As I mentioned in my first post back on Tuesday, we are heading into May sweeps season, which means that all the big network shows are currently lumbering toward some giant, melodramatic, shocking, bloody, gooey cliffhangers. I think the place you can see this most clearly is Michael Ausiello’s May Sweeps Scorecard on EW – based on all the insider info he’s gleaned, Ausiello made an enormous fill-in-the-blanks list of the deaths, pregnancies, proposals, births, resurrections, and other special events that will be eating up TV these next few weeks. He’s already filled in several of his anticipated eighteen fatalities based on this week’s Lost, but the scorecard is still relatively empty. It’s early.
It’s just one of those vagaries of the television production world, the bi-annual presence of the Nielsen ratings sweeps, but I cannot get over how odd it is that we now have a season where television fictions all rise up simultaneously into frenzies of melodrama. For most of these shows, the bulk of the winter is a slow burn, where characters change in tiny, easily reversible stages, and the startling events that threaten to explode prematurely quickly die back down. On Lost, characters have been marching determinedly around that silly island, forging and breaking allegiances, pointing to creepy kids standing in the jungle, but never making much progress toward resolution. On shows like Bones, Booth and Brennan moved inexorably closer to a romantic relationship and immediately backed away before it could overtake the familiar episodic patterns. CSI, Law and Order, and NCIS continue to chug on as they always have, although Law and Order: SVU has increasingly begun to go off the rails into strangely burdensome emotional stakes – an attempt, no doubt, to wrest popularity back to NBC’s still-floundering 10pm timeslot. Rick Castle will never actually get together with Kate Beckett, even though her apartment did blow up a few weeks ago, and Dr. House is still a jerk.
But every May, just because it’s May, the months-long slow burn erupts into a full on conflagration, and the aim of the game is to present as convincing an argument as possible that the rules of the show you’ve been comfortably watching aren’t set in stone, despite what you may have thought. The characters you assumed were immutable and eternal will die in dramatic car crashes, or they will finally marry each other, or if it’s a J.J. Abrams show, the organization the protagonist assumed she was working for has all along been just a part of another, much more secret organization, and it’s actually evil. You watch, and you keep watching, because the show needs to keep alive the possibility that what you’re watching is progressing rather than repeating, and these fin de siècle gestures at the end of every season are crucial to that belief.
For a lot of shows now, particularly on cable and premium channels, that belief in progress and the possibility for real change is one that’s well founded. On Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, United States of Tara, Treme and the like, characters have memories, and retain the experiences of previous episodes and seasons, so when a character dies or someone gets married, it tends to stick in a way that deaths and marriages often don’t on network shows. But you’ll notice, none of the shows I just named are reaching the ends of their seasons right now – two aren’t even on. Cable and premium channels work on a different audience model, and aren’t nearly as beholden to the Nielsen sweeps as the networks still are, and so they don’t participate in the annual month of May eruptions. I’m not suggesting that Bones and Booth don’t remember that they just kissed a few weeks ago, but that events like those, and particularly, events that crop up as a result of these May shenanigans, tend to be erasable. Characters die, and they do tend to stay dead, but the consequences of those deaths dissolve pretty quickly, leaving everyone about as cheerful as before come next November. When was the last time you heard anyone mention poor, disfigured, tragically dead George on Grey’s Anatomy? How about Edgar on 24? (Confession: I haven’t been watching 24 in a while, so maybe Edgar’s death is being mourned more fully than I’m supposing). How about that life-threatening brain tumor Allison had on Medium last season?
It’s May, the season of deaths, weddings, and babies on TV. Enjoy them now, because in most cases, they won’t last.