Saturday, May 1, 2010

TV Shelf Appeal

"Shelf Appeal" is different than "Shelf Life." Shelf Life, as it relates to television, is how well a show produced in days gone by holds up when viewed by a modern audience. (Think M*A*S*H or Twilight Zone or Star Trek, which despite reflecting the sensibilities and production values of their times, still make for good quality entertainment today). Shelf Appeal is a marketing term, which describes how interesting a packaged product looks sitting on the shelf in your local retailer. (Kind of a product-oriented spin on "judging a book by its cover").

When it comes to television shows, there are definitely things that do and do not have Shelf Appeal for me. You know what I'm talking about. When you see a 30 second promo for a new show, or read news about a concept or casting, and you make a note to add that to the DVR. Or conversely, you hear about a new show, and say to yourself "there's no way I'm ever watching that."

The great thing about Shelf Appeal, and the personal preconceptions built into it, is that it can frequently be wrong, and you'll find yourself surprised. For example, I want nothing to do with shows about families, kids and teens. Yet somehow, I got exposed to Gilmore Girls, and it became one of my favorite programs because the quality of the performances (Lauren Graham's in particular) and the quality of the writing overcame my initial objections. Or I really didn't think I wanted to spend 60 hours being aggressively lectured about the plight of urban, inner-city decay, yet The Wire is a towering achievement that might have no peer. Similarly, folks who have no interest in football might be astonished how involved they become with Friday Night Lights. Or just try getting someone to overcome the Shelf Appeal (or lack thereof) of a show called "Battlestar Galactica." It's about killer robots? And it's in space? And based on a failed 70s show with a cheese content that would make Wisconsin proud? Silly sounding titles can seriously hamper the Shelf Appeal of a show for many viewers. Try to say "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" with a straight face.

So what are my Shelf Appeal hot buttons? Glad you asked.

Things that DO have Shelf Appeal for me:

  • Genre shows. Set in space. Focused on the supernatural. Steeped in mythology. Featuring robots, laser guns, time travel, ghosts, swords, magic, vampires, werewolves, clones, monsters, virtual reality and the like.
  • Detectives. Maybe this is why so many USA shows work for me. I grew up watching the heydey of detective shows in the 70s (Columbo, Macmillian and Wife, Rockford Files, etc.), so give me a quirky or acerbic lead character solving crimes, and I'll give it a shot.
  • Created by Joss Whedon.
  • Created or produced by someone who was on a Joss Whedon staff. Like Jane Espenson (Caprica, Andy Barker PI), Ben Edlund (Supernatural), Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus: Blood & Sand), Tim Minear (The Inside, Drive).
  • Anti-Heroes. I love shows about the less "heroic" and abrasive lead characters. Think Sopranos, House, Dexter, Rescue Me, Archer, Sons of Anarchy.

Things that DO NOT have Shelf Appeal for me:

  • Teens & Kids. Particularly young kids. Especially babies. They're awful enough in real life, why on earth would anyone want to spend their television time with them? And I always dread when shows I'm currently watching feel the need to add one.
  • Doctors and Diseases. (Unless you count Doctor Who). Looking though my voluminous season pass list, I think I only have one "medical drama" there, House. However, I'm inclined to like shows with psychologists or psychiatrists as opposed to medical doctors. Also, I have no interest in watching characters struggling with or overcoming physical diseases. (For example, Showtime has a show coming up with one of my favorite actresses, Laura Linney, called The C-Word. It's about cancer. As much as I love Linney, I won't be tuning in).
  • Religion and politics. Annoying, judgmental, and requires greater suspension of disbelief than vampires and androids. If I want news and opinions, I'll get them myself. If I wanted a lecture, I'd go back to college.
  • Starring Eric Balfour.
  • Families. Unless they solve crimes. Or are robots. Or are undead.
  • "Reality" television. There aren't enough words in my vocabulary to describe how much I fucking hate this classification of programming. (There are some "unscripted" programs I watch regularly, like Mythbusters or Sci-Fi Science, but they're not focused on the "lives" of vapid, brain-dead, shallow douchebags desperately clinging to their 5 minutes of "fame").

What's fun is working through the Dos and Do Nots to make a decision on a new show. The Sopranos is the name of a family. They have kids. But they're mobsters. Glee is about teens in high school, but they sing and deliver snarky one-liners and ramp up the camp to 11. Breaking Bad is about a dude with cancer, but he's a meth dealer. House is a medical drama, but the main character is an unrepentant asshole. Big Love is about families and kids and religion, but all the characters are deluded whackjobs and magnificently acted. And so on.

Those are just a few of mine. What things do or do not have Shelf Appeal for you?


  1. My Shelf Appeal lists look a whole lot like yours. Much like your experience with GG, I found the same thing recently with Parenthood. Except the opposite. Sort of. See, I'd never seen the movie but liked the commercials NBC was running; it looked to me like a comedy similar to Modern Family. Then I watched it, and it wasn't like that AT ALL; that said, I ended up liking it and still watch it on Hulu when nothing else is on.

    A year ago I'd have said that sitcoms had no Shelf Appeal for me, outside of a couple I watched occasionally like The Office or 30 Rock. But then Community and Modern Family showed up, and I stopped using the term "sitcom" with general derision.

    Debra Messing is my Eric Balfour. That woman bugs the shit out of me. It's like I don't... trust her or something.

  2. I thought long and hard about Parenthood. I love Graham and Krause (SportsNight, Six Feet Under and the underrated and little seen The Lost Room), and Bonnie Bedelia will always be beloved for her turn as Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney in Heart Like a Wheel (and John McLane's wife). And Jason Katims,of FNL fame, sucked me into a show I didn't think I would like before. But there's nothing else there, beside the actors, to draw me in. Maybe I'll watch an ep on reruns and check it out sometime. (Or, if a ghost or robot shows up).

    As for "sitcoms," I was in the same boat. Now, I watch all the NBC Thursday shows, but only truly love Community and Parks and Rec (Ron Swanson is my god). Big Bang Theory still makes me laugh, as does How I Met Your Mother (though if they go down the Marshall and Lily have a baby route, I may check out).

    Are you watching Party Down? Because that is pure uncut awesome. And could you call Archer a "sitcom?" That makes me laugh harder than anything except Better Off Ted (or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), which sadly, won't see the light of day again.

    Except BBT, most aren't getting great ratings, but the sitcom as an art form is returning a bit. And I watched one Modern Family (mainly for Judy Greer) and it was pretty damned funny. I think I'll catch up on that in reruns.

  3. I really would recommend Modern Family. Yeah it has kids (and relatively few robots) but it's damned funny. Good writing ... well drawn characters ... like Community, it takes a bunch of sit com stereotypes and fucks with them for our amusement.
    Also like Community, I came in about 10 episodes in - I originally had no interest in either. Now they are the two sit coms I look most forward to each week.
    Just my opinion but, from what I know of your TV taste, I think you'll like Modern Family.

  4. I don't know what I would call Archer other than "hilarious." I think this is the first time I've had a crush on a cartoon character since 1979.