Why does conventional TV lack originality?

Published 9:42 am Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom



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There’s not much on TV really. The fact is, I hardly watch television. I mean regular network and cable television. Who does?

I watch NFL games. I watch “Modern Family” on Wednesdays sometimes. I watch local TV news sometimes because, you know, I am a newspaper editor, and it’s good to see what the competition is doing. (Frankly, I prefer to read, read, read. I never, ever watch cable TV news.) My wife watches “The Voice,” which seems to be on TV far too often, and I might see and hear a bit of it while I am in another room.

The web is where it’s at.

For instance, I cannot wait to see the second season of “Orange is the New Black” sometime in early 2014. It’s a show completely on streaming Netflix. I can watch it at my leisure, not at a predetermined time. Best of all, no commercials. I swiftly consumed the 13 episodes of the first season.

Did lead character Piper, a blonde from what seems to be an upper middle class family, kill Pennsatucky, the meth-head with rotten teeth who found Jesus and had attempted to kill Piper but, where we ended the season, was getting a beating from her victim?

Will Piper’s boyfriend, a worrisome Jew named Larry whose interview on the radio was heard in the prison and left Piper without friends, change his mind about dumping her because she had a relationship with an old flame?

Oh, by the way, the show is a comedy-drama about women in the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility.

The compelling aspect about the show is the well-developed characters. There is the Russian with slight mafia ties who leads the kitchen crew but seems to be working to avoid a war with a no-morals guard nicknamed “Pornstache” who wants to smuggle drugs into the prison. She managed to get him suspended. Will she find a way to call on the mafia to off the guard in Season 2? The show has us wanting her to.

Will justified murderer Miss Claudette come back from maximum security? Will Crazy Eyes get her wish for a closer relationship with Piper? Will the hidden relationship between an inmate and a male guard remain hidden? Will a reporter expose corruption by the assistant warden who runs the prison and, it seems, might have been embezzling public funds?

Seriously, who has time to watch TV in the way TV channels demand us to watch? It’s called programming, but they cannot program the viewers. We exist in a world where, by the time we get done with cooking, cleaning and quality time with kids, the shows on TV are partway done, but on Netflix each and every episode of everything available is waiting for you to push play. Moreover, if you need to change a dirty diaper, there is a pause button.

And another thing: It seems all that conventional TV offers is cop shows. There is “CSI,” “CSI: New York,” “NCIS,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Castle,” “The Mentalist,” “Southland,” “Criminal Minds,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Blue Bloods,” “Bones,” “White Collar” and “Luther,” to name a few. Oh, and “Sherlock” is about crime, too.

And when there isn’t a cop show on, it’s a doctor show. Is there any originality at the programming meetings at the networks? No wonder viewers watch reality shows. No one wants to watch yet another dang cop show. What happened to military shows, like “M*A*S*H,” “Tour of Duty,” “China Beach,” “Combat!” “McHale’s Navy,” “Gomer Pyle,” “The Rat Patrol” and “Hogan’s Heroes”? Or even “Band of Brothers”?

I suppose “NCIS” is set in the military, but it is scripted like yet another cop detective show. “JAG” was the same way. And “The Unit” was kind of out there.

We’ve left the Lifetime channel to bring us “Army Wives,” which was down-to-earth fiction, but, wait, that was canceled last month after seven seasons.

I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t ask for a cowboy show.

I suppose cowboys and soldiers are not hip among the current generation of viewers. Too bad. Did TV do better when there were fewer channels to watch? Do I even need to answer the question?

At least the women-in-prison show is original, but that’s because it’s not being made by the in-the-box programmers at the networks and cable channels. I think I might have to check out that “House of Cards” show on Netflix. Kevin Spacey plays a power-hungry congressman.

Here’s my idea for a military TV show: A relay platoon in the Army Signal Corps living in the desert of Iraq. Its members are goofy lot of characters just wanting to go home, of course, and they go through trials, tribulations, lunacy, bull and, eventually, encounter combat, too.

What do I know? I’m only the viewer.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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