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From Straitstimes.asia1.com.sgReality Check : Series Are An Endangered Species (buffy mentions)
By Hong Xinyi
Tuesday 7 September 2004, by Webmaster
Despite their impact on pop culture, sitcoms and drama series are an endangered species as television viewers tune in to reality shows
FOR avid couch potatoes, the coming weeks are filled with agonising choices and life-changing decisions. Will Friends’ Ross and Rachel finally end up together? Will Buffy the Vampire Slayer survive yet another apocalypse?
These shows - together with The Practice, Frasier and Sex And The City - are just five popular television staples that have already ended their run in the United States, and will soon be wrapping up on television here.
Despite being what some might call disposable products of popular culture, fans who have followed the evolution of the plots and characters feel a genuine sense of loss. FRIENDS
For one thing, many of these shows displayed socio-cultural gravitas underneath their bubblegum fluff.
Sex And The City, for example, has been lauded as groundbreaking for its candour in tackling female sexuality and desire, with the New York Times calling it ’a television series so perfectly captures the mood of a culture that it becomes a sociological event - something to be studied in terms of historic patterns, analysed in the spirit of the decade, maybe even incorporated into a college lecture or two’.
Frasier, as well, was an anomaly in the sitcom landscape, a throwback to the genial urbanity of old Hollywood screwball comedies.
’Its characters were three-dimensional. Its scenes ran longer (deliberately, said the producers, in an attempt to short-circuit diminishing attention spans) and had a different rhythm than those of other sitcoms,’ says CNN writer Todd Leopold in an article published in May.
Ms Elaine Foo, a 28-year-old publicist, who has been watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer since it aired in 1997, experienced withdrawal symptoms when Channel 5 held off Buffy episodes during the Olympics.
She says: ’I’ve grown with the series and the characters feel like a group of friends that I have gotten to know.
’I love the way the show explores a lot of interesting issues, like loneliness, death, friendship and faith.’
The cult hit has been praised for exploring uncharted territory about female empowerment and the mental landscape of American youth.
Mr Alvin Tan, 41, artistic director of The Necessary Stage, feels similarly sentimental about his decade-long acquaintance with Friends.
’I’ve followed all the twists and turns of the plot. Currently I have about 80 per cent of the show on VCDs, and I sometimes Google Friends to find out more about its latest news.
’It’s quite a safe, comfort-food sort of show, in the sense that the writers don’t really subvert the characters too much. I guess that’s why it has such a broad-based appeal.’
The theatre veteran also takes a professional interest in how the show sustains viewers’ interest through its plotlines and dialogue.
’I really enjoy the repartee between the characters, and the cast has a good mix of talents,’ he says.
THIS recent spate of television goodbyes also coincides with a dearth of good scripted shows amid a morass of reality television programming.
While Friends has been a Top 10 show from its inception in the US, its hold on the public has been slipping in recent years.
Only 21 million viewers tuned in last year, compared to nearly 30 million viewers in the show’s second season.
In an article published in Washington Monthly in July, media mogul Ted Turner attributes this decline of interest in quality scripted television to the ratings-conscious, cost-cutting mentality of the industry.
’Shows like Fear Factor cost little to produce - there are no actors to pay and no sets to maintain - and they get big ratings. Thus, American television has moved away from expensive sitcoms and on to cheap thrills.’
With reality programmes like The Apprentice and Survivor consistently hogging the top spots in the ratings, the end of the scripted programmes increasingly feels like the passing of an era.
Acclaimed television gurus like Joss Whedon (Buffy) and Chris Carter (The X-Files) have been forced to retreat to the background, and some like David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice) are jumping on the reality bandwagon.
Kelley is currently slated to produce a reality show in which contestants with law degrees compete for a partner position at a law firm.
As early as 1999, American magazine Entertainment Weekly predicted that without these small-screen staples, the future of television was not looking good.
’Whether you’re male or female, young or old, chances are your longest-running romantic relationship has been with television, and it’s time to accept a harsh reality: You’re getting fat and your date is getting ugly.’
