Why Things Are Great … And Then They’re Not
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The gradual decline of Homeland happens every day in business, sports, even politics — and there’s something to be learned from it.
Two years ago, I stayed up until 5 a.m. for three nights straight — not on some wild bender but watching what quickly became my new favorite show, Homeland. I was in London for business, but once I discovered that I could watch Homeland for free on the hotel’s on-demand TV system, I had no choice: Sleep be damned, I was going to watch this show. I plunged into the serial drama that revolves around Carrie, a bipolar CIA agent, and Brody, an U.S. Marine returning from seven years’ captivity at the hands of al-Quaida — and Carrie’s latest security obsession.
I eagerly anticipated season two, and again, I was delighted — until suddenly, I wasn’t.
It reminded me of the Bourne series: smart, unexpected, thrilling and consistently well done.
I eagerly anticipated season two, and again, I was delighted — until suddenly, I wasn’t. About midway through the season, the show jumped the shark, reaching the pinnacle of impossibility when a handsome character miraculously survives multiple gunshots. It was as if we’d slipped from the first three Bourne movies to the fourth.
When the third season arrived this fall, I watched nervously, hoping Homeland would return to its roots — as a crazy story with enough believability to make it feel smart. But this week, the season ended in clownish absurdity — a female American spy shouting to her lover in front of a crowded public square in Tehran? Without getting arrested? Ridiculous. Frustrating. And worrisome. TV shows, sports legends, companies and brands of every kind win our hearts by giving us something that doesn’t just taste good, but something that induces cravings. Which makes it so much the worse when those beloved items suddenly stop satisfying, turn mediocre or outright fail us. How does this happen?
The show jumped the shark; It was as if we’d slipped from the first three Bourne movies to the fourth.
It reminds me of a post written by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ben Horowitz about the consistent talent required to stay great at startups — something I think about often as a founder myself. Something can start out phenomenally, but as it grows it essentially becomes a different company — meaning every member of the machine, whether it’s a group of screenwriters, OZY’s newsroom or the garage Google was founded in, has to adapt to keep things top-notch.
Homeland’s writers’ room saw shifts both standard and extreme. Executive producer Henry Bromell, whose perspective as a child of CIA parents reportedly colored the show, died in March of a heart attack. Writers cycled in and out, many brought on board by Bromell. No one planned for the Carrie-Brody love story to get as big as it did. The litany of unplanned wrinkles was endless.
But the little particles comprising a bigger product are always changing. The truly elite products — the ones we crave for the long run, the Oprahs, the Disneys, the Nikes — manage to maintain a kind of domino effect of positivity, with each successful season, game, episode or issue serving as a stepping stone to the next one — at the same level of excellence or higher.
Turns out it’s human nature to falter, especially in groups and especially as the singular vision that drew them together at the outset begins to fade. It’s really difficult to keep the domino effect working to your benefit — just ask Mario Draghi about his attempt to popularize the idea of financial positive contagion. Bad news just spreads faster than the good stuff. And collaborative psychology research tells us we work best together over short periods of time, which explains why that corporate meeting that drags on and on really is making you dumber. And why Homeland sent me to bed angry instead of hungry for more this week.
Maybe sticking around for the long haul means bowing out when the time is right, like Breaking Bad, or taking a brief hiatus like Mad Men — or even Michael Jordan, who stepped out (and into baseball) for a time. No one wants to be Tim Tebow or Weeds, starting strong and ending with the bad kind of bang that makes us whimper. Maybe Homeland tried to bow out, in part, by writing its way out of the awkward corner it pushed itself into. And perhaps Nick Brody had to be sacrificed to the TV gods for Homeland to have another shot.
But when I think about my approach — the OZY approach — to long-lasting excellence, I think the key lies with endurance athletes: lots of heart and no breaks. Which is possible to pull off. And a tip of the hat to those who accomplish that rare feat of gratifying us for so long.