Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Breaking Bad

Jumping out of the system

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Anthony Hopkins on "Westworld"

Note: Spoilers follow for recent plot developments on Westworld.

Right now, Westworld appears to be operating on two different levels. One is that of an enterprising genre series that is content to strike all the familiar beats with exceptional concentration and intensity. You see this most clearly, I think, in Maeve’s storyline. It’s a plot thread that has given us extraordinary moments, thanks mostly to some fantastic work by Thandie Newton, who obviously understands that she has finally landed the role of a lifetime. Yet it’s ultimately less effective than it should be. We’re never quite clear on why Felix and Sylvester are allowing Maeve’s escape plan to proceed: they have all the power, as well as plenty of ways to deactivate her, and given the risks involved, they’ve been remarkably cooperative so far. Last night’s episode tried to clarify their motivations, suggesting that Felix has developed some sort of emotional connection to Maeve, but the show has been too busy cutting from one set of characters to another to allow us to feel this, rather than just being told about it. Maeve’s story seems rushed, as perhaps it had to be: it’s about a robot who wills herself into becoming conscious, instead of growing more organically aware, as Dolores has. (Or so we’re meant to believe—although the chronology of her awakening may also be an elaborate mislead, if the theory of multiple timelines is correct.) Aside from the subplot involving the Delos Corporation, however, it’s the arc that feels the stagiest and the most conventional. We’re pretty sure that it’s going somewhere, but it’s  a little clumsy in the way it lines up the pieces.

The other level is the one embodied by Bernard’s story, and it offers a glimpse of what could be a much more interesting—if messier—series. Last week, I wrote that I had hope that the show could live up to the revelation of Bernard’s true nature, if only because it was in the capable hands of Jeffrey Wright, who seemed eminently qualified to see it through. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be even better at it than I had hoped. The high points of “Trace Decay,” at least for me, were the two scenes that Wright gets with Anthony Hopkins, who also seems to be relishing the chance to play a meatier role than usual. When Bernard asks what distinguishes him from his human creators, Dr. Ford replies that the answer is simple: there’s no difference. The stories that human beings use to define themselves are functionally the same as the artificial backstories that have been uploaded into the robots. We’re all operating within our own loops, and we rarely question our decisions or actions, except on the rare occasions, as Douglas R. Hofstadter puts it, when we can jump out of the system. In theory, a pair of conversations about human and machine consciousness shouldn’t work as drama, but they do. As Hopkins and Wright played off each other, I felt that I could spend an entire episode just watching them talk, even if the result resembled the western that Thomas Pynchon pitches in Gravity’s Rainbow, in which two cowboys played by Basil Rathbone and S.Z. Sakall spend the whole movie debating the nature of reality: “This interesting conversation goes on for an hour and a half. There are no cuts…Occasionally the horses will shit in the dust.”

Thandie Newton on "Westworld"

But when I ask myself which kind of show Westworld most wants to be, I end up thinking that it’s probably the former. In the past, I’ve compared it to Mad Men, a series from which it differs immensely in content, pacing, and tone, but which it resembles in its chilly emotional control, its ability to move between storylines, and the degree to which it rewards close analysis. The difference, of course, is that Mad Men was able to pursue its own obsessions in a relatively neglected corner of basic cable, while Westworld is unfolding front and center on the most public stage imaginable. Mad Men received a fair amount of critical attention early on, but its network, AMC, barely even existed as a creative player, and it wasn’t until the premiere of Breaking Bad the following year that it became clear that something special was happening. Westworld was positioned from the start as the successor to Game of Thrones, which means that there’s a limit to how wild or experimental it can be. It’s hard to imagine it airing an episode like “Fly” on Breaking Bad, which radically upends our expectations of how an installment of the series should look. And maybe it shouldn’t. Getting a science fiction series to work under such conditions is impressive enough, and if it delivers on those multiple timelines, it may turn out to be more innovative than we had any reason to expect. (I’m still nervous about how that reveal will play from a storytelling perspective, since it means that Dolores, the show’s ostensible protagonist, has been been effectively sidelined from the main action for the entire season. It might not work at all. But it’s still daring.)

