Television Sweeps

       It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and rather than spend it reading my New York Times in the backyard with my wife and dog and our three trees, I’m driving all over the city of Los Angeles so that later I can watch a television show. I stop at a Ralph’s, where they sell Coca-Cola products, but they are all out; they direct me to the Ralph’s a few blocks away; they direct me to the Ralph’s just to the south; and so forth. I end up in a part of L.A. I’ve never been–and God willing will never be again–at a Caesar’s Pizza, where they sell Coca-Cola products. They have an ample supply of the 3-D glasses I will need in order to fully enjoy the special one-hour season-ending 3rd Rock From the Sun.
       But “you have to buy two Coca-Cola products,” I am told.
       Although I enjoy Coca-Cola products, I don’t need any at present. I’m not thirsty and, in fact, have to go to the bathroom. The thought of purchasing Coca-Cola products actually causes me physical pain.
       But: the special one-hour season-ending 3rd Rock From the Sun requires that I have 3-D glasses, for which I must purchase Coca-Cola products.
       One dollar and 38 cents. I’ve never paid to watch an episode of network television before. I’m ashamed, then angry. As I’m driving home, I’m thinking: This had better be a very special one-hour season-ending 3rd Rock From the Sun.
       It wasn’t, of course. I’m not a regular watcher of 3rd Rock (there is an excellent show on Fox opposite it), but based on its popularity, I’ve got to believe nearly every episode of the show must be better than this one. The special 3-D effects were entertaining in a that’s sort of cool but my head hurts kind of way, and the dream sequences were almost as good as the commercials they appear to have been cadged from, but someone somewhere in the process forgot to add the jokes. There was a mandatory cliffhanger–oh, no, they’ve gone back to their home planet with John Lithgow!--but I’m guessing everything will be OK.
       On the other hand, I’m glad I watched, because it rather neatly summed up everything that is wrong with Sweeps Month.
       Special. The point of sweeps is to get as many people as possible to watch; that’s obvious enough. But for any particular program this necessarily means getting more people to watch the show than usual. Which necessarily means stunts, special effects, high concepts and, most odiously of all, celebrity guests. (And most odiously of odiously, this somehow resulted in two programs this month–Suddenly Susan and The Drew Carey Show–featuring Donald Trump cameos without parental advisories.) Such contrivances, in turn, necessarily result in programs that are not themselves, and are almost never better. And so, in the end, loyal viewers come away disappointed, and sweeps-suckers viewers don’t see why anyone would watch these shows in the first place.
       One-hour. There is a reason why sitcoms are half an hour long, a fact that was amply demonstrated this month by one-hour episodes of 3rd Rock, Married With Children, Roseanne, Coach, and Wings. Each was a normal episode gone fat; characters seem to wander around, checking their watches and talking about just anything to fill the time. (At least Coach was somewhat honest about it; the program itself ended after about 35 minutes and switched to clips.) A notable exception was this week’s Mad About You baby episode, but it had spent all this season and a good portion of the last one earning that full hour and, even so, seemed about 10 minutes too long.
       Season-ender. It makes you want to shoot J.R. all over again. Ever since then, it seems, every show has to end on some sort of cliffhanger. It matters little that true suspense is simply not possible; popular characters only die when their occupants get movie careers. We know, for example, that unless The X-Files plans to get truly weird, Fox Mulder didn’t really commit suicide; he’s still under contract. But the most annoying cliffhanger this year was Homicide; in the last two minutes, apropos of nothing that had gone before, Yaphet Kotto told the squad room he had just received a phone call from headquarters, and that “three months from now, none of us may be here.” Maybe me neither.
       The last show I watched on the last night of sweeps was Law and Order. It contained no bells, no whistles, no stars, no false suspense; it differed little from an ordinary episode, meaning it was excellent. If I had never seen it before, I would have made a mental note to try to catch it next time it was on. I always thought that was what this television game was supposed to be all about.