There are three types of television show in this world: crime and/or medical dramas, dating reality shows, and shows that get canceled. We live in a world with a bajillionty-twelve “CSI” shows, a brand new “NCIS” coming, shows like “The Shield” and “Dark Blue” for everyone’s bad-cop fix, a vast surplus of “Law and Order” offshoots, enough televised bloody surgery to make even a chief of medicine squeamish and enough hot tub lovin’ to melt the polar ice caps. And then there’s everything else.
People have historically been reluctant to watch some of television’s most original programming. The ever-cult-classic “Arrested Development” was practically the only show of its kind in regard to its absurd storylines and humor. But not enough people watched the Emmy-winner to save it from unjust cancellation.
Then there are shows that don’t even get a full first season, like “Firefly.” From creator Joss Whedon (mastermind behind “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), “Firefly” told the story of a group of cowboy-esque space rogues roaming a relatively newly colonized galaxy in the year 2517. They were running from the dastardly alliance while smuggling and harboring mysterious fugitives. Yeah, it sounds absolutely fucking weird, but it was absolutely scintillating — at least during its 14-episode existence. People just hear something like “cowboy sci-fi” and think it’s so absurd that it can’t be good. But it was great. And most people never gave themselves the chance to know.
Rejecting a show based on premise alone is never a good idea. A great writing team can turn any idea into a supremely entertaining show. The whole point of new shows ought to be that they aren’t like anything that came before them. Yet I’ve heard some ridiculous excuses for avoiding something based on previous experiences: “I won’t watch ‘Glee’ because I didn’t like ‘High School Musical,’” “I won’t watch ‘Sports Night’ because I don’t like ‘SportsCenter,’” or, most unreasonably, “I won’t watch ‘Lost’ because I didn’t like ‘Gilligan’s Island.’” None of these comparisons are fair, yet many viewers are content to make these two-second assumptions instead of taking an hour to simply watch the show once and see if they like it. The crime drama plague is convincing people that originality is dead.
Fortunately, in recent years, some original premises have been making a comeback. The aforementioned “Glee,” the satirical tale of popularity as viewed through a high school show choir, is enjoying its position as FOX’s most-hyped new show. And Joss Whedon’s latest venture “Dollhouse,” which documents a secret facility where people give up five years of their lives to have their personalities replaced and bodies rented out to billionaire clients seeking romantic partners or even assassins, will be starting its second season soon — a season that most people suspected would never come. It’s not like anything that’s come before it, and that makes it all the more fantastic. But most encouragingly, people must actually be watching it.
“Dollhouse” is the perfect example of new television at its best. The premise is completely original — the closest thing we’ve seen so far is “Stepford Wives,” and that’s only vaguely similar. The writers are creative and the actors are motivated by the fact that they’re doing something new. A crime drama can be entertaining; it can even sometimes be well done. But no matter what twist you put on it, I won’t let you get away with calling it “original.”
I am hoping that in a cruel-for-them, great-for-me twist of fate, the onslaught of doctors, cops and desperate singles will eventually assure its own destruction — or at least reach a plateau. Here’s the way I see it: It must be the same people watching all of these shows. I can’t imagine someone saying, “You know, ‘CSI’ and ‘CSI: Miami’ are great but that ‘CSI: NY’ is an utter piece of crap.” Unfortunately, that means there are probably many people out there watching upwards of seven or eight crime dramas on a regular basis. But the quantity’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the viewing public.
If more crime dramas keep premiering at the current rate, people will eventually run out of free time. There are only so many hours of primetime television a week, and once there are a couple crime dramas in each slot, any new ones will steal the ratings of another until, in a morass of mutually assured destruction, they all explode! Or, more realistically, producers will realize it’s not profitable to keep making them.
But there is an easier, more realistic and less “War Games”-esque way to quell the expansion of the ever-growing blob of unoriginal programming: Watch something different. I don’t care if you didn’t like “Stargate: Atlantis.” You should still watch “Eureka.” Sure, they both air on Syfy (the new name of the old Sci-Fi Channel), but that doesn’t mean they’re the same, and “Eureka” is flipping brilliant. Original, high-quality television is being murdered, and we need to take action before they make a new “CSI” about it.