Days of television past: When looking back prevents looking at the present

There’s a disclaimer you often see in advertising commercials for financial companies: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” It’s that firm’s way of telling potential investors that the returns touted aren’t necessarily indicative of how an investment strategy will perform henceforth. It’s a combination of legalese and practical advice: The market is inherently unstable, and even the best analysts can’t predict everything.

If the stock market is unpredictable, then the television world is even more so. Anytime “creativity” is thrown into any mix, there’s essentially no way to predict how something will go. And yet, so much analysis of “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” and “Brooklyn 99” have been based in the prior works of those most closely associated with the projects rather than the actual shows themselves. Specifically, shows such as “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Parks And Recreation” have been used to both explain away current shortcomings of “SHIELD” and “Brooklyn 99” while simultaneously assuring those on the fence (or those that doubt future creative upswings) that things will absolutely get better. Again, those prognostications are based on “Buffy” and “Parks”, both shows that started off slowly/painfully and eventually ascended to lofty, sustained heights.

brooklyn_99.jpgThe problem here doesn’t rest specifically with these two current shows, but rather any analysis that lumps in the creative arc of one show with another. Let’s take a specific “Parks”/”Brooklyn 99” comparison as our test case. The logic in some fields states that since “Parks” took several episodes to figure out the tone/characterization of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, it’s a de facto reason to expect similar, initial problems with Andy Samberg’s lead character Jake Peralta that will eventually melt away as Peralta turns into a three-dimensional character. My response to that comes in two forms:

  • Given the fact that Mike Schur and Dan Goor already went through a troublesome phase getting Leslie Knope into shape, what does that say about what they learned from that experience if the exact same thing happened on their very next show?
  • So what?

The former is how I responded to the “oh, it’s fine, ‘Parks’ was a mess and worked itself out just fine” crowd initial. But that’s as misguided an approach that the overly optimistic crowd linking the past performance of “Parks” to the future performance of “Brooklyn 99”. So I’ve shifted to the second response. It’s not fair of me to assume that the lessons learned on “Parks” would be easily applied out of the gate to “Brooklyn 99,” because it’s unfair of me to even assume the two shows have a damn thing to do with one another. It’s easy for both creators and critics to talk about “building worlds” and “creating compelling characters” as essential elements to all shows. But if it were that easy to throw them into a television show, every television show would probably be awesome. And we know that’s not the case.

Yes, experience matters when it comes to making television. Someone with a few shows under her/his belt will probably be better equipped to produce another one. But the “simple” act of production covers things such as scheduling, budgeting, location shooting, and so forth. Those are valuable skills that a network rightly values. But when it comes to the creative spark that ignites a program, there’s simply no way to predict potency. It’s easy to say that once the SHIELD gang turns into the Scooby Gang 2.0, then “SHIELD” will turn into top-flight, kick-ass entertainment. But even if you grant that Joss Whedon isn’t involved with the day-to-day aspect of “Agents,” he still cast its main characters. And he badly, badly miscast them. This isn’t the first time in recent memory that he’s done so: his film adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” so spectacularly miscast Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof that the entire endeavor stayed grounded throughout its running time.

marvels-agents-of-shield.jpgDoes this mean Whedon is suddenly terrible? I’d like to think not, since he’s seemingly in charge of the majority of our nerd entertainment (along with J.J. Abrams) for the forseeable future. Rather, I think it speaks to the fact that the Scooby Gang is as much about luck as skill. The latter will only take you so far, but the former will take you that extra mile. The fact that Alyson Hannigan was cast as Willow Rosenberg after the initial filming of the pilot means Whedon knew something was off. But honestly, the best casts are almost always a byproduct of unpredictable chemistry. If every show knew how to cast leads with the chemistry of Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie…they would! They so totally would! And no matter how much every showrunner and actor boasts about the chemistry between the characters on their shows, most of the time they are just hoping to convince the general public about something that doesn’t exist. Think of it as The Emperor’s New Chemistries.

Ultimately, comparing shows like “SHIELD” and “Brooklyn 99” to the past successes of its creative team do these shows a disservice. Why? Because it refuses to allow these shows to stand on their own two feet. Constant references to past programs obscure or hide the product currently on the screen. Those expecting a creative upswing because past shows mirrored a similar trajectory will be disappointed if this doesn’t happen. And if it DOES? Well, that attitude belies the hard work the current show will have done to fix its problems and achieve a higher rate of creative success. Neither outcome is remotely guaranteed. Looking at past shows is useful to a point, but only a limited point. In focusing on what was rather than what is, we’re viewing television from a very narrow perspective indeed.