Alec Nevala-Lee

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Peak television and the future of stardom

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Earlier this week, I devoured the long, excellent article by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez of Vulture on the business of peak television. It’s full of useful insights and even better gossip—and it names plenty of names—but there’s one passage that really caught my eye, in a section about the huge salaries that movie stars are being paid to make the switch to the small screen:

A top agent defends the sums his clients are commanding, explaining that, in the overall scheme of things, the extra money isn’t all that significant. “Look at it this way,” he says. “If you’re Amazon and you’re going to launch a David E. Kelley show, that’s gonna cost $4 million an episode [to produce], right? That’s $40 million. You can have Bradley Whitford starring in it, [who is] gonna cost you $150,000 an episode. That’s $1.5 million of your $40 million. Or you could spend another $3.5 million [to get Costner] on what will end up being a $60 million investment by the time you market and promote it. You can either spend $60 [million] and have the Bradley Whitford show, or $63.5 [million] and have the Kevin Costner show. It makes a lot of sense when you look at it that way.”

With all due apologies to Bradley Whitford, I found this thought experiment fascinating, and not just for the reasons that the agent presumably shared it. It implies, for one thing, that television—which is often said to be overtaking Hollywood in terms of quality—is becoming more like feature filmmaking in another respect: it’s the last refuge of the traditional star. We frequently hear that movie stardom is dead and that audiences are drawn more to franchises than to recognizable faces, so the fact that cable and streaming networks seem intensely interested in signing film stars, in a post-True Detective world, implies that their model is different. Some of it may be due to the fact, as William Goldman once said, that no studio executive ever got fired for hiring a movie star: as the new platforms fight to establish themselves, it makes sense that they’d fall back on the idea of star power, which is one of the few things that corporate storytelling has ever been able to quantify or understand. It may also be because the marketing strategy for television inherently differs from that for film: an online series is unusually dependent on media coverage to stand out from the pack, and signing a star always generates headlines. Or at least it once did. (The Vulture article notes that Woody Allen’s new series for Amazon “may end up marking peak Peak TV,” and it seems a lot like a deal that was made for the sake of the coverage it would produce.)

Kevin Costner in JFK

But the most plausible explanation lies in simple economics. As the article explains, Netflix and the other streaming companies operate according to a “cost-plus” model: “Rather than holding out the promise of syndication gold, the company instead pays its studio and showrunner talent a guaranteed up-front profit—typically twenty or thirty percent above what it takes to make a show. In exchange, it owns all or most of the rights to distribute the show, domestically and internationally.” This limits the initial risk to the studio, but also the potential upside: nobody involved in producing the show itself will see any money on the back end. In addition, it means that even the lead actors of the series are paid a flat dollar amount, which makes them a more attractive investment than they might be for a movie. Most of the major stars in Hollywood earn gross points, which means that they get a cut of the box office receipts before the film turns a profit—a “first dollar” deal that makes the mathematics of breaking even much more complicated. The thought experiment about Bradley Whitford and Kevin Costner only makes sense if you can get Costner at a fixed salary per episode. In other words, movie stars are being actively courted by television because its model is a throwback to an earlier era, when actors were held under contract by a studio without any profit participation, and before stars and their agents negotiated better deals that ended up undermining the economic basis of the star system entirely.

And it’s revealing that Costner, of all actors, appears in this example. His name came up mostly because multiple sources told Vulture that he was offered $500,000 per episode to star in a streaming series: “He passed,” the article says, “but industry insiders predict he’ll eventually say ‘yes’ to the right offer.” But he also resonates because he stands for a kind of movie stardom that was already on the wane when he first became famous. It has something to do with the quintessentially American roles that he liked to play—even JFK is starting to seem like the last great national epic—and an aura that somehow kept him in leading parts two decades after his career as a major star was essentially over. That’s weirdly impressive in itself, and it testifies to how intriguing a figure he remains, even if audiences aren’t likely to pay to see him in a movie. Whenever I think of Costner, I remember what the studio executive Mike Medavoy once claimed to have told him right at the beginning of his career:

“You know,” I said to him over lunch, “I have this sense that I’m sitting here with someone who is going to become a great big star. You’re going to want to direct your own movies, produce your own movies, and you’re going to end up leaving your wife and going through the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle.”

Costner did, in fact, end up leaving his first wife. And if he also leaves film for television, even temporarily, it may reveal that “the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle” has a surprising final act that few of us could have anticipated.

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May 27, 2016 at 9:03 am

“Asthana glanced over at the television…”

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"A woman was standing just over his shoulder..."

Note: This post is the eighteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 19. You can read the previous installments here.

A quarter of a century ago, I read a story about the actor Art Carney, possibly apocryphal, that I’ve never forgotten. Here’s the version told by the stage and television actress Patricia Wilson:

During a live performance of the original Honeymooners, before millions of viewers, Jackie [Gleason] was late making an entrance into a scene. He left Art Carney onstage alone, in the familiar seedy apartment set of Alice and Ralph Kramden. Unflappable, Carney improvised action for Ed Norton. He looked around, scratched himself, then went to the Kramden refrigerator and peered in. He pulled out an orange, shuffled to the table, and sat down and peeled it. Meanwhile frantic stage managers raced to find Jackie. Art Carney sat onstage peeling and eating an orange, and the audience convulsed with laughter.

According to some accounts, Carney stretched the bit of business out for a full two minutes before Gleason finally appeared. And while it certainly speaks to Carney’s ingenuity and resourcefulness, we should also take a moment to tip our hats to that humble orange, as well as the prop master who thought to stick it in the fridge—unseen and unremarked—in the first place.

Theatrical props, as all actors and directors know, can be a source of unexpected ideas, just as the physical limitations or possibilities of the set itself can provide a canvas on which the action is conceived in real time. I’ve spoken elsewhere of the ability of vaudeville comedians to improvise routines on the spot using whatever was available on a standing set, and there’s a sense in which the richness of the physical environment in which a scene takes place is a battery from which the performances can draw energy. When a director makes sure that each actor’s pockets are full of the litter that a character might actually carry, it isn’t just a mark of obsessiveness or self-indulgence, or even a nod toward authenticity, but a matter of storing up potential tools. A prop by itself can’t make a scene work, but it can provide the seed around which a memorable moment or notion can grow, like a crystal. In more situations than you might expect, creativity lies less in the ability to invent from scratch than to make effective use of whatever happens to lie at hand. Invention is a precious resource, and most artists have a finite amount of it; it’s better, whenever possible, to utilize what the world provides. And much of the time, when you’re faced with a hard problem to solve, you’ll find that the answer is right there in the background.

"Asthana glanced over at the television..."

This is as true of writing fiction as of any of the performing arts. In the past, I’ve suggested that this is the true purpose of research or location work: it isn’t about accuracy, but about providing raw material for dreams, and any writer faced with the difficult task of inventing a scene would be wise to exploit what already exists. It’s infinitely easier to write a chase scene, for example, if you’re tailoring it to the geography of a particular street. As usual, it comes back to the problem of making choices: the more tangible or physical the constraints, the more likely they’ll generate something interesting when they collide with the fundamentally abstract process of plotting. Even if the scene I’m writing takes place somewhere wholly imaginary, I’ll treat it as if it were being shot on location: I’ll pick a real building or locale that has the qualities I need for the story, pore over blueprints and maps, and depart from the real plan only when I don’t have any alternative. In most cases, the cost of that departure, in terms of the confusion it creates, is far greater than the time and energy required to make the story fit within an existing structure. For much the same reason, I try to utilize the props and furniture you’d naturally find there. And that’s all the more true when a scene occurs in a verifiable place.

Sometimes, this kind of attention to detail can result in surprising resonances. There’s a small example that I like in Chapter 19 of Eternal Empire. Rogozin, my accused intelligence agent, is being held without charges at a detention center in Paddington Green. This is a real location, and its physical setup becomes very important: Rogozin is going to be killed, in an apparent suicide, under conditions of heavy security. To prepare these scenes, I collected reference photographs, studied published descriptions, and shaped the action as much as possible to unfold logically under the constraints the location imposed. And one fact caught my eye, purely as a matter of atmosphere: the cells at Paddington Green are equipped with televisions, usually set to play something innocuous, like a nature video. This had obvious potential as a counterpoint to the action, so I went to work looking for a real video that might play there. And after a bit of searching, I hit on a segment from the BBC series Life in the Undergrowth, narrated by David Attenborough, about the curious life cycle of the gall wasp. The phenomenon it described, as an invading wasp burrows into the gall created by another, happened to coincide well—perhaps too well—with the story itself. As far as I’m concerned, it’s what makes Rogozin’s death scene work. And while I could have made up my own video to suit the situation, it seemed better, and easier, to poke around the stage first to see what I could find…

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2015 at 9:11 am

The unbreakable television formula

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Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Watching the sixth season premiere of Community last night on Yahoo—which is a statement that would have once seemed like a joke in itself—I was struck by the range of television comedy we have at our disposal these days. We’ve said goodbye to Parks and Recreation, we’re following Community into what is presumably its final stretch, and we’re about to greet Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as it starts what looks to be a powerhouse run on Netflix. These shows are superficially in the same genre: they’re single-camera sitcoms that freely grant themselves elaborate sight gags and excursions into surrealism, with a cutaway style that owes as much to The Simpsons as to Arrested Development. Yet they’re palpably different in tone. Parks and Rec was the ultimate refinement of the mockumentary style, with talking heads and reality show techniques used to flesh out a narrative of underlying sweetness; Community, as always, alternates between obsessively detailed fantasy and a comic strip version of emotions to which we can all relate; and Kimmy Schmidt takes place in what I can only call Tina Fey territory, with a barrage of throwaway jokes and non sequiturs designed to be referenced and quoted forever.

And the diversity of approach we see in these three comedies makes the dramatic genre seem impoverished. Most television dramas are still basically linear; they’re told using the same familiar grammar of establishing shots, medium shots, and closeups; and they’re paced in similar ways. If you were to break down an episode by shot length and type, or chart the transitions between scenes, an installment of Game of Thrones would look a lot on paper like one of Mad Men. There’s room for individual quirks of style, of course: the handheld cinematography favored by procedurals has a different feel from the clinical, detached camera movements of House of Cards. And every now and then, we get a scene—like the epic tracking shot during the raid in True Detective—that awakens us to the medium’s potential. But the fact that such moments are striking enough to inspire think pieces the next day only points to how rare they are. Dramas are just less inclined to take big risks of structure and tone, and when they do, they’re likely to be hybrids. Shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad are able to push the envelope precisely because they have a touch of black comedy in their blood, as if that were the secret ingredient that allowed for greater formal daring.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

It isn’t hard to pin down the reason for this. A cutaway scene or extended homage naturally takes us out of the story for a second, and comedy, which is inherently more anarchic, has trained us to roll with it. We’re better at accepting artifice in comic settings, since we aren’t taking the story quite as seriously: whatever plot exists is tacitly understood to be a medium for the delivery of jokes. Which isn’t to say that we can’t care deeply about these characters; if anything, our feelings for them are strengthened because they take place in a stylized world that allows free play for the emotions. Yet this is also something that comedy had to teach us. It can be fun to watch a sitcom push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, but if a drama deliberately undermines its own illusion of reality, we can feel cheated. Dramas that constantly draw attention to their own artifice, as Twin Peaks did, are more likely to become cult favorites than popular successes, since most of us just want to sit back and watch a story that presents itself using the narrative language we know. (Which, to be fair, is true of comedies as well: the three sitcoms I’ve mentioned above, taken together, have a fraction of the audience of something like The Big Bang Theory.)

