TV: Out With The Old, In With The New

Oscar Wilde said there were only two tragedies in life- not getting what you want, and getting what you want. Similarly, I have long thought there are only two things that can go wrong with a great TV show – they can change, or they can not change. Which leads me to today’s topic… two TV shows I love, one coming to an end, one just beginning.

Last week ABC announced Modern Family was going to come to an end after the next season, which will be its 11th and final. Not lost on TV trivia buffs, the 11 seasons ties it with two of the all-time sitcom classics, Cheers and its superior spin-off, Frasier. And will be one year more than the ever-present Friends, although coming in a year shy of the current laugh ratings juggernaut, Big Bang Theory, which wraps up this spring after 12 years. Modern Family, like Frasier, picked up 5 Emmys for best comedy series, more than Golden Era classics All in the Family or Mary Tyler Moore.

And it deserved it. Through the first few seasons, Modern Family was not only touching but a true laugh-a-minute masterpiece. The story, for the few who haven’t caught it, centers around one extended L.A. family with all its foibles and complications- a grouchy old patriarch (played fantastically by Ed O’Neill who quickly made us all forget about Al Bundy and Married with Children which he starred in years prior) and his new trophy wife Gloria, played by the show’s first breakout star, Sofia Vergara, his gay son Mitchell and his cornfed husband Cam, his daughter Claire (the second series I’ve praised that Julie Bowen was a female lead in) and her goofy realtor husband,Phil and the three couple’s assorted kids. Among those, Gloria’s old-man-in-a-boy’s-body son, Manny, and Claire and Phil’s the fashion-conscious Haley, played by the cute-as-a-button Sarah Hyland. Jay (O’Neill) is old school and tries his best to deal with the new realities of the world including gay kids and his brilliant but mouthy stepson. If you haven’t seen the first few seasons, do yourself a favor if you like laughing. Watch them. They deserved the Emmys.

But then, TV happened. The show managed to both stagnate and change, not a good combination. While most of the main adult characters stayed roughly the same, which becomes tedious (aka, Phil the clueless real estate agent), there was no way to avoid the kids changing. Ten years will do that to any child not named Bart Simpson. Cute youngsters morphed into sullen and/or mouthy and/or lazy teens. Meanwhile, the longer Columbian Gloria stayed in California, the more over-the-top her accent became somehow.

Honest assessment… I’ve rarely tuned in the last three years, and when I did, I found myself embarrassed more than amused most of the time. Seems I wasn’t alone as the one time ratings juggernaut has been tumbling in the Nielsens the last couple of years. I hope the writers come up with a great , and happy, way to wrap it up, and I will be looking forward to tuning into that weeks in advance, but honestly, it is time for it to make way for the new before we see a graying Phil hop on a Harley and jump a shark.

Meanwhile, for the first time in quite awhile, there is a new show I’m raving about. After only four episodes. Project Blue Book on cable’s History Channel is based on…the Project Blue Book. Go figure. That, for those not in the know or the conspiracy theory universe, was an actual American government study through the height of the cold War. It reputedly investigated UFO sightings and strange occurrences; its creators say they debunked the theory of extraterrestials, the critics say they whitewashed and covered up. The project was largely administered by a professor, Dr. Hynek, played by Irish actor Aidan Gillen, well known to many before for his role as … somebody… in Game of Thrones Never saw that show, so to me he’s “Muldar II”.

Because, make no mistake about it, Project Blue Book is nothing more than a new take on the X-Files with a dash of Mad Men thrown in for mid-century stylish good measure. If Air Force Captain Quinn was a cute redhead instead of a dashing young man, it’d be difficult to tell the difference. The creepiest thing about Project Blue Book’s theme music might be its eerie resemblance to the theme from The X-Files. The rest of the show has its similarities as well. A skeptic, in this case, a young Air Force vet fresh off WWII, and a believer (but skeptic of government explanations about UFOS and such) in this case, not Muldar but the poorly-shaven professor Hynek. All that set in the ’40s with lots of cool post-modern furniture. And some mysterious guys in black hats, smoking, watching everything that happens.

That might sound like a bit of a knock, but it isn’t. The X-Files in its early days, was smart, thought-provoking and revolutionary. It was suspenseful and curiosity-provoking. Unfortunately, as its creator Chris Carter admitted, he never thought the show would last so he didn’t have a long-range plan for where the show would go. After about 4 seasons, it became convoluted, confusing and at times boringly repetitive. Let’s hope Project Blue Book has a better long-term plan. It has an interesting side story to work with, Hynek’s lonely wife,Mimi, and her friend who in Mimi may be seeking a lover or may be seeking information to give the Russians. It has a chance, as it has 20 or so years of case studies to write about. The Lubbock Lights (put down to being flocks of birds reflecting light back to the ground) and crashed spacecraft (or meteor, according to Blue Book) in West Virginia barely get the ball rolling. So far it’s been fast-paced, historically intriguing and suspenseful.

Maybe like some shows, the writers will really get a sense of the characters and the show will shine even brighter after another couple of years. Maybe like Modern Family and the X-Files the characters will verge closer to caricatures and the stories less intelligible as time goes by. Either way, it’s like life itself. Here to be enjoyed when its good, and looked back on fondly when its not. That is no tragedy.

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