As usual, the show provides us with the tools for its own deconstruction, when the Man in Black says that there were once two competing visions of the park. In Dr. Ford’s conception, the stories would follow their established arcs, and the robots wouldn’t be allowed to stray from the roles that had been defined for them. Arnold, by contrast, hoped that it would cut deeper. (Harris does such a good job of delivering this speech that I can almost defend the show’s decision to have the Man in Black reveal more about himself in a long monologue, which is rarely a good idea.) Westworld, the series, seems more inclined to follow Ford’s version than Arnold’s, and to squeeze as much freedom as it can out of stories that move along lines that we’ve seen before. Earlier this week, Jim Lanzone of CBS Interactive, the online platform on which Star Trek: Discovery is scheduled to premiere, said of the format:

Sci-fi is not something that has traditionally done really well on broadcast. It’s not impossible, for the future, if somebody figures it out. But historically, a show like Star Trek wouldn’t necessarily be a broadcast show at this point.

It isn’t hard to see what he means: the network audience, like the theme park crowd, wants something that is more consistent than episodic science fiction tends to be. If Westworld can do this and tell compelling stories at the same time, so much the better—and it may be a greater accomplishment simply to thread that difficult needle. But I’m still waiting to see if it can jump out of its loop.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2016 at 9:23 am

The test of tone

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Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2014.

Tone, as I’ve mentioned before, can be a tricky thing. On the subject of plot, David Mamet writes: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” And if you can radically shift tones within a single story and still keep the audience on board, you can end up with even more. If you look at the short list of the most exciting directors around—Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, the Coen Brothers—you find that what most of them have in common is the ability to alter tones drastically from scene to scene, with comedy giving way unexpectedly to violence or pathos. (A big exception here is Christopher Nolan, who seems happiest when operating within a fundamentally serious tonal range. It’s a limitation, but one we’re willing to accept because Nolan is so good at so many other things. Take away those gifts, and you end up with Transcendence.) Tonal variation may be the last thing a director masters, and it often only happens after a few films that keep a consistent tone most of the way through, however idiosyncratic it may be. The Coens started with Blood Simple, then Raising Arizona, and once they made Miller’s Crossing, they never had to look back.

The trouble with tone is that it imposes tremendous switching costs on the audience. As Tony Gilroy points out, during the first ten minutes of a movie, a viewer is making a lot of decisions about how seriously to take the material. Each time the level of seriousness changes gears, whether upward or downward, it demands a corresponding moment of consolidation, which can be exhausting. For a story that runs two hours or so, more than a few shifts in tone can alienate viewers to no end. You never really know where you stand, or whether you’ll be watching the same movie ten minutes from now, so your reaction is often how Roger Ebert felt upon watching Pulp Fiction for the first time: “Seeing this movie last May at the Cannes Film Festival, I knew it was either one of the year’s best films, or one of the worst.” (The outcome is also extremely subjective. I happen to think that Vanilla Sky is one of the most criminally underrated movies of the last two decades—few other mainstream films have accommodated so many tones and moods—but I’m not surprised that so many people hate it.) It also annoys marketing departments, who can’t easily explain what the movie is about; it’s no accident that one of the worst trailers I can recall was for In Bruges, which plays with tone as dexterously as any movie in recent memory.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

As a result, tone is another element in which television has considerable advantages. Instead of two hours, a show ideally has at least one season, maybe more, to play around with tone, and the number of potential switching points is accordingly increased. A television series is already more loosely organized than a movie, which allows it to digress and go off on promising tangents, and we’re used to being asked to stop and start from week to week, so we’re more forgiving of departures. That said, this rarely happens all at once; like a director’s filmography, a show often needs a season or two to establish its strengths before it can go exploring. When we think back to a show’s pivotal episodes—the ones in which the future of the series seemed to lock into place—they’re often installments that discovered a new tone that worked within the rules that the show had laid down. Community was never the same after “Modern Warfare,” followed by “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” demonstrated how much it could push its own reality while still remaining true to its characters, and The X-Files was altered forever by Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” which taught the show how far it could kid itself while probing into ever darker places.

At its best, this isn’t just a matter of having a “funny” episode of a dramatic series, or a very special episode of a sitcom, but of building a body of narrative that can accommodate surprise. One of the great pleasures of watching Hannibal lay in how it learned to acknowledge its own absurdity while drawing the noose ever tighter, which only happens after a show has enough history for it to engage in a dialogue with itself. Much the same happened to Breaking Bad, which had the broadest tonal range imaginable: it was able to move between borderline slapstick and the blackest of narrative developments because it could look back and reassure itself that it had already done a good job with both. (Occasionally, a show will emerge with that kind of tone in mind from the beginning. Fargo remains the most fascinating drama on television in large part because it draws its inspiration from one of the most virtuoso experiments with tone in movie history.) If it works, the result starts to feel like life itself, which can’t be confined easily within any one genre. Maybe that’s because learning to master tone is like putting together the pieces of one’s own life: first you try one thing, then something else, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that they work well side by side.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

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.

