Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Community

The Westworld variations

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Jeffrey Wright on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Westworld.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow television shows to experiment with different combinations of characters. Usually, it takes a season or two for the most fruitful pairings to emerge, and they can take even the writers by surprise. When a series begins, characters tend to interact based on where the plot puts them, and those initial groupings are based on little more than the creator’s best guess. Later, when the strengths of the actors have become apparent and the story has wandered in unanticipated directions, you end up with wonderful pairings that you didn’t even know you wanted. Last night’s installment of Westworld features at least two of these. The first is an opening encounter between Bernard and Maeve that gets the episode off to an emotional high that it never quite manages to top: it hurries Bernard to the next—and maybe last—stage of his journey too quickly to allow him to fully process what Maeve tells him. But it’s still nice to see them onscreen together. (They’re also the show’s two most prominent characters of color, but its treatment of race is so deeply buried that it barely even qualifies as subtext.) The second nifty scene comes when Charlotte, the duplicitous representative from the board, shows up in the Man in Black’s storyline. It’s more plot-driven, and it exists mostly to feed us some useful pieces of backstory. But there’s an undeniable frisson whenever two previously unrelated storylines reveal a hidden connection.

I hope that the show gives us more moments like this, but I’m also a little worried that it can’t. The scenes that I liked most in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” were surprising and satisfying precisely because the series has been so meticulous about keeping its plot threads separated. This may well be because at least one subplot is occurring in a different timeline, but more often, it’s a way of keeping things orderly: there’s so much happening in various places that the show is obliged to let each story go its own way. I don’t fault it for this, because this is such a superbly organized series, and although there are occasional lulls, they’ve been far fewer than you’d expect from a show with this level of this complexity. But very little of it seems organic or unanticipated. This might seem like a quibble. Yet I desperately want this show to be as great as it shows promise of being. And if there’s one thing that the best shows of the last decade—from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Fargo—have in common, it’s that they enjoy placing a few characters in a room and simply seeing what happens. You could say that Westworld is an inherently different sort of series, and that’s fine. But it’s such an effective narrative machine that it leaves me a little starved for those unpredictable moments that television, of all media, is the most likely to produce. (Its other great weakness is its general air of humorlessness, which arises from the same cause.) This is one of the most plot-heavy shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s possible to tell a tightly structured story while still leaving room for the unexpected. In fact, that’s one sign of mastery.

Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

And you don’t need to look far for proof. In a pivotal passage in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite books on the movies, Donald Richie writes of “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and he goes to to say:

Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain then the film was memorable…Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain…Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned, that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert.

“Rigorous” and “closely reasoned” are two words that I’m sure the creators of Westworld would love to hear used to describe their show. But when you look at a movie like Seven Samurai—which on some level is the greatest western ever made—you have to agree with Richie: “What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.

I don’t know if Westworld will ever become confident enough to offer viewers more water in the desert, but I’m hopeful that it will, because the precedent exists for a television series giving us a rigorous first season that it blows up down the line. I’m thinking, in particular, of Community, a show that might otherwise seem to have little in common with Westworld. It’s hard to remember now, after six increasingly nutty seasons, but Community began as an intensely focused sitcom: for its debut season, it didn’t even leave campus. The result gave the show what I’ve called a narrative home base, and even though I’m rarely inclined to revisit that first season, the groundwork that it laid was indispensable. It turned Greendale into a real place, and it provided a foundation for even the wildest moments to follow. Westworld seems to be doing much the same thing. Every scene so far has taken place in the park, and we’ve only received a few scattered hints of what the world beyond might be like—and whatever it is, it doesn’t sound good. The escape of the hosts from the park feels like an inevitable development, and the withholding of any information about what they’ll find is obviously a deliberate choice. This makes me suspect that this season is restricting itself on purpose, to prepare us for something even stranger, and in retrospect, it will seem cautious, compared to whatever else Westworld has up its sleeve. It’s the baseline from which crazier, more unexpected moments will later arise. Or, to take a page from the composer of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” this season is the aria, and the variations are yet to come.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2016 at 8:35 am

Laying down the melody

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David Byrne

A few days ago, while browsing through How Music Works, the engaging book by Talking Heads frontman and famous nerd David Byrne, I stumbled across this description of his writing process for the album Remain in Light:

I begin by improvising a melody over the music. I do this by singing nonsense syllables, but with weirdly inappropriate passion, given that I’m not saying anything. Once I have a wordless melody and a vocal arrangement that my collaborators (if there are any) and I like, I’ll begin to transcribe that gibberish as if it were real words.

