Wednesday, October 19, 2005

the best form of drama

The best form of drama is television. That's a biased statement, so I will explain my biases below. It's also an eccentric statement. Most critics call TV the bastard cousin of film. To address this, let me point to the word "form" in my biased statement: Television is the best FORM of drama. It's the form with the most potential. It's the best medium for great storytelling. Which doesn't mean it tends to be used to its full potential. Generally, TV-storytellers don't deserve their platform. They produce trash. But there are and have been shining examples which give us a glimpse of what TV could be. I suspect no one has yet pushed this medium to it's true potential, but the history of television is still young.

Okay, my biases: I consume stories for one reason only -- so that I can get the feeling of living in another world. I'm not (necessarily) talking about science fiction. The other world can be a version of contemporary New York. Every story (on television, in a book, in the cinema, etc.) creates a unique world with it's own rules. I read to escape my world and jump into that one. ANYTHING that hinders the sensation that the story-world is real detracts from the experience.

When people hear I love escapist literature, they often recommend genre novels and sci-fi shows. Though I love these sorts of stories when they're well crafted, they are usually so shoddy that I can't sink into their worlds for more than a few seconds. People usually assume that I don't care about writing style. But I care deeply. I care deeply because bad writing makes me aware of the artist's poor craftsmanship. And then I am thinking about the artist, which means that I am remembering that the world isn't real (that it is a fabrication, created by an artist), in which case I can't immerse myself in the world. For similar reasons, I'm anal about plot errors, bad acting, cliched dialogue, unbelievable psychology (the WORST error!) and other gaffs. I don't try to pick nits; I just don't like being reminded that a fictional world is fake. And errors remind me of this. It's like being torn out of a dream. This is also why I don't like didactic stories. If I'm aware that the author is teaching me a lesson, then I'm aware of the AUTHOR, not his world. For the same reason, I abhor clunky, obvious exposition.

I know that there are many other kinds of reader/viewers. Which is why I'm admitting that these are MY biases.

Anyone who shares my biases will understand why I prefer long stories to short ones. Assuming it's well crafted, a long story allows me to stay in its world longer than a short story. And since my goal is to stay in the world as-long-as possible, I'm grateful when it goes on and on and on. So I adore long novels like "War and Peace" and the more recent "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel." I want to live with characters for so long that they seem as real as people in my life. I want to fall in love with them. I want to grieve when they die.

Though I dearly love literature, immersion in a world is so much easier in visual storytelling (assuming the story well made). You don't have to imagine a street in ancient Rome. You SEE the street. You see the clothes; the buildings; the food; the dirt. Movies and television are the closest I can get to visiting other worlds without joining the space program. I will be forever grateful for this amazing technology and the for luck that I was born in a time when I could enjoy it.

Film and theatre are wonderful, immersive forms, but they are lacking one thing: duration. You can't immerse someone in a film version of "War and Peace" as deeply as you can in the novel, for the simple reason that you can't hold people in a theatre for more than a few hours. Occasionally someone experiments with an episodic sequence of films ("Lord of the Rings," etc.), but it takes so long to crank each installment out that one loses any sense of continuity. And even these series tend to be relatively short. Clearly, Peter Jackson felt he didn't have enough time to film Tolkien's whole story. He released many scenes only on the DVD versions, and even with these scenes, the story was truncated. [Incidentally, I HATED those films. To see why, read this.]

The hero is television. It provides the same visual (and auditory) immersion as film, but it can tell stories that are many hours long, in the form of episodes. These episodes can be disseminated quickly, one each week for a whole season, so one doesn't lose the thread. And one of the great new joys of the 21st Century is the advent of TV series on DVD. One can watch as many hours straight as one likes. This brings TV much closer to providing a similar experience to that of reading a long, involving novel.

Too bad TV screens are so small, compared to movie screens. A huge screen that engulfs one's whole visual field is a huge aid to immersion. Seeing "2001: A Space Odyssey" on the big screen is like actually being in outer space. Seeing it on TV is like having a small portal to outer space in your living room. But televisions are gradually getting larger. I'm confident that one day I'll own a screen that fills my entire living-room wall. (Truth is, the cinema generally teases me with the lure of immersion, but it rarely delivers. Even if the film is wonderful, the audience is usually impossible. It's hard to sink into a world when the guy behind me is shout-whispering, "WHAT DID HE SAY?!?" At home, though I'm forced to watch on a small screen, I can control the surrounding environment. If you try to call me when I'm immersed, you won't get through -- the ringer is turned off.)

So now you know why I love TV. I love it in theory. I hate most of the actual shows. But here are some I love, most of which are old (but available on DVD): "I, Claudius," "Upstairs Downstairs," "The Charmer," "Northern Exposure" (I've only watched the first season), "Paradise Postponed," "To Serve Them All My Days," "Freaks and Geeks," "The Sopranos," and "Deadwood." (Incidentally, most of the great shows of the 70s and 80s came from England. The late 80s and most of the 90s were, as far as I can tell, a wasteland. Suddenly, great television is coming from the US -- mostly from HBO. HBO is the BBC of the early 21st Century.

It's boring to talk about what makes most TV bad. Most of it is bad because it's horribly written -- containing writing mistakes that wouldn't (or shouldn't) get a passing grade in a freshman composition class. The characters are cliched types, the stories are trite moralistic sketches, the dialogue is crafted by someone with a tin ear, and the plots are impossible. I have no time for this crap. I have no time for the beautiful girl who hangs out with her dumpy (but wisecracking) best friend or the wasp lawyer whose buddy is a black guy from the ghetto. These "conventions" are an insult to my intelligence and as such should be outlawed. Let's talk about something more interesting.

