Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘24

Choose life

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Inside Out

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 topic: “What show did you stop watching after a character was killed off?”

Inside Out is an extraordinary film on many levels, but what I appreciated about it the most was the reminder it provides of how to tell compelling stories on the smallest possible scale. The entire movie turns on nothing more—or less—than a twelve-year-old girl’s happiness. Riley is never in real physical danger; it’s all about how she feels. These stakes might seem relatively low, but as I watched it, I felt that the stakes were infinite, and not just because Riley reminded me so much of my own daughter. By the last scene, I was wrung out with emotion. And I think it stands as the strongest possible rebuke to the idea, so prevalent at the major studios, that mainstream audiences will only be moved or excited by stories in which the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. As I’ve noted here before, “Raise the stakes” is probably the note that writers in Hollywood get the most frequently, right up there with “Make the hero more likable,” and its overuse has destroyed their ability to make such stories meaningful. When every superhero movie revolves around the fate of the entire planet, the death of six billion people can start to seem trivial. (The Star Trek reboot went there first, but even The Force Awakens falls into that trap: it kills off everyone on the Hosnian System for the sake of a throwaway plot point, and it moves on so quickly that it casts a pall over everything that follows.)

The more I think about this mindless emphasis on raising the stakes, the more it strikes me as a version of a phenomenon I’ve discussed a lot on this blog recently, in which big corporations tasked with making creative choices end up focusing on quantifiable but irrelevant metrics, at the expense of qualitative thinking about what users or audiences really need. For Apple, those proxy metrics are thinness and weight; for longform journalism, it’s length. And while “raising the stakes” isn’t quite as quantitative, it sort of feels that way, and it has the advantage of being the kind of rule that any midlevel studio employee can apply with minimal fear of being wrong. (It’s only when you aggregate all those decisions across the entire industry that you end up with movies that raise the stakes so high that they turn into weightless abstractions.) Saying that a script needs higher stakes is the equivalent of saying that a phone needs to be thinner: it’s a way to involve the maximum number of executives in the creative process who have no business being there in the first place. But that’s how corporations work. And the fact that Pixar has managed to avoid that trap, if not always, then at least consistently enough for the result to be more than accidental, is the most impressive thing about its legacy.

Kiefer Sutherland in 24

A television series, unlike a studio franchise, can’t blow up the world on a regular basis, but it can do much the same thing to its primary actors, who are the core building blocks of the show’s universe. As a result, the unmotivated killing of a main character has become television’s favorite way of raising the stakes—although by now, it feels just as lazy. As far as I can recall, I’ve never stopped watching a show solely because it killed off a character I liked, but I’ve often given up on a series, as I did with 24 and Game of Thrones and even The Vampire Diaries, when it became increasingly clear that it was incapable of doing anything else. Multiple shock killings emerge from a mindset that is no longer able to think itself into the lives of its characters: if you aren’t feeling your own story, you have no choice but to fall back on strategies for goosing the audience that seem to work on paper. But almost without exception, the seasons that followed would have been more interesting if those characters had been allowed to survive and develop in honest ways. Every removal of a productive cast member means a reduction of the stories that can be told, and the temporary increase in interest it generates doesn’t come close to compensating for that loss. A show that kills characters with abandon is squandering narrative capital and mortgaging its own future, so it’s no surprise if it eventually goes bankrupt.

A while back, Bryan Fuller told Entertainment Weekly that he had made an informal pledge to shun sexual violence on Hannibal, and when you replace “rape” with “murder,” you get a compelling case for avoiding gratuitous character deaths as well:   

There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience…“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation…And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in forty-two minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape…All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.

And I’d love to see more shows make a similar commitment to preserving their primary cast members. I’m not talking about character shields, but about finding ways of increasing the tension without taking the easy way out, as Breaking Bad did so well for so long. Death closes the door on storytelling, and the best shows are the ones that seem eager to keep that door open for as long as possible.

Alas, “Babylon”

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David Duchovny on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for The X-Files episode “Babylon.”

