Anthology series like ‘True Detective’ and ‘American Horror Story’ get it right. Hear that, ‘House of Cards’?
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Don’t get me wrong. I loved the first season of House of Cards. It was dark and conniving and Southern and a bit campy and a little too real. In short, it’s everything I love in a show. But part of me dreads the second season. House of Cards was a revenge series, in which a character sets out to get what he wants and, if he’s effective enough—as Frank Underwood was—achieves that goal. Frank is now the vice-president. Mazel tov! Wait, you’re still here?
Now that season one is over and Frank got his way, we still have these characters we like and know, and, ostensibly, we’d like to see them sort through the world. But I’d argue that a second season of a show like House of Cards only serves to indulge the sentimental and morbidly curious parts of us that would like to know how the characters end up after a movie goes dark. The show was about Frank getting what he wanted. And he got what he wanted. Can’t we let that be? Can’t we leave anything to our imaginations?
I’d argue that most of the TV shows we fall in love with and end up hating would have thrived as one-season shows. Longer than a mini-series, more deeply woven than a movie, the opportunity to get into a story and then get out is one we should be taking advantage of more often. I’m not sure why in our new day of revolutionary creativity we are sticking with such stony conventions of delivery: Seasons, series, movies. But there is something about it that smacks of both corporate and artistic greed. Corporate because hey, people watched it, let’s milk some ad dollars from it. And artistic because how do you willingly let go of a spot on the TV schedule? The chances of getting a pilot sold are the same as getting struck by lightning; the chances of getting a pilot sold and made are the same as getting struck by lightning twice. Who would give them up for simple artistic integrity? (I’m not being flip, I promise.)
Revenge is a prime example of this. Girl moves to the Hamptons to avenge her father’s death by destroying the lives of the people who got him maybe killed. Now, 17 million years later, long after revenge was hers, she’s still at it, doing … something. And they’re still finding fewer and fewer realistic excuses to stay in the Hamptons past Labor Day. (As a Long Island native and someone who spent a summer or two in the Hamptons, I know the people who remain there after Labor Day, and they were not people in linen dresses and Restylane filler; they were townies and men conducting affairs with townies whom they’d met while their wives were getting their filler.)
Remember Damages, which had the same sort of revenge plot? These shows go from raveled to unraveled, and there’s something unromantic about seeing lives destroyed and then rebuilt. I say let the destruction stand. Let us remember them in flames. Let us think that good can triumph, that things don’t recalibrate to the way they’ve always been, which we know they do in real life. We don’t watch TV to see real life.
The problem is that beyond the mini-series, we haven’t yet embraced the notion of one season of television. Some shows only deserve a year. Some deserve a lifetime and take their time to find their footing. Most are somewhere in between, and I am in love with the trend of the multi-season arc: Shows that are popular and won’t peter out because the creator has an end date in mind: Scandal is a good example of this, as was Lost, whose ending I really liked.
This isn’t about impatience and it’s not about loyalty. What you need to know about me is that I’m loyal to a fault. Once I love a show, I need a true act of terrible broadcasting to make me jump ship. Know that I’ll withstand many boring episodes. In other words, I am still watching Homeland.
But I think now that we have so many options, and that those options have become so overwhelming, we need to be treated a little more responsibly. Yes, there’s still the presidency for Frank, but we already know what he’s willing to do, and we already know he’ll do it. We even know he’ll surprise us with it. Knowing you’re going to be surprised isn’t that much of a surprise.
I have great hope, though. Anthology series like FX’s American Horror Story and HBO’s new True Detective, which allow us to love a show’s style and substance while switching up main characters and plotlines in a way that takes the best parts of telenovelas and movies, upend anything we’ve seen before on TV. How House of Cards plays out remains to be seen, but it’s good to know there are options.
What made all these shows great at first was intense, vital plot-based storytelling, and then they stopped being riveting because all those goals were achieved. They are riveting and intense enough to sustain a season, but anything that follows them once their grip on us is loosened via a summer hiatus is going to be a disappointment. We inevitably remember things as better than they are. But more than that, the surprise of a great and intense show and the season-long thrill of that discovery is something that can’t be replicated. Let the Nashvilles and the Game of Throneses stay alongside us with a sustained plot. But let’s stop doing the thing where we capitalize on a good season with five subsequent mediocre-to-okay ones. We no longer have the time for that. TV is about feelings, and you can’t get feelings back, not ones that were given to you by surprise in the first place.
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