Turn off the Lights

Sellouts – Compromising to Survive

Talking about a particular
television show “selling out” is a sensitive subject. Sellout
shows probably compromised their standards in order to achieve
greater popularity, and so talking about them negatively isn’t going
to go down well. Unfortunately, popularity doesn’t usually equate to
excellence.

Examples of selling out in other
mediums abound. In music, Greenday and Lost Prophets
have often been accused of selling out, due to their sound changing
to something more palatable to the masses, closer to pop-music.
In video games, Assassin’s Creed has been accused of the same
thing due to its publisher, Ubisoft, churning out regular sequels,
focused too heavily on popular characters and action at the expensive
of a quality story. In film, there is George Lucas and his repeated
attempts to beat the dead horse which is the Star Wars
universe, with many prequels, gap fillers, cartoons and story
changes. All of these have one thing in common: the desire to make as
much money as possible.

Money is a powerful motivator, but
is it possible to retain your original vision of quality and
originality, but still make lots of money? In the modern economic
climate, it’s easy to understand why a writer or a producer might
decide to aim at the mainstream. In the fickle world of television,
that desire could be fueled by something as simple as the need to
earn more money, or by extension, to survive into the next season.
It could even be as simple as the creator’s yearning to have his or
her show seen on a wider scale, and climb the popularity rankings.

But let’s take a look at the
consequences of some of those desires for a moment.

What can initially be the wish
of a show’s creator to see his or her work survive and prosper for at
least five seasons, often turns into six seasons, then seven, then
ten. It might just be the fault of the network, but somewhere down
the line decisions get made to extend a show’s lifespan far beyond
what should be its natural ending point. When this happens, we start
to see all of these points where it would have been perfect for a
show to end, and yet it continues on. It’s like some undead walking
corpse, struggling to feed its hunger for money. The show goes past
its prime, and the original fan excitement at the continuation of the
program turns slowly sour, as they realize it might have been better
to end on a high note, and to be remembered as a great show, instead
of a show which started great and ended painfully.

A great example of this is Scrubs,
which had plenty of chances to end on a high-note. Even when the
protagonist of the show left, they made a
ninth
season, and it was like watching
Cheers
without Sam Malone, or
24
without Jack Bauer. The irony of this was that the ending to season
eight was masterful, beautiful, funny, and it summed up exactly what
made the show so great in its early seasons. Had they left it there,
Scrubs
would have been even more fondly remembered today than it is, despite
having some very weak seasons even before JD left.

But even before a show gets to
that point where they are making more seasons long after
“zombification” has ensued, there is the danger that it might
change its personality in order to appeal to the masses. It could
dumb down, it could forgo quality in favor of sticking to what it
knows is popular, or it could abandon artistic merit entirely. It’s
like when a guy changes his personality on the demands of his
controlling girlfriend, but once he gets rid of all of those little
quirks that made him unique and interesting, the woman dumps him
because she’s no longer ‘feeling it’. It’s more understandable for a
television show to change on the demands of its fans or its network,
because it could be prematurely ended if it does not, and might never
get a proper ending. But at what cost does this fight for survival
come?

Once a show has taken that step to
compromise that which makes it unique or gives it a measure artistic
merit, it is forever tainted in the eyes of those who tuned in from
day one. Perhaps it is better that a show’s creator sticks to his or
her principles, and refuse to change what makes the show truly great.
If they go down fighting, at least they gain a place forever in the
hearts of the original fans, who appreciated what the creator was
trying to do. And who knows, perhaps that ending will come,
regardless of the whims of TV executives, as we have seen with shows
such as Firefly and Farscape.

Another symptom of selling out is
what has been termed as “Flanderization”. And before you go
firing up the search engine, yes, the term did indeed originate with
Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, who started as a likeable
do-gooder, and has been slowly transformed into a caricature of
himself over the years. Flanderization is a manner (or consequence)
of selling out because it is, essentially, pandering to the
unintelligent, or those who are entertained by a simplistic facet of
a character’s personality. It aims to draw viewers in by exploding
the two-dimensional aspects of a character into something that is
easily recognizable, but not particularly realistic. Most often seen
in long-running comedy shows where ideas are perhaps flagging, this
method is used to draw out material from characters, giving shows
more outlandish and “funny” situations in the process.

To the more discerning audiences,
this can be an irritation. In many examples, the characters in
question were unique, with subtle personality aspects, and this was
exactly what made them entertaining or realistic characters. Once
Flanderization occurs, these same characters become simplified
parodies of themselves – more easily recognizable to the less
thoughtful viewers, but an annoying sensationalist tactic in the eyes
of those who originally liked the character.

The example which springs to my
mind (other than the obvious) is Dwight Schrute from
The
Office
. Now, I loved Dwight
in the early seasons. He was a dork, he was obsessed with his job,
and his idea of proper social behavior was seriously askew, but these
facets of his nature were often quite underplayed, and rightfully so.
What made him so funny wasn’t his outlandish insanity, it was those
moments where he would
quietly
reveal that outlandish insanity, in small, subtle ways. It was the
expressions on Rainn Wilson’s face, the glances at the camera when he
thought he was being smart, the lingering, carefully-paced comedy
timing during those moments in which Dwight was the victim of one of
Jim’s pranks. Nowadays Dwight just isn’t funny anymore. He has become
this oafish, annoying, slapstick tool for inciting cheap laughs. His
personality quirks are no longer small, they are overblown and
exaggerated. It’s evidently not enough for the writers to have Dwight
say something funny anymore; now it has to be a headbutt or a scene
with him wearing the face of a CPR dummy. It’s a slap in the face to
all those that thought the first 3 seasons of
The
Office
were twenty times
funnier than the newer ones, and it’s an insult to our intelligence.

Is selling out justified? Is
jumping the shark each season worth the sale of your integrity? The
fact is, real art doesn’t aim to make money, it does it as a
side-effect of the artist’s creative drive. No, most shows probably
couldn’t be classed as “real art”, but my point remains. A real
artist doesn’t think about what would be popular with their target
demographic, they think about their message, or their characters, or
the unique mood they are going for.

Is that a realistic way to look at
things, in a world where money is so important? Definitely not. But
some shows manage to avoid selling out entirely, and they do it with
style; right up until the moment they are canceled. Those are the
shows that will be remembered in twenty years time, no matter how
many seasons they had.

Liked this article? Try These!

Comments

Meet the Author

User not found.

Follow Us