By now, I’ve more or less resigned myself to the realization that the tenth season of The X-Files will consist of five forgettable episodes and one minor masterpiece. Since the latter is the first true Darin Morgan casefile in close to twenty years, the whole thing still shakes out as a pretty good deal, even if the ratio of good, bad, and mediocre is a little worse than I’d expected. But an installment like this week’s “Babylon” is particularly infuriating because its premise and early moments are so promising, but get systematically squandered by a writer—in this case Chris Carter himself—who seems to have no idea what to do with the opportunities that the revival presented. The first image we see is that of a Muslim man in his twenties on a prayer rug, framed at floor level, and it instantly got my hopes up: this is territory that the original run of the series rarely, if ever, explored, and it’s a rich trove of potential ideas. Even when the young man promptly blows himself up with a friend in a suicide bombing in Texas, I allowed myself to think that the show had something else up its sleeve. It does, but not in a good way: the rest of the episode is a mess, with a mishmash of tones, goofy music cues, dialogue that alternates between frenetic and painfully obvious, an extended hallucination scene, and a weird supporting turn from the gifted Lauren Ambrose, all of which plays even worse than it should because of the pall cast by the opening scene. (Although seeing Mulder in a cowboy hat allowed me to recognize how David Duchovny turned into Fred Ward so gradually that I didn’t even notice.)

In short, it’s not much worth discussing, except for the general observation that if you’re going to use an act of domestic terrorism as a plot device, you’d better be prepared to justify it with some great television. (Even Quantico did a better job of moving rapidly in its own ridiculous direction after an opening terror attack. And the fact that I’m getting nostalgic for Quantico, of all shows, only highlights how disappointing much of this season has been.) But it raises the related issue, which seems worth exploring, of the degree to which The X-Files benefited from the accident of its impeccable historical timing. The series ran for most of the nineties, a decade that wasn’t devoid of partisan politics, but of a kind that tended to focus more on a little blue dress than on Islamic extremism. It had its share of dislocating moments—including the Oklahoma City bombing, which was uncomfortably evoked, with characteristic clumsiness, in The X-Files: Fight the Future—but none that recentered the entire culture in the way that September 11 did. For the most part, The X-Files was free to operate on a separate playing field without much reference to current events, a situation which might not have been the case if its premiere date had been shifted even five years forward or backward. It came after the Cold War and before the war on terror, leaving it with the narrative equivalent of a blank canvas to fill with a cast of imaginary monsters.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Not surprisingly, Chris Carter has stated elsewhere that the show benefited from occurring before the fall of the World Trade Center, which inaugurated a period, however temporary it turned out to be, in which people wanted to believe in their government. Carter implies that this is antithetical to what The X-Files represented, and while that seems plausible at first glance, it doesn’t really hold water. In many ways, the conspiracy thread was one of its weakest elements of the original series: it quickly became too convoluted for words, and it was often used as a kind of reset button, with shadowy government agents moving in to erase any evidence of that week’s revelations. Aside from one occasion, the tag at the end of the opening credits wasn’t “Trust No One,” but “The Truth is Out There.” Paranoia was a useful narrative device, but it wasn’t central to the show’s appeal, and I’d like to think that the series would have evolved into a different but equally satisfying shape if the politics of the time had demanded it—although the damp squib of the reboot, which was explicitly designed to bring Mulder and Scully into the modern world, doesn’t exactly help to make that case. (The clear parallel here is 24, which was transformed by uncontrollable events into something very unlike what it was once intended to be. One of my favorite pieces of show business trivia is that its producers briefly considered optioning The Da Vinci Code as the plot for the show’s second season, which hints at what that series might have been in some other universe.)

In the end, an episode like “Babylon” makes me almost grateful that the show concluded when it did, given its inability to do anything worthwhile with what might have been a decent premise. And it’s an ineptitude that emerges, not from the fog of cranking out a weekly television series, but after Carter had close to fifteen years to think about the kind of story he could tell, which makes it even harder to forgive. The episode’s central gimmick—which involves communicating with a clinically dead suicide bomber to prevent a future attack—is pretty good, or it might have been, if the script didn’t insist on constantly tap-dancing away from it. (A plot revolving around getting into an unconscious killer’s head didn’t even need to be about terrorism at all: a rehash of The Cell would have been preferable to what we actually got.) It’s hard not to conclude that the best thing that ever happened to The X-Files was a run of nine seasons that uniquely positioned it to ignore contemporary politics and pick its source material from anywhere convenient, with time and forgetfulness allowing it to exploit the nightmares of the past in a typically cavalier fashion. But just as recent political developments have rendered House of Cards all but obsolete, I have a feeling that The X-Files, which always depended on such a fragile suspension of disbelief, couldn’t have endured conditions that forced it to honestly confront its own era—which suggests that this reboot may have been doomed from the beginning. Because the incursion of the real world into fantasy is one invasion that this show wouldn’t be able to survive.

Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2016 at 9:49 am

“This, above all else, had saved his life…”

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"At St. Pancras Hospital..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 53. You can read the earlier installments here

I’ve noted elsewhere that I have mixed feelings about the increasing willingness among television shows to abruptly kill off their characters. On the one hand, it discourages audience complacency and raises the stakes if we feel that anyone could die at any moment; on the other, it encourages a kind of all or nothing approach to writing stories, and even a sort of laziness. Ninety percent of the time, a show can coast along on fairly conventional storytelling—as Game of Thrones sometimes does—before somebody gets beheaded or shoved in front of a subway train. But it would have been better, or at least more interesting, to create tension and suspense while those characters were sill alive. Major deaths should be honestly earned, not just a way to keep the audience awake. At least Game of Thrones knows how to milk such moments for all they’re worth; with a show like The Vampire Diaries, diminishing returns quickly set in when characters are dispatched in every other episode. It cheapens the value of life and personality, and it starts to feel questionable on both narrative and ethical levels.

Of course, I’ve been guilty of this myself, and the way certain character deaths have been incorporated into my novels testify both to how effective and to how arbitrary this kind of device can be. Ethan’s death in The Icon Thief gets a pass: it’s a striking scene that propels the last third of the story forward, and although it works in terms of momentary shock value, its repercussions continue to define the series until the final book. (The fact that it was a late addition to the story—indeed, it was one of the last things I wrote—hasn’t kept it from feeling inevitable now.) The corresponding scene in City of Exiles, which echoes its predecessor in a lot of ways, is a little harder to defend. It’s a nice, tricky chapter, and I’m still proud of the reversal it pulls, but it feels a bit more like a gimmick, especially because its consequences don’t fully play out until the following novel. From a structural point of view, it works, and it provides a necessary jolt of energy to the story at the right place, but it’s not that far removed from the way a show like 24 will throw in a surprise betrayal when the audience’s attention starts to wander.

"This, above all else, had saved his life..."

Looking back, I have a feeling that my own uneasiness over this moment—as well as the high body count of the novel as a whole—may have led me to spare another character’s life. Toward the end of the process, there was a lot of talk about whether I should kill off Powell. After reading the first draft, my agent was openly in favor of it, and it’s true that things don’t look particularly good for Powell at this point: realistically speaking, it’s hard to imagine that anyone on that airplane could have survived. Much earlier, I’d even toyed with the idea of killing Powell at the end of Part I, which would have made Wolfe’s journey all the more urgent. Between these two possibilities, the latter seemed much more preferable. A death at the conclusion of the novel wouldn’t have advanced the narrative in any particular fashion; we’re only a few pages from the end anyway, and if the stakes aren’t clear by now, there’s no point in trying to heighten them in retrospect. Killing him earlier would have served a clearer dramatic purpose, but I also would have lost his far more wrenching scene on the plane, which I don’t think would have been nearly as strong without him at its center.

In the end, I let him live, though badly hurt, for a number of different reasons. At the time, I thought that I wanted to preserve the duo of Powell and Wolfe for a potential third novel, although as it turned out, they don’t spend a lot of time together in Eternal Empire, and his role could conceivably have been filled by somebody else. Powell also benefited from my impulse to pull back on the death toll of plane crash: I didn’t want to kill off Chigorin, mostly because he was transparently based on a real person whose imagined demise I didn’t much feel like exploiting, so most of the other passengers ended up being protected by his character shield. Most of all, I thought that keeping Powell alive would restore a necessary degree of balance to the ending. City of Exiles concludes on something of a down note: Ilya is still in prison, Karvonen’s handler is still at large, and Wolfe still doesn’t know—although the reader does—that the traitor in her organization is someone close to her own heart. Killing off Powell would have left the situation feeling even more hopeless, so I spared him. If this all sounds a little cold and calculated, well, maybe it was. Powell might not have made it, but he escaped thanks to luck, impersonal considerations, and a moment of mercy from the universe. And that’s true of all of us at times…

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2014 at 9:22 am

“He was visibly surprised to see the knife…”

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"Working late?"

Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 36. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles.

I’ve spoken before of how tired I am of mechanical plot twists in suspense fiction, and particularly of how serial narratives, especially television shows, try to raise the stakes with the unexpected death of a major character. Of course, a thriller without a twist isn’t much of a thriller at all, and my objection has less to do with the quality or nature of any twist in itself than in its pathological overuse. The trouble with any trope that works is that writers tend to rely on it time and again, until, drained of all its original power, it settles into the status of a cliché. A real twist, as the term implies, should be a turning point, a moment in which the story takes on a permanently new direction, but in far too many novels, movies, and shows, it’s just business as usual, a continuation of a mode that leaves readers unsure of where they stand but saps the experience of much of its pleasure. Now that so many stories consist of twist after twist, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that one twist, judiciously employed, can be much more effective: good storytelling is about contrasts, and a twist gains much of its power from its juxtaposition with a narrative that, until then, seemed to be moving along more familiar lines.

