TV: Disappointment and Nostalgia

I’ve been thinking lately about the two opposite truisms of media: Nothing lasts forever, and everything lasts forever. Weirdly, these both seem to be the ongoing reality of modern consumer media.

File under “Nothing Lasts Forever”: Within the last two weeks, two television shows that I really liked and respected received the pink slip from their networks. Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica spin-off, was canceled by SyFy (and yes, I still hate their juvenile spelling). After a little more than a single season, they unceremoniously pulled the plug on a drama that was well-produced, well-acted, and unafraid to look at the nature of religion and fanaticism, grief, the hubris of science, and the interaction of real and virtual worlds. The series’ early scenes of “v-world”, where actions had no consequences, and torture, murder and debauchery were the chaotic way of virtual life, were chilling warnings of technology outstripping our morals. If you want to see how easily we’re slouching down that dark path, consider the proliferation of torture-porn horror coming out of Hollywood.

Alas, for all its insight into our cultural crises, Caprica was simply paced too slowly to attract a wide audience. Too much screen-time was spent on character and not enough on ominous, murderous robots. Perhaps SyFy will use Caprica’s time-slot for more “professional” wrestling. Bitter? Yes, a bit.

Another premature demise was AMC’s Rubicon. A thought-provoking, paranoid look inside the world of intelligence analysts, Rubicon’s star James Badge Dale turned in consistently sharp performances as an analyst who uncovers a conspiracy to manipulate world events– and the intelligence about them– to reap profits for shady corporations tied to the intelligence world. Like Caprica, Rubicon wasn’t particularly fast-paced. Instead, the clues to the conspiracy were revealed slowly, but with an accelerating pace that made the season (and now, apparently, series) finale a riveting dramatic firestorm. AMC has decided that the audience numbers don’t justify continuing what I think was one of the best scripted dramas this year.

More bad news: the ratings for Fox’s Fringe aren’t looking great, and it’s far from certain that we’ll see the resolution of the many mysterious threads that series had begun to weave.
I have admit that I have a particularly bad record when it comes to picking series that won’t live to a satisfying conclusion. I’m convinced that I’m the only person in America who watched “Middleman,” a clever comic book/sci-fi comedy that lived for a single season in the sorry basic-cable backwater of ABC Family. No one I know has even heard of Middleman.

No media lasts for ever. Believe me, as someone who has watched faithfully as six Star Trek series have come and gone, I understand that. And, 21 seasons of the Simpsons notwithstanding, every series eventually reaches a point where it’s not economically feasible to produce new episodes. But it is annoying and disappointing when scripted series with a significant story arc don’t go the distance.

On the other hand, all media apparently will last forever. Between DVDs, online services like hulu, media sales & rental sites like iTunes and Amazon, and the ever-expending library of streaming titles from Netflix and others, virtually everything that’s been produced in the past 50 years is available. At a moment’s notice, I can watch any episode of those six Star Trek series (that’s a bit more than 750 episodes). If I watched two episodes a week, I’d run out in about 14 years. I should mention (even if sheepishly) that I also have 9 seasons of X-Files, 10 seasons of Stargate SG-1, 5 seasons of Stargate Atlantis, 5 seasons of Babylon 5, and 3 seasons of the Outer Limits on DVD. I should probably also mention that I’ve stopped buying DVDs, both because I’m moving away from physical media toward digital, and also because I’ve realized that I’m not going to live forever, which I’d need to do to watch all this television. And I do have other interests.

Still, while I enjoy several current TV series (which are, without question, better productions than some of my old favorites), there’s a particular comfort in re-visiting the old stuff. It’s a chance to take another look at a mythology and story from an earlier part of my life. That’s a reasonably good definition of nostalgia. Last night, I watched an episode of Dark Shadows from 1966. Talk about glacial pacing! But I know there are literally hundreds of episodes out there (thanks, Netflix!), and the story’s not going to be cut off before it’s revealed what Barnabas Collins is up to, and what secrets rest in that old house on the hill.

[Another frequent nostalgic indulgence: I have 1400 episodes of the old CBS Radio Mystery Theater in my digital library. I’ll never run out of them.]

Maybe it’s a symptom of growing older, this disappointment in the failures of current dramas to tell complete story arcs before they’re axed, and the nostalgic re-visiting of old favorites from decades past. Perhaps the awareness that my life is somewhere past it’s mid-point (I’ll be 50 in December) brings with it the realization that some of the best stuff is behind me. Some of it. I’m still eager to see the next episode of the Walking Dead on AMC, or the next installment of Burn Notice. But this afternoon, I’ll probably watch a “classic” episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Nothing wrong with that.

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