One For The Money, Two For The Money

How much of our favorite TV storylines can be reduced to one simple explanation?

(SPOILERS for the most recent season of Mad Men follow)


Pete Campbell (played by 90s heartthrob Vincent Kartheiser) continued his gradual, tragic descent on the most recent season of Mad Men. Emboldened by his successful affair in S5 – with Kartheiser’s future wife, Alexis Bledel – he continued his shenanigans with the neighbors, only for his wife to discover and kick him out of the house. Pete ended S6 in an eerie parallel of Don Draper in S1E1, watching his child sleep while his wife looked on from the door – perhaps a hint that Pete’s arc was to mirror Don’s.

But why exactly did Trudy kick Pete out? Or, more to the point, why did Pete get caught? Is it indicative of a theme that Mad Men had visited before – that Campbell is an emblem of a generation that’s trying to emulate their older masculine idols and failing? Or was it because Alison Brie wouldn’t be around as much?
Brie may have first caught our eye as Campbell’s bubbly wife in S1, but her star took off with her role in NBC’s benighted sitcom Community. Since then, she’s enjoyed a number of indie film roles (Save the Date, Kings of Summer, The Five Year Engagement) and continued to tour with her West Coast band The Girls. Clearly, even if the writers wanted Brie to stay around (and who can blame ’em, right? HIGH FIVE. Anyway…), her other interests would have pulled her elsewhere.

Or consider Lane Pryce (played by Jared Harris), last vestige of Sterling Cooper’s European ties. As the financial demands of position clashed with his stubborn British pride, his position in New York grew untenable. Pryce was driven to suicide, attempted first with the agency’s flagship account, later in the agency’s offices. For a man caught between a rock and a hard place, such a date was inevitable.

Or was it? Jared Harris’s film career has seen some recent success, with distinctive roles in both the Sherlock Holmes sequel and in Lincoln. While Mad Men may have been one of the best shows on cable, its shooting schedule doubtless conflicted with a major motion picture. It’ll be easier for Harris’s star to continue ascending note that he’s been written off the show.

Hoping for Alison Brie in a low-cut top? Not a chance, you blighters!

Hoping for Alison Brie in a low-cut top? Not a chance, you blighters!

While I can’t read the minds of either Harris or Brie, it’s obvious that there were economic incentives that kept those actors from continuing in their roles indefinitely. In circumstances like these, it’s easy to assert that the economic circumstances have primacy. If the actor can’t show up, it doesn’t matter what the writers intend. So it’s tempting to say that the narrative – Trudy dumping Pete, Lane hanging himself – is dictated by the production, not the production by the narrative.

We don’t need to limit ourselves to prestigious cable dramas. Consider Two And a Half Men, for years the most popular sitcom in America. Why did Charlie Sheen’s character vanish, only to be replaced by Ashton Kutcher? For reasons I hardly need to elaborate. Why did How I Met Your Mother meander through a few years without advancing the show’s chief conceit of how the protagonist met his future wife? Because the show was succeeding at finding a primetime audience, so there was no incentive to wrap it up and every incentive to keep it going. Or consider Jack or Liz’s succession of paramours on 30 Rock: Salma Hayek, Jon Hamm, Julianne Moore, Matt Damon, and so forth. Why was each relationship guaranteed to fall apart within four or five episodes? Because that’s how long NBC could afford to keep them as a guest star.

Of course, once you crack this metaphorical can of Pringles, it’s hard to stop eating. Why do so many primetime dramas and sitcoms revert continually to an accessible status quo? Because the shows need to be sold to advertisers. Why do the relationships between characters never advance? Because the actors are under contract. Once you take that step back and examine each show through an economic lens, all narrative becomes a footnote on a production invoice. The story is a line item, like the craft services table or the lighting (and, in the era of reality TV, an easy line item to cut).

This is always possible. The question: is it fair?

Years ago, in talking with the other writers at Overthinking It, we came to the consensus that we wanted the site to replicate the experience of talking with your well-read friends after sharing some entertaining piece of pop culture. Making a new friend by discussing different interpretations of Breaking Bad, for instance, or staying up all night in your dorm lounge and discussing The Matrix, or arguing over whether Physical Graffiti or Houses of the Holy is the better album. While each side has an argument to advance, the joy is in the conversation: the give and take, the unfolding and revising of viewpoints, the mutual discovery. The conversation doesn’t work if there’s an ur-argument that ends every discussion.

