Today I want to address an ever-present issue. As everyone is certainly aware, we are deep within the Golden Age of Television. While it is complex understanding how we got here (perhaps the subject of another post), there is no question that networks are continuing to churn out quality content that leads us to experience genuine emotions. The serial drama in particular has become something of a default genre for most shows worth watching. Though it was once assumed that films had all the greatest stars, times have changed as many actors who previously frequented the silver screen have switched over to the small one.
As is frequently the case with any type of medium, some of the best series to watch originated in another form, most often as books or graphic novels. I have to admit that I prefer most forms of art, including movies and TV shows, in their original forms, but with life being so short and all, who has time to read all those great books when you can get basically the same experience from watching it in a fraction of the time? It is debatable how truly “original” a work can be when it is actually an interpretation of another person’s work, but my issue is that there is a growing number of shows being made where the conclusion of the original source material coincides with the derivative’s first season finale.
On its face, this is not really a problem. TV shows made from books often don’t translate well to the screen unless certain liberties are taken. This is left to the showrunners, directors, and producers to figure out. As we see with Game of Thrones, a series can continue to flourish after it surpasses the source material. Sure, more events are occurring at a lightning fast pace (how did they get a fleet of ships from one side of the continent to the other in one episode?), but some would say that is preferable to the leisurely pace the show had taken up to that point. One could also say that this example doesn’t even really count because George RR Martin is still alive and plans to (eventually) finish the last two books. But what if he doesn’t? In the end, what if these last three seasons of the show are all we have to see of Mr. Martin’s vision? Will we be satisfied?
I give Game of Thrones a pass because even when I was reading the first book, I imagined that it would make a great TV series. When it was picked up by HBO, everyone assumed that the books would be finished before the end of the show, so as the situation changed, the network had to adapt. There are many other examples where there was no intent other than capitalizing on people’s ignorance. Therein lies the issue. Network executives are so quick to greenlight subsequent seasons of this new type of show that they don’t stop to think if they should. They think if the rest of the series can ride the coattails of the first successful season long enough, they will make more money through advertising before people wise up and realize the show is garbage. They just cross their fingers hoping that they can at least break even.
Let’s look at another example. Wayward Pines was a mildly creepy science fiction mystery based on a trilogy of books. The series itself was pretty competent though it was obvious M. Night Shyamalan was adding in his signature twists. The first season deftly covers all three books by the conclusion of the finale. In fact, the show was initially intended to be just a one season mini-series. But then Fox renewed it for a second season to the bewilderment of literally everyone. Viewership was reportedly not so high that they had a potential hit on their hands, so its anyone’s guess what the executives were thinking. The first season provided perfect closure, so no one watched the second season. I admit that I watched a few episodes until I felt like my time could be better spent. Pointless characters, horrible acting, no direction…it was a mess. The show was subsequently put on an 18-month “hiatus” until Fox finally made the announcement this past February that it was cancelled.
The almighty Netflix has even fallen victim to this trend. Thirteen Reasons Why was something of a hit when it was released for streaming as it was an unflinching examination of teenage suicide. Again, reviews were positive but not outstanding and the first season provided closure as it coincided with the end of the popular young adult novel. Sounding familiar? For some reason, the streaming service decided that it would renew the show for a second season. I haven’t watched the season myself, but from what I’ve heard and read, the show went off the rails and doesn’t have any reason to exist. They also end each episode with a PSA to the effect of, “If you are considering suicide, please get help,” which is a reaction to the uptick in real-world teenage suicides attributed to the first season’s release. It almost seems as though the second season was made as a plug for the PSAs, like Netflix was apologizing for itself.
“But Craig,” you might be saying, “The Leftovers was a book and the show was amazing.” Let’s unpack that. I agree that the show was great. I was on the edge of my seat most episodes. I still don’t totally understand everything that happened in the plot. But that’s the difference: The Leftovers only used the idea of the book as a jumping off point, going in a completely different direction. They weren’t looking to create a literal interpretation of the book or the world. This is exemplified in the series finale, where you don’t know if what is being described actually happened or not. The show never went out of its way to explain anything; the whole plot was up to interpretation. Some of the events from the first season were taken from the book, but I’d say they actually reimagined the book in TV show form. By taking such liberties with the source and providing a strong visual narrative, the showrunners were able to create something entirely their own and the result became an iconic must-see show, thus surpassing the book.
The same might be said for The Handmaid’s Tale (which ironically costars Ann Dowd who was also in The Leftovers). The first season was tremendous when it was released, and was a pretty faithful reworking of the source material from what I’ve heard. When the second season was announced, with the showrunners saying they’d show us more of their world, I was skeptical. I have to say that, though most people seem to be enjoying the new season now that it’s out, I didn’t really warm to it until the back half. Though the first season was dour, it remained hopeful. June (Offred) had a sort of rebellious charm about her, which made the show not so bleak. When the second season started, it just seemed to go nowhere and only wanted to show the audience how horrible everything is in their world. Everything just kept getting worse. Now that June’s rebelliousness is back in full force, it is more interesting, but I don’t agree that it is as good a show as it was when it was interpreting the source material.
We will have to wait and see what happens with Big Little Lies when its next season is released as even the first season had a few issues with interpreting the source. The second season may rectify some of those mistakes, but it seems the most critical factor contributing to the success of a show of this type is the talent and vision of the individuals at the helm. The goal of continuing beyond the bounds of the original book needs to be established in pre-production, not after the show is renewed. There are precious few examples of these kinds of series actually being worth watching past their first seasons. Something needs to change.
As we are in peak TV, there is no shortage of great shows to watch, and personally, I’m tired of the attempts to trick the audience into watching a substandard show that can’t live up to the hype of its first season. These efforts to take advantage of what the executives believe is an ill-informed public result in wasted time by both the people making the series and the people watching the result of their work. My guess is that if someone doesn’t like a show, they aren’t going to be buying any of the products in the advertisements anyway. Perhaps the problem isn’t that talented people aren’t involved in making the shows but that most of these shows should simply stop at the end of their first season, when the source material concludes. Only the truly successful, high-quality shows are picked up to full series. The Brits do this. The Japanese do this. America should do it, too.