Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Jumping the Shark of Revenge

For anyone who doesn’t know, ‘Jumping the Shark’ is the phrase used to describe the moment when a TV show ceases to be any good, or more precisely when it loses all credibility via one ludicrous storyline. The term derives from an episode of Happy Days where, having already jumped over buses and performed other Evil Kenevel type stunts on his motorbike, Fonzie decided he would jump over sharks.

Last night, Revenge, the American series starring Emily VanCamp, an actress whose surname is far too close to Camper Van for comfort, reached this point, having been building up to it for some time.

The moment came when Emily Thorne/Amanda Clark’s (played by VanCamp) boyfriend Aiden, and a woman in charge of a shadowy group called The Initiative, were trapped in a lift that was filled with gas, before being abducted, taken to the basement of a smart building, tied up, having bags placed over their heads, and then tortured by two other people who also had bags over their heads.

Against seemingly impossible odds, Aiden managed to escape and kill one of the abductees and flee the building with Helen, the woman from The Initiative, only for it, of course, to be revealed that it was all a set-up, and the abductees were none other than Emily and her geeky best friend and protector Nolan Ross. Not only was this implausible it was also blindingly obvious. From when the gas first started filling the lift, there was never a moment when you didn’t know that it was going to be a set-up and that Emily was the person behind it.

And with that, Revenge lost any last claim it had to being intelligent television, and joined the ever growing ranks of lowest common denominator shows where shady organisations exist as an excuse for the writers to pass off ever more improbable storylines, and where there is no limit to the range of superpower style skills ordinary people can have, particularly if it creates an action packed scene that requires, if not demands, no thought process on the part of its viewers.  

Why do I care about this? Possibly because series 1 of Revenge was not only good, it was intelligent TV, well plotted with the right amount of twists and turns to keep you interested, without thinking the producers were adding stuff simply to stretch the programme to 24 episodes and a cliff hanger for a second series.

It centred around Emily’s desire to get revenge on the Graysons, the people responsible for the death of her father, David Carter, and all of the people who conspired to help them. Most of the episodes consisted of a single sting against one such person, whilst slowly building a bigger back story, and drawing other characters and sub-plots into the overarching story. At the end the mystery seemed to have been solved and all the baddies had either got their comeuppance or were about to.

They could have stopped there, and followed in the footsteps of Harpers Island, the one US show in recent years to go off the air after one series for reasons other than low ratings. The makers of that show made clear from the outset that it would be self contained, with nothing left to spill over into a second series that rehashed the first, and it was all the better for it.

Unfortunately the makers of Revenge did not follow suit, the key words in ‘all the baddies had either got their comeuppance or were about to’ were ‘about to’, and into that briefest slither of possibility came a second series.

Initially, following one dropped clue at the end of season 1, it appeared that season 2 would centre on Emily’s previously considered deceased mother. This wouldn’t have been all that original, but would at least have built on the strengths of the first season, albeit probably obeying the laws of diminished returns at the same time. However, this was jettisoned after a few episodes that first of all confirmed she was alive, then said that actually she wasn’t the good person wrongly placed in an asylum that we’d been told she was, but was actually a bad person who had tried to kill her daughter, before ending with her getting a nice rehabilitation as someone who was troubled, but recognised her problems and needed to leave for her own safety, at the same time killing off any sub plots that had any connection to her.

It was almost as if the producers weren’t satisfied with this line of development. They wanted to ratchet up the conspiracy levels to 10 in order to capture an even bigger audience, presumably thinking the existing one would stay with it following principles of brand loyalty.

As a result, all eyes moved on to The Initiative, the shady group of business people who it now turns out were behind the plot that lead to David Carter’s death (the Graysons merely being people forced to work for them for reasons as yet unknown), and an equally mysterious Japanese organisation that trained Emily in the art of revenge, and are trying to stop the Intervention, also for reasons the producers either haven’t thought of, or haven’t revealed, so far.  

Things that made series one entertaining, such as the subtle surveillance methods Emily and Nolan used to keep tabs on the Grayson house and plot their next move, have became tired and idle plot devices, there merely to cover over the cracks by providing an explanation of why Emily and others have the vast amounts of information they need to make the storylines work. Other sub plots have been added, all on the theme of revenge, but with only a vague, if any connection, to the main plot, other than using peripheral characters. The end result is a programme that has veered off in more directions than you can count, and has lost all sense of focus and plausibility in the process.

In doing so it confirms a truism that American programme makers in particular, seem to continually forget, which is that if you have a drama that centres around one conspiracy or one strong incident, you cannot continue to stretch it out. Revenge now seems destined to join the ranks of Lost, Heroes and Prison Break as a show that lives on past the point when anyone even remembers the original storyline let alone cares how the loose ends tie up and the mystery is explained.

I would say it’s a mystery why this happens time and again, but it really isn’t. At five series in, syndication rights normally revert to the programme makers rather than the TV companies that broadcast them, and so series 5 becomes the holy grail all programme makers aim for. While this is fine if you have a setting and characters that drive the programme, as the best soaps or comedies have, it isn’t so good if you don’t. It would be good if both TV producers and film makers could recognise this and learn that everything has a natural length and not try and produce franchises that outstay their welcome. Sadly I can’t see this happening any time soon.

Revenge is now the latest in a long line of shark jumpers, it won’t be the last, and if you put all the shows that have, or will, jump the shark together in one line, you would end up with something so big that even Fonzie would find it impossible to jump over. 

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