In part, it’s a problem of definition. When a drama pushes against its constraints, we feel more comfortable referring to it as something else: Orange is the New Black, which tests its structure as adventurously as any series on the air today, has suffered at awards season from its resistance to easy categorization. But what’s really funny is that comedy escaped from its old formulas by appropriating the tools that dramas had been using for years. The three-camera sitcom—which has been responsible for countless masterpieces of its own—made radical shifts of tone and location hard to achieve, and once comedies liberated themselves from the obligation to unfold as if for a live audience, they could indulge in extended riffs and flights of imagination that were impossible before. It’s the kind of freedom that dramas, in theory, have always had, even if they utilize it only rarely. This isn’t to say that a uniformity of approach is a bad thing: the standard narrative grammar evolved for a reason, and if it gives us compelling characters with a maximum of transparency, that’s all for the better. Telling good stories is hard enough as it is, and formal experimentation for its own sake can be a trap in itself. Yet we’re still living in a world with countless ways of being funny, and only one way, within a narrow range of variations, of being serious. And that’s no laughing matter.

The crowded circle of television

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The cast of Mad Men

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’s your favorite TV show of the year so far?”

There are times when watching television can start to feel like a second job—a pleasurable one, to be sure, but one that demands a lot of work nevertheless. Over the last year, I’ve followed more shows than ever, including Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Hannibal, Community, Parks and Recreation, House of Cards, The Vampire Diaries, and True Detective. For the most part, they’ve all had strong runs, and I’d have trouble picking a favorite. (If pressed, I’d probably go with Mad Men, if only for old times’ sake, with Hannibal as a very close second.) They’re all strikingly different in emphasis, tone, and setting, but they also have a lot in common. With one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment, these are dense shows with large casts and intricate storylines. Many seem devoted to pushing the limits of how much complexity can be accommodated within the constraints of the television format, which may be why the majority run for just ten to thirteen episodes: it’s hard to imagine that level of energy sustained over twenty or more installments.

And while I’m thrilled by the level of ambition visible here, it comes at a price. There’s a sort of arms race taking place between media of all kinds, as they compete to stand out in an increasingly crowded space with so much competing for our attention. Books, even literary novels, are expected to be page-turners; movies offer up massive spectacle to the point where miraculous visual effects are taken for granted; and television has taken to packing every minute of narrative time to the bursting point. (This isn’t true of all shows, of course—a lot of television series are still designed to play comfortably in the background of a hotel room—but it’s generally the case with prestige shows that end up on critics’ lists and honored at award ceremonies.) This trend toward complexity arises from a confluence of factors I’ve tried to unpack here before: just as The Simpsons was the first freeze-frame sitcom, modern television takes advantage of our streaming and binge-watching habits to deliver storytelling that rewards, and even demands, close attention.

Matthew McConaughey on True Detective

For the most part, this is a positive development. Yet there’s also a case to be made that television, which is so good at managing extended narratives and enormous casts of characters, is also uniquely suited for the opposite: silence, emptiness, and contemplation. In a film, time is a precious commodity, and when you’re introducing characters while also setting in motion the machinery of a complicated story, there often isn’t time to pause. Television, in theory, should be able to stretch out a little, interspersing relentless forward momentum with moments of quiet, which are often necessary for viewers to consolidate and process what they’ve seen. Twin Peaks was as crowded and plotty as any show on the air today, but it also found time for stretches of weird, inexplicable inaction, and it’s those scenes that I remember best. Even in the series finale, with so many threads to address and only forty minutes to cover them all, it devotes endless minutes to Cooper’s hallucinatory—and almost entirely static—ordeal in the Black Lodge, and even to a gag involving a decrepit bank manager rising from his desk and crossing the floor of his branch very, very slowly.

So while there’s a lot of fun to be had with shows that constantly accelerate the narrative pace, it can also be a limitation, especially when it’s handled less than fluently. (For every show, like Orange is the New Black, that manages to cut expertly between subplots, there’s another, like Game of Thrones, that can’t quite seem to handle its enormous scope, and even The Vampire Diaries is showing signs of strain.) Both Hannibal and Mad Men know when to linger on an image or revelation—roughly half of Hannibal is devoted to contemplating its other half—and True Detective, in particular, seemed to consist almost entirely of such pauses. We remember such high points as the final chase with the killer or the raid in “Who Goes There,” but what made the show special were the scenes in which nothing much seemed to be happening. It was aided in this by its limited cast and its tight focus on its two leads, so it’s possible that what shows really need to slow things down are a couple of movie stars to hold the eye. But it’s a step in the right direction. If time is a flat circle, as Rust says, so is television, and it’s good to see it coming back around.

The dreamlife of television

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Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad

I’ve been dreaming a lot about Breaking Bad. On Wednesday, my wife and I returned from a trip to Barcelona, where we’d spent a beautiful week: my baby daughter was perfectly happy to be toted around various restaurants, cultural sites, and the Sagrada Familia, and it came as a welcome break from my own work. Unfortunately, it also meant that we were going to miss the Breaking Bad finale, which aired the Sunday before we came home. For a while, I seriously considered bringing my laptop and downloading it while we were out of the country, both because I was enormously anxious to see how the show turned out and because I dreaded the spoilers I’d have to avoid for the three days before we returned. In the end, I gritted my teeth and decided to wait until we got home. This meant avoiding most of my favorite news and pop cultural sites—I was afraid to even glance past the top few headlines on the New York Times—and staying off Twitter entirely, which I suppose wasn’t such a great loss. And even as we toured the Picasso Museum and walked for miles along the marina with a baby in tow, my thoughts were rarely very far from Walter White.

This must have done quite a number on my psyche, because I started dreaming about the show with alarming frequency. My dreams included two separate, highly elaborated versions of the finale, one of which was a straightforward bloodbath with a quiet epilogue, the other a weird metafictional conclusion in which the events of the series were played out on a movie screen with the cast and crew watching them unfold—which led me to exclaim, while still dreaming: “Of course that’s how they would end it!” Now that I’ve finally seen the real finale, the details of these dreams are fading, and only a few scraps of imagery remain. Yet the memories are still emotionally charged, and they undoubtedly affected how I approached the last episode itself, which I was afraid would never live up to the versions I’d dreamed for myself. I suspect that a lot of fans, even those who didn’t actually hallucinate alternate endings, probably felt the same way. (For the record, I liked the finale a lot, even if it ranks a notch below the best episodes of the show, which was always best at creating chaos, not resolving it. And I think about its closing moments almost every day.)

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

And it made me reflect on the ways in which television, especially in its modern, highly serialized form, is so conducive to dreaming. Dreams are a way of assembling and processing fragments of the day’s experience, or recollections from the distant past, and a great television series is nothing less than a vast storehouse of memories from another life. When a show is as intensely serialized as Breaking Bad was, it can be hard to remember individual episodes, aside from the occasional formal standout like “Fly”: I can’t always recall what scenes took place when, or in what order, and an especially charged sequence of installments—like the last half of this final season—tends to blend together into a blur of vivid impressions. What I remember are facial expressions, images, bits of dialogue: “Stay out of my territory.” “Run.” “Tread lightly.” And the result is a mine of moments that end up naturally incorporated into my own subconscious. A good movie or novel exists as a piece, and I rarely find myself dreaming alternate lives for, say, Rick and Ilsa or Charles Foster Kane. With Walter White, it’s easy to imagine different paths that the action could have taken, and those byways play themselves out in the deepest parts of my brain.

Which may explain why television is so naturally drawn to dream sequences and fantasies, which are only one step removed from the supposedly factual events of the shows themselves. Don Draper’s dreams have become a huge part of Mad Men, almost to the point of parody, and this has always been an art form that attracts surreal temperaments, from David Lynch to Bryan Fuller, even if they tend to be destroyed by it. As I’ve often said before, it’s the strangest medium I know, and at its best, it’s the outcome of many unresolved tensions. Television can feel maddeningly real, a hidden part of your own life, which is why it can be so hard to say goodbye to a great show. It’s also impossible to get a lasting grip on it or to hold it all in your mind at once, especially if it runs for more than a few seasons, which hints at an even deeper meaning. I’ve always been struck by how poorly we integrate the different chapters in our own past: there are entire decades of my life that I don’t think about for months on end. When they return, it’s usually in the hours just before waking. And by teaching us to process narratives that can last for years, it’s possible that television subtly trains us to better understand the shapes of our own lives, even if it’s only in dreams.

Written by nevalalee

October 7, 2013 at 8:27 am

Posted in Television

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Critical television studies

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The cast of Community

Television is such a pervasive medium that it’s easy to forget how deeply strange it is. Most works of art are designed to be consumed all at once, or at least in a fixed period of time—it’s physically possible, if not entirely advisable, to read War and Peace in one sitting. Television, by contrast, is defined by the fact of its indefinite duration. House of Cards aside, it seems likely that most of us will continue to watch shows week by week, year after year, until they become a part of our lives. This kind of extended narrative can be delightful, but it’s also subject to risk. A beloved show can change for reasons beyond anyone’s control. Sooner or later, we find out who killed Laura Palmer. An actor’s contract expires, so Mulder is abducted by aliens, and even if he comes back, by that point, we’ve lost interest. For every show like Breaking Bad that has its dark evolution mapped out for seasons to come, there’s a series like Glee, which disappoints, or Parks and Recreation, which gradually reveals a richness and warmth that you’d never guess from the first season alone. And sometimes a show breaks your heart.

It’s clear at this point that the firing of Dan Harmon from Community was the most dramatic creative upheaval for any show in recent memory. This isn’t the first time that a show’s guiding force has departed under less than amicable terms—just ask Frank Darabont—but it’s unusual in a series so intimately linked to one man’s particular vision. Before I discovered Community, I’d never heard of Dan Harmon, but now I care deeply about what this guy feels and thinks. (Luckily, he’s never been shy about sharing this with the rest of us.) And although it’s obvious from the opening minutes of last night’s season premiere that the show’s new creative team takes its legacy seriously, there’s no escaping the sense that they’re a cover band doing a great job with somebody else’s music. Showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port do their best to convince us out of the gate that they know how much this show means to us, and that’s part of the problem. Community was never a show about reassuring us that things won’t change, but about unsettling us with its endless transformations, even as it delighted us with its new tricks.

The Community episode "Remedial Chaos Theory"

Don’t get me wrong: I laughed a lot at last night’s episode, and I was overjoyed to see these characters again. By faulting the new staff for repeating the same beats I loved before, when I might have been outraged by any major alterations, I’m setting it up so they just can’t win. But the show seems familiar now in a way that would have seemed unthinkable for most of its first three seasons. Part of the pleasure of watching the series came from the fact that you never knew what the hell might happen next, and it wasn’t clear if Harmon knew either. Not all of his experiments worked: there even some clunkers, like “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” in the glorious second season, which is one of my favorite runs of any modern sitcom. But as strange as this might have once seemed, it feels like we finally know what Community is about. It’s a show that takes big formal risks, finds the emotional core in a flurry of pop culture references, and has no idea how to use Chevy Chase. And although I’m grateful that this version of the show has survived, I don’t think I’m going to tune in every week wondering where in the world it will take me.