Going for the kill

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “Home Again.”

One of the unexpected but undeniable pleasures of the tenth season of The X-Files is the chance it provides to reflect on how television itself has changed over the last twenty years. The original series was so influential in terms of storytelling and tone that it’s easy to forget how compelling its visuals were, too: it managed to tell brooding, cinematic stories on a tiny budget, with the setting and supporting cast changing entirely from one episode to the next, and it mined a tremendous amount of atmosphere from those Vancouver locations. When it pushed itself, it could come up with installments like “Triangle”—one of the first television episodes ever to air in widescreen—or “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” none of which looked like anything you’d ever seen before, but it could be equally impressive in its moody procedural mode. Yet after a couple of decades, even the most innovative shows start to look a little dated. Its blocking and camera style can seem static compared to many contemporary dramas, and one of the most intriguing qualities of the ongoing reboot has been its commitment to maintaining the feel of the initial run of the series while upgrading its technical aspects when necessary. (Sometimes the best choice is to do nothing at all: the decision to keep the classic title sequence bought it tremendous amounts of goodwill, at least with me, and the slightly chintzy digital transformation effects in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” come off as just right.)

This week’s episode, Glen Morgan’s “Home Again,” is interesting mostly as an illustration of the revival’s strengths and limitations. It’s basically a supernatural slasher movie, with a ghostly killer called the Band-Aid Nose Man stalking and tearing apart a string of unsympathetic victims who have exploited the homeless in Philadelphia. And the casefile element here is even more perfunctory than usual. All we get in the way of an explanation is some handwaving about the Tibetan tulpa, which the show undermines at once, and the killer turns out to be hilariously ineffective: he slaughters a bunch of people without doing anything to change the underlying situation. But there’s also a clear implication that the case isn’t meant to be taken seriously, except as a counterpoint to the real story about the death of Scully’s mother. Even there, though, the parallels are strained, and if the implicit point is that the case could have been about anything, literally anything would have been more interesting than this. (There’s another point to be made, which I don’t feel like exploring at length here, about how the show constantly falls back on using Scully’s family—when it isn’t using her body—to put her through the wringer. Scully has lost her father, her sister, and now her mother, and it feels even lazier here than usual, as if the writers thought she’d had too much fun last week, which meant that she had to suffer.)

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny on The X-Files

What we have, then, are a series of scenes—four, to be exact—in which an unstoppable killer goes after his quarry. There’s nothing wrong with this, and if the resulting sequences were genuinely scary, the episode wouldn’t need to work so hard to justify its existence. Yet none of it is particularly memorable or frightening. As I watched it, I was struck by the extent to which the bar has been raised for this kind of televised suspense, particularly in shows like Breaking Bad and Fargo, which expertly blend the comedic and the terrifying. Fargo isn’t even billed as a suspense show, but it has given us scenes and whole episodes over the last two seasons that built the pressure so expertly that they were almost painful to watch: I’ve rarely had a show keep me in a state of dread for so long. And this doesn’t require graphic violence, or even any violence at all. Despite its title, Fargo takes its most important stylistic cue from another Coen brothers movie entirely, and particularly from the sequence in No Country For Old Men in which Llewelyn Moss awaits Anton Chigurh in his motel room. It’s the most brilliantly sustained sequence of tension in recent memory, and it’s built from little more than our knowledge of the two characters, the physical layout of the space, and a shadow under the door. Fargo has given us a version of this scene in every season, and it does it so well that it makes it all the less forgivable when an episode like “Home Again” falls short.

And the funny thing, of course, is that both Fargo and Breaking Bad lie in a direct line of descent from The X-Files. Breaking Bad, obviously, is the handiwork of Vince Gilligan, who learned much of what he knows in his stint on the earlier show, and who revealed himself in “Pusher” to be a master of constructing a tight suspense sequence from a handful of well-chosen elements. And Fargo constantly winks at The X-Files, most notably in the spaceship that darted in and out of sight during the second season, but also in its range and juxtaposition of tones and its sense of stoicism in the face of an incomprehensible universe. If an episode like “Home Again” starts to look a little lame, it’s only because the show’s descendants have done such a good job of expanding upon the basic set of tools that the original series provided. (It also points to a flaw in the show’s decision to allow all the writers to direct their own episodes. It’s a nice gesture, but it also makes me wonder how an episode like this would have played in the hands of a director like, say, Michelle McLaren, who is an expert at extending tension to the breaking point.) Not every Monster of the Week needs to be a masterpiece, but when we’re talking about six episodes after so many years, there’s greater pressure on each installment to give us something special—aside from killing off another member of the Scully family. Because if the show were just a little smarter about dispatching its other victims, it might have decided to let Margaret Scully live.