I’ll listen carefully to the meaningless vowels and consonants on the recording, and I’ll try to understand what that guy (me), emoting so forcefully but inscrutably, is actually saying. It’s like a forensic exercise. I’ll follow the sound of the nonsense syllables as closely as possible. If a melodic phrase of gibberish ends on a high ooh sound, then I’ll transcribe that, and in selecting actual words, I’ll try to choose one that ends in that syllable, or as close to it as I can get. So the transcription often ends with a page of real words, still fairly random, that sound just like the gibberish.

Byrne concludes: “I do this because the difference between an ooh and an aah…is, I assume, integral to the emotion that the story wants to express…My job at this stage is to find words that acknowledge and adhere to the sonic and emotional qualities rather than to ignore and possibly destroy them.” And while Byrne’s chosen approach may seem resolutely oddball, it has surprising affinities with the opposite end of the commercial spectrum. Here’s a description, by John Seabrook of The New Yorker, of the creative process of Ester Dean, the “top line” songwriter responsible for hit singles by the likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj:

Dean has a genius for infectious hooks. Somehow she is able to absorb the beat and the sound of the track, and to come out with its melodic essence. The words are more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they don’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude—they nudge you closer to the ecstasy promised by the beat and the “rise,” or the “lift,” when the track builds to a climax…

Dean’s preferred method of working is to delay listening to a producer’s track until she is in the studio, in front of the mike. “I go into the booth and I scream and sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not,” she told me. Dean concludes: “And I just see when I get this little chill, here”—she touched her upper arm, just below the shoulder—”and then I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.'” If she doesn’t feel that chill after five minutes, she moves on to the next track, and tries again.

Ester Dean

Of course, songwriters have been jotting down nonsense lyrics to feel their way into a melody for a long time: it’s why “Yesterday” was originally called “Scrambled Eggs.” And many of the conventions of popular music, from scat singing to the repeated lines in choruses, were developed by performers who were improvising by the seat of their pants. What strikes me the most about this method from a writing point of view, though, is its similarity to what Community showrunner Dan Harmon has called the spit draft—a version of a script that lays out the structure with dummy dialogue on the level of “Here’s the point where I say that we should all go get a sandwich” or “I have a joke here.” The point is to rough out the blocks of the action in as broad a form as possible to make sure the story itself works. And sometimes, the simple act of typing, like singing nonsense syllables, results in something useful, as the writer Megan Ganz notes: “When you write really quickly, you end up writing really good jokes anyway; it’s almost as if you trick your brain into thinking that it doesn’t matter.” (Compare this to Byrne’s diligence at matching the oohs and aahs in the nonsense words he sings in his initial pass on the track. What looks like an accident may turn into a way inside, and you’ll often have better luck at coming up with something good if you follow the clues that your brain has already provided.)

I’ve found that it helps to think of any rough draft in these terms. Elsewhere, I’ve described a first draft—or, alternatively, a detailed outline—as a kind of crude sketch of the entire story, much as a painter might rough out a cartoon of the overall work on the canvas before fleshing out any specific area, and I still think that it’s a valuable way of working. When I’m writing a draft, I’m often just typing with one eye on the outline at my elbow, and the point is less to come up with a readable version than to figure out how the whole thing looks on the page: the balance of dialogue to description, the lengths of the paragraphs, the places where a block of action transitions into another. Once I have that overall shape, with the paragraphs more or less all where they need to be, it’s far easier to drill down and refine the material within each unit. (It’s crucial to note, though, that all these approaches depend on an existing structure to follow: we aren’t improvising blindly, but laying down a melody over a particular track.) The hard part is convincing yourself to fight through to the very last page, when you know that everything you’ve written will need to be revised into some other form. But if you can think of that draft as a sketch to be filled in later, or as a string of nonsense sentences that will serve as placeholders until you can glimpse the contours of the whole work, it’s easier both to get it done and to open yourself up to the music.

Written by nevalalee

August 13, 2015 at 9:37 am

The spit draft

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The cast of Community

The best thing I ever learned about script writing has come from working on Community. The creator, Dan Harmon, had us write these things called “spit drafts,” which is basically an outline for your script. It’s the shape of that script. You write out the script scene by scene with dummy dialogue that you’ll later replace with actual jokes. For instance, the character of Jeff walks into the room, and Jeff says, “Here’s the point where I say that we should all go get a sandwich.” And then the character of Annie will say, “I don’t want to do that.” And then another character will say, “I have a joke here.” You can have them do whatever you want, but you just have to get through the scene and have all of what needs to happen in that scene baldly stated.

