1.28.2006

The Beginning of the End

Why do so many well-loved television shows fail to find an audience?

The one I’m thinking of in particular is Futurama. If you’ve seen the show, and especially if you’ve seen several episodes, you know it was funny, imaginative, and well put-together, with a number of interesting characters, clever concepts, and some memorable one-liners. Not to mention the kind of whiz-bang future we all hoped we’d be living in by now.

If you haven’t seen the show, you’re not alone. Fox kept the program going for around four years, largely on the basis of fan demands, without seeing any sort of audience build-up (and subsequent advertising dollars). In the end, they decided they’d had enough and cancelled it.

It’s hard to fault Fox—they’re in the business of making money. Ultimately, they have to go where the money is, and Futurama wasn’t taking them there. It was nice of them to keep the show going as long as they did; a lot of new programs that fail are gone after a season, some after only a few weeks (and some after one or two episodes).

As noted, it was a good show. So why did it fail?

I think the reason is very simple. The opening credits.

Again, if you’ve seen the show, you probably recall the opening credits as a way-cool sequence where the heroes’ spaceship flies rapidly through a joke-filled future city, while this great techno music plays. You’re probably thinking, that opening credits thing rocked, man, what was wrong with that?

Well, I’m glad you asked (ha ha, you fell for it again).

The problem with the opening credits sequence is this: it tells you NOTHING about the show. Oh sure, it tells you it takes place in the future, but honestly I got that from the title, “Futurama,” which you’ll note contains most of the letters needed to make the word “future.”

No, what I’m talking about is that the sequence tells you nothing about who the characters are, what they do, why they’re here, and so on. They don’t even show the characters! (I know what you’re going to say, that if you look carefully at the people whizzing through tubes, you’ll see most of the secondary cast. Bear with me.)

So what’s a first-time viewer supposed to think? Well, I can only relate my own experience as a first-time Futurama viewer. I knew the basic set-up of the series (guy gets frozen for a thousand years, wakes up in 3000 AD), but otherwise pretty much nothing. And the first episode I saw was the one where the delivery crew goes to the desert planet, where the people are all made of water.

Admittedly, not one of their stellar shows, but a fairly serviceable episode. But my overall impression after watching was this: it’s a show about a bunch of jerks who hate each other.

If you’ve seen the show, you know that’s not true—the characters, particularly the main trio of Fry, Leela and Bender, all have genuine affection for each other which, living in a cynical world as they (and we) do, they keep hidden from each other as best they can. That’s part of the drama.

But be that as it may, as a first-time viewer, I didn’t know any of this. Since there are plenty of opportunities to watch jerks who hate each other without even turning on the television, I didn’t feel the need to watch Futurama again. So I didn’t, until the DVD sets became cheap and I bought them, and discovered how good the show is. Or, by that time, was.

I know what else you’re thinking: you should have given it a couple more chances. My answer would be, Why? Life is short, folks. Not every episode has to be a winner, but they should at least not make me think that the show is about jerks who hate each other.

Okay, so given the now established context of the show, the episode in question is a minor one but it’s no longer about jerks who hate each other. The big question here is, how can I, as a first-time viewer, be given the context of the show so that I can enjoy what’s to follow? How can I casually tune in and not have to peer at people whizzing through tubes? (The first time you watch, you’re just taking it in and not looking for details.)

The answer is in the opening credits. If you look over almost every successful television program, and especially their opening credit sequences, you’ll see that these sequences give a pretty full account of the show by themselves. Take, for example, Futurama’s older (and very successful) brother, The Simpsons.

The opening sequence here is just as wordless and music-driven as that of Futurama, but there’s a huge difference: we meet all our characters, behaving in ways that stamp them in terms of the family dynamic. Homer is a dullard, Bart is a brat, and so on. So in the actual episode, when we see Bart acting bratty and Homer unable to deal with it, we’ve already been set up to expect this. The stories can come about in this framework and we can be comfortable in our dramatic assumptions, and not have to be compiling background information while the drama unfolds. We can concentrate on the story and the characters; assimilating the world view has already been done for us. The show actually worked on our behalf before it started.

For a character-driven comedy like The Simpsons (or Futurama) this seems pretty vital to me. So how could a similar opening credit sequence be designed for Futurama? How the heck should I know, I’m not paid hundreds of dollars to design television shows. The first idea I get is to show a quick recap of the freezing sequence, Fry wakes up, is rebuffed by Leela, is offered a cigar by Bender…total crap, yes, but it hints at what is to come. Like I said, no one’s paying me to do this. Someone who is getting paid might have more motivation to be creative.

Most other cartoon shows have gotten the opening credits thing just right, mostly because they are (ostensibly) aimed at children who presumably don’t have the depth of experience to recognize archetypes and thus wouldn't "get" the show right away. The opening for “Batman: The Animated Series” is outstanding—a complete Batman story in one minute flat with no narration, theme song lyrics or any English at all aside from the words “Police” and “Bank.” It sets up the show perfectly, so that even if you’ve never heard of Batman, you’re pretty sure what you’re going to watch will be about.

Of course, everyone’s heard of Batman. Nobody had ever heard of Fry, Leela or Bender before, and let’s not even bring up Zoidberg. Someone had to go to work to introduce those characters to us, and they didn’t. They made a clever and cool opening to the show, but what they made wasn’t an introduction to the show.

And I feel pretty certain that this non-introduction helped to doom the show. Casual viewers aren’t coming to an episode with any experience of the settings and characters. Even superior episodes, like the one where a time-traveling Fry has the opportunity to prevent his freezing in the past, depend on knowing something of who these people are and the meaning such an act would have to him. Otherwise, it’s just random acts, and one event has no more importance than another.

I’ve often thought that one’s first impression is the one that sticks. In order to overcome a bad first impression, both parties have to put effort into it. But before putting effort into it, both parties have to decide to put effort into it, to come to the conclusion that a mistaken impression is one that should be corrected. Futurama’s opening sequence is clever, kinetic and rockin’, but if all it does is (seemingly) present a show about jerks who hate each other, what is its purpose? It ends up being cool for its own sake, but not really reflecting anything other than itself.

It’s like being a total self-centered moron, but wearing a way-cool hat. Nice hat, moron.

3 Comments:

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Blogger GhostRose said...

I used to watch Futurama! It was a great programme.

5:19 AM  

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