TV series are a funny thing, each show is a different beast, with different levels of quality in writing, performances, characterizations and plots, yet all fight each other for the spotlight, for a better schedule and more importantly, for another year. Extra effort always goes into the Pilot episode and the Season Finale, both big ratings grabbers.
Yet, a lot of shows stop putting in the effort in the episodes in between, with the pilot and final episode often being the highpoints but the rest being sometimes of such lower quality they’re a mess, looking decidedly cheaper than those two episodes. Worse still are the series with a very strong opening but their overall quality lowers to such a point the season finale can’t even pick it up and the extra effort (and the cliff-hanger most shows seem to need nowadays) just means the show ends a greater mess than you’d thought before. I call this process the Spiral of Mediocrity.
Some of them can’t even make it convincingly through the Pilot, or the production quality or the casting is so terrible or the visuals so cheap looking they’re almost unwatchable. Once Upon a Time In Wonderland is an example of what happens when all those are mediocre. Check out my review on that for the full story.
If you read my post on the amount of stuff I watch, you’ll know I go through plenty of series in a given year, and during 2013 and these past three months there have been plenty of new shows to see and judge.
For the purposes of this article, as a study on dipping quality (or none whatsoever) during a given season, we’ll look at a few shows as an example. Three of these I have reviewed, one of them twice, first the 3-episode review and then the season review.
Let’s get started. To help things along let’s classify the series by train wreck level:
- Level A: This series had a strong pilot but went down the Spiral of Mediocrity. It might’ve had a strong finale, but the overall quality noticeable dipped after the first episode or two.
- Level B: Comfortably between levels A & C, this series takes constant dips in quality, but just when you think it’s about to hit the end of the spiral, it climbs back up with a surprisingly good episode, clinging for dear life to the spiral, hoping not only to stop its descent, but to maybe climb back up.
- Level C: This series was a mess to begin with and each episode just dug the grave a little bit deeper. Like Level A, it might’ve had a strong finale, but it didn’t really matter at that point. This isn’t a Spiral of Mediocrity but a deep dark well.
None of the following series are without fault, to not say they’re bad. Some of them may have even been renewed for a second season, or have big ratings, but that doesn’t hide the stench of mediocrity.
Under the Dome (C): Based on a novel by Stephen King, this series had the unenviable task of extending the novel’s concept of a town trapped inside an invisible alien dome for potentially X number of seasons. While the pilot was decent, and the dome provided plenty of opportunities for mystery solving, the series suffered from a distinct lack of logic, as if the original concept of the devolution of society in a confined space just meant people could get away with the most awful and random shit possible.
Take Junior for example, a character deserving buckshot to the face (repeatedly) from his first appearance, he not only survives, but also becomes part of the police and becomes a sociopath with a license.
The love affair between the main characters is nonsensical at best, and idiotic at worst, and the plot-twists make no sense whatsoever, with some characters introduced well into the season seemingly out of thin air and things escalating to insane levels under a mayor portrayed by an actor with not even a shred of the character’s supposed charisma, coming off as a madman no one in their right minds would elect for office.
By the end, under the spectacular dome-darkening plot, the series doesn’t heat up but dies out in a dark deep hole of mediocrity appropriate to the dark days portrayed in its season finale.
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (C…because I didn’t include “D: The hellhole of mediocrity”): Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And for the spinoff to the very popular, and good, Once Upon a Time, not living up to the standard of its parent series was one level of “wrong”, yet another was being so fantastically bad even watching it was a strain on the eyes and the mind. Well, things did go wrong, and in the worst possible way with terrible female leads, lack of chemistry between characters, and a cheesy and wobbly plot with so many holes you could pilot airplanes through it. Add terrible CGI, used for 99% of every episode, and straight out of a 90s FMV adventure game and you have a cocktail of mediocrity no one has seen in recent history.
Even at its worst, and there certainly have been low points in Once Upon a Time, there has never been a SINGLE EPISODE reaching a level of mediocrity quite on the level as this series’ first season. Should it have a second season? My answer is simple: OH HELL NO!!
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (B): You might wonder why this is on the list, but the truth is it deserves it probably more than any other show.
Riding the tails of the “Phase 1“ Marvel Movies and the pilot directed by Joss Whedon himself, it seemed as if Agents of SHIELD couldn’t fail, and when Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson, showed up during Episode 2, everyone thought it couldn’t get better…they were right, but it could get worse.
It began with a very high point, but sadly, it hasn’t been able to keep it up, even with Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen as part of the cast, with lackluster and downright silly plotlines, uneven quality of special effects and even, sometimes, uneven performances. Trained SHIELD agents made rookie and idiot mistakes, sacrificed more than was worth in the pursuit of their missions and were generally incompetent unless the plot stated otherwise, which basically means that they lost all their training most of the time, as the episodes’ stories demanded complications. For example, their briefing in last episode clearly stated the villain, Lorelei could charm men with her voice and her touch, but no one even thinks of countering this, and no one sees any problem with Ward, the MALE AGENT, going in.
