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Shows that went on way too long
"Californication" (seven seasons)
The film “Dallas Buyers Club,” opening today, has, perhaps predictably, been tipped for Oscar nominations for its two lead actors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Both play AIDS patients in the 1980s who simultaneously fight the disease and the bureaucracy that keeps them from medications for that disease. McConaughey’s character starts the “buyers club” that imports all manner of experimental medications into the U.S. as the FDA drags its feet on trials for drugs other than AZT, the one AIDS medication it has approved. The fact that the club the movie chooses to focus on is one run by a straight man with AIDS indicates how carefully “Dallas Buyers Club” curates details to tell an audience-friendly story. Both men are heroic in the extreme, in a manner that’s always appealed both to Oscar voters and to moviegoers.
But movies have a way of selectively dealing with reality. By focusing on a discrete period of time in 1986, the film’s presentation of the FDA as stonewalling potential breakthroughs may unduly paint the government agency as villainous. There’s a whiff of Suzanne Somers-style pseudoscience about the proceedings.
As the journalist David France, director of the documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” pointed out to Salon, AZT is not useful taken alone, but was the first element of a cocktail of drugs that ended the era of AIDS-as-death sentence. Characters in “Dallas Buyers Club” rail against AZT as poison and seek to fill their bodies with alternative and in many cases all-natural medicines as the FDA — very slowly — attempts to use the scientific method. “‘Dallas Buyers Club’ ends on a note of real doubt about AZT, and the feeling that the monsters at the door were not interested in doing anything,” said France, who has read the film’s script. But “AZT was in use until three or four years ago.”
Nothing in “Dallas Buyers Club” is wrong, per se, but its focus is so laserlike upon a particular character, and a particular time period, as to create a simplistic impression of a remarkably complicated time. The FDA was not entirely operating in good faith, France believes — “There was no leap to a sense of urgency, because these people were undesirables” — and yet the government agency did eventually, after the period the film depicts, become much more nimble in its response to the AIDS epidemic. “With the intercession of activism, the scientific method took much less time,” said France.
The activism he describes was not happening in the buyers clubs across the U.S. Indeed, while activists petitioned outside the FDA and worked within it — a combination of infiltrators and “an outside army of activists who were the stick to their carrot,” per France — the buyers clubs were more focused on bringing hope to the dying. “The buyers clubs imported drugs willy-nilly and gave them to anyone who wanted them. That all made sense. Why not give people an element of hope,” said France. But though the film frames McConaughey’s character’s dispute with the FDA as a defining struggle — and though it may have been for him — the buyers clubs came before the turn in attention to working within the FDA, the turn from spreading hope that herbal remedies and the like might halt AIDS to putting the scientific method into practice.
“We try to cast that period into a context that lends itself to policy analysis, but it wasn’t a time that lends itself to policy analysis,” said Denise McWilliams, who in the 1980s was the director of the AIDS Law Project. The film treats the FDA as wrongheaded and unwilling to consider promising options; a doctor played by Denis O’Hare callously dictates to his colleague (Jennifer Garner) that she must stick with the program even despite her belief that McConaughey’s medicines might, maybe, be worth pursuing. Neither she nor he is wrong, exactly; stasis was death, but it wasn’t the foreign medications buyers clubs imported that put a stop to AIDS.
Buyers clubs provided hope and a sense of control to people in a truly unimaginable situation. But the movie goes along with that sense of hope — leaving the viewer in some suspense as to just how long McConaughey will stay alive on his self-styled cocktail so that there can be some drama — to the degree that the scientific method itself starts to seem untrustworthy.
The delay in expediting trials of AIDS medications was horrible — and very much of its time, given the Reagan administration’s infamous inaction in the face of so much death. But a framing that suggests buyers clubs were the story of the AIDS crisis, the vehicle for scientific progress rather than a tangent to activists forcing real scientists to get to work, is as misleading as a story that positions AIDS as the vehicle by which a straight person learns that gays aren’t all bad.
Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_ More Daniel D'Addario.