Written by nevalalee

February 11, 2016 at 9:30 am

The blood in the milkshake

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Fargo

Note: Spoilers follow for the first two episodes of the current season of Fargo.

The most striking aspect of the second season of Fargo—which, two episodes in, already ranks among the most exciting television I’ve seen in months—is its nervous visual style. If the first season had an icy, languid look openly inspired by its cinematic source, the current installment is looser, jazzier, and not particularly Coenesque: there are split screens, montages, dramatic chyrons and captions, and a lot of showy camerawork. (It’s so visually rich that the image of a murder victim’s blood mingling with a spilled vanilla milkshake, on which another show might have lingered, is only allowed to register for a fraction of a second.) The busy look of the season so far seems designed to mirror its plot, which is similarly overstuffed: an early scene involving a confrontation at a waffle joint piles on the complications until I almost wished that it had followed Coco Chanel’s advice and removed one accessory before leaving the house. But that’s part of the point. Fargo started off as a series that seemed so unlikely to succeed that it devoted much of its initial run to assuring us that it knew what it was doing. Now that its qualifications have been established, it’s free to spiral off into weirder directions without feeling the need to abide by any precedent, aside, of course, from the high bar it sets for itself.

And while it might seem premature to declare victory on its behalf, it’s already starting to feel like the best of what the anthology format has to offer. A few months ago, after the premiere of the second season of another ambitious show in much the same vein, I wrote: “Maintaining any kind of continuity for an anthology show is challenging enough, and True Detective has made it as hard on itself as possible: its cast, its period, its setting, its structure, even its overall tone have changed, leaving only the whisper of a conceit embedded in the title.” Like a lot of other viewers, I ended up bailing before the season was even halfway over: it not only failed to meet the difficult task it set for itself, but it fell short in most other respects as well. And I had really wanted it to work, if only because cracking the problem of the anthology series feels like a puzzle on which the future of television depends. We’re witnessing an epochal shift of talent from movies to the small screen, as big names on both sides of the camera begin to realize that the creative opportunities it affords are in many ways greater than what the studios are prepared to offer. And what we’re likely to see within the next ten years—to the extent that it hasn’t already happened—is an entertainment landscape in which Hollywood focuses exclusively on blockbusters while dramas and quirky smaller films migrate to cable or, in rare cases, even the networks.

Ted Danson and Patrick Wilson on Fargo

It isn’t hard to imagine this scenario: in many ways, we’re halfway there. But the current situation leaves a lot of actors, writers, and directors stranded somewhere in the middle: unable to finance the projects they want in the movies, but equally unwilling to roll the dice on the uncertainties of conventional episodic television. The anthology format works best when it strikes a balance between those two extremes. It can be packaged as conveniently as a movie, with a finite beginning and ending, and it allows a single creative personality to exert control throughout the process. By now, its production values are more than comparable to those of many feature films. And instead of such a story being treated as a poor relation of the tentpole franchises that make up a studio’s bottom line, on television, it’s seen as an event. As a result, at a time when original screenplays are so undervalued in Hollywood that it’s newsworthy when one gets produced at all, it’s not surprising that television is attracting talent that would otherwise be stuck in turnaround. But brands are as important in television as they are anywhere else—it’s no accident that Fargo draws its name from a familiar title, however tenuous that connection turned out to be in practice—and for the experiment to work, it needs a few flagship properties to which such resources can be reliably channelled. If the anthology format didn’t already exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

