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No More Reunion

I don't watch that many regular TV series, though I am getting ready for the January return of "American Idol" (which is just a dressed-up talent show that I'm a sucker for) and "24" (which I love).

It's very hard getting into new TV shows when we live in a culture that seems to value instant gratification, rather than building viewer loyalty through carefully constructed plots. In the age of the so-called "reality" show, good storytelling is becoming a rare commodity. New shows are on a very short leash. They have to perform brilliantly in the ratings or risk being cut after a few episodes. Unfortunately, we may never know how good some stories are; how can we know—when the best of such stories are written so as to build to a climax over the course of a season?

Take the show "Reunion" on FOX. Or should I say: Formerly on Fox. The show, which sought to solve a murder mystery over the course of a season documenting 20 years in the lives of its central characters, has now been cancelled. According to Virginia Rohan of the Beacon Journal, the final 9 episodes of the season, which would have revealed the killer, will not be filmed, let alone summarized, for the benefit of viewers. "Over one season, Reunion was to span from 1986 to 2006, but ratings for this critically acclaimed show were dismal." So, after filming its 13th installment, the show is now history.

Taking its cue from "24," the series sought to plot not a 24-hour day, but a mystery of 20 years, with each episode taking us to the events of a different year, starting in 1986 and moving forward, chronologically, to the current day. Clever use of flashback made for interesting storylines and character development.

When Fox announced its lineup in May, the network boasted that [Renuion] "marks a groundbreaking concept in series television as it chronicles the lives of a group of six friends over the course of 20 years—all in just one season," adding that the series would "build toward answering two important questions raised in episode one: Which of the friends is dead? And how did that death occur?"

The latter question will forever be a mystery, apparently.

Fox had asked the producers to expedite the big revelation, but Reunion creator Jon Harmon Feldman explained why he could not: "The events of Samantha's murder are partially reliant on characters we haven't yet met—and events we haven't yet seen." In a telephone interview, he elaborated. "The story was arced out over 20 years, and there was no way to tie it up so quickly," Feldman said as Reunion was wrapping production on its next-to-last episode. "I don't know what the plan is. We're going to finish our first order of 13 episodes, and see what we can do, if anything."

So Feldman was criticized by the Fox people because he dared to suggest that a story may actually take a little time to develop, especially if one is to aim for things like integration and coherence.

As for fans of the show: We're screwed. Some are demanding to know the answer to the mystery, even if the producers simply announce it or post it to a website. Some would prefer a TV movie that wraps it up. Neither conclusion is likely.

But there may be even worse consequences to this whole sorry saga:

Some people, who set aside an hour every Thursday to watch Reunion, may be loath to ever again invest in a serialized drama, especially if they haven't experienced successful examples, such as Desperate Housewives, Lost and Prison Break. It's small wonder that network television is overrun with procedural dramas.

Indeed. But this is the kind of TV atmosphere that would have murdered most of the great serials in TV history. A great drama like "The Fugitive," for example, would probably never have made it out of development. And if it did, in fact, debut on TV, we would have had to have fast-forwarded to the identity of the One-Armed Man by Episode 3; to hell with the dramatic morality tale that the series would become!

All the more reason for today's viewers to count their blessings when they do come upon a successful serialized drama.

So... bring on "24"!

Comments welcome.

Comments

I also am a fan of "24", but, only caught it (as I caught any series that I was ever interested in over the years) on 'delayed-viewing' VCR tape. (Man that does wonders for the commercials!) Unfortunately, missed all after the 1st season, so will be getting the DVD's. It IS a 'no miss' series. Sutherland is great.

Am surprised that so many were surprised about the "Reunion" series (which I'm not familiar with)...especially since it was on FOX.

This prob of the apparent need of 'ratings that are Instantly-High' by the suits has been obvious for years, no? "Babylon 5" (SCI-FI) had an intended main-story arc of 5-yrs, and suit-complications arose after 2 yrs, compounding story-line probs and character changes. When they dropped the actor for the 1st commander (and my awareness of why), I dropped the show.

And my favorite series, "Space: Above and Beyond", well, forget VCR taping what with all the random time/day shifts of each episode (I understand due to behind-the-scenes turf-conflicts amongst the suits), hence any fan build-up ('cept me, I guess) necessary for ratings notice. And THAT one was on FOX, hence I'm not surprised about "Reunion."