"Californication" (seven seasons)
"Entourage" (eight seasons)
Much like “Californication,” this man-centric show started strong and buzzy -- a perpetual nominee at the Golden Globes and Emmys, and a perceived gender-swapped “Sex and the City.” Then it ground on and on, and what might once have been read as a sophisticated satire of Hollywood materialism became a grinding conveyor belt of self-congratulatory guest-star appearances.
"Will & Grace" (eight seasons)
Hey, did someone say “self-congratulatory guest-star appearances?” Look -- it’s Jennifer Lopez, and Cher, and Janet Jackson, and Madonna! The latter seasons of “Will & Grace” effectively ruined the fun of watching the show in syndication now -- will it be a fun and jaunty early episode, or a later episode in which title characters enact an Ibsen play about having a baby together (really) while Jack and Karen meet one pop star or another? The fact that the show hastened a widespread acceptance of gay people that, then, made the show something of a throwback by the time it ended is one thing; the fact that the show itself seemed uninterested in relying on its actors’ sharp comic timing is quite another.
"The King of Queens" (nine seasons)
This CBS stalwart just kind of kept going, exactly as long as was needed to launch Kevin James’ film career. In the show’s final minutes, a formulaic sitcom became a mile-a-minute soap, with the central characters considering divorce and then having two children.
"Frasier" (11 seasons)
Though it ended strong, "Frasier" had something of the opposite problem as “The King of Queens”: While the CBS comedy chucked a whole bunch of plot at viewers toward the end, NBC’s Emmy magnet stayed stuck in familiar ruts, with Frasier questing endlessly for love and Daphne and Niles in fairly unthrilling domestic bliss. The jokes stayed good, but this maybe could have gone one or two years shorter.
"Weeds" (eight seasons)
As “Homeland” viewers may be learning, Showtime isn’t particularly good at keeping its shows coherent over time. (Maybe this is “Californication”’s issue -- we wouldn’t know!) This show changed settings and, effectively, organizing conceits so many times that by the end, it had few earnest defenders.
"Nip/Tuck" (six seasons)
This FX series, too, changed settings midway through, moving from Miami to Los Angeles four seasons in for no compelling reason. The show’s most gripping subplots had a way of petering out (remember the anticlimactic solution to the mystery of the Carver?), and its bizarre tendencies overtook any sense of fun.
"Glee" (five seasons and counting)
The series has, like its sibling show “Nip/Tuck” (Ryan Murphy created them both), switched locations, moving in large part to New York once its core cast graduated high school. But what’s the point of a high school series when the stars graduate? Despite some lovely moments, the show’s heat seems gone, and attempts to get back into the conversation (the school shooting episode, for instance) have been more desperate and tone-deaf than effective.
"Grey's Anatomy" (10 seasons and counting)
Here’s the thing: By all accounts, “Grey’s Anatomy” is not a creative failure. And it’s still widely watched. But when you begin your life as a world-beating hit, anything else seems somewhat marginal. “Grey’s Anatomy” has shed more regular viewers than many shows will ever hope to get in the first place (same’s true of “Survivor” and latter-day “ER,” to name just a few). Those who stopped watching once the Golden Globe nominations petered out may wonder why the show is still on; loyal viewers know better.
"The Simpsons" (25 seasons and counting)
Like the “Grey’s” doctors, the Springfield clan and their neighbors still draw a crowd. But “The Simpsons” is so omnipresent in syndication and in pop culture that the first-run series seems besides the point (not least because, though there are good episodes here and there, the show’s best days are universally agreed to be behind it -- like way behind it, in the 1990s).
"The Office" (nine seasons)
There was a natural break for this show, where it ought to have ended -- with the departure of lead actor Steve Carell in Season 7. The latter years were a creative fugue state, and as NBC’s Thursday night lineup continued to flatline in the ratings, one-time fans could be forgiven at their surprise that the adventures of Jim and Pam kept on unfolding.
"The X-Files" (nine seasons)
Once one of the show’s leads departs and has to be replaced -- as Steve Carell did on “The Office,” or David Duchovny did here -- the show faces a reckoning; if the lead is so central to the show’s plot as to make people wonder how the show could possibly go on, maybe the show shouldn’t. And even “X-Files” superfans might have been happier with fewer seasons of drawing out the conspiracy string toward a famously unsatisfying ending.
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