In my case, it helps that the two most striking twists in The Icon Thief and City of Exiles—at least as measured by reader response—were both the unexpected product of necessity. Ethan’s death scene in the first novel was a very late revision in response to a note from my agent, who felt that the character’s original departure from the story, in the form of a suicide, wasn’t especially satisfying. Rewriting the story to give him a more dramatic sendoff required surprisingly few changes elsewhere in the novel, although it upset the balance of the narrative enough to result in a new epilogue that drastically altered the course of the series. With City of Exiles, as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t know that Asthana was the mole until I’d already finished the first half of the book, which survives in its published form essentially unchanged. In both instances, I’d like to think that the fact that these were both unplanned additions increases their impact: if the reader is surprised, it’s probably because I was, too. (Speaking candidly, I have a feeling that the corresponding twist in Eternal Empire doesn’t work quite as well, if only because it was baked into the story from the earliest drafts.)

"He was visibly surprised to see the knife..."

That said, a scene in which what seems like an ordinary conversation between two characters ends with one killing the other, in the first revelation his or her villainy, is a familiar one, so I had to work hard to make it feel fresh. The gold standard for such moments, as far as I’m concerned, is Jack’s valediction in L.A. Confidential, which has inspired countless imitations, from the sublime (Minority Report) to the workmanlike (24 and its successors, which have practically turned it into a tradition). If the version in City of Exiles works, it’s partially because the scene is written from Asthana’s point of view, putting the reader in her head as she feels increasingly uneasy around Garber, although the real reason for her wariness isn’t revealed until the last page. This kind of thing can feel like a bit of a cheat, and, frankly, it is. I played it as fair as I could, though, and while I essentially wrote the chapter as if Asthana were innocent and Garber a threat until that final turn, the logic holds up well enough on rereading. I don’t give the reader any false information; I just withhold a few crucial facts. And although this is an extreme example, it’s a familiar strategy in suspense fiction, which often relies on giving us only part of the picture.

While writing Chapter 36, I was also conscious that in its content and place in the story, it was uncomfortably close to the corresponding scene in The Icon Thief. I addressed this, first, by making the externals as different as I could. Along with narrating events from the killer’s point of view, I changed the setting—which is why much of the scene takes place in Garber’s car—and the murder weapon. (Asthana’s knife, a Spydero Harpy, is an obvious nod to its appearance in the novel Hannibal, and as the proud owner of one, I can testify that it’s a wickedly beautiful little tool.) I’m also pleased that it takes place in the shadow of the Battersea Power Station, one of the most striking buildings in London, best known from its appearance on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. The choice of location was a pragmatic one: I wanted a secluded spot that was within a short drive from the Serious Organised Crime Agency’s headquarters in Vauxhall, and Battersea fit the bill perfectly. It also provides a resonant backdrop for Garber’s final speech about the centrality of energy to Russia’s political future, and how little the rest of the world can control it as long as it controls the flow of gas to Europe. I wrote those lines back in 2011, and in light of recent events, they seem even more true today…

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2014 at 9:36 am

“What exactly are you implying?”

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"We're looking into it..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 33. You can read the earlier installments here. Be advised that major spoilers follow.

It’s easy to assume that by preparing a detailed outline before writing the first draft of a novel, you’re closing yourself off from any surprises, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, I’ve come to think of an outline as a matrix in which surprises are more likely to happen. Inspiration is a hard thing to pin down, and like every author, I wish that I could draw on it at will. Over time, though, I’ve found that good ideas tend to come in two related ways: 1. When you already have an abundance of material that you’ve gathered and sifted in a relatively mechanical fashion. 2. When the nature of the story itself has imposed certain constraints on the universe of possible alternatives. Really, though, these two factors are different aspects of the same process. Inspiration doesn’t come up out of the rocks; it needs a mass of raw material on which it can do its work. And when a writer’s imagination can go everywhere and do everything, it often ends up doing nothing at all, which is why self-imposed limits can be so valuable. Once you’ve set down rough boundaries for what your story will be, you’re free to wander within the constraints you’ve established, and this almost always turns out to be more productive than brainstorming without any guidelines at all.

