The golden era of disappointment TV
Last week, in the first-season cliff-hanger of Fox’s hit The Following, former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) finally went toe-to-toe with diabolical serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy). All season, I had been awaiting this battle of wits. It turned out they were merely half-wits — two dim bulbs slugging it out in a lighthouse. Joe is no Hannibal Lecter — all those rrrrrolling syllables about eeeeevil couldn’t disguise the fact that he had nothing to tell the underwear-model-looking actors who play his cult followers except ”Sidle up to some innocent people, quote Edgar Allan Poe, and then get all stabby on them.” And as disgruntled viewers announced every week via social media, Ryan, for a master investigator, is kinda dumb. Like, walk-down-the-same-dark-alley-every-week dumb. Always-gettherefiveminutes-too-late dumb. Slutty-camp-counselor-in-a-Friday-the-13th-sequel dumb. The show can’t ask us to believe in his investigative genius when we’re all too busy yelling, ”Look behind you!”
The Following — not because it’s bad but because it should be so much better — exemplifies a new genre that lies north of ordinary procedurals but south of high-end drama: Disappointment TV. If appointment TV is a series you always show up for, Disappointment TV is a series that always fails to show up for you — a show that consistently frustrates the expectations of its noisy, tweety fans. We return every week, but mostly out of dejected disbelief that this is really as good as it’s going to get.
Disappointment TV always looks great on paper, because in order to have your hopes dashed, you need to have raised them in the first place. (That was certainly the case with The Following, a serialized crime thriller from the creator of Scream starring a well-liked actor who resisted TV for years.) Its hallmark is a disconnect between what a series imagines it’s giving you and what you slowly realize you’re getting. Sometimes very slowly. For ages I defended AMC’s The Killing, soon to return for a third-season reboot (apparently the concise slogan ”New Case” is as close to a direct apology for the previous 26 hours as we’re going to get). But the naysayers were right: Although the show strutted like a deep-dive patience-rewarding haute-cable series exploring an unsolved murder from every angle, it was really just a poky drama whose inept protagonists missed clues, bungled procedure, and literally did not possess enough sense to come in out of the unending rain. Here’s a semi-firm TV rule: It’s hard to invest in a drama in which the main characters stink at their jobs. We’re still with Don Draper in part because of his Kodak Carousel presentation five years ago; would we care as much about his spiral through the ’60s if he were a no-talent? And would we watch Breaking Bad if it were merely about Albuquerque’s 27th-best meth cook?
Which brings me to the Everest of Disappointment TV, Smash, which will quietly expire May 26. Throughout its run, nitpicky theater buffs proved to be the show’s most easily outraged constituency, and also its only loyal one. But now it’s obit time, so let’s agree that Smash failed not because it got theater wrong but because it got television wrong. From its start, the series undercut a promising concept by a willingness to embrace any compromise it might take to reach two audiences — straight men and Idol fans — that were manifestly never going to give a bespangled crap about a series about a musical about a movie star who has been dead for 50 years. Smash also tried to go broad by selling viewers clichés that none of its creators actually believe: Women in a competitive field must always be insecure divas. Creative artists demonstrate integrity by storming out of rooms when they don’t get their way, or by living in dusty, honest Brooklyn. And writers reveal their brilliance by announcing their not-very-good ideas, then smiling politely until the awestruck acolytes around them say, ”You’re brilliant.” (This is clearly how Ryan Hardy got his FBI training.) Smash was probably doomed anyway, but if it had embraced its natural constituency instead of chasing the equivalent of the undecided voter, we’d be mourning the show itself right now, not just the opportunity it missed.