And the strange thing is that Community might have gone down this path with or without Harmon. When a show needs only two seasons to establish that anything is possible, even the most outlandish developments can seem like variations on a theme. Even at the end of the third season, there was the sense that the series was repeating itself. I loved “Digital Estate Planning,” for instance, but it felt like the latest attempt to do one of the formally ambitious episodes that crop up at regular intervals each season, rather than an idea that forced itself onto television because the writers couldn’t help themselves. In my review of The Master, I noted that Paul Thomas Anderson has perfected his brand of hermetic filmmaking to the point where it would be more surprising if he made a movie that wasn’t ambiguous, frustrating, and deeply weird. Community has ended up in much the same place, so maybe it’s best that Harmon got out when he did. It’s doubtful that the series will ever be able to fake us out with a “Critical Film Studies” again, because it’s already schooled us, like all great shows, in how it needs to be watched. And although its characters haven’t graduated from Greendale yet, its viewers, to their everlasting benefit, already have.

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

Wouldn’t it be easier to write for television?

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Last week, I had dinner with a college friend I hadn’t seen in years, who is thinking about giving up a PhD in psychology to write for television in Los Angeles. We spent a long time commiserating about the challenges of the medium, at least from a writer’s point of view, hitting many of the points that I’ve discussed here before. With the prospects of a fledgling television show so uncertain, I said, especially when the show might be canceled after four episodes, or fourteen, or forty, it’s all but impossible for the creator to tell effective stories over time. Running a television show is one of the hardest jobs in the world, with countless obstacles along the way, even for critical darlings. Knowing all this, I asked my friend, why did he want to do this in the first place?

My friend’s response was an enlightening one. The trouble with writing novels or short stories, he said, is the fact that the author is expected to spend a great deal of time on description, style, and other tedious elements that a television writer can cheerfully ignore. Teleplays, like feature scripts, are nothing but structure and dialogue (or maybe just structure, as William Goldman says), and there’s something liberating in how they strip storytelling down to its core. The writer takes care of the bones of the narrative, which is where his primary interest presumably lies, then outsources the work of casting, staging, and art direction to qualified professionals who are happy to do the work. And while I didn’t agree with everything my friend said, I could certainly see his point.

Yet that’s only half of the story. It’s true that a screenwriter gets to outsource much of the conventional apparatus of fiction to other departments, but only at the price of creative control. You may have an idea about how a character should look, or what kind of home he should have, or how a moment of dialogue, a scene, or an overall story should unfold, but as a writer, you don’t have much control over the matter. Scripts are easier to write than novels for a reason: they’re only one piece of a larger enterprise, which is reflected in the writer’s relative powerlessness. The closest equivalent to a novelist in television isn’t the writer, but the executive producer. Gene Roddenberry, in The Making of Star Trek, neatly sums up the similarity between the two roles:

Producing in television is like storytelling. The choice of the actor, picking the right costumes, getting the right flavor, the right pace—these are as much a part of storytelling as writing out that same description of a character in a novel.

And the crucial point about producing a television series, like directing a feature film, is that it’s insanely hard. As Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant point out in their surprisingly useful Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, as far as directing is concerned, “If you’re doing it right, it’s not that fun.” As a feature director or television producer, you’re responsible for a thousand small but critical decisions that need to be made very quickly, and while you’re working on the story, you’re also casting parts, scouting for locations, dealing with the studio and the heads of various departments, and surviving on only a few hours of sleep a night, for a year or more of your life. In short, the amount of effort required to keep control of the project is greater, not less, than what is required to write a novel—except with more money on the line, in public, and with greater risk that control will eventually be taken away from you.

So it easier to write for television? Yes, if that’s all you want to do. But if you want control of your work, if you want your stories to be experienced in a form close to what you originally envisioned, it isn’t easier. It’s much harder. Which is why, to my mind, John Irving still puts it best: “When I feel like being a director, I write a novel.”

Lessons from great (and not-so-great) television

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It can be hard for a writer to admit being influenced by television. In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner struck a disdainful note that hasn’t changed much since:

Much of the dialogue one encounters in student fiction, as well as plot, gesture, even setting, comes not from life but from life filtered through TV. Many student writers seem unable to tell their own most important stories—the death of a father, the first disillusionment in love—except in the molds and formulas of TV. One can spot the difference at once because TV is of necessity—given its commercial pressures—false to life.

In the nearly thirty years since Gardner wrote these words, the television landscape has changed dramatically, but it’s worth pointing out that much of what he says here is still true. The basic elements of fiction—emotion, character, theme, even plot—need to come from close observation of life, or even the most skillful novel will eventually ring false. That said, the structure of fiction, and the author’s understanding of the possibilities of the form, doesn’t need to come from life alone, and probably shouldn’t. To develop a sense of what fiction can do, a writer needs to pay close attention to all types of art, even the nonliterary kind. And over the past few decades, television has expanded the possibilities of narrative in ways that no writer can afford to ignore.

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider a show like The Wire, which tells complex stories involving a vast range of characters, locations, and social issues in ways that aren’t possible in any other medium. The Simpsons, at least in its classic seasons, acquired a richness and velocity that continued to build for years, until it had populated a world that rivaled the real one for density and immediacy. (Like the rest of the Internet, I respond to most situations with a Simpsons quote.) And Mad Men continues to furnish a fictional world of astonishing detail and charm. World-building, it seems, is where television shines: in creating a long-form narrative that begins with a core group of characters and explores them for years, until they can come to seem as real as one’s own family and friends.

Which is why Glee can seem like such a disappointment. Perhaps because the musical is already the archest of genres, the show has always regarded its own medium with an air of detachment, as if the conventions of the after-school special or the high school sitcom were merely a sandbox in which the producers could play. On some level, this is fine: The Simpsons, among many other great shows, has fruitfully treated television as a place for narrative experimentation. But by turning its back on character continuity and refusing to follow any plot for more than a few episodes, Glee is abandoning many of the pleasures that narrative television can provide. Watching the show run out of ideas for its lead characters in less than two seasons simply serves as a reminder of how challenging this kind of storytelling can be.

Mad Men, by contrast, not only gives us characters who take on lives of their own, but consistently lives up to those characters in its acting, writing, and direction. (This is in stark contrast to Glee, where I sense that a lot of the real action is taking place in fanfic.) And its example has changed the way I write. My first novel tells a complicated story with a fairly controlled cast of characters, but Mad Men—in particular, the spellbinding convergence of plots in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”—reminded me of the possibilities of expansive casts, which allows characters to pair off and develop in unexpected ways. (The evolution of Christina Hendricks’s Joan from eye candy to second lead is only the most obvious example.) As a result, I’ve tried to cast a wider net with my second novel, using more characters and settings in the hopes that something unusual will arise. Television, strangely, has made me more ambitious. I’d like to think that even John Gardner would approve.

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2011 at 8:41 am

Off the hook

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In his wonderful interview in John Brady’s The Craft of the Screenwriter, Robert Towne—who might best be described as the Christopher McQuarrie of his time—tosses off a statement that is typically dense with insight:

One of the things that people say when they first start writing movies is, “Jeez, I have this idea for a movie. This is the way it opens. It’s a really great opening.” And of course they don’t know where to go from there. That’s true not only of people who are just thinking of writing movies, but very often of people who write them. They’re anxious for a splashy beginning to hook an audience, but then you end up paying for it with an almost mathematical certainty. If you have a lot of action and excitement at the beginning of a picture, there’s going to have to be some explanation, some character development somewhere along the line, and there will be a big sag about twenty minutes after you get into a film with a splashy opening. It’s something you learn. I don’t know if you’d call it technique. It’s made me prefer soft openings for films. It’s been my experience that an audience will forgive you almost anything at the beginning of the picture, but almost nothing at the end. If they’re not satisfied with the end, nothing that led up to it is going to help.

There’s a lot to absorb and remember here, particularly the implication, which I love, that a narrative has a finite amount of energy, and that if you use up too much of it at the start, you end up paying for it later.

For now, though, I’d like to focus on what Towne says about openings. He’s right in cautioning screenwriters against trying to start at a high point, which may not even be possible: I’ve noted elsewhere that few of the great scenes that we remember from movies come at the very beginning, since they require a degree of setup to really pay off. Yet at this very moment, legions of aspiring writers are undoubtedly sweating over a perfect grabber opening for their screenplay. In his interview with Brady, which was published in 1981, Towne blames this on television:

Unlike television, you don’t have to keep people from turning the channel to another network when they’re in the theater. They’ve paid three-fifty or five dollars and if the opening ten or fifteen minutes of a film are a little slow, they are still going to sit a few minutes, as long as it eventually catches hold. I believe in soft openings…Why bother to capture [the audience’s] interest at the expense of the whole film? They’re there. They’re not going anywhere.

William Goldman draws a similar contrast between the two forms in Adventures in the Screen Trade, writing a clumsy opening hook for a screenplay—about a girl being chased through the woods by a “disfigured giant”—and explaining why it’s bad: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” He continues:

This paragraph contains all that I know about writing for television. They need a hook. And they need it fast. Because they’re panicked you’ll switch to ABC. So TV stuff tends to begin with some kind of grabber. But in a movie, and only at the beginning of a movie, we have time. Not a lot, but some.

And while a lot has changed since Towne and Goldman made these statements, including the “three-fifty” that used to be the price of a ticket, the underlying point remains sound. Television calls for a different kind of structure and pacing than a movie, and screenwriters shouldn’t confuse the two. Yet I don’t think that the average writer who is fretting about the opening of his script is necessarily making that mistake, or thinking in terms of what viewers will see in a theater. I suspect that he or she is worrying about a very different audience—the script reader at an agency or production company. A moviegoer probably won’t walk out if the opening doesn’t grab them, but the first reader of a screenplay will probably toss it aside if the first few pages don’t work. (This isn’t just the case with screenwriters, either. Writers of short stories are repeatedly told that they need to hook the reader in the first paragraph, and the result is often a kind of palpable desperation that can actively turn off editors.) One reason, of course, why Towne and Goldman can get away with “soft” openings is that they’ve been successful enough to be taken seriously, both in person and in print. As Towne says:

There have been some shifts in attitudes toward me. If I’m in a meeting with some people, and if I say, “Look, fellas, I don’t think it’s gonna work this way,” there is a tendency to listen to me more. Before, they tended to dismiss a little more quickly than now.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly the same phenomenon as giving the script the benefit of the doubt—it buys Towne another minute or two to make his point, which is all a screenwriter can ask.

The sad truth is that a script trying to stand out from the slush pile and a filmed narrative have fundamentally different needs. In some cases, they’re diametrically opposed. Writers trying to break into the business can easily find themselves caught between the need to hype the movie on the page and their instincts about how the story deserves to be told, and that tension can be fatal. A smart screenwriter will often draw a distinction between the selling version, which is written with an eye to the reader, and the shooting script, which provides the blueprint for the movie, but most aspiring writers don’t have that luxury. And if we think of television as a model for dealing with distracted viewers or readers, it’s only going to get worse. In a recent essay for Uproxx titled “Does Anyone Still Have Time to Wait For Shows to Get Good?”, the legendary critic Alan Sepinwall notes that the abundance of great shows makes it hard to justify waiting for a series to improve, concluding:

We all have a lot going on, in both our TV and non-TV lives, and if you don’t leave enough breadcrumbs in the early going, your viewers will just wander off to watch, or do, something else. While outlining this post, I tweeted a few things about the phenomenon, phrasing it as “It Gets Better After Six Episodes”—to which many people replied with incredulous variations on, “Six? If it’s not good after two, or even one, I’m out, pal.”

