As I’ve probably mentioned before, I’m looking at soaps (or, if you prefer, ‘continuing drama series’) with a writerly eye nowadays – looking for plot developments, characterisation tricks, and the like. In watching Emmerdale and EastEnders, though, merely from a viewer’s perspective, I’ve noticed that there are a couple of storylines which have dragged on rather too long – or at least, too long for my interest level (if you watch the shows, you might have guessed the ones I’m talking about, but if not, they are the King Murder plotline, and the whole Bradley-Stacey-Max thing).
As I say, I feel they’ve gone on longer than is interesting (the King murder has been running since the start of the year, I think, and I think the ‘love triangle’ has been going on for much the same time), though others may disagree. But it set me to thinking about the extent to which TV shows can run stories before they become uninteresting. Friends, for example, had a lot of favourable audience reaction (not to mention ratings success) with the whole Ross-and-Rachel will-they-won’t-they thing, but I think most people would admit that they exhausted that goodwill by the time the series ended. The X-Files, similarly, kept going long after the ‘conspiracy’ aspects of it had ceased to engage the audience (by which I mean catching either interest or ratings). Because I could guess what was going to happen when Daphne and Niles got together in Frasier, and thought it was the wrong direction for the show to go, I bailed out at that stage, and I think other people have told me I was wise to do so.
Other programmes come to mind, too – Moonlighting and Cheers both had the will-they-or-won’t-they romance storyline, as did Lois and Clark (though for me they dealt with the loss of that plotline well, immediately introducing another, utterly logical, element when Clark proposed to Lois: her answer, if memory serves, was “Who’s asking – Clark or Superman?”, which kicked off a different plotline). According to rumour, my favourite TV series of all time, Twin Peaks, was not intended to reveal who killed Laura Palmer; that was to be the hook which drew the audience in, with David Lynch apparently not intending for the killer to be revealed at all. The revelation of the killer, even the most rabid fan (and by that I mean me) would cheerfully admit, wasn’t necessarily followed by the immediate replacement of a similarly compelling storyline (I think co-creator Mark Frost has conceded this).
I’m not pretending I have any kind of answer or conclusion on this, though I remember Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy and Firefly), in relation to keeping the audience interested, said something like ‘I need to give [the fans] what they need, not what they want’, and he does seem willing to kill off popular characters (even, famously, ones shown in the title sequence) to keep things from getting stale. And thinking about it, Alan Moore, comic writer, magus and possibly possessor of one of the finest creative minds on the planet, says (in the documentary ‘The Mindscape Of Alan Moore’*) that the creator shouldn’t give the audience what they want, because they don’t KNOW what they want – if they did, they wouldn’t be in the audience, they’d be a creator. Good points both, I think. Maybe the best route is to respond to audience feedback only insofar as it doesn’t involve milking a plotline or playing to the gallery?
Of course, many of the above notions are frankly staggeringly subjective, and tricky to define. Anyone have any more defined measurements of such things? Please post them in the comments if you do…
*I say this with conviction, as I watched the sequence in question just last night.