More recently, in May, an article in the New York Times reiterated the dire outlook.
’The trend across all of network television is sharply away from comedy as a staple of entertainment programming, pushed aside by an audience bored by a tired sitcom format, changing industry economics and the rise of reality shows.’
The sense of creative inertia permeating the television industry is one reason fans might feel relieved that their treasured favourites are calling it a day.
Mr Tan, for instance, is glad that Friends is making ’a graceful exit’ before it gets labelled as passe.
’Friends cannot end in any other way other than Ross and Rachel ending up together because they belong to each other.
’In that way it’s very old-fashioned and romantic, because it celebrates the soulmate. For more recent shows like Will And Grace, that concept has become lost in translation.’
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Airs: Channel 5, Mondays at 10pm. Last two episodes air tonight and Sept 13.
In a nutshell: Six good-looking 20-somethings go through the ups and downs of life with the help of friendship and lots of coffee from cosy cafe Central Perk.
Over the past 10 years, creators Marta Kaufman, David Crane and Kevin Bright have given us the agony of the Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) ’break’, the unlikely union of Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Monica (Courtney Cox Arquette), and the silly fun of himbo Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and oddball Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow).
Awards and accolades: One of the most lucrative programmes of all time, Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to it, expected to gross US$1 billion (S$1.7 billion) in syndication alone. Relative unknowns when they were cast, the six actors commanded a paycheque of US$1 million per episode each by the show’s final season.
Despite its mass appeal, the show has never been a critical favourite. Only Kudrow (1998 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series) and Aniston (1992 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 2003 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy) have received industry nods for their work in the sitcom. In 2002 and for one time only, the show won an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy.
Despite its lack of critical acclaim, the pop cultural impact of the show cannot be underestimated. It dealt with 20-something angst with light-hearted punchlines and puppy-like sentiment. You know this show became part of your lifestyle if you’ve ever wanted Rachel’s second season haircut (aka The Rachel), Monica’s purple apartment or found yourself humming Phoebe’s off-key rendition of Smelly Cat.
Last impressions: After four outstanding seasons of effervescent comedy and character development, the show floundered slightly, relying on the cast’s chemistry and physical gags rather than tight scripts.
The much-hyped last season in particular is filled with schmaltzy moments such as weepy farewells.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1997-2003)
Airs: Series finale airs on Channel 5 on Wednesday at midnight. Star World (StarHub Ch 18) is currently screening the last season on Thursdays at 9pm.
In a nutshell: After the cheesy 1992 movie of the same name failed to stay true to Joss Whedon’s dark script, he turned to television to realise his own vision of the story of teenage vampire slayer Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
With allegorical takes on the 1999 Columbine shootings and stylistic breakthroughs like an episode shot like a musical (2001’s Once More, With Feeling) and one completely devoid of dialogue (2000’s Hush) this show has proved to be what some call feminist noir for Generation X.
Awards and accolades: Another pop culture gem largely ignored by those behind the Emmys and Golden Globes, this cult favourite has spawned academic theses, volumes of fan fiction as well as a spin-off series, Angel, starring David Boreanaz.
It has, however, never won a major industry award. Whedon was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series in 2000, but did not win. Gellar was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV-Series - Drama in 2003 but failed to take home a trophy as well.
Last impressions: The show’s tone has always been a nuanced mix of ironic humour and thoughtful probing of issues like feminism and the fashioning of identity.
The last season impresses by making its end-of-the world scenario - a sci-fi staple - a meandering philosophical metaphor for the struggle between good and evil. The characters have acquired depth and dimension over the years, and it is obvious that the writers plan to end with a bang and not a whimper.
THE PRACTICE (1997-2004)
Airs: Star World (StarHub Ch 18) is screening the penultimate seventh season on Wednesdays at 9pm.
In a nutshell: Created by David E. Kelley, this drama about a group of Boston lawyers goes for the jugular in its exploration of morality and humanity, and started out as the sombre yang to Ally McBeal’s (1997-2002) frothy yin.