With hundreds of shows instantly at our disposal—as opposed to the handful of channels that existed when Towne and Goldman were speaking—we’ve effectively been put into the position of a studio reader with a stack of scripts. If we don’t like what we see, we can move on. The result has been the emotionally punishing nature of so much peak television, which isn’t about storytelling so much as heading off distraction. And if it sometimes seems that many writers can’t do anything else, it’s because it’s all they were ever taught to do.

Frogs for snakes

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If you’re the sort of person who can’t turn away from a show business scandal with leaked memos, insider anecdotes, and accusations of bad conduct on both sides, the last two weeks have offered a pair of weirdly similar cases. The first involves Frank Darabont, the former showrunner of The Walking Dead, who was fired during the show’s second season and is now suing the network for a share of profits from the most popular series in the history of cable television. In response, AMC released a selection of Darabont’s emails intended to demonstrate that his firing was justified, and it makes for queasily riveting reading. Some are so profane that I don’t feel comfortable quoting them here, but this one gives you a sense of the tone:

If it were up to me, I’d have not only fired [these two writers] when they handed me the worst episode three script imaginable, I’d have hunted them down and f—ing killed them with a brick, then gone and burned down their homes. I haven’t even spoken to those worthless talentless hack sons-of-bitches since their third draft was phoned in after five months of all their big talk and promises that they’d dig deep and have my back covered…Calling their [script] “phoned-in” would be vastly overstating, because they were too busy wasting my time and your money to bother picking the damn phone up. Those f—ing overpaid con artists.

In an affidavit, Darabont attempted to justify his words: “Each of these emails must be considered in context. They were sent during an intense and stressful two-year period of work during which I was fighting like a mother lion to protect the show from harm…Each of these emails was sent because a ‘professional’ showed up whose laziness, indifference, or incompetence threatened to sink the ship. My tone was the result of the stress and magnitude of this extraordinary crisis. The language and hyperbole of my emails were harsh, but so were the circumstances.”

Frankly, I don’t find this quite as convincing as the third act of The Shawshank Redemption. As it happened, the Darabont emails were released a few days before a similar dispute engulfed Steve Whitmire, the puppeteer who had been performing Kermit the Frog since the death of Jim Henson. After the news broke last week that Whitmire had been fired, accounts soon emerged of his behavior that strikingly echoed the situation with Darabont: “He’d send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director,” Brian Henson told the New York Times. Whitmire has disputed the characterization: “Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals. It was strictly that I was sending detailed notes. I don’t feel that I was, in any way, disrespectful by doing that.” And his defense, like Darabont’s, stems from what he frames as a sense of protectiveness toward the show and its characters. Of a plot point involving Kermit and his nephew Robin on the defunct series The Muppets, Whitmire said to the Hollywood Reporter:

I don’t think Kermit would lie to him. I think that as Robin came to Kermit, he would say “Things happen, people go their separate ways, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about you.” Kermit is too compassionate to lie to him to spare his feelings…We have been doing these characters for a long, long time and we know them better than anybody. I thought I was aiding to keep it on track, and I think a big reason why the show was canceled…was because that didn’t happen. I am not saying my notes would have saved it, but I think had they listened more to all of the performers, it would have made a really big difference.

Unfortunately, the case of Whitmire, like that of Darabont, is more complicated than it might seem. Henson’s children have come out in support of the firing, with Brian Henson, the public face of the company, saying that he had reservations about Whitmire’s behavior for over a decade:

I have to say, in hindsight, I feel pretty guilty that I burdened Disney by not having recast Kermit at that point because I knew that it was going to be a real problem. And I have always offered that if they wanted to recast Kermit, I was all for it, and I would absolutely help. I am very glad we have done this now. I think the character is better served to remove this destructive energy around it.

Elsewhere, Lisa Henson told the Times that Whitmire had become increasingly controlling, refusing to hire an understudy and blackballing aspiring puppeteers after the studio tried to cast alternate performers, as a source said to Gizmodo: “[Steve] told Disney that the people who were in the audition room are never allowed to work with the Muppets again.” For a Muppet fan, this is all very painful, so I’ll stop here, except to venture two comments. One is that Darabont and Whitmire may well have been right to be concerned. The second is that in expressing their thoughts, they alienated a lot of the people around them, and their protectiveness toward the material ended in them being removed from the creative process altogether. If they were simply bad at giving notes—and the evidence suggests that at least Darabont was—they weren’t alone. No one gives or takes notes well. You could even argue that the whole infrastructure of movie and television production exists to make the exchange of notes, which usually goes in just one direction, incrementally less miserable. And it doesn’t work.

Both men responded by trying to absorb more creative control into themselves, which is a natural response. Brian Henson recalls Whitmire saying: “I am now Kermit, and if you want the Muppets, you better make me happy, because the Muppets are Kermit.” And the most fascinating passage in Darabont’s correspondence is his proposal for how the show ought to be run in the future:

The crew goes away or stands there silently without milling or chattering about bullshit that doesn’t apply to the job at hand…The director [and crew]…stand there and carefully read the scene out loud word for word. Especially and including all description…The important beats are identified and discussed in terms of how they are to be shot. In other words, sole creative authority is being taken out of the director’s hands. It doesn’t matter that our actors are doing good work if the cameras fail to capture it. Any questions come straight to me by phone or text. If necessary I will shoot the coverage on my iPhone and text it to the set. The staging follows the script to the letter and is no longer willy-nilly horseshit with cameras just hosing it down from whatever angle…If the director tries to not shoot what is written, the director is beaten to death on the spot. A trained monkey is brought in to complete the job.

Reading this, I found myself thinking of an analogous situation that arose when David Mamet was running The Unit. (I’m aware that The Unit wasn’t exactly a great show—I don’t think I got through more than two episodes—but my point remains the same.) Mamet, like Darabont, was unhappy with the scripts that he was getting, but instead of writing everything himself, he wrote a memo on plot structure so lucid and logical that it has been widely shared online as a model of how to tell a story. Instead of raging at those around him, he did what he could to elevate them to his level. It strikes me as the best possible response. But as Kermit might say, that’s none of my business.

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2017 at 9:02 am

The genius naïf

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Last night, after watching the latest episode of Twin Peaks, I turned off the television before the premiere of the seventh season of Game of Thrones. This is mostly because I only feel like subscribing to one premium channel at a time, but even if I still had HBO, I doubt that I would have tuned in. I gave up on Game of Thrones a while back, both because I was uncomfortable with its sexual violence and because I felt that the average episode had degenerated into a holding pattern—it cut between storylines simply to remind us that they still existed, and it relied on unexpected character deaths and bursts of bloodshed to keep the audience awake. The funny thing, of course, is that you could level pretty much the same charges against the third season of Twin Peaks, which I’m slowly starting to feel may be the television event of the decade. Its images of violence against women are just as unsettling now as they were a quarter of a century ago, when Madeline Ferguson met her undeserved end; it cuts from one subplot to another so inscrutably that I’ve compared its structure to that of a sketch comedy show; and it has already delivered a few scenes that rank among the goriest in recent memory. So what’s the difference? If you’re feeling generous, you can say that one is an opportunistic display of popular craftsmanship, while the other is a singular, if sometimes incomprehensible, artistic vision. And if you’re less forgiving, you can argue that I’m being hard on one show that I concluded was jerking me around, while indulging another that I wanted badly to love.

It’s a fair point, although I don’t think it’s necessarily true, based solely on my experience of each show in the moment. I’ve often found my attention wandering during even solid episodes of Game of Thrones, while I’m rarely less than absorbed for the full hour of Twin Peaks, even though I’d have trouble explaining why. But there’s no denying the fact that I approach each show in a different state of mind. One of the most obvious criticisms of Twin Peaks, then and now, is that its pedigree prompts viewers to overlook or forgive scenes that might seem questionable within in a more conventional series. (There have been times, I’ll confess, when I’ve felt like Homer Simpson chuckling “Brilliant!” and then confessing: “I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”) Yet I don’t think we need to apologize for this. The history of the series, the track record of its creators, and everything implied by its brand mean that most viewers are willing to give it the benefit the doubt. David Lynch and Mark Frost are clearly aware of their position, and they’ve leveraged it to the utmost, resulting in a show in which they’re free to do just about anything they like. It’s hard to imagine any other series getting away with this, but’s also hard to imagine another show persuading a million viewers each week to meet it halfway. The implicit contract between Game of Thrones and its audience is very different, which makes the show’s lapses harder to forgive. One of the great fascinations of Lynch’s career is whether he even knows what he’s doing half the time, and it’s much less interesting to ask this question of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, any more than it is of Chris Carter.

By now, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Lynch knows exactly what he’s doing, but that confusion is still central to his appeal. Pauline Kael’s review of Blue Velvet might have been written of last night’s Twin Peaks:

You wouldn’t mistake frames from Blue Velvet for frames from any other movie. It’s an anomaly—the work of a genius naïf. If you feel that there’s very little art between you and the filmmaker’s psyche, it may be because there’s less than the usual amount of inhibition…It’s easy to forget about the plot, because that’s where Lynch’s naïve approach has its disadvantages: Lumberton’s subterranean criminal life needs to be as organic as the scrambling insects, and it isn’t. Lynch doesn’t show us how the criminals operate or how they’re bound to each other. So the story isn’t grounded in anything and has to be explained in little driblets of dialogue. But Blue Velvet has so much aural-visual humor and poetry that it’s sustained despite the wobbly plot and the bland functional dialogue (that’s sometimes a deliberate spoof of small-town conventionality and sometimes maybe not)…Lynch skimps on these commercial-movie basics and fouls up on them, too, but it’s as if he were reinventing movies.

David Thomson, in turn, called the experience of seeing Blue Velvet a moment of transcendence: “A kind of passionate involvement with both the story and the making of a film, so that I was simultaneously moved by the enactment on screen and by discovering that a new director had made the medium alive and dangerous again.”

Twin Peaks feels more alive and dangerous than Game of Thrones ever did, and the difference, I think, lies in our awareness of the effects that the latter is trying to achieve. Even at its most shocking, there was never any question about what kind of impact it wanted to have, as embodied by the countless reaction videos that it inspired. (When you try to imagine videos of viewers reacting to Twin Peaks, you get a sense of the aesthetic abyss that lies between these two shows.) There was rarely a scene in which the intended emotion wasn’t clear, and even when it deliberately sought to subvert our expectations, it was by substituting one stimulus and response for another—which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t effective, or that there weren’t moments, at its best, that affected me as powerfully as any I’ve ever seen. Even the endless succession of “Meanwhile, back at the Wall” scenes had a comprehensible structural purpose. On Twin Peaks, by contrast, there’s rarely any sense of how we’re supposed to be feeling about any of it. Its violence is shocking because it doesn’t seem to serve anything, certainly not anyone’s character arc, and our laughter is often uncomfortable, so that we don’t know if we’re laughing at the situation onscreen, at the show, or at ourselves. It may not be an experiment that needs to be repeated ever again, any more than Blue Velvet truly “reinvented” anything over the long run, except my own inner life. But at a time when so many prestige dramas seem content to push our buttons in ever more expert and ruthless ways, I’m grateful for a show that resists easy labels. Lynch may or may not be a genius naïf, but no ordinary professional could have done what he does here.

