Simon Baker is an excellent actor.  He’s likable, funny, and you can tell the guy has a terrific personality.  You like spending time with him in your living room.  As the star of CBS’ “The Mentalist” you can enjoy Simon’s company every week.

Unfortunately, for Mentalist fans, there are original airings of the first shows in rerun, and I happened upon one of the earlier episodes.  I was surprised at how fresh and light the show felt compared to more contemporary episodes.  The actors were all thinner — of course — and not as polished, but they were fun and young and spritely.  There was a sense of fun and wonder to the show.

As I reflected on how the Mentalist has changed — not evolved! — over the years, the actors became fatter and storylines have become heavier and inescapable in their bloodiness.  In the early shows, the unknown “Red John” was but a threat on the outskirts of the series.  Now Red John dominates every episode.  Whereas once the show delighted in humor and transparent fun, we are now burdened every single week with some sort of murderous and depressing news that always lands with a thud and never an enlightening “ping” as in the early days.

Longterm storyline decline is not unique to the Mentalist.  As I looked back on some of my favorite, longterm, dramatic, episodic television shows, several of them started off as simple, lighthearted shows, only to end in drudgery and scorn and cynicism.

The Ghost Whisperer leaps to mind.  What started as a fun show about helping people come to terms with loss in their lives devolved into an odd — The Children Are Being Taken Over By Evil Shadows — storyline that killed all the dramatic fun and sense of wonder.  We loved the touching moments of catharsis at the end of each show.  We did not love the ongoing threat to kids as the series wound down — as storyline after storyline — was dedicated to a child actor who could not act.  The series died with a cold shudder.

I wrote extensively about the horrible demise of Medium as a television series.  We used to love the freaky interaction with visions but, in the end, we were stuck with brain problems and paralysis and the death of the family!  What a horrible way to end a longterm show.  Sometimes it doesn’t count to be a fan of a dramatic series.

The most disappointing wrapping of a longterm show is the farce that is now Fringe.  In the early days of the series, the show was truly episodic.  There was a curious “fringe event” that was identified and solved.  Lovely and complete.  Emotionally wonderful.

Then the show changed and we were overburdened with story arcs that went on and on and on and bored us to to tears.  Now, in its final season, we’re stuck in the year 2036 starring a horrible, snarky offspring, and a never-ending sense of doom and dullness that is predictable and boring.  There no resolution.  Only heavy darkness.  We’re stuck in amber and suspended in our suspension of disbelief beyond the fourth wall.  Pinned in a fifth dimension.  What a depression!

What happened to Fringe?  What happened to Fringe is what happened to the Ghost Whisperer and Medium and the Mentalist — the shows became too self-important and overly dramatic for the audience and they all found an untimely death in that self-inflicted dramatic overindulgence.  With longevity comes power, and burden, and that challenge can either dramatically sink your show or lift you up to a higher human calling as a classic show for the Ages.

Sure, it’s hard to have longterm dramatic television episodes that do not arc across more than one show, but self-containment and resolution is always the key to long, long, longterm sustainability as a dramatic series. M*A*S*H did it as a comedy and then became a dramatic series. Lou Grant did it. Gunsmoke did it. The Law & Order series of related shows has been doing it since 1990. Can it be done anew again?

21 Comments

  1. Of course I have to mention Degrassi.

    The reason Law & Order and similar shows can do it is because they rip stories from the headlines and make a great story out of it. SVU is about to have an episode based on 50 Shades of Grey.

      1. The other thing that forces a show to be fresh is in a show like Degrassi, every year or so brings new students — and new drama! It was a huge changing point when the character of Adam, a transgender character, started a few years ago.

        1. I’m starting to see Switched at Birth become like the Mentalist and the rest. Last season was fun, but this season, even with the introduction of new characters, feels limited and uninteresting. The best Switched at Birth episodes are those with the core families at the center of the drama.

          1. The Deaf Actors’ ASL is pretty good, but they use a lot of English signs like “not” that drive us crazy. Marlee, of course, is perfection.

            All the Hearing people are totally awful. The mother with the “thing” on her wrist is an obvious ploy for her not to have to sign this season — and she disgusts us because we see right through her. Yes, there are a lot of Hearing a-holes just like her in the real world who think they’re fooling everyone when the joke is really on them.

            Bay used to be the best of the Hearing lot, but this year she’s in complete ASL remission — probably because her storyline is now with the taggers and not her Deaf boyfriend and Deaf best friend/sister/thang.

            The baseball father’s ASL this week was actually pretty good. Lea Thompson is the most disappointing of all. She’s a multi-talented singer and dancer and actress and yet her ASL is laugh-out-loud awful. She isn’t even trying. We know if she actually tried, she would be excellent just as she is in everything else in life that care cares about — but she cares not for ASL.

  2. So many times I had to miss the Mentalist (sigh…. Jane! my HERO!!) because the local broadcasters usurped its line up to bring football or some such (BLEH!) so I wasn’t able to follow it as I would have liked. Long term shows do have a tough row to hoe.
    CSI: Miami is another dud in my opinion. The original is always better than a spin off.
    MeTV is running an hour of M*A*S*H every evening and the show still hasn’t lost it’s flavor or likeability. Some have ‘it’, some don’t.

    1. Yes, the Mentalist requires a DVR set to record the whole night on one channel — just to guarantee everything gets recorded because of golf or football running over.

      The original CSI with William Petersen was the best. The show hasn’t been the same without him. Ted Danson is just awful in the most current attempt at keeping the show alive:

      http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0676973/

      I don’t think we get MeTV here. Looks like a great channel! M*A*S*H knew how to roll with the punches as a show. They relied on writing first and acting second. The show grew and changed with the times. Smart people putting together a really smart show.

      Columbo is another example of a show that knew what it was right from the start and never changed it. Murder She Wrote is another show that stayed true from day one.

      1. Here lately, if I like a show, I *wait* and get the series on DVD. I have the House, M.D. collection and working on Bones. I fear Bones will get thick as time progresses as well. The almost romance between Booth and Bones is now full blown __________? (I have no idea what to call it) ergo the suspense that the whole show was built on initially is gone. Time will tell.

  3. The phenomenon of perpetual seasons is partly to blame, I think. When a show doesn’t have an end point, how do you keep things fresh and interesting (my suspicion is that you can’t)?

    I think this is where American television shows can learn a lot from anime. My favorite anime series of all time is “Revolutionary Girl Utena.” It’s only 39 episodes. The show itself is deep, mature, complex, and always interesting each time I go back to it. This sort of limited-run thing is not unusual for anime, and I wish there was more of it here in the US.

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