Watching the premiere of Mad Men last night, I was struck by how nice it is to follow a series where there isn’t any danger of anyone being disemboweled. Don’t get me wrong: I love Hannibal and Game of Thrones, and violence, properly used, is just another tool in the storyteller’s arsenal. In retrospect, though, I’ve realized that much of my television diet over the last year has consisted of shows that gain much of their narrative power from bloodshed or sex. The Vampire Diaries, which probably has the highest body count of them all, likes to use a broken neck or a beheading as a punchline, and even shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, where violence is doled out more sparingly, lean heavily on other kinds of graphic imagery. These are all good shows—well, maybe not House of Cards—and I’ve enjoyed watching them all. But it makes me all the more grateful for a show like Mad Men, which exists within the limitations of basic cable and often dials it down even further, to the point where drama consists of a lingering glance, a chance encounter, a charged silence. As it happens, this Sunday’s premiere was its lowest-rated in five seasons, which may be a reflection of how much the television landscape has changed: set against its peers, Man Men can start to seem slow, almost somnolescent.
Still, this kind of slow-drip pacing can be intoxicating in itself, but only if it’s given enough room to breathe, which is part of the reason why I found this season premiere less satisfying than usual. As many of you probably know, AMC has divided the final season into two segments, with the first seven episodes airing this year and the back half held until 2015. The decision makes good economic sense—with Breaking Bad gone, the network doesn’t want to lose both of its flagship shows in succession—but it’s frustrating to viewers, as well as problematic for the show’s narrative. For the past few seasons, Mad Men has premiered with a double episode, which gives it ninety minutes to immerse us again in its mood, world, and enormous cast. Given the shortened run, the decision was evidently made to keep the latest premiere to the standard length, allowing the season to be parceled out over seven full weeks. Unfortunately, it leaves us with an episode that feels like half a loaf. I have a feeling it will hold up better in retrospect than it does on first viewing; Mad Men has always been about cumulative energy, with countless small moments that need time to pay off. All the same, it was nice to get an extra helping at the beginning of a season, which allowed scenes and arcs to cohere a little more on their way to a deep dive. And I miss it.
Which raises the issue of how length subconsciously influences our perceptions of television shows, both in its orderly format and in its deviations from the norm. A few months ago, Scott Meslow of The Week argued that Netflix wasn’t fully exploiting the possibilities of the streaming format, which in theory allows shows to be arbitrarily any length at all:
Someone could create a show where one episode is 75 minutes long, and the next episode is 15 minutes long. Someone could decide to release one episode every week, or every month, or every holiday—or at random, turning every new installment into a welcome surprise. Someone could release every episode of a series but the finale, then hold that finale back for six months—turning its premiere into a buzzy event that will be simultaneously shared by all its viewers.
Up to a point, that’s an intriguing suggestion, and I’d be excited to see a show that found a logical, organic reason for telling a story in such unconventional ways. For most shows, though, the episodic format provides a useful set of constraints that go far beyond the logistics of packaging and international markets. It’s a force for selection, compression, and external structure, all of which are discarded at a show’s peril. As it stands, I’d argue that Netflix is a little too flexible in this regard: nearly every episode of the fourth season of Arrested Development ran long, and I’m not alone in feeling that the result would have been better if Mitch Hurwitz had cut it to fit within twenty-five minutes.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for departures, but that the exceptions have more impact when they build on a baseline. Episodes in a television series, like chapters in a novel, are structural conventions that originated to fill a practical need, then evolved over time in the hands of artists to provide a means of delivering narrative information. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s no real reason why novels need to be divided into chapters, but the shape provided by section breaks, areas of white space, and the rhythm of titles and epigraphs is a tool that clever writers know how to exploit. The same applies to episode lengths. We know approximately how long a given installment of a particular television show will last, which affects how we watch it, especially near the end of an episode. When a show pushes against those expectations, it can be great, but a narrow range of variation can be all we need: Game of Thrones, for instance, does just fine with a window between fifty minutes and an hour. And the best unit of narrative is still the episode, which can be used as a building block to create surprising shapes, like the uniform tatami mats in Japanese houses. I wish Mad Men had followed its own precedent and given us two such pieces side by side for the premiere, but I’m still glad to know that each episode that follows will look more or less the same on the outside, with infinite variations within.