If you can’t get through a script that way, then chances are your story doesn’t work. If you’re stuck and you feel like you have writer’s block, this is a really helpful method because it distinguishes between, “Okay, do you have story problems or are you having a hard time writing the dialogue?” Also, when you write really quickly, you end up writing really good jokes anyway; it’s almost as if you trick your brain into thinking that it doesn’t matter.

Megan Ganz

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July 2, 2015 at 9:00 am

Typhoid and swans

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Hugh Dancy in Hannibal

Last year, when Community was abruptly served its walking papers by NBC, I wrote the following on this blog:

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season…At a moment when the show seemed so confident of renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone.

Later in the same post, I noted: “Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen.” Still, my overall tone was pessimistic, if not outright dismissive, about the hopes for its revival in some other form. Which just shows how much difference a year makes. Within minutes of yesterday’s announcement that Hannibal had indeed been canceled, speculation was already turning to which online or cable outlet would be picking it up for a fourth season. It made the cancellation seem less like a death sentence than like a suspenseful interlude as we wait to see the conditions under which the characters will survive—or pretty much what Hannibal itself does on a regular basis.

Of course, there’s no guarantee. Bryan Fuller, who never had a series run for even two years until now, seems to have had few illusions about the show’s prospects: the current season is burning through material so quickly, not just from Red Dragon but from Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, that it feels like Fuller is trying to cram as much as possible into his available window. Still, even the tangible possibility of the show getting picked up elsewhere represents a curious mental adjustment for viewers. In the old days, attempts to save threatened shows were the province of grassroots campaigns, with fans bombarding networks with letters, muffins, or bottles of tabasco sauce. Sometimes it worked; usually it didn’t. Now revivals that would have once seemed utterly out of the question are on the table, thanks not to fan enthusiasm but to a shifting media landscape, with players both new and old eager to produce quality content for an existing audience. Next year alone, we’re going to see continuations of both The X-Files and Twin Peaks with their casts and creative crews intact, including a new episode of the former by Darin Morgan, which is basically the full realization of all my fanboy dreams. And it means that just about anything seems possible. (The glaring exception, somewhat hilariously, remains Firefly, which has nothing going for it except a rabid fanbase and the patronage of the most powerful director in Hollywood.)

Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

And as Lecter himself once said: “Typhoid and swans—it all comes from the same place.” In a way, this is all the bright side of the aversion to risk that characterizes so much entertainment these days. Hollywood is obsessed with sequels, reboots, and remakes for movies that were perfectly fine on their own, but television has enough shows that were canceled before their time to make a return to an old idea seem less like a sign of creative bankruptcy than a gift from the gods. It’s probably too much to ask a company with obligations to its shareholders—and executives praying not to get fired—to make much of a stand for great content for its own sake: we can only wait for those moments when their interests happen to align with what we care about, even if it’s by accident. That’s the funny thing about the entertainment industry. The same corporate mindset that thought people wanted to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is also responsible for bringing David Lynch back to the Black Lodge. On an individual level, it’s possible that development executives can differentiate between the two, but it all runs together on a balance sheet. And the primary difference between Twin Peaks and Spider-Man, aside from their cost, is their gestation period. It takes only a couple of years for a comic book franchise to start to look attractive again; with a cult television show, it’s probably closer to twenty. But even that timeline is starting to accelerate.

So how would a fourth season of Hannibal look? Fuller doesn’t have the rights to The Silence of the Lambs, which would be the logical next step in the series, but he’s hinted that he’s not particularly worried about this. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he says: “There is a pocket in one of the novels of some really rich interesting character material that I’m inverting and twisting around.” He goes on to explain what he means, off the record, and the reporter tells us, in a coy parenthesis, “It is is indeed radical.” There’s no telling what he has in mind, but my own hunch is that it involves a throwaway line about Will’s fate after the events of Red Dragon:

Will Graham, the keenest hound ever to run in Crawford’s pack, was a legend at the Academy; he was also a drunk in Florida now with a face that was hard to look at, they said.