Some good movie-stories are going right to DVD nowadays (whereas a couple yrs ago most which went right to 'tape' were considered automatically 'B' movies). Methinks 'TV'-type series may start being purposefully made for DVD soon. --- Then, where will TV be (but for ESPN, HSC and PTL, of course)?

LLAP
J:D

Interesting thoughts on this, John... it makes one wonder how on earth "24" survived... on FOX!!! A miracle if ever there were one!

I got the first epsode of Reunion and I liked but there was something on at the same time. The premise was interesting. Is there any chance it could be put on one of the cable stations.

I haven't seen Reunion as it hasn't to my knowledge been shown at all here in the UK yet, but I do share the sentiments expressed here about "serialised" shows. Fox in all fairness are at least willing to experiment with these types of shows (correct me if I'm wrong but I THINK Fox had some involvement with the legal drama Murder One back in the 90s, which followed one murder trial over the course of the whole season), but I guess with any commercial tv business, ratings and advertising have to be a major concern.

Ah. The market determines the network, and even cable programming. HBO recently cancelled "Carnivale"--a wonderful, if odd, show--because of the lack of DVD sales of the show's first season.

Chris, as a fan of of some offbeat shows that never "caught on" and a proponent of the free market, what's your take on situations like this? If anyone else has thoughts on this, please chime in. I'm really interested!

Quick update: seems Murder One was first shown over there on ABC, but the DVDs come from 20th Century Fox, so perhaps Fox produced it. At any rate, I stand by my comment as it applies to 24 etc.

TV is tough. But the first season of "Lost" was enough to get all the network thunderbrains rethinking their commitment to endless reality shlock, and there's massive competitiveness with all the cable efforts. True, execs do need to think beyond the next round of ratings and think more about the long term. If they can tell a show is great but that it will take a while to gain steam, they should give the show a chance.

What happened with "Firefly"? That's billed as a combo Western and sci-fi, but it's also a great caper show. Just been seeing the first season (the total ever produced until the movie "Serenity") on DVD. It's almost impossibly funny in moments, and the dialogue and character twitches are both imaginative and realistic at the same time. The show constantly sets up situations where you might be groaning in advance, expecting a tried-and-true tv cliche to be trotted out once again, than kicks that cliche in the teeth.

Rescuing the captain: he's fighting to the death with one of his captors; crewman warns off the others: "No; he needs do this for himself" (you know, like Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon" "has to" do the hand-to-hand with the bad guy even though all the cops are there?). The exhausted, tortured captain barks out "no, I don't!!" The crewman says "Oh... okay" and immediately all the crewmates rain bullets on the bad guy. If you haven't seen this show, just get the damn DVD. Get it.

Chris G., I think that there is always a possibility that some of the unaired episodes would make it to Cable. For example, SoapNET recently aired both the previously aired and unaired episodes of another FOX series called "Skin." I don't know how many unaired episodes of "Reunion" actually exist at this point, but the sad part is: None of these episodes will give us the answer to the question of who killed Samantha.

Matthew, indeed, "Murder One" was an ABC show; I think the first season of that serialized drama was quite riveting. And I'll give props to FOX for "24," which begins its run in another week or so.

Peri, interesting points with regard to "Carnivale" (a show I've not seen, but has been recommended to me by good friends). And David, you're right about how important it is that "the network thunderbrains rethink[] their commitment to endless reality shlock..." (I've not seen "Firefly" or "Serenity," but both have been recommended to me as well.)

Now, let me offer a very broad explanation as to why serialized drama is at a competitive disadvantage in the current culture. My comments here are not to suggest that this is some kind of designed conspiracy, maintained and perpetuated by some mysterious social engineers.

But I do believe that there is a connection between concrete-bound politics and anti-conceptual thinking. It is clear to me that academia has been promoting anti-conceptualism for a very long time. As I argue here:

When people are not trained to think systematically—worse: when they are trained to dis-integrate, to fragment, to atomize—they will not be apt to think of problems in their interconnections.
This has implications especially for a political process that institutionalizes ad hoc policy-making. Every piece of legislation is crafted by ad hoc considerations of pork-barreling privilege and interest-group pressure. It is as prevalent in the construction of foreign policy as it is in domestic policy. It is even etched into illusory dreams of "democratic nation-building," which focus on the external imposition of institutions or procedural rules without any appreciation of the complex personal and cultural forces that nourish and sustain them.