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2017 at 7:54 am

Children of the Lens

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During World War II, as the use of radar became widespread in battle, the U.S. Navy introduced the Combat Information Center, a shipboard tactical room with maps, consoles, and screens of the kind that we’ve all seen in television and the movies. At the time, though, it was like something out of science fiction, and in fact, back in 1939, E.E. “Doc” Smith had described a very similar display in the serial Gray Lensman:

Red lights are fleets already in motion…Greens are fleets still at their bases. Ambers are the planets the greens took off from…The white star is us, the Directrix. That violet cross way over there is Jalte’s planet, our first objective. The pink comets are our free planets, their tails showing their intrinsic velocities.

After the war, in a letter dated June 11, 1947, the editor John W. Campbell told Smith that the similarity was more than just a coincidence. Claiming to have been approached “unofficially, and in confidence” by a naval officer who played an important role in developing the C.I.C., Campbell said:

The entire setup was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in—more communications channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique, and proved how advantageous it could be…Sitting in Michigan, some years before Pearl Harbor, you played a large share in the greatest and most decisive naval action of the recent war!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t true. The naval officer in question, Cal Laning, was indeed a science fiction fan—he was close friends with Robert A. Heinlein—but any resemblance to the Directrix was coincidental, or, at best, an instance of convergence as fiction and reality addressed the same set of problems. (An excellent analysis of the situation can be found in Ed Wysocki’s very useful book An Astounding War.)

If Campbell was tempted to overstate Smith’s influence, this isn’t surprising—the editor was disappointed that science fiction hadn’t played the role that he had envisioned for it in the war, and this wasn’t the first or last time that he would gently exaggerate it. Fifteen years later, however, Smith’s fiction had a profound impact on a very different field. In 1962, Steve Russell of M.I.T. developed Spacewar, the first video game to be played on more than one computer, with two spaceships dueling with torpedoes in the gravity well of a star. In an article for Rolling Stone written by my hero Stewart Brand, Russell recalled:

We had this brand new PDP-1…It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display…Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships…

I had just finished reading Doc Smith’s Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. The details were very good and it had an excellent pace. His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar. He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.

The “somebody” whom he mentions was Marvin Minsky, another science fiction fan, and Russell’s collaborator Martin Graetz elsewhere cited Smith’s earlier Skylark series as an influence on the game.

But the really strange thing is that Campbell, who had been eager to claim credit for Smith when it came to the C.I.C., never made this connection in print, at least not as far as I know, although he was hugely interested in Spacewar. In the July 1971 issue of Analog, he published an article on the game by Albert W. Kuhfeld, who had developed a variation of it at the University of Minnesota. Campbell wrote in his introductory note:

For nearly a dozen years I’ve been trying to get an article on the remarkable educational game invented at M.I.T. It’s a great game, involving genuine skill in solving velocity and angular relation problems—but I’m afraid it will never be widely popular. The playing “board” costs about a quarter of a megabuck!

Taken literally, the statement “nearly a dozen years” implies that the editor heard about Spacewar before it existed, but the evidence legitimately implies that he learned of it almost at once. Kuhfeld writes: “Although it uses a computer to handle orbital mechanics, physicists and mathematicians have no great playing advantage—John Campbell’s seventeen-year-old daughter beat her M.I.T. student-instructor on her third try—and thereafter.” Campbell’s daughter was born in 1945, which squares nicely with a visit around the time of the game’s first appearance. It isn’t implausible that Campbell would have seen and heard about it immediately—he had been close to the computer labs at Harvard and M.I.T. since the early fifties, and he made a point of dropping by once a year. If the Lensman series, the last three installments of which he published, had really been an influence on Spacewar, it seems inconceivable that nobody would have told him. For some reason, however, Campbell, who cheerfully promoted the genre’s impact on everything from the atomic bomb to the moon landing, didn’t seize the opportunity to do the same for video games, in an article that he badly wanted to publish. (In a letter to the manufacturers of the PDP-1, whom he had approached unsuccessfully for a writeup, he wrote: “I’ve tried for years to get a story on Spacewar, and I’ve repeatedly had people promise one…and not deliver.”)

So why didn’t he talk about it? The obvious answer is that he didn’t realize that Spacewar, which he thought would “never be widely popular,” was anything more than a curiosity, and if he had lived for another decade—he died just a few months after the article came out—he would have pushed the genre’s connection to video games as insistently as he did anything else. But there might have been another factor at play. For clues, we can turn to the article in Rolling Stone, in which Brand visited the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Annie Leibovitz, which is something that I wish I could have seen. Brand opens with the statement that computers are coming to the people, and he adds: “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” It’s a revealing comparison, and it indicates the extent to which the computing movement was moving away from everything that Campbell represented. A description of the group’s offices at Stanford includes a detail that, if Campbell had read it, would only have added insult to injury:

Posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer printout photos of girlfriends…and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script—the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.

In the decade since the editor first encountered Spacewar, a lot had changed, and Campbell might have been reluctant to take much credit for it. The Analog article, which Brand mentions, saw the game as a way to teach people about orbital mechanics; Rolling Stone recognized it as a leading indicator of a development that was about to change the world. And even if he had lived, there might not have been room for Campbell. As Brand concludes:

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive…It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

The pop culture of computing

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We all thought that the next level of programming language would be much more strategic and even policy-oriented and would have much more knowledge about what it was trying to do. But a variety of different things conspired together, and that next generation actually didn’t show up. One could actually argue—as I sometimes do—that the success of commercial personal computing and operating systems has actually led to a considerable retrogression in many, many respects.

You could think of it as putting a low-pass filter on some of the good ideas from the sixties and seventies, as computing spread out much, much faster than educating unsophisticated people can happen. In the last twenty-five years or so, we actually got something like a pop culture, similar to what happened when television came on the scene and some of its inventors thought it would be a way of getting Shakespeare to the masses. But they forgot that you have to be more sophisticated and have more perspective to understand Shakespeare. What television was able to do was to capture people as they were.

So I think the lack of a real computer science today, and the lack of real software engineering today, is partly due to this pop culture…If you look at software today, through the lens of the history of engineering, it’s certainly engineering of a sort—but it’s the kind of engineering that people without the concept of the arch did. Most software today is very much like an Egyptian pyramid with millions of bricks piled on top of each other, with no structural integrity, but just done by brute force and thousands of slaves.

Alan Kay, to ACM Queue

Written by nevalalee

July 13, 2017 at 7:18 am

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The X factor

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On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article on the absence of women on the writing staff of The X-Files. Its author, Sonia Rao, pointed out that all of the writers for the upcoming eleventh season—including creator Chris Carter, Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, and three newcomers who had worked on the series as assistants—are men, adding: “It’s an industry tradition for television writers to rise through the ranks in this manner, so Carter’s choices were to be expected. But in 2017, it’s worth asking: How is there a major network drama that’s so dominated by male voices?” It’s a good question. The network didn’t comment, but Gillian Anderson responded on Twitter: “I too look forward to the day when the numbers are different.” In the same tweet, she noted that out of over two hundred episodes, only two were directed by women, one of whom was Anderson herself. (The other was Michelle MacLaren, who has since gone on to great things in partnership with Vince Gilligan.) Not surprisingly, there was also a distinct lack of female writers on the show’s original run, with just a few episodes written by women, including Anderson, Sara B. Cooper, and Kim Newton, the latter of whom, along with Darin Morgan, was responsible for one of my favorite installments, “Quagmire.” And you could argue that their continued scarcity is due to a kind of category selection, in which we tend to hire people who look like those who have filled similar roles in the past. It’s largely unconscious, but no less harmful, and I say this as a fan of a show that means more to me than just about any other television series in history.

I’ve often said elsewhere that Dana Scully might be my favorite fictional character in any medium, but I’m also operating from a skewed sample set. If you’re a lifelong fan of a show like The X-Files, you tend to repeatedly revisit your favorite episodes, but you probably never rewatch the ones that were mediocre or worse, which leads to an inevitable distortion. My picture of Scully is constructed out of four great Darin Morgan episodes, a tiny slice of the mytharc, and a dozen standout casefiles like “Pusher” and even “Triangle.” I’ve watched each of these episodes countless times, so that’s the version of the series that I remember—but it isn’t necessarily the show that actually exists. A viewer who randomly tunes into a rerun on syndication is much more likely to see Scully on an average week than in “War of the Coprophages,” and in many episodes, unfortunately, she’s little more than a foil for her partner or a convenient victim to be rescued. (Darin Morgan, who understood Scully better than anyone, seems to have gravitated toward her in part out of his barely hidden contempt for Mulder.) Despite these flaws, Scully still came to mean the world to thousands of viewers, including young women whom she inspired to go into medicine and the sciences. Gillian Anderson herself is deeply conscious of this, and this seems to have contributed to her refreshing candor here, as well as on such related issues as the fact that she was initially offered half of David Duchovny’s salary to return. Anderson understands exactly how much she means to us, and she’s conducted herself accordingly.

The fact that the vast majority of the show’s episodes were written by men also seems to have fed into one of its least appealing qualities, which was how Scully’s body—and particularly her reproductive system—was repeatedly used as a plot point. Part of this was accidental: Anderson’s pregnancy had to be written into the second season, and the writers ended up with an abduction arc with a medical subtext that became hopelessly messy later on. It may not have been planned that way, any more than anything else on this show ever was, but it had the additional misfortune of being tethered to a conspiracy storyline for which it was expected to provide narrative clarity. After the third season, nobody could keep track of the players and their motivations, so Scully’s cancer and fertility issues were pressed into service as a kind of emotional index to the rest. These were pragmatic choices, but they were also oddly callous, especially as their dramatic returns continued to diminish. And in its use of a female character’s suffering to motivate a male protagonist, it was unfortunately ahead of the curve. When you imagine flipping the narrative so that Mulder, not Scully, was one whose body was under discussion, you see how unthinkable this would have been. It’s exactly the kind of unexamined notion that comes out of a roomful of writers who are all operating with the same assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taste or respect, but of storytelling, and in retrospect, the show’s steady decline seems inseparable from the monotony of its creative voices.

