinfeld was a thing. I would always use that when I wanted to change the subject in a conversation. "Did you see on Seinfeld about birthday cards?" "Not that there is anything wrong with that...".
Milton Berle was a thing in his day, supposedly a big thing....

Tammy said...

Breadbaker - Are you Israeli? If not, I'm curious - how did you come across Srugim? I'd never have thought it could find an audience outside Israel (except maybe the Orthodox community), it being so niche-y.

Jabroniville said...

Good post, Ken, and very accurate. I find that most "things" can only maintain being the "thing" for about three years or so. Lucky shows like Breaking Bad got bigger as time went on, so they could end big. Others, like MASH and Cheers, could repackage things and stick around. But others get "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"'d and get overdone an overexposed almost immediately.

BigTed said...

"Survivor" stopped being interesting after the first season because then half the contestants wanted to be Richard Hatch -- a self-defined scoundrel who stayed in the game through open lying and cheating, and then somehow convinced their peers in the end that their chicanery amounted to strong game play. (That policy then made its way to the ultra-annoying "Big Brother," a show about fake friendships and disloyal alliances, where the producers tout "villains" who are really just a-holes.)

How this relates to the current political season is up to you.

thedevilcorp said...

Good post.

D. McEwan said...

Survivor is still a Top Twenty show every week. No, it's not a water cooler (i.e. Facebook) topic anymore, but I still watch it every week, and it remains a good show. This season has been particularly grueling. Last week they had a highly physical competition played in 118 degree heat (Not hyperbole. It was 118 degrees!), and three contestants dropped with heat stroke. One had to be removed from the game, "medi-vacced" out and hospitalized. That's entertainment!

And "Thing" or not, I'm still watching The Daily Show every day. It's still very good, and The Nightly Show has gotten a lot better than it was when it debuted a year ago.

On the other hand, I departed American Idol when Simon left. I am still devoted every summer to So You Think You Can Dance?, which has the advantage of never having been a thing in the first place, just a really good show.

Game of Thrones's is about to unleash a season so, by all accounts, over-the-top wild that it's Thingness is not only safe, but apt to rise. The new season has a different advantage. It's the first season to air that precedes the novel it's based on, so even the rabid fans of the novels have no idea what's coming. And like Lost, another dearly-departed beloved Thing, it's announced it's end date, so we know when the story will be finished. (They're going for ten seasons, so we're halfway through it.)

And while this new season is not House of Cards's best season, it's still a solid good show, and I think most viewers were sufficiently shocked by episode 7.d

Mike McCann said...

The best shows -- and talent -- know not to overstay their welcome. We never tired of I LOVE LUCY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and JOHNNY CARSON hosting THE TONIGHT SHOW in large part because they left when they were still at or near the top of their game. The Beatles never grew stale or had the chance to devolve into a group of tired old guys rehashing the oldies over and over and over. It's all a matter of timing.

Barry Traylor said...

Naked and Afraid sure is a new low for tv when I thought it could go no lower. I never watched Survivor so you can imagine what I think of Naked. Hard to avoid this sort of crap when it is advertised on other channels.

Jay Jones said...

Survivor still gets good ratings, and here's the thing: It is always, always, good. They have their structure down, and the show always delivers terrific entertainment, especially over the course of a full season.

Bunches of credit to Jeff Probst, too, for a) being truly excellent at his job, and especially b) having the sense to realize that this is a once-in-a-lifetime gravy train/cash machice that he's not going to abandon for some fantasized career advancement.

Andrew said...

Remember The Weakest Link, the one with the caustic British red-haired lady? That was a fun show for a few episodes, but got old very quickly. It was definitely a thing for a short while.

I second all of those naming Breaking Bad as an exception to the rule. There was a Vince Gilligan interview where he said that his biggest fear was the show outliving its quality. He didn't want people to say, "Breaking Bad? That was a good show. Is that thing still on?"

Andy Rose said...

Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" had arguably ceased being A Thing before he left. Colbert and later Jon Oliver were getting all the notice for their political satire. It had become a lot rarer for a DS clip to go viral, and there was a lot of chatter about how the proteges were surpassing their mentor. A lot of that shift seemed to happen around the time that Stewart's film "Rosewater" tanked. I've wondered if Stewart left the show because he recognized he was losing his heat, or if he was losing his heat because he had become less interested in the program, and it showed.

d said...

"Barry Traylor said...
Naked and Afraid sure is a new low for tv when I thought it could go no lower. I never watched Survivor so you can imagine what I think of Naked. Hard to avoid this sort of crap when it is advertised on other channels.


Since you confess you've never watched Survivor, you can be forgiven for calling it crap, which it is not. Naked and Afraid? Yes, that's crap, but Survivor is not. Read Jay Jones's comment immediately beneath yours. It's an informed opinion, and he's right on the money.

D. McEwan said...

Oops. Hit wrong button. The chiding of Barry Traylor for calling Survivor crap when he admits he's never seen it and is therefore unqualified to render any opinion on its quality was mine.