4 Ways a Show Can Lose Viewership: Good Luck, New Girl
You know what show I love? New Girl. You know what show I am scared will soon fail? New Girl. The first season captivated me, as it was able to mix the doe-eyed and (ugh) ‘adorkable’ humour of Jess, the morose sarcasm of on-screen love interest Nick and the oft madcap antics of roommates Schmidt and Winston to create a loveable, hilarious programme. The second season was just as good in terms of the narrative, and the heating up of the Jess-Nick relationship was both hilarious and quite sexy, but I felt this little twinge in the pit of my stomach. Like the final girl in a horror movie opening the door to the basement, I could tell that something was wrong… but what?
When shows I like are picked up for a third or a fourth season, I am usually stoked. I mean, how could I not be happy that I can continue to enjoy a television show that has given me such joy in the past? My problem is, when series become popular, or even get just a little taste of fame, they start to make mistakes. Most often caused by aiming to please everyone at once, these mistakes cost shows in the long run, often leading to a loss in ratings that eventually results in cancellation. If the creators of New Girl are reading (they aren’t), and are ready to listen to my advice (they’re not), here are the 4 most common ways a show can go off the rails and lose viewership.
4. Introduce a Bunch of New Characters (And Ignore Our Favourites)
Once Upon A Time had an outstanding first season. I was a non-believer to start with, as I thought that the premise was a little hokey and that not everything needed a gritty remake, but I most certainly came around. Not only were the storylines compelling, and the character development beautifully nuanced, the actors seemed to really be enjoying the experience and giving it all they had. With all that, I could easily forgive the less-than-stellar CGI, I do it every week with Doctor Who. Then, the second season rolled in.
I was inordinately excited for the premiere. I don’t usually sit around and wait for television shows to begin, but for this one I was counting down the days. What happens now that the curse is broken? Will they ever get back home? Is Regina really evil? Ultimately, none of these questions mattered, as the third season was stuffed to the brim with new fairytale characters and ‘mysterious’ (but not really) side characters. Off the top of my head, they added to the already full ensemble cast over 8 recurring guest stars, all of whom took screen time from the already beloved series regulars (I want some time with Ruby and Grandma, damn it!).
Look, I get wanting to expand your horizons, and I will never argue against giving Captain Hook (Colin O’Donohue) a little screen time, but this was ridiculous. I really don’t care about the back story of the Giant, especially when we haven’t heard from Jiminy Cricket in months. I thought he was dead.
Friends was one of the most popular television shows of all time, and you know who it focused on? 6 people. 6 people for the whole run of the series. Sure, guest stars came and went, doing one episode cameos or character arcs, but the primary narrative focus was on the development of these 6 people. As soon as shows start adding in a bunch of new people, you split the fan base. Look what happened to Glee, as soon as some characters graduated, the show runners tried to focus on a million people at once and it just didn’t work. Ultimately, nobody is happy because no character gets enough screen time for true development to occur. Series’ like Game of Thrones can get away with this, first because George R.R Martin kills as many characters as he creates, and second, the show is more about the themes than the people. He can kill off *spoiler* and *spoiler’s wife, children, beloved pet fish*, because GOT is about war, love, loss and ambition, not the journey of one character (though, if he kills Tyrion, I will go on a rampage).
So, New Girl, please don’t pull focus from the main characters by introducing a bunch of wacky friends, neighbours or pets. You are fine on your own. Not every person a character meets has to have a back story. Sometimes, you can just move on.
3. Too Much Romantic Turmoil
My favourite television show of all time is Parks and Recreation. If you haven’t watched it, stop reading this article right now and give the show a go (season three onwards is best).
I’ve mentioned it before in my articles, as it mixes broad humour (pie in the face) with nerdy references to television and film (buying a full Batman costume to treat yo’self). What it does beautifully though, is relationships. I’m not talking about the female friendships (while I’m here though, HALLELUJAH), I mean the romantic relationships that are portrayed with alternate humour and sensitivity. Let’s take Leslie and Ben and an example. There were obstacles to be overcome in their romance, as Ben was Leslie’s boss, and the revelation they were dating could ruin her campaign for office. However, love prevailed (very sexily) in the end. What makes this relationship unique, however, is that they have stayed together.
Television shows seem to have an aversion to couples being happy. It comes from the, frankly ridiculous, notion that a happily married couple has nowhere to go in the narrative aside from babies, babies, babies. This is why, whenever a beloved will-they-won’t-they coupled gets together, I start planning the funeral for their relationship. Friends. Veronica Mars. Once Upon a Time (I miss you Graham! Not you, Neal).
One of the worst offenders is Glee. Those kids are competing in some ridiculous competition to see who can have the most relationships before they finish high school (what’s the prize here? Syphilis?) Someone has to cheat, someone has to lie, someone has to move away. It is both exhausting, and an awful way to treat the fans who wait patiently (and not so patiently) for a little payoff for their months/years of watching.
Some would argue that romantic turmoil avoids Moonlight syndrome, where characters become less interesting after getting married or otherwise romantically attached (related to she short-lived show Moonlight). I have a huge problem with this theory, as plenty of excellent programs, Parks and Rec included, show couples being happy without losing viewership or narrative complexity. Moonlight syndrome is caused by lazy writers who have no idea of the inner workings of a real marriage, and think that once you are married off, you are as good as dead. If ratings fall after a couple unites, it’s not because togetherness isn’t interesting, it is because the writing has failed to entice the viewers.
