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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,
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.
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.