Fall TV 2006: The Instant Gratification Years

Filed under:Television — posted by Anwyn on October 11, 2006 @ 10:37 pm

I love TV. I watch a lot of it. For me it’s stories and more stories, an addiction I’ve carried since childhood when I read everything I could get my hands on at every spare minute. For me, TV is an extension of reading–more stories, told in a different format. I think that’s an unusual perspective; it’s more the norm to hear TV bemoaned as a replacement for reading, but I’ve always had the reading thing down pat and am in no danger of having my brain rotted (I think …), so I enjoy as much TV as I can. Something I’ve noticed recently, but particularly this year, is the trend towards instant gratification in the relationships portrayed on TV. It’s not a wholly unexpected phenomenon, but I don’t think it’s working out as well as the TV execs could have hoped.

Remember the shows you watched when you were a kid and a young adult? If you were a … what’s that term the kids use nowdays? … shipper, like me, you rooted for the romance and the happy ending for the leads, whether it was the girls on The Facts of Life, Angela and Tony in Who’s the Boss? (yes, all right, I watched it in syndicated reruns after school. Sue me.), or later, Mac and Harm in JAG, Scully and Mulder in The X-Files, or more modern examples like Donna and Josh in The West Wing or Casey and Dana in Sports Night. You rooted for it, and it never happened–at least, not until the show was about to end (I actually don’t know what ever happened to Donna and Josh; I quit watching WW when it started sucking). There was a reason for that–the tried and true formula dictates that sexual tension is what drives the relationship between the leads and that it evaporates as soon as they get together. It’s dead true. It worked. It kept us watching.

But the last couple of years, instant gratification has really taken over. How many shows have I started watching last year or this year in which the leads get together right way or even are already together when the show starts? **SPOILERS AHEAD** for anybody who prefers to watch their television later, in DVD batches.

In Calista Flockhart’s new vehicle, Brothers and Sisters, not only does she have a conflicted relationship already in the works, she sleeps with the new love interest in the third episode. Third episode of the whole show! No romantic buildup; no chance for us to develop a real stake of interest in whether or not they get together.

Episode one of Standoff: the leads are already together. It’s supposed to come as a huge shock to their co-workers and to us, but my reaction was more like … snore. Who cares if they’re together? We don’t know these characters; we’ve had zero time to bond with them or develop, again, that stake of interest in whether or not they’re together.

Episode five: Anne Heche’s character in Men in Trees sleeps with the love interest. More romantic buildup than for Flockhart, but still unremarkable, especially since they move straight on to the plot device that’s supposed to make up for them having jumped so quickly to the consummation: the dropping like a hot potato. That’s right: they hook up and then split up, hoping that we will be dying for more romance, please! and keep watching to see when they hook up again.

Some shows have really worked the new “gratification” standard; Grey’s Anatomy in particular did a fabulous job of setting up the chemistry even though Meredith and Derek slept together prior to episode one; their relationship had enough strain from two distinct sources that it held up in the sexual tension department while providing a certain measure of gratification. Last spring’s short-lived but well done Conviction set up the good girl and the playboy rather nicely and brought them together under severe stress in what turned out to be the series finale; we won’t know how they would have turned that relationship on its ear.

But overall I think the instant gratification strategy is backfiring. The first three shows named above are new this year, and plunging into a “leads” relationship instantly is a pretty sure way to lose one of the tightest grips on a viewer’s psychological makeup: the romance. A lot of people want to root for the love story, and dare I open myself up to charges of sexism, a lot of women in particular really go for that angle of TV. If you turn that into ho-hum, they’re together, who cares? then you better have a lot going on the side, because never in recent memory has the hourlong drama market been so glutted with highly watchable shows. Instant gratification is just that–if it’s too fast, we don’t need any more and will move on to something else. TV producers should take note that there’s a reason shows stuck so long with the delayed consummation tactic: it worked. I’m not advocating a strict return to the old standard; it was stale and predictable. But I think there must be some middle ground between “never till the last drop of drama has been wrung out of the show” and “right away to get it over with.” I hope the execs find it and that some of these new shows can recover from having put out too close to the first date.


  1. You need to pick up the first season of How I Met Your Mother, poste-haste.

    Comment by jenny — October 12, 2006 @ 2:18 am

  2. I watched about half of the first season of How I Met Your Mother, but just couldn’t keep on with it … sitcoms just haven’t done it for me since Friends went over the falls, alas.

    Comment by Anwyn — October 12, 2006 @ 8:01 am

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