Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Five-Seasons Test

Michael Kenneth Williams as The Wire's Omar Little. Photo courtesy of thequietus.com.

I recently read a really interesting piece by Steven Hyden of the AV Club. The AV Club is always providing interesting food for thought, but I was particularly fascinated by Hyden's piece, which proposed a new rubric for judging a musical act's greatness, one which the author called the five-albums test. Hyden proposes that, in addition to judging artists based on their popularity and their level of critical acclaim, an additional way to measure an act's excellence is by reviewing their musical output in order to determine whether that artist put out five consecutive great albums. Hyden claims that this new rubric includes artists like Fountains of Wayne and Kanye West in addition to traditional heavy-hitters like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. He also uses this rubric to cast some doubt on the greatness of acts like the Rolling Stones and - sacrilege of sacrilege! - Bob Dylan.

Hyden's piece is interesting enough in its own right, but my attention was piqued by the author's comparison between music and TV shows: "[The five-albums test] just feels right, perhaps because there's a handy parallel with TV shows, which generally have to survive for five seasons in order to reach 100 episodes, which the magic number for syndication." He goes on to acknowledge that many important and influential shows only lasted a few seasons, but maintains that "the greatest and most beloved TV shows in history ... held it together at a high level of quality for at least five seasons."

I certainly won't deny that many of the shows Hyden mentions, such as M*A*S*H, Cheers, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, The Sopranos and The Wire, are undeniable accomplishments. I happen to think that the five seasons of The Wire are the single greatest accomplishment of television, and that those five seasons represent as close to perfection as I've ever seen on TV. I also appreciate that Hyden mentioned great, groundbreaking shows that never made it to the five-season mark, likening Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks to artists like The Sex Pistols and Nirvana. However, I think there are a few holes in Hyden's argument (at least as it pertains to TV - I'll leave it to greater minds than mine to examine his five-album rubric more closely), and they make the five-seasons test an imperfect judge of TV quality.

One of the major problems with the five-seasons test is that the length of a TV season varies wildly, depending on the network that broadcasts a show. While traditional network shows like The Simpsons generally run between twenty and twenty-two episodes per season, HBO series like The Wire only run ten or twelve. The smaller episode order means that the extra budget, time and attention that would normally be devoted to an addition ten or twelve episodes can instead be used to make each episode better. This gives shows broadcast on cable networks a serious advantage compared to those broadcast on the major networks.

Another problem with using the five-season rubric to judge TV shows is the fact that the survival of a TV show is far more dependent on the will of the network executives (as determined by the ratings) than the survival of a musical act is dependent on the record executives. Obviously, if an artist isn't selling any records, the label will be far more likely to part with them, but there's always a chance that the artist can find a new record label. And since records are (generally) much less expensive to produce than TV series, there's less of a chance that a label will drop an artist. There are obviously caveats to this rule - Kurt Cobain died before Nirvana could reach five albums, and the Sex Pistols could never get it together to record a follow-up to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here Come The Sex Pistols - but, by and large, producing five albums is easier than keeping a TV show alive for five seasons. As a Fringe fan, I've come to accept that the fourth-season pick-up is probably just a temporary reprieve, and that there is a high likelihood that the show will never get a fifth season. Does that mean the show's chance for true greatness hinges on the whims of a Fox studio executive?

The biggest problem that I have with the five-season rubric, however, is that TV seasons are generally more a part of a whole than albums are. This is more true with serialized shows like Lost and Fringe, in which the ultimate outcome of the story is just as important as the quality of the individual pieces. I would argue that Lost had five great seasons (and yes, I'm counting season three, so deal), but the finale and the episodes leading up to it were so unsatisfying that it took away from the accomplishment of the preceding seasons. I wouldn't, however, say the same thing about a show like The Simpsons, which has undoubtedly gone down in quality since its first, wonderful six or seven seasons, because The Simpsons was never building to a conclusion in the way that Lost was. There were no questions that would never be answered, or answered in an irritatingly superficial way, so the knowledge of the show's later seasons takes nothing away from the enjoyment of the early episodes.

I'm really not trying to insult Hyden here - I think his piece is fascinating, and is sure to spark countless debates about the way in which "greatness," whether in music or in TV, is determined. And Hyden certainly notes the ways in which his rubric is imperfect. I just happen to think that the five-season judgment ignores a lot of truths about television. Some of the great, brilliant-but-cancelled shows that only lasted a few seasons are probably so beloved because they never descended into creative fatigue. While I still mourn the passing of Better Off Ted, I wouldn't have wanted to see it mired in the repetitive storylines and increasing unlikeability of The Office, and I would never want to witness the sharp realism of Freaks and Geeks turn into the soap-opera that Glee has become. I also shudder to think of the Sex Pistols becoming corporatized in an attempt to appeal to mainstream listeners. It's hard to sustain greatness over the years-long slog of producing a TV show, and only a select few manage to do it without the seams showing. I would rather have a few short seasons of a truly great TV show than have those early seasons soured by a slow decline into mediocrity.

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