An outline, then, becomes a sort of map or prototype that allows you to explore freely inside the grid it lays down, as well as pointing at possible directions beyond it. This is why I usually outline only one major section of the story at a time, while leaving the rest in broad strokes, and I write a complete rough draft of the first part before moving on to the next. Once you’ve got the first hundred pages or so in hand—as happens to be the case right now with my current project—it naturally closes off certain options for the remainder of the story, while hinting strongly at potential paths forward. Expectations have been raised; elements of the narrative have been introduced that need to pay off later; and the pleasure of constructing the back half of the story lies largely in finding organic but unexpected ways of developing what came before. It’s a compromise, in other words, between proceeding without a plan at all and laying out the shape of the story too rigorously, and it’s an approach that has served me well through three novels. And if the material you have so far turns out to resist your initial plans, it’ll frequently take you into places you never would have explored if you’d granted yourself complete freedom.

"What exactly are you implying?"

When I first began sketching out the plot for City of Exiles, for instance, I knew that there was going to be a traitor in the Serious Organised Crime Agency. This is a trope that has been wrung dry by the likes of 24, of course, so in order for it to work, I needed the identity of my mole to be especially surprising. My first thought was to have it be Powell, the protagonist of The Icon Thief and one of my most important characters, which I figured would be suitably unexpected. His motivations would be complicated, and it would require some difficult sleight of hand, since many chapters in the first half the story were written from his point of view. Still, I was confident that I could pull it off somehow, so Part I of the novel was all written with this revelation in mind. When it came time to actually write it, however, I found myself stuck: try as I might, I just couldn’t make it work. I still needed a mole, however, and I was essentially limited to the handful of characters I’d already introduced. And the only person who made sense, much to my surprise, was Maya Asthana, a likable supporting character I’d introduced primarily to give Wolfe a friend and confidant.

If the revelation of Asthana’s treachery works—and based on anecdotal responses from readers, I think it works very well—I think it’s partially because all of her material in the first half of the novel was written before I knew she was the mole, and in the rewrite, I didn’t change a word. The big reveal won’t come for another couple of chapters, but Chapter 33 is the first in which a shrewd reader might be able to deduce that Asthana is up to no good. Wolfe has nearly been blown up by a botched car bomb, and since she was driving Asthana’s car at the time, it’s clear, in retrospect, that only one character would have had the means and opportunity to plant the explosive. As it stands, I do a decent job of deflecting suspicion, but only because the characters are still colored by their portrayal in the novel so far. If Wolfe, or the reader, doesn’t suspect Asthana, it’s because I didn’t suspect her either. Later, in both this story and its sequel, her character became all the more interesting because I was forced to find ways of harmonizing it with what I’d written before. The fact that Asthana is planning her wedding, for instance, was originally introduced as a random character trait, and I had no idea that the wedding itself would become a major set piece in Eternal Empire. And as both my characters and I have often discovered, a plan never goes quite the way you expect…

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2014 at 9:35 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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24-hour party people

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Kiefer Sutherland on 24: Live Another Day

Of all the tidbits of show business trivia I know, one of my favorites is the fact that The Da Vinci Code was nearly optioned to serve as the basis for the third season of 24. (More accurately, producer Joel Surnow read the book, thought the plot would work well for the show, and approached Brian Grazer about the possibility of acquiring the rights. By then, the book had taken off enough to price them out of the market, although Grazer did, in fact, later end up producing the film version for Ron Howard.) I love this story because it serves as a reminder that 24 was never really conceived as a political series. The first season centered on terrorism because it was a convenient framework for the show’s real-time conceit: when you’re structuring a series on cliffhanger after cliffhanger, it helps to have a premise that provides a neat succession of ticking clocks. Movies have long turned to terrorism plots as engines for stories that are really about something else—or even just an excuse for a string of action scenes—and if Jack Bauer was routinely called upon to save the world rather than, say, solve a mystery at a secluded country house in Hertfordshire, it’s only as an extreme way of raising the stakes.

But at its heart, the show could have been about anything, and it probably would have been, if it weren’t for the fact that its premiere episode aired on November 6, 2001. What had originally been intended as a tense, competent piece of escapism suddenly became burdened with greater meaning, evidently to the surprise of its creators. I’ve noted before that attempts to read 24 as Bush-era propaganda are overblown: each season almost invariably concluded with the exposure of a vast right-wing conspiracy, and its use of torture was less an ideological statement than a cynical but effective way of advancing the plot within the constraints of its premise. Assuming that the story about The Da Vinci Code is true, as late as the second season, Surnow was still thinking of the show as a fundamentally old-fashioned serial, one that could just as easily be about the Holy Grail as a nuclear bomb going off in Pasadena. In many ways, part of me would have liked to see the show take that direction, which might have helped avoid the deadening sameness of its last few seasons. Ultimately, however, a series that should have been about time ended up being about its times, and it found itself increasingly trapped by the precedents it had created.