Villains are lackluster, with the central being The Clairvoyant, a mysterious character who will never live up to the hype they’ve created for him so far. The rest of them aren’t even worth remembering as they’re killed off rather quickly. Then there are the weird moments like the body & mind rape of Agent Ward, passed off as a steamy sex scene, when it’s really quite disturbing.
But it’s not all bad, despite all I’ve said, the series does manage to scrape by with a few good episodes every few horrendous ones. So far, they’re halfway down the mediocrity spiral, and as long as they don’t completely slide to the bottom, they have a chance of becoming a good show, considering they’re already renewed for a second season. Otherwise, that will be either a very long 2nd season, or a very short one.
The Tomorrow People (C): Based on a 70s British Sci-Fi show, the very silly named The Tomorrow People sought to remake the series to a new audience starring Arrow’s Stepehen Amell’s younger brother Robbie (25 years old) as a 16 year old with a slew of T-lettered powers: Telekinesis, Teleportation, Telepathy and unique to him Time-stop.
And there’s the first mistake the show made, making its protagonist unique from the start, for now apparent reason other than being the protagonist, making him more powerful than the rest of the cast, who are actually experienced with their powers. Chosen ones are good for epics, but they are hard to swallow, and the series put its protagonist on messianic levels
Add subpar performances, unconvincing and crowbarred in love triangles and a cast of generally unlikeable characters and special effects reminiscent of the abhorrent Dragon Ball Evolution movie, and you get a series that can’t lift itself from the dirt even with Mark Pellegrino’s fantastic performance as a villain, with the ridiculous name Jedikiah.
Almost Human (A): Created by Jason Whyman, Almost Human had the honour of an instant fanbase thanks to Fringe fans jumping with joy at the thought of a new Whyman project. Set in a dystopian but pretty looking future where Police use androids as officers and partners for their detectives, the series had a very strong Buddy Cop meets Judge Dredd concept with a lot of potential. Speaking of Dredd, the series cast the latest Judge, Karl Urban, as Detective Kennix, a gruff stereotypical but not less appealing detective with a previous generation android called Dorian, capable of feeling human emotion.
When I first reviewed it, I marked the show as a Worth Watching, for its strong plotlines, characterization, performances, and writing, but it seems almost as if the writers wanted me to write that for those 3 episodes because from then on the quality seemed to slip, to the point that the season finale didn’t even feel like a finale, and I don’t mean because of the lack of a noticeable cliffhanger, something I welcome in fact, but because it didn’t touch on any of the existing plotlines started during the season, but instead focused on Kennix’s dad and how he died, something no one even mentioned in previous episode, making the season finale a self-contained story that felt like a regular episode, just aired at the end for lack of a better one. Many episodes, in fact, felt aired in a different order than their production order, the infamous Wall episode being chief among them, dealing with a plot element only mentioned in passing during the pilot and to which no one ever gives even a minute of exposition.
Which is another problem the series has; too much exposition on the same concepts, like androids and their models and their design, over and over again, and very little exposition to the actually important episode plot elements, leaving you scratching your head about what they are talking about most of the time.
The show’s saving grace are the top-notch performances, from the entire cast, with Urban and Michael Ealy (Dorian) being the best, their chemistry often carrying entire episodes. If they could fix their exposition issues, thus improving their storytelling, they could stop themselves from slipping down the dreaded spiral of mediocrity and become a damn fine show.
Dracula (A): This ultimately disappointing series was unique in that it went straight to series without needing a pilot, something in hindsight it should’ve had.
This reimagining of Bram Stoker’s novel had a new plotline including new origins and motivations for all characters involved with varying degrees of failure. While it had a very strong start, the series’ problems were also painfully obvious from the first episode forward, such as an uneven cast, with the powerhouse Johnathan Rhys Meyer completely overshadowing all other cast members.
Characterizations while starting out at least interesting quickly spiraled into madness, appropriate considering two central characters end up having a few sandwiches short of a picnic by the end of the season.
The main plotline, of Dracula hiding from his enemies while still fighting them is dragged on for ten episodes when it could’ve been solved in five. The result, sadly, is that by the time the season finale comes along, the plot is completely unbelievable, in a bad way.
I don’t see this series recovering from its Spiral, just as I don’t see it getting a new season, even though it promises more traditional story elements and less bad-pseudo-political plot points.
The Michael J Fox Show (A): Marked as MJ Fox’s triumphant return to TV, the series had a wonderfully funny pilot, with plenty of quirky characters and a unique setting that took “advantage” of Fox’s condition for humour, poking fun at it instead of avoiding the subject.
It was a smart idea, but it crossed the line, not on the Parkinson’s jokes, no, usually Fox was the highlight, but the rest of the cast was a mess. Characters were too quirky, too abnormal, and they quickly stopped being funny, and not soon the show became so devoid of humour it was unwatchable.