As I write this post, it’s just before nine in the morning, and I’ve already played or sung some version of “Let It Go” approximately twenty times. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? My daughter certainly has, and although she’s only fifteen months old, she’s already capable of singing along, as well as of demanding it by name whenever I buckle her into her high chair. In the five short months since Frozen was released, “Let It Go” has reached a level of cultural ubiquity that we haven’t seen from a song in years, to the point where it seems to be running on a constant loop in my head, your head, and Patton Oswalt’s. It’s one of those quintessential show tunes that both plays a crucial role within the story itself and resonates beyond it, and the story behind it is equally compelling. Robert Lopez—who has been one of my musical heroes ever since Avenue Q—and his wife and writing partner Kristen Anderson-Lopez set out to write a number known in the story outline only as “Elsa’s Badass Song.” It wasn’t hard to imagine how it might sound; the likes of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Be Prepared” have long been a part of the Disney playbook. In this case, however, the result was more surprising. Anderson-Lopez tells the rest:
We went for a walk in Prospect Park and threw phrases at each other. What does it feel like to be the perfect exalted person, but only because you’ve held back this secret? Bobby came up with “kingdom of isolation,” and it worked.
After that, the process took less than a day, with the couple improvising melodies on the piano and lyrics on the whiteboard. It was fairly clear early on that they’d written the showstopper they needed, but its ultimate consequences were even more profound, to the point where this stroll through Park Slope had an enormous impact on both the movie itself and its eventual success. Frozen is an excellent movie in many respects—it’s cleverly plotted, funny, and visually astonishing—but there’s no question that audiences have responded so strongly to it largely because of the relationship between the two sisters at its heart. It seems obvious now, but the decision to make Elsa and Anna sisters at all appears to have come very late in the process, and the transformation of Elsa into a conflicted protagonist occurred even more belatedly. Up to that point, Elsa had been more of a conventional villain, rooted in the original conception of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” but “Let It Go” pointed at something more interesting. As the film’s co-director Jennifer Lee says: “The minute we heard the song the first time, I knew that I had to rewrite the whole movie.”
In particular, it meant that much of the movie’s first act, as well as its central relationship, had to be reconceived to build up to the moment that Lopez and Anderson-Lopez had provided. The result recentered the entire film. And if the changes that “Let It Go” inspired are even partially responsible for the film’s outsized success, the amount that Disney owes this song is probably incalculable, which won’t stop me from trying to calculate it. The closest comparable movie is clearly Tangled, which grossed just short of six hundred million dollars worldwide in its theatrical release alone. Frozen seems likely to double this amount, and when you factor in home video, a potential sequel, merchandising—there’s a nationwide shortage of Elsa dresses—and the inevitable Broadway musical and ice show, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’re talking a billion dollars or more. How much of that additional revenue can be attributed to “Let It Go” and the emotional thread it introduced? It’s hard to say, but it’s considerable. And it’s a reminder that however industrialized the process of producing content on a global scale has become, it all comes down to a few moments of quiet inspiration.
I’m not the first one to make this argument, of course. It’s forcefully advanced by the television writer Jeffrey Stepakoff’s memoir Billion-Dollar Kiss, which claims that the kiss of the title, shared by Pacey and Joey of Dawson’s Creek, was singlehandedly responsible for saving the series and propelling it into six seasons and syndication. There’s a tendency, to be sure, for writers in Hollywood to overvalue what they do, perhaps because they have so little power in other respects. But there’s a germ of truth here. I’d like to believe that Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, or A.A. Milne would be flabbergasted by the extent to which their solitary work sustains entire industries: Pooh merchandise alone accounts for five billion dollars of Disney’s bottom line, which makes it hard to look at the Hundred Acre Wood in quite the same way. It’s what makes the business of film simultaneously so exhilarating and so terrifying. Disney has marketing down to a science, and a tentpole movie like Frozen is released across the world with the precision of a military campaign. But the pivot on which that massive machine turns is an infinitesimal one, and although it takes many different forms, it often looks like nothing more than a piano, a whiteboard, and a day in Prospect Park.
Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is intuition.
A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monk’s house itself, nor from the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. As one came to the house, one passed through a gate into this court, and then diagonally across the court to the front door of the house. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut through the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, where his position lined up with the slit in the wall, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again, and went into the house.
What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever. Who, that has ever seen that view, can ever forget it? Its power will never fade. Even for the man who lives there, coming past that view day after day for fifty years, it will still be alive.
This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and drink it in every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious, the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will become part of the building, like the wallpaper; and the intensity of its beauty will no longer be accessible to the people who live there.
If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition—along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.
If the view window is correctly placed, people will see a glimpse of the distant view as they come up to the window or pass it; but the view is never visible from the places where people stay.