Please, New Girl, now that Nick and Jess are dating, can you please let them be, at least for a little while? Focus some storylines on something other than their relationship, or have them work together to achieve something professionally, or for one of the other characters. Do anything, literally anything, except have the whole season be about how wrong they are for each other.
You know that character who used to be really funny, but whom you now find to be sinfully annoying? This is probably a case of Flanderisation, where a character’s traits are exaggerated to such an extent that they become a parody of what they initially were.
The term comes from Ned Flanders, of Simpsons fame, who evolved from a modest churchgoing, god-fearing man to a nigh evangelical, beatnik-hating super-Catholic who thinks all of the Harry Potter characters went to hell. Even though he is the trope namer, Flanders is actually a mild example, as his exaggerated characteristics are actually more acceptable within a cartoon context. It is the Flanderisation of real-world characters that tends to lower the ratings of popular television programs.
The most prominent example of this trope is the U.S version of The Office, which took the heightened realism of its predecessor and warped it into unrealistically cringe-worthy characters. The first few seasons were hilarious, but it was after season three, I believe, when the antics of Michael, Dwight and Jim began to grate. By the final season, Andy’s character had become Flanderised to such an extent that he was virtually unrecognisable. It was often uncomfortable to watch, as characters that I once loved were transformed into grotesque former versions of themselves that would not have looked out of place on The Walking Dead.
I love that Michael has no grace in social situations, but did you have to make him screw up every single conversation he has? With anyone? At any time? Jim Halpert was an amazing character, but then his conspiratorial grins became gratuitous smirks, as his whole story revolved around how much he didn’t like his job. Even real people become Flanderised, as the three presenters of original Top Gear have become cartoonish in their refusal to step outside of the stereotypes they have built around themselves. This isn’t a case of ‘you’ve made the bed, now lie in it.’ You can get out of the bed! LEAVE THE BED!
This is what I am most afraid of in New Girl. Jess is quirky. Nick is unmotivated. Schmidt is a douche. Winston… doesn’t get enough screen time to let me know anything about him except that he is African American. These traits have already been heightened for comedic effect on the show, which is understandable as they are finding their flow, but it needs to stop here. Use narrative to push the story, not contrived situations forced by magnifying one particular aspect of a character.
1. Kill Off Someone… For No Good Reason
(Some old spoilers below)
Screw you, Downton Abbey. The day after Christmas is meant to be spent shopping, eating and revelling in post-present glory, not curled up in the foetal position crying until there is no liquid left in your body. In case anyone missed it, Downton killed off arguably the most popular character on the show in their most recent Christmas special, the loveable and floppy haired Matthew Crawley. Why, you ask? Was it poetic justice? Revenge? Did the Lannisters send regards? No. The actor, Dan Stevens, wished to pursue a film career in the United States. Look, I don’t know Dan personally (surprise!), but I highly doubt that there was something so huge, so pressing, that he simply had to leave immediately. I mean, he is a floppy haired British actor; he won’t get work until Hugh Grant dies. There can only be one.
If that weren’t bad enough, he was killed off on a car crash. A car crash? Kill Matthew Crawley? He survived a world war in the trenches, and he is killed in badly executed collision? It isn’t even the 1920s yet, there are only about four cars on the road! It is clear that the show runners picked the most convenient and quick way to kill off a character, for the sake of the actor rather than the show or the audience. That is something I cannot forgive. If you want to leave the show, fine, but do it in a way that gives justice to the role that the characters plays. If he had to leave, I would have had him go to America for some convoluted reason, and have it be foregrounded in prior episodes. I watched that program faithfully from the beginning, and it was like the creators yelled ‘PSYCH!’ and punched me in the stomach. Bad form.
Another example, exclusive to Australia, is the ending of the most recent series of Offspring. Many of you won’t have seen this, but let’s just say it was a very similar situation to what I have just described. An actor wanted to go make something of himself in the U.S, so he left the series and his character was killed off. Hit by a car. Right before his wife had a baby. I call shenanigans on this whole business, as it is clear that the writers think this is a welcome change, as god-forbid characters be happy in a relationship (see segment 2).
I don’t think New Girl is in particular danger of this trope, but I think it is one that too many shows fall victim to, and it is a sure-fire way for viewership to drop off. I won’t be watching the new series of Offspring or Downton, not because they killed off the characters, but because they clearly don’t care about the audience. I don’t think that shows should always cater to what their viewers want, but to kill characters off in this way shows a distinct lack of respect. In other words, not cool, bro.
So, there they are. Four reasons why shows that can be ticking along like clockwork one week are almost dead by the next. One wonders exactly why these mistakes continue to be made, as the majority of the time they are not lucrative in the slightest. Are we catering to some nonexistent viewer who had the attention span of a gnat and cannot fathom a happy relationship? If so, why? Well, if current shows are unable to abide by the rules, I guess I’ll have to step in. In my world, Matthew lived, couples get a chance, characters are real and (while we are on the subject of failed writing) Dexter died. Breaking Bad stays as is.
What do you think? Leave a comment.