That’s why True Detective once seemed so important, and why its slide into irrelevance was so alarming. And it’s why I also suspect that Fargo may turn out to be the most important television series on the air today. Its first season wasn’t perfect: the lengthy subplot devoted to Oliver Platt’s character was basically a shaggy dog story without an ending, and the finale didn’t quite succeed in living up to everything that had come before. Yet it remains one of the most viscerally riveting shows I’ve ever seen—you have to go back to the best years of Breaking Bad to find a series that sustains the tension in every scene so beautifully, and that mingles humor and horror until it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. (But will Jesse Plemons ever get a television role that doesn’t force him to dispose of a corpse?) If the opening act of the second season is any indication, the show will continue to draw talent intrigued by the opportunities that it affords, which translate, in practical terms, into scene after scene that any actor would kill to play. And the fact that it can do this while departing strategically from its own template is especially heartening. If True Detective is defined, in theory, by the genre associations evoked by its title, Fargo is about a triangulation between the contrasts established by the movie that inspired it: politeness, quiet desperation, and sudden violence. It’s a technical trick, but it’s a very good one, and it’s a machine that can generate stories forever, with good and evil mixed together like blood in vanilla ice cream.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2015 at 9:36 am

Posted in Television

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From Walter White to Castle Black

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Stephen Dillane on Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones.

Two years ago, after the stunning Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias” first aired, George R.R. Martin wrote the following on his blog:

Amazing series. Amazing episode last night. Talk about a gut punch.
Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros.
(I need to do something about that.)

Ever since, Martin and the showrunners of Game of Thrones have been as good as their word, moving past the material in the original books to treat us to moments of violence and cruelty, sexual and otherwise, designed to deliver the kind of gut punch that Breaking Bad did so well. It all culminated, for now, in the most recent episode, in which Stannis—who wasn’t exactly a fan favorite, but at least ranked among the show’s more intriguing characters—burned his own adorable daughter alive. (Now that I’ve taken an extended break from the series, there’s something oddly liberating about reading about the high points the next day, instead of sitting through yet another hour of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” scenes.)

I’m no longer a Game of Thrones fan, but I’ll give the show partial credit for setting itself an enormous technical challenge. It tells a complicated story with at least three major factions competing to rule the Seven Kingdoms, but it seems determined to make it impossible for us to root for anyone with a legitimate shot at the throne. This has always been a series devoted to undermining our usual reasons for enjoying fantasy fiction, and giving us a conventional hero to follow might have obscured its larger point—that Westeros is a deeply messed up world with a system designed to spark endless cycles of bloodshed, no matter who wears the crown at any given moment. In the abstract, this is one hell of an ambitious goal, and I’m the last person, or almost the last, to argue that a show has any obligation to make its protagonists likable. Yet I still feel that it has an obligation to make them interesting, and this is where the series falters, at least for me. When I look at the show’s current lineup of characters, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain once wrote about the novels of James Fenimore Cooper: “The reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.”

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

In fact, in the absence of other satisfactions, Game of Thrones sometimes feels like an object lesson in the foolishness of becoming attached to anybody. It’s so singleminded about setting up and knocking down our hopes that it seems to be implicitly asking why we bother latching onto anyone at all. To which I’m tempted to respond with the words of Krusty the Clown: “Because I’m an idiot. Happy?” But the show either isn’t satisfied or no longer seems capable of doing anything else. At times, it resembles none of its characters so much as the loathsome Ramsay Bolton, with his systematic breakdown of Theon’s last shreds of humanity. Bolton, at least, is an unrepentant sadist, while the show hedges its cruelties with the implication that this is all somehow good for us. By alienating us from everyone, though, it’s taking the easy way out. We’ve known from the start that there can only be one winner here, at most, and if the show had managed to engage us with every side, the idea that most of these people won’t survive might have seemed genuinely tragic. Instead, I no longer particularly care who ends up on the Iron Throne. And by frustrating us so diligently in the short term, the show has denied itself an endgame that might actually have meant something.

A few seasons back, I might have defended Game of Thrones as a show that used dubious tactics for the sake of a larger strategy, but now I no longer believe in the strategy, either. (This lack of trust, more than any one scene, is the real reason I’ve stopped watching.) And I keep coming back to Martin’s comparison to Breaking Bad. Part of me likes to think that Martin merely mistyped: Walter White may not be a bigger monster than anyone on this show, but he’s certainly a better one. And the difference between him and his counterparts in Westeros—as well as the difference between a series that kept me hooked to the end, despite its occasional missteps, and one that I’ve more or less abandoned—lies in the queasy identification that Walt inspired in the audience. We may not have wanted Walt to “win,” but we loved watching him along the way, because he was endlessly interesting. And Breaking Bad earned its big, heartbreaking moments, as Hannibal has done more recently. But that kind of emotional immersion requires countless small, nearly invisible judgment calls and smart choices of the kind that Game of Thrones rarely seems capable of making. I don’t need to like Stannis, any more than I needed to like Walt. But I wish I liked the show around him.

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2015 at 10:06 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.

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