Sunday, 4 December 2011

When Bad Writing Happens to Good Shows

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the departure of Aaron Sorkin at the end of season four of The West Wing, midway through the Zoey Bartlett kidnapping. Although we're both diehard WW fans (he's in love with Ainsley Hayes; I heart Josh "Lemon" Lyman), we both agreed that it wasn't the show at it's best. For a show that made political action narrative action, the kidnapping plot seemed out of place: a soapy, emotionally manipulative way for the show to scoop up ratings as the show was starting to lose viewers (Rob Lowe left that season, and it dropped 5 million viewers as a result! Dear Rob Lowe, don't ever leave Parks and Recreation. Thanks).

Not that it wasn't fun to watch. It totally was! It was just...wrong for that show.

So that got me thinking about other great shows that suffered the occasional writing misstep. I'm not talking about shows that are already pretty bad, like One Tree Hill and Grey's Anatomy. Bad writing happening to good shows is a special kind of bad writing because it's only bad due to the fact that it's weirdly affecting a good show. Here are some classics:

5. "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense" on Millennium, season 2.
It pains me a little to include this because Millennium was such a great show, and I would venture to guess that many of you have never seen it. Let me just remind you that this post is about bad writing happening to good shows, so you really should watch it if you haven't seen Chris Carter's Millennium. It's freaking cool. That said, its second season had some bumps. I have absolutely no problem with genre shows oscillating between episodic and serial episodes to try to build an audience of geeks. In fact, I welcome it. But I really hated those Jose Chung episodes that Darin Morgan and Chris Carter felt like we needed to see on this and their other big show The X-Files. On Millennium, it halted the movement of the season by altering the ambiance in a distracting and self-indulgent way. It wasn't quite as dramatically jarring on The X-Files, where the Jose Chung episode took place during the unsteady first season of the show, but it wasn't exactly a shining moment either. If you watch Millennium, as per my sage advice, you won't miss anything if you skip over this particular episode.

4. Scrubs: The New Class, seasons 8 and 9. This was a simple case of a great show refusing to go out on a high note, and it was not entirely the fault of the showrunners. Scrubs found itself perpetually in danger of cancellation, and at the end of its seventh season, NBC finally pulled the plug. Both creator Bill Lawrence and star Zach Braff said that the seventh would be its last season. Then, through a series of weird happenings and threatened litigation, ABC ended up picking it up for an eighth season of 18 episodes, in which most of the leads would return at least on a temporary basis. The seventh season finale was pitch perfect as a finale, with JD imagining a happy ever after with Eliot, as he left the hospital. Bringing back these characters for another two seasons, along with new characters that were funny enough, but not the cast we had grown to love, felt like an unwelcome, two-year epilogue. As far as I'm concerned, Scrubs ended on NBC.

3. Lorelai and Christopher hook up and get married on Gilmore Girls, seasons 6 (finale) and 7. Okay, I get why Luke and Lorelai had to break up in season 6. They had legitimate communication problems that centered on Luke being a curmudgeon. What I didn't care for, however, was Lorelai immediately jumping into bed with Christopher the same night she and Luke broke up. Lorelai didn't always make great decisions, but it was a stretch to believe that she'd do something that self-destructive at the expense of slow-moving Luke potentially instigating a reconciliation. I just don't buy it, and I think this was the moment that the usually delightful Girls went a little off the rails. At the time it felt like a big middle finger from departing creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and it still feels that way.

2. The Mexico foray on Big Love, season four.
I'm still not sure how we got to that point on Big Love. From the first season, the elements of the show that frequently proved the most compelling centered on Bill and the wives, their relationships with one another and with the family. Whenever the show drifted too far outside of this nucleus, particularly with Bill's random business ventures and all the compound drama, it lost some of its initial zing. I think this is what happened during season four: it just seemed like Bill was juggling too many balls in the air, and while this was a recurring theme throughout the show (e.g., overworked, stressed out, power-hungry Bill), for the whole of this season, I felt like I was being overworked as a viewer. We should have known something was going to be off this season, when the premiere gave us a literally frozen Roman Grant being transported to the Henricksen's new casino. WTH?? The heights of this season's weirdness, though, came when Bill drove to Mexico to rescue his kidnapped eldest son, crazycakes mother, and SOB of a father, culminating in a bizarre standoff with one of the ruling FLDS clans, in which Lois cuts off a dude's hand. Season five was thankfully better.

1. The Landry-Tyra murder plot on Friday Night Lights, season 2. Ah, season two, the season otherwise known as the season that FNL fans warn their FNL-virgin friends about before they start watching. For the most part, the season was, and the murder plot was a microcosm of where it went wrong. FNL was at the height of its creative powers when characters were allowed to develop through everyday situations. The forced intensity of a murder was too sensational, too unreal to happen to our characters in Dillon. It remains the quintessential example of bad writing happening to a good, nay, great show.

Honorable Mention: Mr. Eko on LOST; the "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" episode of The X-Files (see above); the will they or won't they ridiculata with Joey and Rachel on Friends.


  1. Agree with ALL of this. Except I never saw The West Wing. I'm almost done with the first season of Millennium though, believe it or not. My uncle lent me the dvds

  2. Awesome! What do you think of it?

  3. As a waaay late to the party FNL'er. (And someone who believes that first FNL season was the best network season I have ever seen) ...I had heard the warnings about season 2. I tried to watch, but couldn't take it. It was a different show. Terrible, melodramatic writing. Not the nuanced, textured writing that helped create such compelling characters... Rather than ruin the characters I loved... I stopped watching. And just started season 3.