I’d love to see this version of the show, as much as I’d love to see Fuller’s take on Clarice Starling. Yet even if we never get it, there’s reason to be content. The Silence of the Lambs is already a great movie. Thanks to Fuller and his collaborators, we also have a more satisfying filmed version of the rest of the Lecter saga than we’ve ever had before. Taken together, it’s a body of work more than worthy of the novels that inspired it. That’s a tremendous achievement. And it happened despite, not because of, what fans loved about this show in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2015 at 10:26 am

A brand apart

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Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

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 individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.

Introduction to finality

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Community

Yesterday, while I was out of the house, my wife asked our daughter: “Do you want your veggie snacks in a bowl?” My daughter, who is two years old, replied: “Sure!” I wasn’t there to see it, but when I got back, I was assured by all involved that it was hilarious. Then, this morning, in response to another question, my daughter said: “Sure!” Without thinking twice, I said: “That’s a good callback, honey. Is that your new catchphrase?” Which made me realize how often I talk about myself and those around me as if we were on a television show. We’ve always used terms from art and literature to describe the structure of our own lives: when we talk about “starting a new chapter” or “turning the page,” we’re implicitly comparing ourselves to the characters in novels. Even a phrase like “midlife crisis” is indebted, almost without knowing it, to the language of literary criticism. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that we’d also appropriate the grammar of television, which is the art form that has the most in common with the way our lives tend to unfold. When I moved to New York after college, I thought of myself as the star of a spinoff featuring a breakout character from the original series, a supporting player who ended up being my roommate. And a friend once told me that he felt that the show jumped the shark after I got a job in finance. (He wasn’t wrong.)

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Community has exercised such a hold over the imaginations of its viewers. For the past six years, it hasn’t always been the funniest sitcom around, or the most consistent, or even the most creative. But it’s the show that thought most urgently about the ways in which we use television to understand ourselves. For most of the show’s run, these themes centered on the character of Abed, but as last night’s season finale—which feels an awful lot like it ought to be the last episode of the entire series—clearly demonstrated, their real impact was on Jeff. Community could sometimes be understood as a dialogue between Abed and Jeff, with one insisting on seeing events in terms of narrative conventions while the other brought him down to earth, but in the end, Jeff comes to see these tropes as a way of making sense of his own feelings of loss. We’re aware, of course, that these people are characters on a television series, which is why Abed’s commentary on the action was often dismissed as a winking nod to the audience. But it wouldn’t be so powerful, so compelling, and ultimately so moving if we didn’t also sense that seeing ourselves through that lens, at least occasionally, is as sane a way as any of giving a shape to the shapelessness of our lives.

Danny Pudi on Community

Community may not endure as a lasting work of our culture—it’s more than enough that it was a great sitcom about half the time—but it’s part of a long tradition of stories that offer us metaphors drawn from their own artistic devices. Most beautifully, we have Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, which are framed as acts in a play. (Shakespeare returned to such images with a regularity that implies that he saw such comparisons as more than figures of speech: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage…” “These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all sprits and / Are melted into air, into thin air…”) Joyce used The Odyssey to provide a framework for his characters’ lives, as Proust did, more subtly, with The Thousand and One Nights. These are all strategies for structuring a literary work, but we wouldn’t respond to them so profoundly if they didn’t also reflect how we felt about ourselves. You could even say that fiction takes the form of a shapely sequence of causal events, at least in the western tradition, because we see our lives in much the same way. When you stand back, everyone’s life looks more or less the same, even as they differ in the details, and as we grow older, we see how much we’re only repeating patterns that others before us have laid down.

This might seem like a lot of pressure to place on a show that included a self-conscious fart joke—with repeated callbacks—in its final episode. But it’s the only way I can explain why Community ended up meaning more to me than any other sitcom since the golden age of The Simpsons. The latter show also ended up defining our lives as completely as any work of art can, mostly because its sheer density and longevity allowed it to provide a reference point to every conceivable situation. Community took a clever, almost Borgesian shortcut by explicitly making itself its own subject, and on some weird level, it benefited from the cast changes, creator firings, cancellations, and unexpected revivals that put its viewers through the wringer almost from the start. It was a show that was unable to take anything for granted, no more than any of us can, and even if it sometimes strained to keep itself going through its many incarnations, it felt like a message to those of us who struggle to impose a similar order on our own lives. Life, like a television show on the brink, has to deal with complications that weren’t part of the plan. If those ups and downs pushed Community into darker and stranger places, it’s a reminder that life gains much of its meaning, not from our conscious intentions, but as an emergent property of the compromises we’re forced to make. And like any television show, it’s defined largely by the fact that it ends.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2015 at 9:33 am

The middle ground

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The Mad Men episode "In Care Of"

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 series are you waiting to dive into until you can do it all at once?”

