A few weeks ago, my DVR stopped recording The Office. Just stopped. No reason I could detect, it was as if it spontaneously stopped recognizing The Office as a show. I canceled the existing series record and redid it. Didn’t help. I checked to see if it was a problem with priorities. Nope. Plenty of space available, too. The DVR had just made an executive decision that I needed to stop watching. I thought I should probably listen since it’s not often that a home electronic device gives you an intervention. And besides, the last thing I need is the thing to developing sentience, falling in love with my wife, and murdering me. Yes, these are the kinds of things I worry about.
The Office had fallen pretty far from its second season heights by the time my DVR put two behind its ear. Still fitfully amusing, mostly due to Ellie Kemper’s mentally challenged receptionist, I stuck with it more out of inertia than anything: I had started the show and by god, I would finish it, even if I watched every episode in the stony-faced silence of someone finding out how many orphans were on that school bus. The worst part was they filmed the perfect series finale when Carell left. “Tell me if this thing ever airs,” he tells the documentary team supposedly filming everything, before making one last “that’s what she said” and flying off into the sunset. NBC is in such dire straits they weren’t going to let one of their few bona fide hits die just because the star left and it wasn’t funny anymore. So they hooked it up to a car battery and let the thing stagger through post-apocalyptic streets on a hunt for brains.
With Michael Scott gone, they needed to replace the boss. This was their chance to dezombify the show, to have established characters bouncing off each other in entirely new ways or even introduce a new dynamic with a stuntcast boss. The trick would be to pick someone as different as possible from Scott, someone just as horrible in an entirely new way. Maybe the new guy is dour and humorless. Or maybe he’s a samurai taxidermist. Or a failed astronaut. Or the owner of the largest primate petting zoo in Pennsylvania. My point is that a different kind of boss unlocks new stories, something a seven year old show desperately needs. Instead, they chose Ed Helms’s Andy, a character who is basically a less extreme version of Michael. Everything stale is stale again.
My DVR looks after me better than Firefox. Ten years ago, I was working a dead end job at a commodities brokerage firm. My life would have had to improve significantly to qualify as hellish. Retaining what sanity I had fell to the internet where I discovered a young ESPN writer named Bill Simmons when he brilliantly compared the Bad Boy Pistons to the Cobra Kai. Writing about sports from the perspective of a fan, he pioneered the pop culture analogy and taught me the basics of writing passionately about things that ultimately don’t matter. His star steadily rose, culminating with the launch of his own website with the singularly uninspired name Grantland. I was thrilled. Finally, unadulterated Simmons. He could curse. He could tell all those stories his Disney bosses hadn’t allowed. He could do stuff that was so awesome only luchadores can imagine it. The editors holding him back could go fuck right the hell off.
What I learned should not have been much of a surprise: those editors were narrow, leaky bulwark against flabby self-indulgence. Grantland was intended as a one stop shop for all things sports and pop culture. Instead, it’s an oligarchy of rich, out of touch white guys, like Republican presidential candidates who can read. Every week, they post a collection of their favorite pieces that they published (why you would need something like this if you were already on their website is beyond me), and everything Simmons shits out is right there at the top. I had that moment that fans get, when we feel betrayed when someone who has provided countless hours of free entertainment stops trying. I realized that he’d had a good run — ten years as the best sportswriter out there, much better than anything I will ever achieve — and put it behind me. I unfollowed him on Twitter, unliked him on Facebook: everything one does to an ex-girlfriend, short of posting pictures of myself doing bodyshots off daytime strippers.
Back on my old blog, I wrote a fairly glowing review of the Dexter pilot when it first aired. I fell in love immediately for its weirdness: the gay dude from Six Feet Under as a crimefighting serial killer. I wrote that it was a lot like a Champions character no one would ever let me play: a heroic snuff filmmaker who cruised around in a converted ice cream truck, killing criminals and selling the videos to jaded rich one-percenters to finance his vigilantism. Incidentally, this is pretty far from the most offensive Champions character I ever designed, not that I ever expect Dr. Prison Sex to have a television analog.
Those first two seasons were pretty great, even if the second one ended on a bit of a cop out when Lila let Dexter off the hook by killing Doakes. From there, the show quickly stagnated. Old plots were rehashed, forward momentum dispelled. None of the regular cast could discover Dexter’s secret, even if this made them the worst cops in the history of time. The troubling moral implications were downplayed in favor of Dexter as an unfairly self-loathing superhero, eliminating whatever depth the show initially had. Still, the last couple seasons had moments, not of brilliance, at least of watchability. Even as the workplace soap opera grew unbearable, there was always the thrill of Dexter’s narrow escapes and general Batmanosity.
That Dexter would go off the rails is a foregone conclusion. I hoped that when its time finally came, it would self-immolate in an orgy of ridiculousness so incredible, it would make Baywatch Nights look like The Wire. Dexter could fight a real-life vampire, who was actually his chainsawed mom, and Deb had been a serial killer the whole time too. Oh, and Angel is an actual angel, and Masuka wins the lottery and forms a CSI team of bikini models. My point is that Dexter should go fucking batshit insane. Instead of what happened. The season spent the bulk of its screentime building up to a twist (the two killers are split personalities of a single man) that nearly everyone saw coming. The reason this twist worked so well in Fight Club was because it led to a deeper understanding of the film and turned what-the-fuck moments into that’s-what-the-fuck. Also, Fight Club rules. Dexter did not do this. It was a gimmicky thing that served no purpose beyond boring everyone who guessed it and irritating everyone who didn’t.
Dexter was a thriller first, mining tension from Dexter’s close calls. The best episodes have him barely ahead of the authorities, the whole house of cards ready to tumble down around him. This season hasn’t even flirted with tension. Dexter just wanders about his day halfheartedly stalking Colin Hanks, who could not be a less convincing threat if he were a quadruple amputee. Dexter has committed the one unpardonable sin of television: it’s boring.
All art — high and low — comes from discontent. As soon as the artist becomes complacent, because of money, laziness, or simple creative bankruptcy, the art loses its ability to do whatever it was intending. No one would call any one of these things great art (or even art, if you’re being a snob), but they did used to matter to me. Not anymore.
At least I still have Sons of Anarchy.