And this might be the most damning argument of all. Even before the return of Twin Peaks reminded us of how good this sort of revival could be, the tenth season of The X-Files was a crushing disappointment. It had exactly one good episode, written, not coincidentally, by Darin Morgan, and featuring Scully at her sharpest and most joyous. Its one attempt at a new female character, despite the best efforts of Lauren Ambrose, was a frustrating misfire. Almost from the start, it was clear that Chris Carter didn’t have a secret plan for saving the show, and that he’d already used up all his ideas over the course of nine increasingly tenuous seasons. It’s tempting to say that the show had burned though all of its possible plotlines, but that’s ridiculous. This was a series that had all of science fiction, fantasy, and horror at its disposal, combined with the conspiracy thriller and the procedural, and it should have been inexhaustible. It wasn’t the show that got tired, but its writers. Opening up the staff to a more diverse set of talents would have gone a long way toward addressing this. (The history of science fiction is as good an illustration as any of the fact that diversity is good for everyone, not simply its obvious beneficiaries. Editors and showrunners who don’t promote it end up paying a creative price in the long run.) For a show about extreme possibilities, it settled for formula distressingly often, and it would have benefited from adding a wider range of perspectives—particularly from writers with backgrounds that have historically offered insight into such matters as dealing with oppressive, impersonal institutions, which is what the show was allegedly about. It isn’t too late. But we might have to wait for the twelfth season.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2017 at 8:56 am

The bed of the future

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Earlier this week, I noticed a post on the front page of Reddit with the headline: “After a 1946 plane crash, Howard Hughes decided he did not like the design of the hospital bed he was laying in [sic]. He called in his engineers and had them design a new bed that would allow someone with severe burns to move freely. It became the prototype for the modern hospital bed.” This wasn’t the first time that this particular fact, with a link to the Wikipedia article on Hughes, had been posted there—in fact, it was copied and pasted from an identical submission from last year, which in itself duplicated at least two earlier posts—but it happened to catch my eye for reasons that I’ll explain later. Surprisingly enough, there appears to be a germ of truth to it. After Hughes crashed his XF-11 test plane on July 7, 1946, he did indeed ask his staff to build an improved hospital bed. As far as I can tell, it was first reported the following month in an article by the Associated Press, “Hughes Designs Hospital Bed,” which read in its entirety as follows:

Plane-maker Howard Hughes, critically injured July 7 in an airplane crash, didn’t like his hospital bed so he called in plant engineers to design a “tailor-made,” equipped with hot and cold running water. The motorized bed, on which he now is resting at the home of a friend, is built in six sections and is operated by thirty electric motors. Push-button adjustments helped him ease his pain considerably during the thirty-seven days he spent in the hospital suffering from eleven broken ribs and severe burns. Hughes took the bed, tailored to the contours of his spine, with him when he left the hospital Saturday. “I think he left in an ambulance,” said a nurse, “but I’d believe it if someone told me he flew home in that bed.”

After that, the story reappears sporadically in treatments of Hughes’s life, with elaborations that reflect either additional sources, apocryphal expansion, or some combination of the two. In Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos, and Letters, for instance, we read:

Hughes had ordered his aviation engineers to devise a mattress that could be adjusted mechanically with his body’s movement as he continued the healing process. Working through the night, the factory created foam bedding that was divided into thirty-two sections, each controlled by a pneumatic piston and its own motor. When the mattress was rolled into Hughes’ room, he took one look at the complicated controls and sent it into storage, while leaking news of its invention and taking credit for its creation.

Note that the “six sections…operated by thirty electric motors” has somehow become “thirty-two sections.” But the detail that Hughes leaked the story to the press seems credible, while a footnote adds: “The mattress was discovered, unused, in a storage locker at Hughes Aircraft in 1976.” Other sources plausibly claim that it was Hughes’s associate Glenn Odekirk who oversaw the project. Over time, however, obvious exaggerations and distortions begin to creep in. One biography states: “[The bed] was quickly built and worked admirably, helping speed his recovery.” And then there’s this version:

Hughes’s bed was self-propelled, powered by thirty electric motors and controlled from an elaborate aircraft-style cockpit. From the comfort of this mobile sleeping machine, Hughes could tour the hospital wards, position his bed wherever he fancied, and summon up creature comforts such as music and hot and cold running water, all at the touch of a button.

What’s missing from all of these sources is the assertion that Hughes’s design was the basis of the modern hospital bed—and as a matter of fact, it wasn’t. In the November 12, 1945 issue of Life, which was published more than seven months before Hughes’s accident, an article titled “Push-Button Hospital Bed” presents a bed that includes all of the features mentioned above, using remarkably similar language. The wonderfully named Dr. Marvel Darlington Beem, it states, has built “a streamlined, electrically powered hospital bed which has a full-sized toilet built in,” and it goes on to describe it in detail:

Dr. Beem’s bed also includes other features which almost make it possible for patients to take care of themselves without any help at all. Piloting the bed like an airplane [italics mine] from a panel of switches…a patient may raise his head and feet, swing in front of a washbasin with hot and cold running water, open and shut windows, draw blinds, heat the bed, turn on lights anywhere in the room, or call a nurse. Also built into the bed are a collapsible table, an ultraviolet lamp, and an overhead trapeze bar for the patient to move himself around.

At the time of the XF-11 crash, Beem’s bed was still in the prototype stage, and it isn’t clear if anyone on the Hughes team ever saw it. (As the Life article notes, Beem practiced in Los Angeles, and Hughes was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital on Wilshire Boulevard, so it isn’t impossible that one was the inspiration for the other. Beem’s design was also written up in the August 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics, which would have been on newsstands when Hughes had his accident.) Judging from the few scraps of information that I’ve been able to find about Beem, he continued to show his bed at trade shows and to promote it in magazines well into the fifties, which indicates that it wasn’t in wide use for years. The modern hospital bed may well have developed along independent lines. But you can make a much better case for Beem than you can for Hughes.

Of course, this isn’t as good of a story, which may be why it emerged in the first place. Although Wikipedia includes the line “Hughes’s bed served as a prototype for the modern hospital bed,” the source to which it links, Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele’s Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness, makes no such claim. But it’s more fun to credit it to Hughes—even if he never did anything with it—than to the doctor who actually developed it and spent a decade shopping it around. (Amusingly, after the article about the bed appeared in Life, the magazine published a letter from the legendary science fiction editor Hugo Gernsback, founder of Amazing Stories, who noted that he had recently published a diagram of an “electronic bed,” pictured above, in his annual Christmas issue for subscribers. Life thanked him and informed its readers: “Years before they came true, [Gernsback] also predicted radio loudspeakers, television, radio-controlled vehicles and almost every other mechanical invention.” But that doesn’t mean he invented the modern hospital bed, either.) The Hughes factoid only caught my attention at all because it reminded me of the story that Robert A. Heinlein designed an early version of a water bed, as he recounts in Expanded Universe:

I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster…[It was] an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.

You see this anecdote repeated a lot, and, with some caveats, it’s basically correct. But it’s also one of the least interesting things about Heinlein. Similarly, if you were to list all of the most fascinating facts about Howard Hughes, the notion that he designed the modern hospital bed, even if it were true, wouldn’t rank in the top ten. Yet it’s one of the only items about Hughes that makes it consistently onto Reddit, which implies that there’s something about it that appeals to us. It’s a cute story. But it’s time to put it to bed.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2017 at 9:06 am

White Sands, Black Lodge

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Note: This post discusses details of last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

Before the premiere of the third season of Twin Peaks, I occasionally found myself wondering how it could possibly stand out in an entertainment landscape that it had helped to create. After all, we’re living in an era of peak television—it’s right there in the name—and it seemed possible that its “quirkiness,” which now seems like a comically inadequate word, would come across as more of the same. By now, it’s clear that my fears were groundless. Last night’s episode was one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed in any medium, and it confirms that this series is still capable of heady stylistic and conceptual surprises. The first ten minutes are as close as it gets to business as usual, with Dark Cooper ensnared by a surprisingly routine double cross. Then it gets deeply weird, with an extended musical guest performance by Nine Inch Nails and a Kubrickian star gate sequence emerging from the atomic bomb at Trinity, with some atypically good special effects. (David Lynch is usually happier with camera tricks that he seems to have cooked up in his basement.) The rest is alternately bewildering, lovely, horrifying, slow, incomprehensible, and hypnotic, and it just keeps going. Any one element wouldn’t have been totally out of place, but taken together, it’s the longest sequence of its kind in Lynch’s entire body of work, and it aired on Showtime. We aren’t even halfway through this season, but it feels like a hinge moment, the dividing line in which all the ways we thought we were learning how to watch this show literally blew up in our faces. A girl also swallows a giant bug.

Yet if this was possibly the weirdest hour of television I’ve ever seen, it’s also the most conventional episode of the season so far. This observation deeply annoyed my wife when I came up with it last night, but hear me out. Instead of a collection of sketches and dead ends, this was a hugely eventful episode in terms of how it affected its viewers, and it was full of information—weird information, but information nonetheless. Without trying to parse or interpret the images themselves, I feel comfortable in saying that they’re the equivalent of an origin story, however vague the details might be. In the extended scene between the Giant and the new character identified in the closing credits as Señorita Dido, there’s even the implication that the whole series is about restoring balance to the Force, with Laura Palmer’s spirit migrating earthward, decades before her birth, in response to the rise of evil. Even if we end our speculations here, this is more data than we’ve ever been given about the show’s backstory. The very idea of a “mythology” seems uncharacteristically prosaic for a series that has always stubbornly resisted being pinned down, but in its period setting, it feels kind of like one of those episodes of The X-Files in which unexplained events unfold decades ago in the New Mexico desert. (Between Alamogordo and Roswell, that state has come to play a very specific role in the American collective unconscious, and I almost wish that Twin Peaks had gone elsewhere for inspiration.)

In other words, if you’re approaching Twin Peaks as a code or a series of clues, this episode gave you more material than any previous installment. In its particulars, it was as crazy as hell, but its functional role was curiously straightforward. And while it’s always a fool’s game to pick apart the contributions of the show’s creators, the impulse to ground the story in the past feels less like Lynch than like Mark Frost, who published an entire book last year, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, that went over similar ground. (I haven’t read it, but a quick browse reveals that it mentions L. Ron Hubbard and his sojourn with the rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons, which means that I’ll probably need to take a closer look.) Frost has an odd resume, with a body of work since the show’s initial run that includes conspiracy thrillers, nonfiction books about golf, and the scripts to the first two Fantastic Four movies. He has an unusual interest in the past, but it feels literal-minded in comparison to Lynch, who uses the iconography of previous eras as a backdrop for dreams. Their interplay, like that of Lynch and his other longtime collaborator Barry Gifford, yield results that are strikingly different from what you get when the director is off working on his own. Among other things, their cultural reference points—like The Wizard of Oz in Wild at Heart—are more transparent. And we seem to be reaching a point in the series in which that shape is becoming incrementally more visible.

That’s why I’m slightly wary of what comes next, as much as I loved what I saw here. I don’t want Twin Peaks to become a crossword puzzle, or to have a coherent mythology that can be picked apart online. It was always most fascinating when it hinted at the existence of a pattern that lay behind the surface of the series, and even the viewer’s own life—a dream world, overheard in the soundtrack, that grows more elusive the older we get, and then revisits us in old age. At its best, it was a show that seemed knew something that we didn’t. If anything, it may have just shown us too much, although that depends on what happens next. The episode ends without returning us to the present, but I’d be very happy if, when it picks up next week, we moved on without referring to any of it, as if it were an extended footnote or appendix that didn’t need to be read to appreciate the text. It’s information for the audience, not the characters, and the nice thing about this revival is that it allows for the kind of massive structural digression that wouldn’t have been feasible twenty-five years ago. (Some of the least successful scenes in the original run of Twin Peaks involve Cooper and Sheriff Truman speculating about the true nature of the Black Lodge. The fact that we just got so much backstory in visual form hopefully removes the need to spell it out in the dialogue. And I only wish that The X-Files had taken the same approach.) It was brilliant and unforgettable. And I hope that we never have to talk about it again.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2017 at 8:54 am

Too far to go

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Note: Spoilers follow for the third season of Fargo.

