In many of the promotional interviews during the pre-premiere hype surrounding The Sopranos’ third and latest season, creator David Chase maintained that he would do only four seasons of the show and then call it quits. He explained that he was reluctant to push the show any further than that for fear of compromising its quality and turning The Sopranos into a parody of itself. One wishes more creative types shared this same sort of purity of motivation. But given the opportunity to work a comfortable formula and to reap increasing financial rewards, most folks will opt for beating a dead horse.
Take Frasier and NYPD Blue. Both of these shows are clearly beyond the twilight of their existence, yet both are looking to do a couple more seasons. When Frasier debuted in the fall of ’93, it had much going against it. Spin-offs of highly successful television shows hardly ever work, never mind that this was a sitcom about a wet-noodle intellectual dealing with his down-to-earth father and his own inflated egonot exactly a formula for success. Frasier defeated predictions, though, by bringing expert, classy farce to prime time. Rare is the sitcom that makes jokes in equal measure about operettas and Ballantine beer.
But the show is now in its eighth season, and what little story lines it has extended over its run have obviously run out of gas. With the tension between Niles and Daphne no longer there to drive the program, we’re left with a group of characters in stasis. But that didn’t stop Kelsey Grammer from asking for and receiving a three-year extension for a whopping $374 million. That’s about as smart a move as when NBC signed on Mad About You for an extra season and then proceeded to watch the show’s quality and its ratings sink like a rock tied to another rock.
But then, sitcoms are disposable in nature anyway. Seldom do they qualify as groundbreaking achievements. In the case of a drama like NYPD Blue, a program really can shake things up on television. Besides breaking barriers concerning language and nudity, NYPD Blue gave us one of the most unflinchingly three-dimensional characters ever to appear on TV. Andy Sipowicz brought the conflicting emotions of racism, honor, and duty to the screen without the nonthreatening cuddliness of an Archie Bunker. The rest of the cast as well rose to the challenge of dealing with subjects like alcoholism and homophobia.
Now the show is coming to the close of its eighth season, and by the end only two original characters will remain. Worse, scribe David Milch, who gave the show much of its gritty feel and emotional subtext, left at the end of last season. As a result, this year NYPD Blue has seemed defanged and slightly sensationalistic in a way that it had admirably avoided in its previous seven years. For a program that was far more complex and engrossing than the average television drama, it’s a shame the producers couldn’t pull together and bring it to a fitting close; instead, they’ve essentially attempted to restock the entire cast and change the writing while hoping nobody would notice.
Every time I see an episode of Seinfeld (now airing in syndication), I laugh like I’ve just seen it for the first time. Then I’m reminded of its ninth and final season, when the “wackiness” became stilted, the characters became cartoons, and the entire program’s execution reeked of flop sweat. That’s why, inspired by Mr. Chase’s example, I propose self-imposed term limits on all TV shows. Before being picked up, all network programs must submit a premise, possible story lines to be explored, outlines for main characters, and a set number of years in which to accomplish these goals. Under no circumstances should they be allowed to extend this deadline. That way, we could avoid X-Files seasons with no David Duchovny, ER seasons that have given up on all semblance of realism, andthe worst horror of allSimpsons episodes that simply aren’t funny.
Out of vogue
Sometime in the early ’90s, Madonna Louise Ciccone officially transformed from media-conscious, exploitative pop tart into icon and cutting-edge artist. Critics maintained that Madonna was doing electronic-based music in the mainstream long before it became hip in the mid-’90s, and that her songwriting talents had always been unfairly overshadowed by her controversies. They further defended the singer by maintaining that her incessant image changeovers were the marks of an evolving artist.
I like Madonna. But I like her because I believe that, at her best, she is the exact opposite of all those things. She’s a cynical marketer shoving guilty pleasures down our throats with such ease that we find ourselves reveling in them. Whether driven by sex, candy-sweet pop, or button-pushing, her artistry has always excelled when at its most shameless and least arty.
But somewhere along the way, Madonna started to believe her own hype and began to mar her guilty pleasures with painful attempts at straight-faced, statement-making art. It started off with the picture book Sex, which predictably turned out to be an exercise in self-absorption rather than offering anything insightful about sexuality. Then there was a series of painful movies, culminating with the silly vanity project Evita.
Those were trifling embarrassments, though, compared to her latest endeavor, which is nothing short of sensationalistic and just plain stupid. VH1 and MTV announced that they would play only once and then ban Madonna’s latest video, for the single “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” The Guy Ritchie-directed clip depicts Madonna and an elderly woman she picks up at a nursing home stealing a car and then going on a spree of destruction. They run over hockey players, jack an ATM, and ram the car into another car full of men who’ve been flirting with her.
I don’t know what’s more troubling: the fact that the video doesn’t actually contain any material worth banning (and therefore represents some sort of shameless marketing move) or the fact that it’s supposedly making some sort of grand point about male behavior. Had this come from any other artist in a less bombastic form, it might be a good point. But I have a hard time hearing it from Madonna. For one thing, she seems to be suggesting that engaging in macho, amoral debauchery somehow brings about equality between the sexes. Maybe it does, but only in the worst, most superficial sort of way.
More to the point, she shouldn’t chastise leering men when in truth they’re her bread and butter. After all, this is a woman who has been running around lately wearing a Britney Spears T-shirtperhaps no better symbol of marketable male-baiting.
Madonna is one in a million for sure. But she oughta stick to silly dance grooves and posturing. Voguing suits her much better than soapboxing.
“You’re young and you got your health. What do you want with a job?”
E-mail the origin of this useless bit of trivia to poplife the shame of your name printed in the paper and some free useless crap from the Nashville Scene!
Previous week’s answer: Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II.
Winner: Scott Jackson.
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