And yet, the role of budget and production dictates the shape of television narrative in a way that few other art forms labor under. You can talk about money with every type of art, granted, but, in the more established forms, you have a harder time saying cash rules everything around the muse. It would be foolish to say that Picasso painted cubic ladies because he thought that’s what would sell – chiefly because it didn’t; he was dirt poor until very late in his life. The economics of financing a movie are weird and varied – read Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla or Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade – but frequently boil down to executives promising producers a certain budget up front, rather than a project having to prove itself out month over month. So while movie money isn’t the same as the more stable investments, like real estate or commodity speculation, it’s not subject to the same whimsy as advertising and primetime viewer demographics. It’s TV in particular where the cart and the horse get tangled up.

A filthy business, really.

A filthy business, really.

So, three questions for the Overthinking It readership:

  1. Is the economic lens unassailable? Can the most important questions about a show’s narrative – if not all of them – be answered by brute financials?
  2. If so, do we owe it to ourselves as raconteurs to forget about this when talking about a show? If we talk about why LOST ran as long as it did, do we limit ourselves to discussing purgatory, time travel, and redemption narratives, ignoring any discussion of the show’s favor with network executives? Should we deliberately veil ourselves from the real world when discussing our favorite fictions?
  3. Or, alternatively, do we owe it to ourselves to become better informed about TV economics? Should we stop talking about storylines until we can all decipher a Nielsen report?
  4. I’m undecided, Overthinkers, so you tell me. Sound off in the comments!

10 Comments on “One For The Money, Two For The Money”

  1. Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

    Great piece, but I’m not quite willing to go totally economic determinism just yet. Some kind of free will does exist within the television writing landscape. Consider shows “on the bubble” (a.k.a., in real danger of being canceled). When this happens, some shows hunker down and stick with the status quo, or they try to go as mainstream as possible. Other shows shake things up slightly, maybe by killing a character or adding new one, Poochie-style. (Or, more likely, they add a baby.)

    And then there are the shows that go off the deep end. I’m thinking specifically of ‘Til Death, which apparently went bizonkers in its last season, changing from your typical family sitcom into some dark meta thing:–42394#comment-271649022

    You could argue that the writers and producers choose which way to go based on how bad the ratings are; for example, ‘Til Death’s last season probably wouldn’t have happened the way it did had there been more of a chance that it would be renewed. I’m also sure writers’ choices are determined in part by their audience. For example, whenever Fringe was on the bubble, the writers went weirder, mainly because its audience was made up of obsessed nerds and TV critics. But I still think writers must have some creative control when they’re facing the TV death squads, because the reactions are so diverse.

    To answer your second question: Nahhhhhh.


  2. Richard #

    Interesting how this follows an essay on The Ship of Theseus and sports franchises.

    It seems as if you are asking (in a way) how much change can a TV series handle before it becomes a completely different show.


  3. Seth #

    I think it’s impossible to separate the economic view of TV from watching a show you love, but it’s also our responsibility as viewers to suspend disbelief enough to ignore it.

    So when a Castle cliffhanger has Beckett shot by a sniper, the economics tell us there’s no way she’s going to die. But with sufficient suspension of disbelief the moment itself can still be stunning and leave you wanting to know what happens next (or even more appropriately, wondering how the hell are they going to write themselves out of this one).

    By the same token, when a bubble show ends up writing a sequence extolling the virtues of Subway sandwiches, or the Ford Escape Hybrid, or a dozen other products the economic view tells us, “Boy I hope this keeps my favorite show on the air,” while suspension of disbelief hopefully keeps us from getting upset about out of character behavior during the “commercial break.”


  4. David Provost #

    All art is created under constraints, whether that constraint is an actor’s film schedule or Claude Monet’s cataracts. While I can always appreciate a good discussion about the restrictions a piece of art is created under, I usually like to keep it separate from a more conceptual analysis of the work itself. So I guess it depends on what kind of a discussion you want to have, technical or philosophical.


  5. Wenyip #

    Oddly, I think the perfect example of this was Babylon 5. It’s known, of course, as a show which the creator had not only plotted out, for five seasons, from beginning to end, but had also thought out what he called ‘escape hatches’: ways the plot would progress properly in any number of contingencies, like if an actor couldn’t continue, or if a particular twist was revealed too early (as happened in the Pilot Episode). Anyway, despite all this planning and vision, the last two seasons of the show were dictated largely by money. At the start of Season 4, everyone thought it would be the last season, so he wrapped up two seasons worth of plot in one. But almost at the end of filming Season 4, the studio decided it was popular enough to renew for Season 5… which ironically left the creator with no more plot left (which is typically cited as a reason Season 5 is the worst).

    In answer to your first question, I think the answer is kind of yes. Sure, there are a few shows, chiefly non-fiction and funded by governments, that are made for reasons other than ‘making money’. But most are designed as such. But studio executives and producers don’t automatically choose the best result based on statistics (or Neilson polls). Take a risk with an innovative show: maybe it flops, maybe it’s hugely popular. Or give a writer/director/showrunner plenty of discretion in how the show works, trusting that their judgment will make the show good and accordingly profitable. Adapt an extremely popular fantasy book series. Etc. As such, the economic lense is unassailable in that it can never be denied… but that doesn’t necessarily make it the most interesting/important thing to talk about for a show. It can be (think Andromeda), but it needn’t be.