A year and a half ago, I wrote on this blog: “Fargo may turn out to be the most important television series on the air today.” Now that the third season has ended, it feels like a good time to revisit that prediction, which turned out to be sort of right, but not for the reasons that I expected. When I typed those words, cracking the problem of the anthology series felt like the puzzle on which the future of television itself depended. We were witnessing an epochal shift of talent, which is still happening, from movies to the small screen, as big names on both sides of the camera began to realize that the creative opportunities it afforded were in many ways greater than what the studios were prepared to offer. I remain convinced that we’re entering an entertainment landscape in which Hollywood focuses almost exclusively on blockbusters, while dramas and quirky smaller films migrate to cable, or even the networks. The anthology series was the obvious crossover point. It could draw big names for a limited run, it allowed stories to be told over the course of ten tight episodes rather than stretched over twenty or more, it lent itself well to being watched in one huge binge, and it offered viewers the prospect of a definitive conclusion. At its best, it felt like an independent movie given the breathing room and resources of an epic. Fargo, its exemplar, became one of the most fascinating dramas on television in large part because it drew its inspiration from one of the most virtuoso experiments with tone in movie history—a triangulation, established by the original film, between politeness, quiet desperation, and sudden violence. It was a technical trick, but a very good one, and it seemed like a machine that could generate stories forever.

After three seasons, I haven’t changed my mind, even if the show’s underlying formula feels more obvious than before. What I’ve begun to realize about Fargo is that it’s an anthology series that treats each season as a kind of miniature anthology, too, with scenes and entire episodes that stand for nothing but themselves. In the first season, the extended sequence about Oliver Platt’s supermarket magnate was a shaggy dog story that didn’t go anywhere, but now, it’s a matter of strategy. The current season was ostensibly focused on the misfortunes of the Stussey brothers, played with showy brilliance by Ewan McGregor, but it allowed itself so many digressions that the plot became more like a framing device. It opened with a long interrogation scene set in East Germany that was never referenced again, aside from serving as a thematic overture to the whole—although it can’t be an accident that “Stussey” sounds so much like “Stasi.” Later, there was a self-contained flashback episode set in the science fiction and movie worlds of the seventies, including an animated cartoon to dramatize a story by one of the characters, which turned the series into a set of nesting dolls. It often paused to stage the parables told by the loathsome Varga, which were evidently supposed to cast light on the situation, but rarely had anything to do it. After the icy control of the first season and the visual nervousness of the second, the third season threaded the needle by simultaneously disciplining its look and indulging its penchant for odd byways. Each episode was like a film festival of short subjects, some more successful than others, and unified mostly by creator Noah Hawley’s confidence that we would follow him wherever he went.

Mostly, he was right, although his success rate wasn’t perfect, as it hardly could have been expected to be. There’s no question that between Fargo and Legion, Hawley has been responsible for some of the most arresting television of the last few years, but the strain occasionally shows. The storytelling and character development on Legion were never as interesting as its visual experiments, possibly because a show can innovate along only so many parameters at once. And Fargo has been so good at its quirky components—it rarely gives us a scene that isn’t riveting in itself—that it sometimes loses track of the overall effect. Like its inspiration, it positions itself as based on true events, even though it’s totally fictional, and in theory, this frees it up to indulge in loose ends, coincidences, and a lack of conventional climaxes, just like real life. But I’ve never entirely bought this. The show is obsessively stylized and designed, and it never feels like a story that could take place anywhere but in the fictional Coenverse. At times, Hawley seems to want it both ways. The character of Nikki Swango, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is endlessly intriguing, and I give the show credit for carrying her story through to what feels like a real conclusion, rather than using her suffering as an excuse to motivate a male protagonist. But when she’s gratuitously targeted by the show’s villains, only to survive and turn into an avenging angel, it’s exactly what I wanted, but I couldn’t really believe a second of it. It’s just as contrived as any number of storylines on more conventional shows, and although the execution is often spellbinding, it has a way of eliding reasonable objections. When it dispatches Nikki at the end with a standard trick of fate, it feels less like a subversion than the kind of narrative beat that the show has taught us to expect, and by now, it’s dangerously close to a cliché.

This is where the anthology format becomes both a blessing and a curse. By tying off each story after ten episodes, Fargo can allow itself to be wilder and more intense than a show that has to focus on the long game, but it also gets to indulge in problematic storytelling devices that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny if we had to live with these characters for multiple seasons. Even in its current form, there are troubling patterns. Back in the first season, one of my few complaints revolved around the character of Bill Oswalt, who existed largely to foil the resourceful Molly as she got closer to solving the case. Bill wasn’t a bad guy, and the show took pains to explain the reasons for his skepticism, but their scenes together quickly grew monotonous. They occurred like clockwork, once every episode, and instead of building to something, they were theme and variations, constantly retarding the story rather than advancing it. In the third season, incredibly, Fargo does the same thing, but worse, in the form of Chief Moe Dammik, who exists solely to doubt, undermine, and make fun of our hero, Gloria Burgle, and without the benefit of Bill’s underlying sweetness. Maybe the show avoided humanizing Dammik because it didn’t want to present the same character twice—which doesn’t explain why he had to exist at all. He brought the show to a halt every time he appeared, and his dynamic with Gloria would have seemed lazy even on a network procedural. (And it’s a foil, significantly, that the original Fargo didn’t think was necessary.) Hawley and his collaborators are only human, but so are all writers. And if the anthology format allows them to indulge their strengths while keeping their weaknesses from going too far, that may be the strongest argument for it of all.

Written by nevalalee

June 22, 2017 at 8:45 am

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Invitation to look

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Note: This post discusses plot elements from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

In order to understand the current run of Twin Peaks, it helps to think back to the most characteristic scene from the finale of the second season, which was also the last episode of the show to air for decades. I’m not talking about Cooper in the Black Lodge, or any of the messy, unresolved melodrama that swirled around the other characters, or even the notorious cliffhanger. I mean the scene at Twin Peaks Savings and Loan that lingers interminably on the figure of Dell Mibbler, an ancient, doddering bank manager whom we haven’t seen before and will never see again, as he crosses the floor, in a single unbroken shot, to get a glass of water for Audrey. Even at the time, when the hope of a third season was still alive, many viewers must have found the sequence agonizingly pointless. Later, when it seemed like this was the last glimpse of these characters that we would ever have, it felt even less explicable. With only so many minutes in any given episode, each one starts to seem precious, especially in a series finale, and this scene took up at least two of them. (Now that we’ve finally gotten another season, I’m not sure how it will play in the future, but I suspect that it will feel like what it must have been intended to be—a precarious, unnecessary, but still pretty funny gag.) Anecdotally speaking, for a lot of viewers, the third season is starting to feel like that bank scene played over and over again. In theory, we have plenty of room for digressions, with eighteen hours of television to fill. But as the tangents and apparent dead ends continue to pile up, like the scene last night in which the camera spends a full minute lovingly recording an employee sweeping up at the Bang Bang Bar, it sometimes feels like we’ve been tricked into watching Dell Mibbler: The Return.

Yet this has been David Lynch’s style from the beginning. Lynch directed only a few hours of the initial run of Twin Peaks, but his work, particularly on the pilot, laid down a template that other writers and directors did their best to follow. And many of the show’s iconic images—the streetlight at the corner where Laura was last seen, the waterfall, the fir trees blowing in the wind—consist of silent shots that are held for slightly longer than the viewer would expect. One of the oddly endearing things about the original series was how such eerie moments were intercut with scenes that, for all their quirkiness, were staged, shot, and edited more or less like any other network drama. The new season hasn’t offered many such respites, which is part of why it still feels like it’s keeping itself at arm’s length from its own history. For better or worse, Lynch doesn’t have to compromise here. (Last night’s episode was perhaps the season’s most plot-heavy installment to date, and it devoted maybe ten minutes to advancing the story.) Instead, Lynch is continuing to educate us, as he’s done erratically throughout his career, on how to slow down and pay attention. Not all of his movies unfold at the same meditative pace: Blue Velvet moves like a thriller, in part because of the circumstances of its editing, and Wild at Heart seems like an attempt, mostly unsuccessful, to sustain that level of frantic motion for the film’s entire length. But when we think back to the scenes from his work that we remember most vividly, they tend to be static shots that are held so long that they burn themselves into our imagination. And as movies and television shows become more anxious to keep the viewer’s interest from straying for even a second, Twin Peaks remains an invitation to look and contemplate.

It also invites us to listen, and while much of Lynch’s fascination with stillness comes from his background as a painter, it also emerges from his interest in sound. Lynch is credited as a sound designer on Twin Peaks, as he has been for most of his movies, and the show is suffused with what you might call the standard-issue Lynchian noise—a low, barely perceptible hum of static that occasionally rises to an oceanic roar. (In last night’s episode, Benjamin Horne and the character played by Ashley Judd try vainly to pin down the source of a similar hum at the Great Northern, and while it might eventually lead somewhere, it also feels like a subtle joke at Lynch’s own expense.) The sound is often associated with electronic or recording equipment, like the video cameras that are trained on the glass cube in the season premiere. My favorite instance is in Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey stumbles across the tableau of two victims in Dorothy’s apartment, one with his ear cut off, the other still standing with his brains shot out. There’s a hum coming from the shattered television set, and it’s pitched at so low a level that it’s almost subliminal, except to imperceptibly increase our anxiety. You only really become aware of it when it stops, after Jeffrey closes the door behind him and, a little later, when Frank shoots out the television tube. But you can’t hear it at all unless everything else onscreen is deathly quiet. It emerges from stillness, as if it were a form of background noise that surrounds us all the time, but is only audible when the rest of the world fades away. I don’t know whether Lynch’s fascination with this kind of sound effect came out of his interest in stillness or the other way around, and the most plausible explanation is that it all arose from the same place. But you could build a convincing reading of his career around the two meanings of the word “static.”

