I don’t watch much television, but I’m going to be watching even less now.
I’ve fallen prey this month to the hype of commercials announcing the “season finale” of some of the shows I do try to catch once in a while. Earlier this month, there was even a “series finale” for one program, and I could tell from the start it was not destined to have a happy ending. I like happy endings, so I didn’t watch.
There’s an unsettling trend being played out these days by the writers of prime-time televised dramas. I guess they had a lot of venom stored up after the strike last fall, and they came back to work with a vengeance — ready, willing and able to hurl major characters into career-threatening legal trouble, or to split up the savvy teams the audiences had come to know and love. That’s bad enough, but increasingly, the plot also calls for some villain to kill off major characters.
What makes them think I want to watch this sort of thing? Or am I alone in this?
I understand that in some of these situations, plots worthy of daytime soap operas are being played out among cast members, and some stars actually want to leave even the most popular shows. I know this, because once, when the batteries went dead while “surfing” with our television set’s remote control, I landed on “Access Hollywood.” I even heard a rumor that Mark Harmon of “N.C.I.S.” said that everyone was hoping the character targeted to be killed off on his program this year was going to be them, because they were all so exhausted. I hope he was joking.
You would have thought that actors and actresses in a television series would have learned a lesson from the experiences of people like Steven Hill and McLean Stevenson. The latter was the commanding officer — if you can call that type of leadership “commanding” — on “M*A*S*H,” until he thought he could use that fame as a springboard into larger endeavors. The producers allowed Col. Henry Blake’s plane to be shot down as he was heading home from Korea, and Stevenson’s career crashed with it.
Everyone with a 13-inch set in the house has enjoyed the work of Steven Hill, the affectionately grumpy district attorney on the original “Law & Order.” While watching some repeats of “Mission Impossible” episodes filmed during its first year back in 1966, my wife did a double-take on IMF leader Dan Briggs. “That looks like a young Adam Schiff,” she said.
It didn’t take 90 seconds on a Web search to confirm that this is so. Maybe it’s old news to everyone else, but it was a revelation to us. And where did Steven Hill go after he left “Mission Impossible” during its first season, reportedly after a disagreement with producers over having to work on the Jewish Sabbath? He was out of acting for 10 years. You have to admire the price he paid for sticking with a higher priority.
Job security must not be as important to actors as it is for those in other professions. Maybe the money’s good enough that they can afford to take gambles, and reach for even bigger paydays or — perhaps more importantly for them — even bigger roles. But they are also probably not taking into account how involved their audiences become with their work, and how important supporting characters as well as the top stars are to audiences’ enjoyment.
The experience of the “Law & Order” empire — among many many other programs, including “Mission Impossible” and “M*A*S*H” — has proven that replacing characters is not necessarily fatal to a popular series. So the actors need to remember that the whole can be much greater than the sum of its parts.
I hesitate to threaten that I’ll quit watching, to offer one example, if they fail to reassemble Harmon’s “N.C.I.S.” team over the summer. A viewer has to be vigilant, because I gave up on “House” a couple of seasons ago when, in a season-ender, the affectionately grumpy physician fired everybody on his medical staff. Then, I stumbled onto that show a few weeks ago when the batteries in the remote control went dead, and it looks like almost everybody is back on the job now — and it wasn’t a rerun.
Maybe I ought to just stick with repeats of 40-year-old classics like “Mission Impossible,” since I already know how those are going to turn out. That may not make me happy, but it doesn’t make me mad.
Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.