For seven seasons, Bobby (Dylan McDermott) headed the law firm that also had the intense Eugene (Steve Harris) and loser-made-good Jimmy (Michael Badalucco) on its payroll. Feisty Ellenor (Camryn Manheim), attractively intelligent Lindsay (Kelli Williams) and steely district attorney Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) were strong female characters that rounded out the dynamic cast.
After forgoing its exploration of challenging issues like the merits of capital punishment in favour of melodramatic storylines like Lindsay being jailed for shooting a cannibal, ABC moved the show to an unfavourable time slot that resulted in low ratings.
Awards and accolades: The show was at its creative peak in the late 1990s, winning the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1998 and 1999. Both Badalucco and Manheim have received Emmys for their supporting roles in 1999 and 1998 respectively. In her acceptance speech, Manheim said memorably with triumphant exuberance: ’This is for all the fat girls!’
Last impressions: After low ratings plagued the show during its sixth and seventh seasons, Kelley fired key players McDermott, Boyle and Williams partly due to their expensive salaries and introduced Alan (James Spader) as the show’s new quirky lead.
The last season thus feels almost like an entirely different show. This is unfortunate as Boyle’s unflinching portrayal of Helen was the only thing left to distract us from the tabloids’ penchant for showcasing her frighteningly skinny frame.
Airs: Channel 5 showed the seventh season last year, but has since stopped airing the show.
In a nutshell: A spin-off of sitcom Cheers created by David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee. This show sees Kelsey Grammer reprising his role as stuffy psychiatrist Frasier Crane and returning to his hometown of Seattle to develop a career as a radio personality, as well as bond with his father Martin (John Mahoney) and brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce).
Jane Leeves plays Daphne, Martin’s garrulous physical therapist from Manchester and the object of Niles’ affection. Peri Gilpin completes the cast as Roz, Frasier’s promiscuous producer.
Awards and accolades: With its sophisticated banter and sparkling cast chemistry, this sitcom was the envy of all in the television industry in the 1990s, when it won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for five years in a row (from 1994 to 1998). Grammer won Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a comedy series in 1994, 1995 and 1998, while Pierce won Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1995, 1998 and 1999.
Last impressions: At its best, the show was a fun dose of impeccable comic timing and urbane wit. But with its 11-year run, Frasier may have overstayed its welcome.
The show wrapped up in the US around the same time as Friends, which unfortunately stole much of its swansong thunder. Plot resolutions were high on sentiment and low on freshness, with much of the suspense centred on whether Frasier would end up with the girl of his dreams.
SEX AND THE CITY (1998-2004)
Airs: HBO (StarHub Ch 60) on Tuesdays, 10pm
In a nutshell: New York Observer columnist Candace Bushnell’s observations on sex and dating in the Big Apple were transformed into a critically-acclaimed show by producer Darren Star featuring New Yorkers Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Samantha (Kim Catrall) navigating the joys and tribulations of love, lust, and everything in between.
Awards and accolades: The show was the darling of the Golden Globes, winning Best TV Series - Comedy/Musical from 2000 to 2002. Parker and Catrall have also received Golden Globe nods for their lead and supporting roles respectively.
However, the show’s impact is best measured in sales of products featured in the show which are reported to shoot up right after the relevant episode airs. Being chosen as a Sex And The City filming location has also become a coveted honour for restaurants and clubs in New York City, where the series was shot.
Feminists carp about the leading ladies’ preoccupation with fashion and men, but the fun of its provocative plots and dialogue cannot be denied.
Last impressions: Parker, who is also a producer of the show, showed her showbiz acumen by choosing to wrap up the series in its sixth season, before the champagne-bubbly nature of its appeal went flat.
The last season continues to push the same buttons about sex and relationships, and allows fans to bid a fond farewell to the sassy foursome. Plans of mounting a big-screen version of the show recently fell through due to reported bad blood between Parker and Catrall.