Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dangers And Rewards

Most pitches don't become pilots.  Most pilots don't become shows.  Most shows flop.  So when you have a hit on TV you've got something special.  You need to nurture it, not upset its delicate balance. Sure, you've got to find your sea legs, see what works and doesn't, but major changes are just asking for trouble.

On the other hand, if you keep things the same year after year, eventually the audience will drift away.  So you try to make changes, but nothing too upsetting.  A show that's done that right is The Big Bang Theory.  It started with four guys and a gal, and has slowly introduced new people to keep the characters' various relationships moving forward.  But that's a comedy, and comedies (these days) have a serial aspect, but mostly feature stand-alone episodes.  Dramas are trickier.

Which brings me to my point.  There are two shows I watch that have surprised me in how willing they are to change the basic plot.  (Spoilers ahead.)

The most obvious, I guess, is Once Upon A Time.  In the first season, the big question was when and how will the curse be lifted.  One might have guessed they'd save that moment for the last episode ever. Instead, they dealt with it rather quickly in the season one finale.  Now that the show's returned, they're all over the place.  Characters have complete knowledge of who they are and were.  Some characters from Storybrooke have been thrown back into what's left of fairy tale land.  Some are trying to get to fairy tale land while others are trying to get out.  And they still have flashbacks along with two concurrent storylines in different realms.  Plus they keep introducing new characters, which sort of figures since they can pretty much take anyone from all literature.  (They've got so many characters they're willing to kill some off.)

Actually, the show's a bit of a mess, but it's a fascinating one.  The story keeps widening out, and you don't really know where it'll be going in the future. But OUAT always was sort of a mess.  I'm much more surprised by Homeland.

Homeland is sort of the opposite of OUAT.  The latter was critically reviled but became a surprise hit.  Homeland is a critical favorite but doesn't get the greatest numbers.  It's also a taut, realistic thriller, not a fantasy that's all over the place.  But that didn't stop it from changing on a dime this season--twice in the first four episodes, in fact.

The first season was all about CIA agent Carrie Mathison tracking Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, whom she suspected was a terrorist.  It was one extended cat-and-mouse game, except it wasn't always clear who was the cat and who was the mouse.  The season ended, somewhat frustratingly, with Brody pulling back from being a suicide bomber and Carrie getting ECT to deal with her mental problems.

So this season, Carrie gets pulled back into the CIA and we're figuring she'll eventually have to catch on to Brody again. Except who knows how long it will take. Not very. In the second episode, colleague Saul Berenson discovers what they couldn't figure out in all season one--the Brody, in fact, is working for the terrorists.  This is the kind of revelation that you figure might take almost all season, but Homeland wants to move to uncharted territory.

So in episode three Carrie finally gets to know she read the situation right.  But that still didn't prepare us for episode four.  She's brought back in to help surveil Brody.  This is something we understand, and it looks like the season will be a repeat of season one, with a different perspective.

So Carrie goes in to meet with Brody to see if she can force him to run to his contacts.  However, she thinks she's been made and what does she do?  Disobeying orders, she confronts Brody and at the and of the episode, he's arrested by authorities.  It's a cathartic moment, something we've been waiting for since the series started, but where does it leave us?  We were all ready for a season of more cat and mouse, but the producers didn't want us to be comfortable.  Which is a good thing, I guess, but where are they going next?  And how do they know we'll follow?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It must be difficult to write a narrative arc when you don't know when the end will come and each season is to a large extent dependent on the popular success of the prior season. It can lead to a mess but can also lead to some innovative twists and turns (though I would say less frequently). If you build a captivating story arc and then end it, what's left to watch. If the story arc seems to pointlessly/artifically continue, you risk boredom. Also, the trick to be able to pick up viewers along the way without foprcing to watch 6-10 hours to catch up. Tricky business.

Similar but different concerns when doing trilogy or longer books and movies- each one needs to be a stand alone but still fit into the narrative.

6:26 AM, October 23, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love that picture of Saul on the airplane.

Reminds me of Charlie Wilson's War. All the heroes are congressional aides. Tension is when they're walking down a marble hallway in high heels.

5:50 PM, October 23, 2012  

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