Predictable Prime Time

I have always admitted I watch a lot of television, always have and probably always will. The exact nature of such fare has changed through the years but me and prime time go back a long way. Currently, there is something like 30+ series I watch which, thankfully, do not all run concurrently. I’ve long been a fan of the shorter seasons found on TNT and USA and expecting that to happen at the major level (and maybe the 15 episode just-concluded season of Parenthood is the beginning of such a trend).

Deb and I will often plop down on the couch and consume a few shows before going to sleep and invariably, we turn to one another and can predict the next line of dialogue or plot point. There’s so much formula being applied to these shows that we are far less surprised than we should be. We get frustrated at the predictability, preferring to see characters do something unexpected, but in character. A lot of this, I suspect, has to do with the shorthand used for characterization on shows that have well under 45 minutes an episode to make us care for the players and still tell a story. Look at Powers Booth on Nashville, for example. Or Gregg Henry’s Hollis Doyle on Scandal.  Both are the villain and they get a lot of scenery to chew as a result, but you they are barely a step above the mustache-twirling bad guy from the silent film era.

I believe that a lot of the predictability to the stories we watch has a lot to do with the short amount of time allotted for an episode. But there is also a fair amount of lazy writing going on, as well. Many shows live and die by their formula (Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, even Castle) so enjoying them comes down to execution, casting, and performance. As a result, we pretty much can tell who is the culprit long before the lead players figure it out.

There’s tremendous pleasure when the characters surprise us without feeling wrong. Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon are the masters at this, followed by Shonda Rhimes. It’s why we still enjoy Grey’s Anatomy, adore Scandal, and anxiously look forward to S.H.I.E.L.D. next season.

A question to the television writers out there: how much is this predictability a result of the networks clinging to the Lowest Common Denominator thinking or the time constraints of the one-hour format?

2 thoughts on “Predictable Prime Time

  • January 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Any thoughts on Person of Interest? I’ve admired the way they’ve played with their own premise through less than two seasons…I’m rarely ahead of the writers on this show, as I am on so many others. One thing I’ve spotted on way too many shows in the past couple of seasons–at about ten minutes left, they make it seem as though they have wrapped up the plot, but one look at the clock lets you know they are not going to just mark time for the rest of the hour and there must be a twist coming.

    • January 24, 2013 at 4:38 pm

      We’ve enjoyed POI very much, especially as everything evolves from cluing in the two cops to the addition of the dog. The Reese and Finch flashbacks have been nicely done to enrich the characters. The victims du jour are entertaining enough but they’re really less important than the four principals and we can’t easily predict what will happen so we’re pleased.


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