Mary Lynn Rajskub on 24: Live Another Day

And now we have 24: Live Another Day, which brings back much of the principal cast and creative team of the show for a reboot that confusingly only spans twelve episodes, although it still covers a full twenty-four-hour period with occasional time jumps. Watching the premiere last night, I was struck by how solid the basic visual scheme of the show remains: the split screens, the gunmetal palette of the sets, the ominous appearance of that digital clock. If the original run of 24 was often the most compelling show on the air—its fifth season, in particular, is one of my favorites of any series—it’s largely because that underlying framework was so robust. Unfortunately, this latest version doesn’t seem to have thought beyond recreating the show’s look and feel into channeling it toward more interesting ends. It’s a throwback, not a step forward, and although the plot of this season tosses in references to drone warfare and Wikileaks, it still falls back on all its old tricks, even if Jack is now working outside the system. I don’t entirely blame them: these are good tricks. But they’re so flexible and effective at telling all kinds of stories that I can’t help but wish that the show’s creators had used the intervening four years to think about how else they could be employed.

As it happens, I watched 24: Live Another Day on the same night I caught up with the Lego installment of The Simpsons, which marks the first time I’ve watched a new episode in maybe three or four years. (The last one would have been the crossword episode, which just goes to show that gimmicks still work to pull in reluctant viewers like me.) As a result, it was an unexpectedly nostalgic night of television, and I found myself thinking of how one show commented on the other. The Simpsons sees the world of Lego as one in which “everything fits with everything else and nobody ever gets hurt,” while 24 remains a series in which everything fits with everything else and everybody gets hurt. And both, in their own way, are oddly reassuring. 24 aimed to unsettle us, and it became even more unsettling in the light of historical events, but it was always a deeply conservative show, less in its politics than in its storytelling. Its monsters always had a practical motivation: every act of apparently random terrorism was a mislead, a red herring, or a move in a larger game of chess. The world it envisioned, for all its violence, was a fundamentally rational one, which is far less frightening than reality. Perhaps a show that was all about plot and structure never could have allowed for the possibility of terror that existed only for its own sake. Which only means that even if 24 never strayed into Dan Brown territory, it was still always a fantasy.

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2014 at 9:46 am

The completist’s dilemma

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Bart's Comet

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 pop culture that you once loved became a chore?”

At some point, almost without knowing it, we all became completists. Twenty or even ten years ago, the idea that you couldn’t dip into a show like, say, The Vampire Diaries without first working chronologically through the four previous seasons would have seemed vaguely ridiculous. When I was growing up, I thought nothing of checking in occasionally with the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation without any notion of trying to see every episode. That’s the beauty of the medium—we’re all naturally good at figuring out stories in progress, so it’s possible to to start watching midway through an unfamiliar show and catch up fairly quickly with the narrative. (David Mamet, who advises writers to throw out the first ten minutes of every script, notes: “When you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatsoever understanding what’s going on?”) Yet between Netflix, various other streaming options, and the rise in intensely serialized storytelling, many of us have gotten to the point where we feel like we need to watch an entire series to watch it at all, so that committing to a new show implicitly means investing dozens or hundreds of hours of our lives.

This hasn’t been a bad thing for the medium as a whole, and it’s hard to imagine a show like Mad Men thriving in a world of casual viewers. Yet there’s also a loss here on a number of levels. It makes it harder to get into a new show that has been on the air for a few seasons: as much as we’d like to start watching Person of Interest or Elementary, there’s the nagging sense that we need to put in hours of remedial work before we can start tuning in each week. It’s hard on the creators of shows that don’t lend themselves to this kind of immersive viewing, many of which find themselves trying to split the difference. (In a recent discussion of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club referred to this problem as “how to tell a 22-episode story in a 13-episode world.”) At worst, it can turn even the shows we love into a chore. When you’re catching up on three or more seasons—keeping an eye out for spoilers the entire time—a show as great as Breaking Bad can start to feel like homework. And when you’re staking so much onto a single series, it’s easier to get burned out on the whole thing than if you were sampling it whenever you caught it on the air.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