From where I sit, the war on integrated thinking rears its ugly head not only in ad hoc politics but also in the way this culture filters information. Yes, we live at a time when information is being generated at a remarkable rate, leading to extensive specialization. But this does not necessitate dis-integration. Again, from the above essay, which focuses on the insights of Vartan Gregorian:

None of this is meant to disparage specialization; but specialization without "synthesis and systemic thinking" is a prescription for disaster. "Information—of all varieties, all levels of priority, and all without much context—is bombarding us from all directions all the time," Gregorian states. Indeed, those of us familiar with the liberal tradition have long appreciated F. A. Hayek's insight that the increasing complexity of society leads to an ever-increasing dispersal of information and knowledge; this knowledge is essentially dispersed, and reflected in the division and specialization of labor. But, as Gregorian insists, "the same information technologies that have been the driving force behind the explosion of information and its fragmentation also present us with profoundly integrative tools." We can see these tools at work in artificial intelligence, automated information-management systems, and electronic communications networks. Nevertheless, our computers will help us to integrate the data, but they are only as good as their human programmers. Gregorian quotes author and media critic Neil Postman: "The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking."

Indeed.

So, where does TV fit in here? What does any of this have to do with any bias against serialization?

Well, it just seems to me that a generation raised on fast-moving video snippets, digital games and overused TV remotes has no patience for the task of integration. In fact, that generation is being trained not to have patience for the task of integration. Some kids may be emerging from this culture with "quick reflexes" in reaction to discreet phenomenon, but they are not learning to connect phenomena systemically or dynamically.

Given these tendencies, I think it is remarkable that any serials survive in this atmosphere. And, from a political perspective, this anti-integrative tendency in culture is to be welcomed; a generation trained not to integrate, a generation trained to value dis-integration, is a generation trained not to see connections. I can think of no greater power on earth more helpful to the preservation of the status quo. Promoters of the status quo have an interest in discouraging integrated, contextual, "dialectical" thinking (an essential ingredient for any radical reimagining of current social institutions).

Now, let me emphasize a point here again: I am not saying that this is some kind of planned or designed cultural trait. All I'm saying is that there are mutual implications between politics and culture, and that a politics of ad hoc decision-making is aided by a culture that values the concrete-bound.

So, in this culture, some integrated TV serials will make it, but they are not the dominant trend in today's marketplace.

I am, indeed, an advocate of the "free market," but I have always argued that a market is only as good as the culture within which it is embedded. Ultimately, therefore, the battle is cultural, and until or unless people start to change their ways of thinking and to value different modes of thinking, there will be very little fundamental political or cultural change.

While I watched 24 for the first couple of years, I tired of trying to suspend disbelief regarding some of the plot lines. This years installment does look more promising however.

I would recommend Grey's Anatomy on ABC [it's on hiatus for a few weeks]. I started watching because it is set in my home base, Seattle. The locale is always fun to watch if it's in your own backyard. As a bonus, it turns out to be a terrifically well written show. It brings different generations to watch for different reasons. The Baby Boomers [like myself] love it because of the smart writing and complex characters. The teens [GenY?] like the superficial three-way love story. I found this generational difference reading storyline feedback on a G/A board.

Perhaps serialized TV won't die out. If as you say we are raising a generation of non-critical [I do agree] thinkers, a great TV show can speak to both.

Thanks, Robin... your reply went under the radar, sorry for the delay in my response. I've heard good things about Grey's Anatomy. And I agree completely that a great TV show can (should?) appeal on a variety of levels. This can help to maximize its audience, while not insulting any of its viewers.

I came across your Notablog while searching desperately for scheduling info on "Reunion". I am quite unhappy to learn there will be no more episodes.

Like (apparently not enough) others, my husband and I always made sure we found time on Thursday evenings to watch one of the three airings of the latest episode of "Reunion". We were intriqued by the interlacing of the main characters and most definitely want to know not only who, but WHY, someone would kill Samantha. Sure, we developed a few theories of our own. But now there is no closure. This sucks.

Fox will hear from me on their disregard for fans of the show. And, I'll express my disdain for their cowardice in not even acknowledging the show's cancellation anywhere I searched at their website. At least your Notablog told me that much. Thanks.

Nancy, thanks for your comments; I share your frustration and irritation at FOX. I hope they hear from enough people; it might inspire somebody connected with FOX to give the go-ahead to the producers to provide us with some kind of conclusion---whether it be on the web, or in a 2-hour cable TV movie.

But I'm not hopeful.

On the other hand, I caught the first two hours of "24" last night, and my heart is still racing. At least we know this one won't be short-circuited before its fiery spring conclusion.