TVs improbable seventh-inning stretches

By on Oct 13, 2012 in Raves |

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Seven seasons is an awfully long run for any TV drama, particularly a serialized one. Procedural shows like CSI and Law & Order shows have the privilege of a different storyline every episode, and even semi-procedural shows like Fringe aren’t required to serve an overarching narrative with every episode.

The TV graveyard is littered with the corpses of series that exhausted their creativity before their episode order. One recent example of such a show on the comedy front is The Office: the producers and NBC announced that Season 9 would be the final season, but that decision came after we slogged through disappointing Seasons 6, 7, and 8.

Some showrunners do the dignified thing and set a definite and unyielding end date for their series, like the masterminds behind Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, and even the British Office. I can’t speak highly enough of this practice: it gives the audience faith that the show will end on its own terms, it gives the writers a chance to pace and plot out the conclusion, and it gives the show a shot of going out on the top of its game.

But it’s understandable why a showrunner wouldn’t do it. The audience feels like it theoretically never wants the show to end. (Forgive them, readers, for they know not what they do.) And the producers and even the cast and crew are having so much fun — and love being employed in Hollywood — that they might not know when to stop.  That’s when you risk a downhill slide.

Spoilers ahead!

Dexter showed every indication of faltering last season. The “big bads” of the season were the Doomsday Killers, a diabolical professor and his devout student who devised intricate murder “tableaus” based on the Book of Revelations. That setup was interesting, the acting was fine, and the reveal that the student was schizophrenic and had murdered the professor long since was a legitimately “OMG” twist. But the storyline lacked the momentum and adrenaline that made previous seasons so awe-inspiring. The Doomsday Killers were no Trinity Killer, to be sure.

But then, in the final minutes of the season, Dexter subdues the student and stabs him through the heart just as his sister, Deb, walks in. Dexter sees her, and he says, “Oh, God.”

Finally! The moment we’ve all been waiting for since the series premiere: Deb, the moral and by-the-book crimefighter oblivious to her brother’s deadly vigilantism, finally catching Dexter in the act.  And it was just as satisfying as we hoped.

Now Season 7 is up and running, and Dexter seems to have a new lease on life. Beyond that, it could be one of the best seasons yet. Showtime coyly released a short scene a while days before the premiere that showed Dexter explaining away how he “snapped” and Deb seeming to buy his story. That tease was worrisome: If everything went back to normal (or normal-adjacent!), this incredible plot point would have been wasted. (One frustrating aspect of shows like Glee or Gossip Girl is that the stakes are never high enough — characters break up and make up as if no development has any consequence.)

But instead, the writers redoubled the twist in the Season 7 premiere, having Deb’s incredulous mind convince her to prowl around in Dexter’s possessions until she finds irrefutable evidence of his crimes. “Are you a serial killer?” she asks. After an excruciating pause, Dexter says, “Yes.” You gotta love a show whose season premiere ends with as much of a bang as the preceding season finale.

Now we have the glorious fallout to deal with — and so many questions. Will Dexter continue to be honest with her? Will he harm her? Will Deb turn him in? Will she become even more complicit? Will her conscience or her devotion win out? At what havoc will this secret wreak?

I’ve been lucky enough to see tomorrow night’s episode; and it’s not too spoilery to tell you that Deb starts to see the fifty shades of moral gray!

Also having enjoyed a Lucky Number Seven is Grey’s Anatomy. The medical/romantic drama was once a cultural touchpoint of the late 2000s, but by Season 6, the show had become mired in far-fetched storylines, all-too-public infighting behind the scenes, and unlikable cast additions. But then came the shooting storyline.

A season finale that could have been a soulless ratings ploy turned out to be a thrilling episode from the moment the first shot was fired. The gunman fatally shot two of the new doctors, one of whom died in Bailey’s arms while she was stranded without medical supplies. He fired shots at Derek, Alex, and Owen. Lexie, Cristina, Callie, and Arizona came face-to-face with the gunman but escaped unharmed. Meredith offered up her own life in exchange for Derek’s. Cristina and Jackson risked being shot to save Derek, even as Cristina’s boyfriend Owen was lying on the floor wounded. And Richard convinced the gunman to use his last bullet on himself.

The next season had one theme: healing. Every doctor dealt with the trauma differently and processed their emotional recovery differently. Nearly all the doctors had some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially those who came face-to-face with the gunman. And the intersections and flat-out collisions of the characters’ paths toward wellness resulted in drama of a caliber unseen on Grey’s for years.

What do these shows and their respective creative renaissances have in common? They both found a way to reignite the narrative flame with an explosive sixth-season finale which set the narrative up for a psychologically-complex seventh season. That seasons goes back to the basics and examines on the psyches of and the relationships between the central characters. Dexter is all about the familial bond between Dex and Deb this season. Grey’s has a larger cast to serve, clearly — but a major plot thread last season was the relationship between Meredith and Cristina, two who played heroic roles during the ordeal at the cost of their mental well-being.

So here’s a note to showrunners: When your show starts to run out of steam, use a climactic event that rocks the characters to the core — one with both obvious and unpredictable ramifications — and then focus on that core. It doesn’t even need to be a violent event, as Dexter (of all shows) proves. Then again, there are no greater stakes than life and death…