This isn’t always fair to the shows themselves. My wife and I may have been less forgiving toward Lost and Battlestar Galactica, both of which we started on Netflix and abandoned halfway through, because the effort required seemed greater than either show’s immediate rewards. (It didn’t help that we had only begun to build some momentum when word trickled out about what were widely regarded as their unsatisfying finales. It’s hard to give a show your all when you suspect that the destination may not be worth it.) Yet this experience was only a highly compressed version of what happens to many of us once our favorite shows start to lose their appeal. There came an indefinable point when it no longer seemed worth the effort for me to keep up with Glee or 24, but it wasn’t exactly a burnout—more of a slow, steady fade, to the point where I don’t even remember where I gave up. Saddest of all are the cases of arguably my two favorite shows of all time, The Simpsons and The X-Files, neither of which I managed to watch—or, in the case of The Simpsons, continue to watch—to the end. Part of this was due to a drop in quality, part to changes in my own life, but it seems likely that I’m never going to be a true completist when it comes to the shows that have mattered to me the most.

But then again, maybe that’s how it should be. The trouble with being a completist is that once you’re finished, there isn’t much more to discover, while the best television shows seem to go on and on—often because there’s so much there we haven’t experienced. David Thomson, speaking about the work of Japanese director Mikio Naruse, whose films he once claimed to have never seen, has written: “There is nothing like knowing that one has still to see a body of great work. And no gamble as interesting as pushing the desire to its limit.” That’s how I feel about many of my own favorite shows. As much as I look forward to squeezing every last drop out of Mad Men, I’m also oddly reassured by the fact that there are still excellent episodes of The X-Files, Star Trek, and even The Simpsons that I’ve never seen, and possibly never will. They’ll always be out there, tantalizingly unexplored, and the worlds they encompass remain open and unbounded. And it’s possible that this is a healthier, more natural way to think about television, or any work of art that lends itself to elaborate, obsessive fandoms. Being a completist has rewards of its own, but there’s also something to be said for the promise of the incomplete.

“His arms and legs were bound to the chair…”

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"His arms and legs were bound to the chair..."

Note: This post is the eleventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 10. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Good writers come in all ideological shapes and sizes, but if they have one quality in common, it’s that they’re less interested in politics than in honorably surviving a day’s work. As a result, they’ll sometimes use fictional devices that lend themselves to political interpretations, when in fact they ‘re nothing more than a convenient solution to the narrative problem at hand. My favorite example is smoking in movies. The fact that cigarettes appear so often in the hands of movie stars has sometimes been attributed to a sinister conspiracy between studios and the tobacco industry, but really, they’re there for a purely practical end. Actors are constantly in search of something to do with their hands, and the cigarette is the best bit of business ever devised: you can slide it out of the pack, light it, peer at another character through the smoke, thoughtfully study it, and grind it out to emphasize an emotional moment. Nothing comes close to smoking in terms of providing useful tidbits of actorly behavior—although I imagine that a pipe would be even better—and although substitutes ranging from cracking walnuts to playing with loose change have all been tried, it’s safe to say that the movies will continue to show people smoking as long as actors need to keep their hands occupied.

The same holds true, to a more troubling extent, of torture. Countless attempts have been made to link the use of torture in books, movies, and television series to the rise of the war on terror, but the political leanings of 24 creator Joel Surnow aside, it seems fairly clear that torture, too, is usually there as a convenient plot device. Which isn’t surprising—it’s the narrative shortcut of a writer’s dreams. I’ve spoken before about how half of a writer’s life seems to consist of finding new ways of delivering exposition, and a torture sequence does the job even better than an autopsy scene: it superficially grabs the viewer’s attention, allows the protagonist to take some striking action, and gives the author a convenient mouthpiece to deliver whatever information is necessary to move the story along. Best of all, it can all happen within the course of a few minutes. Critics of the cinematic portrayal of torture rightly complain about how unrealistically quick and efficient it is, but this overlooks the fact that everything in fiction moves faster than it would in real life. The tortured prisoner gives up his information immediately for the same reason that the hero can always find a parking space when he needs one and always has the exact change for a taxi: the point is to keep the story moving along to what matters the most.

"The man kept the bottle where it was..."

And yet it’s still a little disturbing. I was a fan of 24 for years, before it declined precipitously in quality in its sixth season, and I was able to overlook its use of torture as a plot device because it did so many other things so well. When torture is only there as a form of convenience—or, worse, of entertainment—in an otherwise mediocre story, I start to get uncomfortable. Early in Furious 6, for instance, there’s a scene in which The Rock’s diplomatic security officer simply beats the hell out of a suspect in custody to get a piece of largely meaningless information, and the entire sequence is played for laughs. Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions may have been, for me, it had the opposite effect: it took me out of the movie. To be fair, I might have overlooked it entirely if it had taken place at a more pivotal point in the story, as a similar scene does in The Dark Knight, or if if it hadn’t been staged as slapstick. But advancing the story through a torture scene defeats its own purpose if it simultaneously estranges us from the characters and calls the judgment of the movie’s creators into question. (And it’s quite possible that antismoking advocates would say the same thing about an actor blithely lighting up a cigarette.)