TV's greatest asset -- it's ability to deliver lengthy stories -- is also, often, its downfall. The BEST shows on network television generally suck because they have no dramatic arc. The writers can't craft an ending because they must keep the series going and going until the ratings drop. This generally means that even good shows will keep going until they are bad shows. Which -- in an ONGOING story -- kills the whole project. If "Law and Order" ever goes South, it won't be the end of the world. Each story is self-contained. So later goofs won't mar earlier triumphs. (On the other hand, "Law and Order," being a series of short stories, can't ever give me that "War and Peace" thrill.) I'm currently enjoying the series "Lost," but I'm nervous about giving so much time to it, because I read an interview with the producers in which they admit that they MUST keep the show going indefinitely, until the ratings slide. How can one possibly produce a good story under these conditions. One is forced to either write each episode without knowing the shape of the story it's apart of. Or, if there's a loose shape, one must keep inserting gratuitous filler to padd the story so that it lasts longer.

At the BBC, they have the right idea. What we call a season in the US, they call a series: "The Office, Series One," "The Office, Series Two." This affords them them the ability to keep the show going as-long-as it's popular (just keep creating series after series) without jeopardizing the quality of an individual "season." Since a season is a series, it must tell a complete, satisfying story by itself. Future series might extend earlier ones, but each one is somewhat self-contained. Why does this simple idea so rarely translate across the Atlantic? HBO seems to have FINALLY gotten the idea. Which is one of the reasons their shows are so good.

But this idea, when taken to extremes can be a curse instead of a blessing. Recently, I've been watching a sci-fi show called "The 4400" on DVD. It's not great, but it kills an hour for me while I'm working out on my stationary bike. My problem is that they've attempted to replicate the BBC-series idea on an episode-by-episode basis. "The 4400" IS an ongoing story. Episodes often end in cliffhangers which propel you into the next episode. But each episode also contains,as a subplot, a self-contained story. "ER" also does this, as do many other shows. I HATE this hybrid format. I hate it because it's SO obvious that the "special guest stars" are going to have to die or move on by the end of the episode. I can't invest any real emotion in them. They are wasting my time. I just want to get on with the MAIN story.

A similar problem occurs in shows that are set in dangerous worlds (i.e. "Lost") in which major characters are not allowed to die. There's no risk. One is supposed to be scared about so-and-so's fate, but the whole thing is stupid, because the guy is OBVIOUSLY going to live. He's the star of the show! I won't create a spoiler here, but I will say to anyone who has never seen it, that midway through "Upstairs, Downstairs," there is a huge event (i.e. something like a main character's death) that propels the entire series in a fascinating, unforeseen direction. "The Sopranos" does this too (hooray for them!), as does "Deadwood" (which is somewhat constrained by history). I would cheer if halfway through a season of "24", Jack Bower would take a fatal bullet. (Not because I hate him. I enjoy him immensely. But I love good storytelling even better. And I love to be surprised. I want the producers to be one step ahead of me.) That would be a huge act of bravery on the part of the producers.

Big budgets can kill a show. This isn't necessarily true, but it's often true in practice. When producers can't rely on big effects, there's nothing left but writing and acting. Those facets are either amazing or the show dies (and good riddance). If you have any doubt about this, compare the wonderfully cash-poor "I, Claudius" with the so-so (but wealthy) "Rome." (Which is slowly getting better, but what a lousy start!)

Here's my formula for a great show. Producers, get your out notebooks and write this down!

-- Hire the best writers and actors you can find. Everything else is less important.

-- Craft a long but complete story. Know the entire story BEFORE you film the first episode.

-- When the story is over, it's over. If someone offers you a lot of money to keep it going,
turn them down. It's fine to create sequels.Sequels are new stories based on earlier stories.

-- EVERY scene in each episode must move the main series story forward. Gratuitous scenes with "special guest stars" are not allowed.

-- NOTHING gratuitous is allowed. "Gratuitous" doesn't mean sex and violence. ANYTHING that doesn't move the main story forward is gratuitous. That includes jokes (unless they help move the stories forward). Your job, as producer, is TO TELL THE STORY. That is your only job. You have no other job.

-- If a character no longer serves the story, he must go. I don't care if he's the star.

-- When you're given your budget, surprise the studio executives by saying "we'll only need half of that." Make sure that your budget is so low that you're scared shitless. Then solve budgetary problems through great storytelling.

-- Avoid formulas like the plague. Audiences should NEVER be able to guess the outcome of the current episode by studying previous episodes.

-- Obvious exposition is NOT allowed. PERIOD. The following comes straight from the devil: "It sure is nice to live in New York in the year 2023." People don't talk like that. Find another way!

-- If an actor dies or quits, write their character out of the series (and use the opportunity for story innovation). NEVER replace that actor with with another actor playing the same character. That's insane.

-- Actors may NOT play multiple parts in the same series. That's also insane. (Do you hear that "Law and Order" producers? We remember that the criminal in this episode was the judge last year! There's no shortage of actors in the world. Find someone else!)

-- NEVER try to appeal to every demographic. Don't throw something in for the kiddies, something in for the working Mom's and something for the Baby Boomers. Pick an audience (preferably people like you) and write for THEM.

-- If there's a popular show on another network, it's popular because it's well written and well acted. Remember that when you try to copy it. It's not good because "Sci-fi is in right now." Specific genres are never "in." What's "in" is good craftsmanship.

1 comment:

cribcage said...

Great essay. I agree, although for a different reason: Film is an open medium. Television comes with restrictions -- episode length, commercial breaks, FCC regulations -- and in my experience, those limitations create a more fertile atmosphere for creativity. Artists may resent boundaries, but they often work better within them.

I loved The West Wing (first four seasons), but it never recaptured the pacing of Sports Night. I think being limited to a half-hour format stimulated Sorkin's talent in a way that an hour-long drama couldn't reproduce.