    Actually, now I think of it… Economics is a ‘meta’ element in the creation of a show: ie. something outside the pure creative process that informs the direction of the script. These can be various: actors/writers/etc getting sick/pregnant or dying; new laws making certain forms of expression more or less legal; current events that significantly affect popular outlook (think September 11); whatever else. Economics is one of these ‘meta’ elements, and is probably the most important in that it is omni-present. All of them can be important when discussing a show, but, again, there’s no reason why they *must* be discussed.


  6. Tulse #

    Economics may be why we see less of certain actors, but the flip side is also true — generally speaking, once an actor is on a show, they don’t leave unless the actor has an economic reason to do so. This also constrains the dramatic possibilities of a show. One of the reasons that Joss Whedon can be an interesting TV show runner is that he has a propensity for killing off characters for dramatic reasons, and not because an actor is leaving the show for another gig. Few TV show runners are willing to do that.


  7. mezdef #

    Building off @David Provost s excellent point, it really comes down to which discussion you want to have. Happily, OTI seems to regularly have both discussions.

    While it can certainly be boiled down to money if you really want to (as can everything in life if we’re being cynical), the interesting discourse (drink) is that which intermingles the two and examines the things money effects / affects. Money is certainly a first principle, but the discussion around a show, it’s decisions, audience response, plotting, casting, and network reaction are greater than just the sum of money + money + money. The levels of abstraction above money are almost always more interesting to examine and discuss.

    Hans Gruber (and every Die Hard villain) is only ever after money, but that doesn’t make them boring, just practical. Money is a symbol of want, of something else. A driving force to be certain, but not the most interesting part of who they are or what they do. The same could be said of casting decisions and contractual obligations. If Alison Bree had better things to do, what were those things? Was her rising star on Community putting a dampener on her Mad Men character and confusing audiences? What’s the cross over? Let’s dig into, this is Overthinking It after all.

    Finally, I’d like to throw the BBC into the mix for discussion. They are notorious for their short-run mini series, do these change the money lens?


    • Timothy J Swann #

      The BBC is influenced by economics in odd ways – their commissioners have a duty to make stuff that still appeals to a mass market, sometimes to the cost of the more artistic stuff that only they could produce. Their budget is, in a way, determined by the government, who can slam them for ‘value for money’ but this is obviously subjective.

      Also, there’s very strict rules on not having an unfair competitive advantage – this is why only a few shows are available for download from radio, as it’s believed this would unfairly destroy a lot of podcasts.


      • A different Tim #

        I was going to point out the BBC as being a whole different kettle of fish as well.

        However there is potential interest in looking at the British history of the six episode series as behaving somewhat differently, certainly compared to the American 13 + 9 thing that I often feels ruins the plotting of series.

        Looking at the interaction of stars with production, Sherlock is quite an interesting example, finally coming back in the New Year after a bit of a struggle getting together the high profile participants.

        Finally, I’ve never heard of the concept of radio downloads being restricted to protect podcasts, as far as I can see it’s to protect the interests of BBC Worldwide so they can flog I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue compilations and the like. The shows you can download are a. topical and b. generally the most podcast like, Now Show, News Quiz etc.


  8. Simber #

    I think an economic interpretation is certainly valid, but as art goes one interpretation doesn’t invalidate others. Economics is certainly an interesting and often ignored lens to observe drama through, but so are biographical (Mad Man as Mathhew Weiner’s psychoanalytical way of dealing with his parents) or historical (Waiting for Godot turning out not to be so abstract, but a story about two jews fleeing nazi-occupied France and waiting for their guide to take them across the Alps) lenses.

    (It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine that all works of art -as all great art is deeply personal- can be interpreted biographically for their creators; i.e. Vince Gilligan having created such a potent and addictive product that he gets alienated from the ones he loves, etc.)

    Still, while economic circumstances impose constraints, the ‘magic’ happens where writers deal with them. To take your example from Mad Men: imagine the writers switching the solutions for Trudy and Lane. They might have killed off Trudy (some tragic disease that nowadays might easily be cured) and send Lane packing after a conflict in the firm, back to Britain. Same contraints, totally different outcome, different arcs and different drama.

    Finally I still believe (maybe naively) that in the eternal conflict between money and integrity, the latter sometimes wins. From an economic perspective it would be logical to have a (growing) hit show like Breaking Bad have two more seasons to milk it dry. Wouldn’t it have been an artistic decision to keep the story neat and clean?


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