The closest thing to a torture sequence in my work occurs in Chapter 10 of City of Exiles, and like most scenes of its kind, it’s there because I couldn’t think of anything better. Its central figure is a character we’ve never seen before and won’t see again, Roman Brodsky, a London fixer and local criminal organizer who is surprised at home, tied up, and threatened with immolation via potassium permanganate until he tells his captor what he needs to know. Later, when the scene is nearly over, we find that his unseen tormenter isn’t Karvonen, as I hope we’ve assumed, but Ilya, and that he was able to extract the confession using nothing but suggestion and a handful of black rock salt. Brodsky isn’t even hurt, aside from a bump on the head. But it’s no accident that I gave the scene to Ilya, who, more than most of my characters, walks a narrow line between the moral and immoral. Giving this scene to Powell or Wolfe, even if no physical harm had been done, would have compromised those characters in ways that would have damaged the overall story, and it’s revealing that when Wolfe is placed in a similar situation toward the end of the novel, she gets the information she needs through sympathy and psychological shrewdness. Here, the shortest distance between two points happened to take us through some ethically questionable territory. But it isn’t a place I’d want to visit very often…

Written by nevalalee

December 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

24 and art’s dubious morality

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Today the AV Club tackles an issue that is very close to my own heart: to what extent can we enjoy art that contradicts our own moral beliefs? The ensuing discussion spans a wide range of works, from Gone With the Wind to the films of Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson, but I’m most intrigued by an unspoken implication: that morally problematic works of art are often more interesting, and powerful, than those that merely confirm our existing points of view. When our moral convictions are challenged, it seems, it can yield the same sort of pleasurable dissonance that we get from works that subvert our aesthetic assumptions. The result can be great art, or at least great entertainment.

For me, the quintessential example is 24, a show that I loved for a long time, until it declined precipitously after the end of the fifth season. Before then, it was the best dramatic series on television, and its reactionary politics were inseparable from its appeal. Granted, the show’s politics were more about process than result—nearly every season ended with the exposure of a vast right-wing conspiracy, even if it was inevitably uncovered through massive violations of due process and civil rights—and it seems that the majority of the show’s writers and producers, aside from its creator, were politically liberal to moderate. Still, the question remains: how did they end up writing eight seasons’ worth of stories that routinely endorsed the use of torture?

The answer, I think, is that the writers were remaining true to the rules that the show had established: in a series where the American public is constantly in danger, and where the real-time structure of the show itself rules out the possibility of extended investigations—or even interrogations that last more than five minutes—it’s easier and more efficient to show your characters using torture to uncover information. The logic of torture on 24 wasn’t political, but dramatic. And while we might well debate the consequences of this portrayal on behavior in the real world, there’s no denying that it resulted in compelling television, at least for the first five seasons.

The lesson here, as problematic as it might seem, is that art needs to follow its own premises to their logical conclusion, even if the result takes us into dangerous places. (As Harold Bloom likes to point out, reading Shakespeare will not turn us into better citizens.) And this is merely the flip side of another crucial point, which is that works of art knowingly designed to endorse a particular philosophy are usually awful, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. At worst, such works are nothing but propaganda; and even at their best, they seem calculated and artificial, rather than honestly derived, however unwillingly, from the author’s own experience. As usual, John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says it better than I can:

The question, to pose it one last way, is this: Can an argument manipulated from the start by the writer have the same emotional and intellectual power as an argument to which the writer is forced by his intuition of how life works? Comparisons are odious but instructive: Can a Gulliver’s Travels, however brilliantly executed, ever touch the hem of the garment of a play like King Lear? Or: Why is the Aeneid so markedly inferior to the Iliad?

In my own work, I’ve found that it’s often more productive to deliberately construct a story that contradicts my own beliefs and see where it leads me from there. My novelette “The Last Resort” (Analog, September 2009) is designed to imply sympathy, or even complicity, with ecoterrorism, which certainly goes against my own inclinations. And I’m in the middle of outlining a novel in which the main character is a doubting Mormon whose experiences, at least as I currently conceive the story, actually lead her to become more devout. This sort of thing is harder than writing stories that justify what I already believe, but that’s part of the point. In writing, if not in life, it’s often more useful to do things the hard way.

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