Taken together, the visual and auditory elements invite us to look on in silence, which may be a reflection of Lynch’s art school background. (I don’t know if Lynch was directly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, a work of art that obsessed me so much that I wrote an entire novel about it, but they both ask us to stand and contemplate the inexplicable without speaking. And when you see the installation in person at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as I’ve done twice, the memory is inevitably entwined with the low hum of the room’s climate control system.) By extending this state of narrative suspension to the breaking point, Twin Peaks is pushing in a direction that even the most innovative prestige dramas have mostly avoided, and it still fascinates me. The real question is when and how the silence will be broken. Lynch’s great hallmark is his use of juxtaposition, not just of light and dark, which horrified Roger Ebert so much in Blue Velvet, but of silence and sudden, violent action. We’ve already seen hints of this so far in Twin Peaks, particularly in the scenes involving the murderous Ike the Spike, who seems to be playing the same role, at random intervals, that a figure of similarly small stature did at the end of Don’t Look Now. And I have a feeling that the real payoff is yet to come. This might sound like the wishful thinking of a viewer who is waiting for the show’s teasing hints to lead somewhere, but it’s central to Lynch’s method, in which silence and stillness are most effective when framed by noise and movement. The shot of the two bodies in Dorothy’s apartment leads directly into the most dramatically satisfying—and, let it be said, most conventional—climax of Lynch’s career. And remember Dell Mibbler? At the end of the scene, the bank blows up.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2017 at 9:06 am

Moving through time

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Note: Spoilers follow for last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

For all the debate over how best to watch a television show these days, which you see argued with various degrees of seriousness, the options that you’re offered are fairly predictable. If it’s a show on a streaming platform, you’re presented with all of it at once; if it’s on a cable or broadcast channel, you’re not. Between those two extremes, you’re allowed to structure your viewing experience pretty much however you like, and it isn’t just a matter of binging the whole season or parceling out each episode one week at a time. Few of us past the age of thirty have the ability or desire to watch ten hours of anything in one sitting, and the days of slavish faithfulness to an appointment show are ending, too—even if you aren’t recording it on DVR, you can usually watch it online the next day. Viewers are customizing their engagement with a series in ways that would have been unthinkable just fifteen years ago, and networks are experimenting with having it both ways, by airing shows on a weekly basis while simultaneously making the whole season available online. If there’s pushback, it tends to be from creators who are used to having their shows come out sequentially, like Dan Harmon, who managed to get Yahoo to release the sixth season of Community one episode at a time, as if it were still airing on Thursdays at eight. (Yahoo also buried the show on its site so that even fans had trouble figuring out that it was there, but that’s another story, as well as a reminder, in case we needed one, that such decisions aren’t always logical or considered.)

Twin Peaks, for reasons that I’ll discuss in a moment, doesn’t clearly lend itself to one approach or another, which may be why its launch was so muddled. Showtime premiered the first two hours on a Sunday evening, then quietly made the next two episodes available online, although this was so indifferently publicized that it took me a while to hear about it. It then ran episodes three and four yet again the following week, despite the fact that many of the show’s hardcore fans—and there’s hardly anyone else watching—would have seen them already, only to finally settle into the weekly delivery schedule that David Lynch had wanted in the first place. As a result, it stumbled a bit out of the gate, at least as far as shaping a wider conversation was concerned. You weren’t really sure who was watching those episodes or when. (To be fair, in the absence of blockbuster ratings, the existence of viewers watching at different times is what justifies this show’s existence.) As I’ve argued elsewhere, this isn’t a series that necessarily benefits from collective analysis, but there’s a real, if less tangible, emotional benefit to be had from collective puzzlement. It’s the understanding that a lot of other people are feeling the same things that you are, at roughly the same time, and that you have more in common with them than you will with anybody else in the world. I’m overstating it, but only a little. Whenever I meet someone who bought Julee Cruise’s first album or knows why Lil was wearing a sour face, I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit. Twin Peaks started out as a huge cultural phenomenon, dwindling only gradually into a cult show that provided its adherents with their own set of passwords. And I think that it would have had a better chance of happening again now if Showtime had just aired all the episodes once a week from the beginning.

Yet I understand the network’s confusion, because this is both a show that needs to be seen over a period of time and one that can’t be analyzed until we’ve seen the full picture. Reviewing it must be frustrating. Writing about it here, I don’t need to go into much detail, and I’m free to let my thoughts wander wherever they will, but a site like the New York Times or The A.V. Club carries its own burden of expectations, which may not make sense for a show like this. A “recap” of an episode of Twin Peaks is almost a contradiction in terms. You can’t do much more than catalog the disconnected scenes, indulge in some desultory theorizing, and remind readers that they shouldn’t jump to any conclusions until they’ve seen more. It’s like reviewing Mulholland Drive ten minutes at a time—which is ridiculous, but it’s also exactly the position in which countless critics have found themselves. For ordinary viewers, there’s something alluring about the constant suspension of judgment that it requires: I’ve found it as absorbing as any television series I’ve seen in years. Despite its meditative pacing, an episode seems to go by more quickly than most installments of a more conventional show, even the likes of Fargo or Legion, which are clearly drawing from the same pool of ideas. (Noah Hawley is only the latest creator and showrunner to try to deploy the tone of Twin Peaks in more recognizable stories, and while he’s better at it than most, it doesn’t make the effort any less thankless.) But it also hamstrings the online critic, who has no choice but to publish a weekly first draft on the way to a more reasoned evaluation. Everything you write about Twin Peaks, even, or especially, if you love it, is bound to be provisional until you can look at it as a whole.

Still, there probably is a best way to watch Twin Peaks, which happens to be the way in which I first saw it. You stumble across it years after it originally aired, in bits and pieces, and with a sense that you’re the only person you know who is encountering it in quite this way. A decade from now, my daughter, or someone like her, will discover this show in whatever format happens to be dominant, and she’ll watch it alone. (I also suspect that she’ll view it after having internalized the soundtrack, which doesn’t even exist yet in this timeline.) It will deprive her, inevitably, of a few instants of shared bewilderment or revelation that can only occur when you’re watching a show on its first airing. When Albert Rosenfeld addresses the woman in the bar as Diane, and she turns around to reveal Laura Dern in a blonde wig, it’s as thrilling a moment as I’ve felt watching television in a long time—and by the way Lynch stages it, it’s clear that he knows it, too. My daughter won’t experience this. But there’s also something to be said for catching up with a show that meant a lot to people a long time ago, with your excitement tinged with a melancholy that you’re too late to have been a part of it. I frankly don’t know how often I’ll go back to watch this season again, any more than I’m inclined to sit through Inland Empire, which I loved, a second time. But I’m oddly consoled by the knowledge that it will continue to exist and mean a lot to future viewers after the finale airs, which isn’t something that you could take for granted if you were watching the first two seasons in the early nineties. And it makes this particular moment seem all the more precious, since it’s the last time that we’ll be able to watch Twin Peaks without any idea of where it might be going.

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2017 at 9:07 am

Live from Twin Peaks

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What does Twin Peaks look like without Agent Cooper? It was a problem that David Lynch and his writing team were forced to solve for Fire Walk With Me, when Kyle MacLachlan declined to come back for much more than a token appearance, and now, in the show’s third season, Lynch and Mark Frost seem determined to tackle the question yet again, even though they’ve been given more screen time for their leading man than anyone could ever want. MacLachlan’s name is the first thing that we see in the closing credits, in large type, to the point where it’s starting to feel like a weekly punchline—it’s the only way that we’d ever know that the episode was over. He’s undoubtedly the star of the show. Yet even as we’re treated to an abundance of Dark Cooper and Dougie Jones, we’re still waiting to see the one character that I, and a lot of other fans, have been awaiting the most impatiently. Dale Cooper, it’s fair to say, is one of the most peculiar protagonists in television history. As the archetypal outsider coming into an isolated town to investigate a murder, he seems at first like a natural surrogate for the audience, but, if anything, he’s quirkier and stranger than many of the locals he encounters. When we first meet Cooper, he comes across as an almost unplayable combination of personal fastidiousness, superhuman deductive skills, and childlike wonder. But you’re anything like me, you wanted to be like him. I ordered my coffee black for years. And if he stood for the rest of us, it was as a representative of the notion, which crumbles in the face of logic but remains emotionally inescapable, that the town of Twin Peaks would somehow be a wonderful place to live, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In the third season, this version of Cooper, whom I’ve been waiting for a quarter of a century to see again, is nowhere in sight. And the buildup to his return, which I still trust will happen sooner or later, has been so teasingly long that it can hardly be anything but a conscious artistic choice. With every moment of recognition—the taste of coffee, the statue of the gunfighter in the plaza—we hope that the old Cooper will suddenly reappear, but the light in his eyes always fades. On some level, Lynch and Frost are clearly having fun with how long they can get away with this, but by removing the keystone of the original series, they’re also leaving us with some fascinating insights into what kind of show this has been from the very beginning. Let’s tick off its qualities one by one. Over the course of any given episode, it cuts between what seems like about a dozen loosely related plotlines. Most of the scenes last between two and four minutes, with about the same number of characters, and the components are too far removed from one another to provide anything in the way of narrative momentum. They aren’t built around any obligation to advance the plot, but around striking images or odd visual or verbal gags. The payoff, as in the case of Dr. Jacoby’s golden shovels, often doesn’t come for hours, and when it does, it amounts to the end of a shaggy dog story. (The closest thing we’ve had so far to a complete sequence is the sad case of Sam, Tracey, and the glass cube, which didn’t even make it past the premiere.) If there’s a pattern, it isn’t visible, but the result is still strangely absorbing, as long as you don’t approach it as a conventional drama but as something more like Twenty-Two Short Films About Twin Peaks.

You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like a sketch comedy show. I’ve always seen Twin Peaks as a key element in a series of dramas that stretches from The X-Files through Mad Men, but you could make an equally strong case for it as part of a tradition that runs from SCTV to Portlandia, which went so far as to cast MacLachlan as its mayor. They’re set in a particular location with a consistent cast of characters, but they’re essentially sketch comedies, and when one scene is over, they simply cut to the next. In some ways, the use of a fixed setting is a partial solution to the problem of transitions, which shows from Monty Python onward have struggled to address, but it also creates a beguiling sense of encounters taking place beyond the edges of the frame. (Matt Groening has pointed to SCTV as an inspiration for The Simpsons, with its use of a small town in which the characters were always running into one another. Groening, let’s not forget, was born in Portland, just two hours away from Springfield, which raises the intriguing question of why such shows are so drawn to the atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest.) Without Cooper, the show’s affinities to sketch comedy are far more obvious—and this isn’t the first time this has happened. After Laura’s murderer was revealed in the second season, the show seemed to lose direction, and many of the subplots, like James’s terminable storyline with Evelyn, became proverbial for their pointlessness. But in retrospect, that arid middle stretch starts to look a lot like an unsuccessful sketch comedy series. And it’s worth remembering that Lynch and Frost originally hoped to keep the identity of the killer a secret forever, knowing that it was all that was holding together the rest.

In the absence of a connective thread, it takes a genius to make this kind of thing work, and the lack of a controlling hand is a big part of what made the second season so markedly unsuccessful. Fortunately, the third season has a genius readily available. The sketch format has always been David Lynch’s comfort zone, a fact that has been obscured by contingent factors in his long career. Lynch, who was trained as a painter and conceptual artist, thinks naturally in small narrative units, like the video installations that we glimpse for a second as we wander between rooms in a museum. Eraserhead is basically a bunch of sketches linked by its titular character, and he returned to that structure in Inland Empire, which, thanks to the cheapness of digital video, was the first movie in decades that he was able to make entirely on his own terms. In between, the inclination was present but constrained, sometimes for the better. In its original cut of three hours, Blue Velvet would have played much the same way, but in paring it down to its contractually mandated runtime, Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham ended up focusing entirely on its backbone as a thriller. (It’s an exact parallel to Annie Hall, which began as a three-hour series of sketches called Anhedonia that assumed its current form after Woody Allen and Ralph Rosenbaum threw out everything that wasn’t a romantic comedy.) Most interesting of all is Mulholland Drive, which was originally shot as a television pilot, with fragmented scenes that were clearly supposed to lead to storylines of their own. When Lynch recut it into a movie, they became aspects of Betty’s dream, which may have been closer to what he wanted in the first place. And in the third season of Twin Peaks, it is happening again.

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