Breaking Bad News: Is This the End of Binge TV?


Remember when the TV renaissance of serial series was hailed as the best thing to happen since Must-See TV? Judging by the look of things lately, the shows are instead starting to resemble a renaissance fair, embarrassing displays of lackluster attractions as composed by geeky entertainers who think wearing tights and mispronouncing medieval phrases is high art. Trust me, I worked there.

When "Downton Abbey" first premiered I was so excited I wanted to apologize for the Revolutionary War. Four years later and I'm ready to grab a bayonet and go back to battle. You'll find more excitement if you visit The Abbey in Los Angeles... on straight night!

After many complaints over last season's overkill killing of Sybil and Matthew (in what may have been the silliest soap finale since the Moldavia massacre on "Dynasty"), this year creator and writer Julian Fellowes went a completely different plot route for the Crawley clan -- nothing. "Seinfeld" had more intriguing storylines.

Former Irish rebel and hottie chauffer Tom Branson did meet a nice schoolteacher and chatted her up for a few episodes, but his biggest storyline was all that weight he gained. I'm guessing actor Allen Leech needed lots of sugary sweets to keep him awake while reading scripts, or tried to get so heavy the producers would go all Delta Burke on his ass.

Edith suffered, again, Thomas schemed, again, Mary snobbed suitors, again, and Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham continued her role as best-dressed and highest-paid prop on TV. I kept looking to see if husband Hugh Bonneville's mouth moved the few times she actually spoke.

Yes, there was a rape and possible murder plot, but by the time the show wrapped up in London Proper every potential development was as tidied up and smug as the Queen's English. Worse, they added a tag-on Royal Family "caper" that was removed from the show's cast of main characters and seemed like Fellowes's way of getting back at wanna-be Brit Madonna for directing W.E. It's a sad day for PBS when "Masterpiece" the song beats "Masterpiece" the theater.

But don't expect to hear complaints voiced when the Emmy's come around again. English TV is truly the new Black; say something negative about it and you'll be labeled a supremist. Ironic, as the most intriguing development on "DA" was the addition of a black love interest for Rose, who was then dropped from the storylines as quickly as a black man would have been dropped from a real life English countryside estate in the 1920s.

Sadly, the "Homeland" didn't fare much better. On everyone's once-favorite CIA show, the writers were as ill-prepared for the third season's execution as the American Airlines shoe-bomber. As terrorist-lite and Ginger babe Nicholas Brody, actor Damian Lewis did the superb job of making his character fascinating and sympathetic, and the seemingly impossible job of keeping Claire Danes' forever twerking facial expressions at bay. How did the writers reward him? First they ignored him, then they killed him off, making daughter Dana one of those show's leads. Giving Mandy Patinkin a few musical numbers would have been more exciting to watch.

With all due respect to Morgan Saylor, child actors rarely make great leads on dramatic shows, and Dana's constant whining was enough to make any patriotic American turn to the other side, or next channel. The only dumber idea for a hit TV show would be to give a gun and a cowboy hat to an obnoxious, snot-nosed brat with a bad hair cut and little acting ability and make him the star, and yet that's exactly what the folks at "Walking Dead" thought would make for a compelling fourth season.

As portrayed by Chandler Riggs, Carl Grimes has always been the Zombie Show's Achilles heel, sort of how I always pictured George W. Bush as a kid, or how I remember each "Facts of Life" girl. And yet, season after season, walker after walker, they never get rid of the tyke, only give him more lines and weaponry. Andrea's dead, Hershel's dead, Shane's dead, even Carl's mother, Lori, is dead, but Carl thrives after the apocalypse, like Cher or the cockroaches. Worse, they all dote over him, like Cher but not the cockroaches.

I can suspend my disbelief enough to immerse myself in a world where zombies run around like ants, but I can't quite wrap my head around the idea that, after living with that kid for months, Michonne wouldn't "accidently" slice Carl's head off with her samurai sword. The producers need to get wise and take him off the show now -- no worries, Carl; I'm sure there's a place for you on that other horrifying teen-terror show that makes me afraid for our future... "Glee."

It's all enough to make me do something drastic, like start watching "Kirstie."

"Scandal" started out as the most clever guilty pleasure show in ages, about a Washington, D.C. "fixer" who could talk a dictator out of kidnapping his family with only her wits and double-jointed facial expressions. But faster than you could say "Why is Phoebe Buffay running for President?" it turned into a soap opera about assassins, torturers, and murderous commanders in chief -- and these are the good guys. "True Blood" is more realistic TV viewing.

I love Jessica Lange's about-face career change as much as anyone, but what went wrong on season three of "American Horror Story"? What started out as a show better than any big-screen thrillers of late turned into a campy, corny comedy about bitchy witches in New Orleans who spend their time killing everyone in sight and singing along to Stevie Nicks tunes.

Creator Ryan Murphy's biggest contribution to the horror genre this year was to cast every gay icon from Patti Lupone to Christine Baranski and then give them little or no narrative -- and spinning around the camera so many times I felt like I was on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Murphy also forgot that, once characters can be brought back to life, killing them is no longer suspenseful or scary, only gory. Had Murphy really wanted to frighten us he would have had his characters from last year's "The New Normal" break into the coven and scream "We're Back!"

I have sworn I'll watch "Boardwalk Empire" again, just as soon as someone gets smart enough to realize that casting Steve Buscemi as a charismatic lady-killing mob lord was about as wise as casting Sophia Vergara in "The Linda Hunt Story" or Alec Baldwin as likeable. Can't they replace him with Sean Penn or Gabriel Byrne or, well, anyone? I'm sure at this point Rob Lowe is free. Or heck, how about The Situation from "Jersey Shore?" He's already done the research on alcohol and New Jersey beaches.

As for "True Detective," I'll gladly give that show another shot if I can figure out what it's about or why Matthew McConaughey insists on staying so skinny long after filming for Dallas Buyers Club has ended. McConaughey must have missed the memo that says you can be a character actor and still look hot. Okay, there is no memo, but I'll gladly compose one and send it to his publicist if it helps.

Then, of course, there's "Looking," which has finally garnered positive attention (and a second season) because they added soft-core porn to the series. "Looking" is the only show I know of to hold press conferences in regards to its banality, and in which staff writer John Hoffman actually told "The Hollywood Reporter," "Not to be in defense of boring, but that is very intentional." It's so exciting when your dreams are realized.

Cheer up, I keep telling myself. It's only a temporary dry spell, and besides, "Mad Men" is almost back. But if Jon Hamm and crew disappoint on their final season, I might have to do something really drastic, like go back to reading books. I've heard that "Fifty Shades of Grey" makes for terrific binge-reading.