I’m sad this mess of a project was Fox’s big return, and I wish it had been better executed. The show was cancelled and there was no other way it could’ve gone with such bad writing, bad cast and abhorrent lack of humour after the pilot.
The Originals (B): Currently in its first season, the spinoff to The Vampire Diaries did what Once Upon a Time in Wonderland couldn’t: not suck. But nothing is perfect and certainly not this vampire show, but unlike others in this level, this series didn’t have a strong beginning, not a hit pilot, instead it had a strong 4-episode “opening”.
Sadly, after that it suffered from the same troubles as The Vampire Diaries: the inability to completely kill off characters, often leaving them just out of the way for a few episodes, something recently addressed actually, which fills me with hope; there’s also the inconsistent in-universe mythology, with not a clear understanding on who is more powerful and what makes them powerful, the Originals often swinging back and forth between overpowered and underpowered, sometimes even their minor minions and lackeys managing to put up a fight, when by the universe’s “laws” they shouldn’t have a chance in hell of even touching them; and finally the complete lack of sense in the characters, with them often trusting and betraying people left and right, but still banding together on the next episode, not so much as a show of family love and loyalty, but just sheer insanity and a clear demonstration of what happens when writers write themselves into a corner, and can only dig deeper into it.
But not all is lost. Much like SHIELD, there have been very strong episodes, and they have since started killing off people, which I’m extremely happy about, as the herd needs some serious thinning. The new villains are a mixed bunch, but so far, they’ve worked well. A second season would certainly help this show, at least give the writers a chance to get out of the corner of implausible relationships they’ve written themselves into and find new stories and plots for the characters, without retreading stuff they’ve been carrying since their appearance in The Vampire Diaries.
Bitten (C): If Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is a train-wreck, this show is a natural disaster with millions of casualties. Adapting the popular Women of the Otherworld novel series by Canadian Author Kelley Armstrong and named after the first novel in the series, Bitten is the “triumphant” return of Laura Vandervoort, her first main (not guest star) role since V, and one that seems to have been made to take advantage of her beauty but not her acting ability, with plenty of “nude” or semi-nude shots of her in every episode, in something that clearly falls into what Irish Comedian Dara O’Briain calls “Something for the Dads”, meaning showing skin, nudity and anything similar on the basis that it’ll bring people, mainly “the dads”, in.
This is a series that shows the main character having sex with her boyfriend twice, lunch with boyfriend’s sister and even a therapy session before her name is even mentioned! To the series, it’s much more important for us to see Elena (we eventually get her name) giving her boyfriend a reach-around than knowing who she is. Every episode includes at least one softcore sex scene to show off as much of Laura Vandervoort’s body as possible, to give people eye candy to stick around, because nothing else will.
Elena is a werewolf, but the cheap kind, the ones that turn into regular wolves, and not even monster sized, but simple looking wolves, with a terrible transformation sequence. Characters leave all their belongings, jewelry included, in random places before transforming, and find them intact when they return for them buck-naked on the next day. The werewolf mythology in the series is bland and nonsensical, with massive reveals like “the only way for a woman to become a werewolf, is by being bitten”…like any other werewolf. There are Packs and Mutts, and for some reason Mutts are plain evil and psychotic without even a shred of personality to properly call them villains, and use some of the worst CGI this side of Wonderland.
Motivations are nonexistent and make no sense, as do the crowbarred in sexual tension between Elena and the man she claims to hate, as well as her reticence at having anything to do with her pack, almost as if the writers were saying, “She says no, but she really means yes!”
Speaking of the (all-male) pack, never has there been a group of more unlikeable characters on TV, with none of them actually giving a damn about Elena or her point of view, and intent on having her do what they want, her feelings be damned. Guilt tripped and manipulated, Elena is “forced” to stay and do what they want her to do.
By the end of the third episode, the chauvinism becomes abundantly clear, as the “she’s a woman, she can’t decide for herself” message of the series becomes painfully obvious.
The plot makes even less sense than the mythology, and the premise is so weak you just won’t buy any of the arguments presented. The characters are a mess and most of them come off very creepy, the werewolf male lead especially so, in fact coming off rather rape-y. The rest of the pack and in fact the rest of the entire cast either suffer from not being nearly interesting, or being too passive, or too permissive of how the pack leadership manipulates Elena, despite claiming to be her friends and family, further adding to the chauvinist and sexist stench the show exudes.
It’s called Bitten, and I can only hope the wound infects and the network has no choice but to cut off the gangrenous limb.
With 2014 still ripe for new series and returning old ones, the opportunities abound for them to strive for perfection, or just being/remaining good, but there’s still the possibility they’ll fall down the Spiral of Mediocrity, slowly becoming so worthless that cancellation is a blessing.
Let’s hope we don’t see many of these, but if there are, you can be sure I’ll review and butcher them!
If you think I judged a few of these too harshly, or if you know of another show that has fallen down the spiral, please let me know in the comments!