TV

The Right And Wrong Way To Do Too Much On A TV Show

Fox/Amazon/Showtime

You should not eat soup with a meat cleaver. There are a lot of reasons for this, starting with the fact that it is not an efficient way to get broth into your mouth and then moving on to other things like “you’ll probably cut your lips a lot” and “it will scare children” and “they’ll ask you to leave the diner.” And that’s not even touching on the bread bowl problem. You’ll pierce the side on the first scoop and then have a mess on your hands. I can’t see a single benefit to it, really, other than the visual I have in my head now of someone trying to do it. No, you should use a spoon. It works better. We’ve all agreed on this much.

My point here is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do just about everything. Some would say that a paragraph about eating soup with a cleaver is the wrong way to start a column about television shows. That’s fair, but it does get us to the issue at hand: doing too much. Doing too much is not always a bad thing. Sometimes too much can be exactly the right amount. Other times it can ruin something that had a chance to be good. Let’s talk about the best and worst of doing too much.

The Right Way To Do Too Much

Showtime

Billions does too much. Billions does entirely too much. The show burns off plot the way a rocketship burns fuel, fast and sudden and resulting in flames and smoke, then it discards the now-useless empty canisters and lets them clang back down to Earth while it zips off triumphantly to space. The best part about this analogy is that it is both accurate and relevant because Billions, a show about a hedge fund trader and a U.S. Attorney trying to ruin each other, featured an episode in which the show’s version of Elon Musk — played by James Wolk, who starred on Zoo, a first-ballot Doing Too Much Hall Of Fame show — tried to launch himself into space in a privately funded rocket and proceeded to blow himself up on live television.

Did anyone on the show mention it a single time after this episode? Not really! Did the show suffer at all for it? Also not really! Billions moves fast. If it slowed down at any point it might cause you to stop and question some of the things you’re seeing, which would be bad because the whole fun of the show is its breakneck pace, and that pace makes things like meticulous plotting and dot-connecting impossible and unnecessary. The show literally opened, in the first five minutes of its first episode, with a dominatrix urinating on Paul Giamatti and it has not looked back a single time, not even for a second. It does too much because it would fail if it did any less.

A show like 9-1-1 also does too much. But 9-1-1 does too much in a different way, one that makes no apologies. The very first episode of the show featured first responders dealing with a newborn baby stuck in a toilet pipe and a decapitated snake and this, which I feel is best presented without any explanation.

FOX

There’s barely a plot to any of it. The show just bounces from crazy emergency to crazy emergency. A bounce house floating away with children inside it? Happened. Connie Britton performing a tracheotomy on a 25-year-old fireman who choked on bread during their Valentine’s date? Happened. Angela Bassett getting kidnapped by a crazy woman who wanted to cut out her “good heart” to put in the chest of a cheating boyfriend? Happened in the same episode as the tracheotomy. It works because the show knows exactly what it is and leans so far into it that it would fall over in a stiff wind. It’s not for everybody, but if you’re looking for chaos and nonsense, 9-1-1 is overflowing with it. Fox might as well call it Too Much: The Show.

The Middle Ground

HBO

There’s also a middle ground to doing too much. Westworld is a good example here. Westworld can be really smart and fun and thoughtful. It takes on big ideas like consciousness and free will and breaks up long philosophical story arcs with periodic bursts of action, like a robot former madam using her mind to cause dozens of samurai warriors to tear each other apart while an old-timey version of “C.R.E.A.M.” by Wu-Tang Clan plays in the background. Best of both worlds.

Where the show gets itself into trouble, though, is with its puzzles. A huge chunk of the first season was spent teasing things that the audience sniffed out two or three episodes before the show revealed them on screen, which is not ideal. And, when the show breaks from its most interesting storylines to go off on extended tangents about games and mazes, things can lose steam a bit. That’s where Westworld’s version of doing too much is different from shows like Billions or 9-1-1. Those shows do too much by moving fast and doing crazy things ratatat until the credits roll. Westworld does too much by slowing down and making things over-complicated at times.

But while this can get frustrating, if the show can ever tie these multiple threads into one big knot, the payoff could be worth it. And some viewers really dig the puzzle-solving mystery aspect of the show, with all of its theorizing and examining of screencaps and such. The trick is finding a balance, where this part of the show doesn’t drag the action back up into itself. Westworld has done a much better job of this in its second season. That samurai massacre helped.

The Wrong Way To Do Too Much

Amazon

The problem with Goliath is that it does too much to the detriment of its much better parts. There’s a really good show in there. You’ve got Billy Bob Thornton as a hard-drinking self-destructive lawyer who works out of a crappy motel. You’ve got Nina Arianda as his foul-mouthed assistant, Patty, who is one of the best characters on television right now. You’ve got the two of them taking on huge cases against powerful organizations. That’s a show! That is all you need for a good show!

That’s why it was such a bummer to see so much of the first season focus on the creepy sexual proclivities of Billy’s former boss and sworn enemy, a kingmaker lawyer with burns over half of his body who spent most of his day hiding in his dark office and spying on people with a huge collection of cameras. It was weird and unnecessary and a case of a show doing too much in an attempt to be deep or serious or prestige-y or… I don’t know. It’s like they didn’t realize they already had enough with Billy and Patty doing cool lawyer stuff.

The worst part is that the second season opened with a big chunk of just that, Billy and Patty doing cool lawyer stuff, causing me to hope the show had course-corrected, only to take a hard surprise left back into the same muck. And I do mean “the same.” There is another powerful wealthy figure. He sits in a darkened room and watches people on a live feed hooked up to a large television. He does it for sex reasons. It’s creepy and shocking and unnecessary. And again, it pulled the show away from the things it does well.

The crazy thing is that a creepy billionaire who sits in a dark room and spies on people to fulfill sexual desires could probably work on a show like Billions or 9-1-1. Those shows would know how to use that without letting it interfere with their good parts. I think the key is that there’s just so much happening that no one thing ever overwhelms the rest. Again, Paul Giamatti was urinated on by a dominatrix in the first episode and Billions just plowed forward. Sometimes one hundred things are fine and one thing is intolerable. Doing too much is more art than science.

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