Very delicate, slender, and bizarre talents are indeed incapable of being used for an outside purpose, whether of public good or private gain. But about very great and rich talent there goes a certain disdainful generosity which can turn its hand to anything. Minor poets cannot write to order; but very great poets can write to order. The larger the man’s mind, the wider his scope of vision, the more likely it will be that anything suggested to him will seem significant and promising; the more he has a grasp of everything the more ready he will be to write anything. It is very hard (if that is the question) to throw a brick at a man and ask him to write an epic; but the more he is a great man the more able he will be to write about the brick. It is very unjust (if that is all) to point to a hoarding of Colman’s mustard and demand a flood of philosophical eloquence; but the greater the man is the more likely he will be to give it to you.
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional pop culture figure would you like to go drinking with?”
Protagonists can be a bore. We’ve all been taught that in a good story, the narrative and the hero’s objectives should be inseparable: the conflict should emerge moment to moment from something that the protagonist urgently needs to accomplish, and when his goal has been met—or spectacularly thwarted—the story is over. That’s true enough, and a work that structures itself according to these principles will be infinitely more readable than one that moves aimlessly from one manufactured encounter to another. In practice, though, it often results in leads who are boringly singleminded: when his every action needs to advance the plot, there isn’t enough room for the digressions and loose ends that bring characters to life. That’s why the star of a sitcom or dramatic series is often the least interesting person in sight. Unlike the supporting cast, which has room to go off on tangents, the guy at the center of the show has to strike a constant balance between action, motivation, and relatability, which can drain him of all surprise. A sidekick gets to drift along with the current, and his detours aren’t fatal to the momentum, while the protagonist is under so much narrative pressure that when the story relaxes, he bursts, like a fish brought up from its crevasse to the surface.
As a result, when we think about fictional characters we’d most like to spend time with, we tend to gravitate toward the secondary players. If nothing else, they seem like they’d be willing to sit down and have a drink with us, unlike the protagonist, whose mind would always be skipping ahead to the next plot point. In recent years, television has given us protagonists with the richness and unpredictability of great supporting characters—from Tony Soprano to Don Draper to Walter White—but even they wouldn’t make particularly good drinking companions. Even when a dramatic series allows its protagonist more breathing space, the leads are often burdened with so much backstory that the prospect of hanging out with them seems vaguely exhausting, if not terrifying. We simply know too much about these men and women to relax around them. (This may be why characters in procedurals or more episodic shows, whom we get to know over many years without the cumbersome weight of an overarching story, seem like more fun. I’d love to have a drink with Sherlock Holmes, as long as Watson was there to keep him on his best behavior, and it would be great to kick back with any member of the first two crews of the Enterprise.)
In film, where the tension between plot and character can be especially crushing, it’s often a particular actor’s magic that gives us the impression that a protagonist would make for an entertaining drinking companion. I’ve never been as big a fan of The Big Lebowski as some of its devotees, but I can see the shaggy appeal of The Dude, who ambles haphazardly through his own movie like an oddball supporting character who managed to wander into the center. Jeff Bridges deserves much of the credit for this, of course, and it’s no surprise that he’s ended up as the icon of a loosely organized cult: we’d all be happier if we and our friends were more like The Dude than, say, Jason Bourne. The Big Lebowski, in turn, is partially an homage to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which benefits in equal measure from Elliot Gould’s presence as Philip Marlowe. It’s possible that the seventies were the golden age of the hangout movie: the rise of independent productions and the auteur director allowed unconventional actors to migrate into leading roles, and if they seem less focused than your standard leading men, it may be because they’re just happy to be there. And we’re happy to be around them.
Sometimes an actor can coast so much on that illusion of affability that the result turns into laziness: I’m not an admirer of Adam Sandler, but he’s clearly a guy that a lot of moviegoers think they’d like as a buddy, which is why his movies have gradually turned into excuses for him to hang out with his friends by the pool. At best, though, an actor’s natural air of ease can become his greatest asset, as long as it’s paired with a director who is committed to using it in interesting ways. Bill Murray has always had a tendency to float through his roles, and one of the great pleasures of a movie like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day is the chance to watch him maintain his sardonic equanimity through the strangest of circumstances. But it wasn’t until Murray fell in with Wes Anderson—and, to a lesser extent, Sofia Coppola—that he found the perfect setting for his gifts. The Murray of Rushmore or The Life Aquatic is, as Pauline Kael said of the late Cary Grant, a peerless creation, and it’s no accident that Anderson so often films him with a beer or a bottle in one hand. (“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go on an overnight drunk, and in ten days I’m going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it.“) I’d love to have a drink with Bill Murray. But, failing that, I’ll happily settle for another two hours with Steve Zissou.