8/05/2007

WHEN THE SHOW MUST END

I've just finished watching the final of 22 episodes of the US TV series Prison Break (season 2) which I've been working my way through over the last two weeks.

Prison Break is a very clever show, well constructed, an exciting premise and by and large, pretty good writing and character development. Season 1 was well paced and the claustrophic setting of the prison added to the tension.

But watching Season 2 in such a condensed period of time really showed up to me the weaknesses in the series, the repetition of similar scenes, the padding out on either side of the ad breaks, the formulaic nature of the show's construction.

Suspending a good measure of disbelief is essential to enjoying any drama, but as the pursuit of the Fox River eight drags on in Prison Break, the less convincing the cat and mouse chase becomes. In particular, the clues to the escape plan, interpreted from the tattoos covering Scofield's body are incredibly contrived and beg the question: if Scofeild was so smart after all, why didn't he just memorise the details of the post-escape plan, rather than leaving clues all over the place for FBI agent Alex Muhone to follow? I know, there'd be no story, no tension if he had, but after the fifth or sixth time Muhone points his finger at the map in triumph and rushes out of the office having broken another part of Scofield's code, exasperation sets in.

Series 2 seemed to be at its best in the early episodes as the various convicts go on the run and spread out across the country. The psychopathic Teabag character is he most intriguing of the main characters and gets the best lines and the deepest character development. Muhone is similarly well drawn and the slide of this obviously brilliant agent into murderous corruption is probably the most interesting character arc in the series, far more interesting than those of the two main characters Michael Scofield and his brother Lincoln Burrows.

Season 2 would have been better told in 13 tightly written episodes. The final episode suggests a third season will focus on several of the main characters incarcarated in Panama. There's enough there for a compelling continuation of the story but the creators would be foolish to try and pad out 22 episodes again. I'd go for 13, or 7.

It's important in TV to know when to wrap a concept up. Ricky Jervais was shrewd in limiting the runs of his TV sitcoms The Office and Extras to six or seven episodes. On the other hand, the creators of 24 have managed through good writing and pacing, to sustain a high-energy drama much longer than its high-concept premise would ever have suggested.

The writers of Lost, with such a success show on their hands, have been given the near impossible task of successfully extending the life of what was likely initially intended to be a one or two season show. Now Lost, which I've already lost interest in due to the dramatic slump of the current season, will be extended to 2009 - 2010. It should have already ended.

When I was completing my MA in screenwriting I had to write a proposal for a 13 episode TV drama. The process was incredibly difficult. A series that long requires a lot of meticulously constructed plot. In terms of local drama, few hour-long showers ever extend to more than 13 episodes. The trend in fact, is towards seven episode series which, given the dwindling attention spans of TV viewers and the other entertainment option available to them these days, is often as much of a commitment as an audience is willing to make.

Good TV drama is difficult to make, so its understandable that producers want to increase the lifespan of the shows that take off. But TV drama for the future, in my view, lies in six or seven episode series that maybe extend for three or four seasons maximum. The result would be a greater variety of shows that are ultimately more rewarding to watch.

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