Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eat Your Serial

A few days ago I posted on Lost. (I guess that's always true.)

In the comments, QueensGuy noted: be truly great does a dramatic TV series have to have the same type of clean narrative arc as a great novel or feature-length film? [...] there will necessarily be compromises that can be overlooked -- e.g. I don't particularly care what happened to the Russian mobster lost in the snowy Pine Barrens.

Lawrence King responded:

I think it depends on the genre. A show such as Law & Order is utterly episodic, and I think their occasional attempts to link multiple episodes (e.g., a detective's daughter is in trouble) make the show weaker.On the other hand, Lost, Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica (following in the footsteps of Babylon 5) are attempting to tell a long story. [...] So it is reasonable to demand that the story hold up if you rewatch the entire series after it's done.

Here's how I see it.

Even if you have a good idea of the full story, in the massive, day-to-day enterprise of running a TV show (especially one where for more than half its run you don't know when it's going to end) your main duty is to make each episode entertaining. That's hard enough by itself--you can't always worry about every little piece fitting into the overall vision perfectly.

In fact, many novelists, such as Dickens, did write their novels serially, each chapter being published on its own. And when these chapters were compiled and turned into a novel, generally there was rewriting required. If the creators of Lost were able to reshoot and reedit when they were done, I guarantee the whole project would be much more unified.

By the way, David Chase would defend the Russian mobster as the way he intended to tell the story. Life is full of loose ends.


Blogger New England Guy said...

Per the last comment- I don't want to watch life on TV.(OK I've completely missed out on the appeal of reality TV for the last decade) I want life-like drama. Being the medium it is, the Russian mobster in the Pine Barrens will be resolved one day and due to the build up, it (whatever it is) will be deeply unsatisfying.

On a completely unrelated Soprano's note- I was on sports website yesterday (cnnsi?) and noticed a small picture of Tony Soprano but when I clicked found it to be Pete Rose in his current expanding/receding state- but he's close to a "Separated At Birth" shot with James Gandolfini. As my Teamster acquaintances would say, "weird, huh?"

6:14 AM, July 29, 2009  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I agree that a long series, even with a strong arc, is not the same as a novel.

Harlan Ellison once sat in a bookstore and wrote a short story; as he finished each page, he taped it to the window so folks could read it. No revision possible. That was just a stunt, but I think that it is comparable to a TV series with an arc: they can plan in advance, but they can't revise once an episode has been completed.

Straczynski had some "back-up plans" in case major actors left Babylon 5. But back-up plans are never as good as your original plans, and when actors did leave -- three times -- the seams were very visible.

A show with a moderately strong arc is more resilient. Buffy and Angel usually had medium-length arcs (about a season in length), and this allowed them to freely drop actors that weren't very good, and to turn temporary guest actors into permanent cast members when they exceeded expectations. As you mentioned, Lost did that with Ben Linus, and it's hard to imagine the later seasons without him!

However, I don't agree that each episode must be entertaining in itself. Once you are late in the game, where new viewers can't join anyway, there's no real need for that. Lost's "The Man Behind the Curtain" and "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" were awesome as part of the arc, but would be utter failures considered as single stand-alone episodes for a newbie. And there were times that Babylon 5 and Angel were so arc-heavy that each episode simply picked up wherever the previous one left off, like a soap opera, without any beginning-middle-end of that specific hour of television.

I guess my main demand is that something that obviously looks like a mystery needs to be solved. We don't have to learn what happened to Annie (though it would be nice), but we do need to learn more about the Temple. Otherwise it's just Twin Peaks all over again.

2:39 PM, July 29, 2009  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I was just thinking of Twin Peaks. That's the ultimate example of a TV show not knowing where it was going. Had a great pilot, great characters, great atmosphere, but they didn't even know the solution to the main mystery! And they sure didn't know what to do after they solved that mystery. And as different people took over the show, they erased what the previous people had done and tried to start again.

A similar present-day example is Heroes. Great first season with a disappointing finale, but they've been trying to recapture that exctiment ever since, and failing completely. And when something doesn't seem to be working, they erase it as if nothing ever happened. You can get away with this every now and then, but hitting the reset button practically every week can't work.

2:56 PM, July 29, 2009  

Post a Comment

<< Home

web page hit counter