Yesterday, while leafing through a recent issue of The New Yorker, I came across the following lines in a book review by James Wood:

[Amit Chaudhuri] has struggled, as an Indian novelist writing in English, with the long shadow of Salman Rushdie’s Booker-winning novel Midnight’s Children…and with the notion, established in part by the success of that book, that fictional writing about Indian life should be noisy, magical, hybrid, multivocally “exotic”—as busy as India itself…He points out that in the Bengali tradition “the short story and novella have predominated at least as much as the novel,” and that there are plenty of Indian writers who have “hoped to suggest India by ellipsis rather than by all-inclusiveness.”

Wood, who is no fan of the “noisy, magical, hybrid” form that so many modern novels have assumed, draws an apt parallel to “the ceaseless quest for the mimetically overfed Great American Novel.” But an emphasis on short, elliptical fiction has been the rule, rather than the exception, in our writing programs for years. And a stark division between big and small seems to be true of most national literatures: think of Russia, for instance, in which Eugene Onegin stands as the only real rival as a secular scripture to the loose, baggy monsters of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Yet most works of art, inevitably, end up somewhere in the middle. If we don’t tend to write essays or dissertations about boringly midsized novels, which pursue their plot and characters for the standard three hundred pages or so, it’s for much the same reason that we don’t hear much about political moderates: we may be in the majority, but it isn’t news. Our attention is naturally drawn to the extreme, which may be more interesting to contemplate, but which also holds the risk that we’ll miss the real story by focusing on the edges. When we think about film editing, for instance, we tend to focus on one of two trends: the increasingly rapid rate of cutting, on the one hand, and the fetishization of the long take, on the other. In fact, the average shot length has been declining at a more or less linear rate ever since the dawn of the sound era, and over the last quarter of a century, it’s gone from about five seconds to four—a change that is essentially imperceptible. The way a movie is put together has remained surprisingly stable for more than a generation, and whatever changes of pace we do find are actually less extreme than we might expect from the corresponding technical advances. Digital techniques have made it easier than ever to construct a film out of very long or very short shots, but most movies still fall squarely in the center of the bell curve. And in terms of overall length, they’ve gotten slightly longer, but not by much.

Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

That’s true of other media as well. Whenever I read think pieces about the future of journalism, I get the impression that we’ve been given a choice between the listicle and the longread: either we quickly skim a gallery of the top ten celebrity pets, or we devote an entire evening to scrolling through a lapbreaker like “Snow Fall.” Really, though, most good articles continue to fall in the middle ground; it’s just hard to quantify what makes the best ones stand out, and it’s impossible to reduce it to something as simple as length or format. Similarly, when it comes to what we used to call television, the two big stories of the last few years have been the dueling models of Vine and Netflix: it seems that either we can’t sit still for more than six seconds at a time, or we’re eager to binge on shows for hours and hours. There are obvious generational factors at play here—I’ve spent maybe six seconds total on Vine—but the division is less drastic than it might appear. In fact, I suspect that most of us still consume content in the way we always have, in chunks of half an hour to an hour. Mad Men was meant to be seen like this; so, in its own way, was Community, which bucked recent trends by releasing an episode per week. But it isn’t all that interesting to talk about how to make a great show that looks more or less like the ones that have come before, so we don’t hear much about it.

Which isn’t to say that the way we consume and think about media hasn’t changed. A few years ago, the idea of waiting to watch a television show until its entire run was complete might have seemed ridiculous; now, it’s an option that many of us seriously consider. (The only series I’ve ever been tempted to wait out like this was Lost, and it backfired: once I got around to starting it, the consensus was so strong that it went nowhere that I couldn’t bring myself to get past the second season.) But as I’ve said before, it can be a mistake for a television show—or any work of art—to proceed solely with that long game in mind, without the pressure of engaging with an audience from week to week. We’re already starting to see some of the consequences in Game of Thrones, which thinks entirely in terms of seasons, but often forgets to make individual scenes worth watching on a level beyond, “Oh, let’s see what this guy is doing.” But a show that focuses entirely on the level of the scene or moment can sputter out after a few seasons, or less: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had trouble sustaining interest in its own premise for even thirteen episodes. The answer, as boring as it may be, lies in the middle, or in the narratives that think hard about telling stories in the forms that have existed before, and will continue to exist. The extremes may attract us. But it’s in the boring middle ground that the future of an art form is made.

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