Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey

A clash of timelines

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Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones.

When we find ourselves on Westeros again, not much time has passed. Tywin Lannister’s body still lies in state. Tyrion has just crossed the Narrow Sea, sealed in a crate with air holes punched in the side, like Kermit in The Great Muppet Caper. Brienne, Sansa, and Jon Snow are still brooding over their recent losses, while Daenerys, as usual, isn’t doing much of anything. Nothing, in fact, has happened in the meantime, and not much will happen tonight. And we expect this. Each season of Game of Thrones follows a familiar rhythm, with the first and last episodes serving as bookends for more spectacular developments. If we’ve learned to brace ourselves for the penultimate episode of every run, in which all hell tends to break loose, we’ve also gotten used to the breathing space provided by the premiere and finale. Other shows use their opening and closing installments to propel the narrative forward, or at least to tell us what the next stretch of the story will be about, but Game of Thrones has a way of ramping up and ramping down again, as if it feels obliged to reintroduce us to its imaginary world, then ease us back into everyday life once enough innocent blood has been shed.

I’ve always thought of Game of Thrones as a deeply flawed but fascinating show, with unforgettable moments alternating with lengthy subplots that go nowhere. (Remember all that time we spent with Theon Greyjoy, aka Reek? I hope not.) It’s a show that seems constantly in dialogue with time, which I’ve noted elsewhere is the secret protagonist of every great television series. If a show like Mad Men uses time as an ally or collaborator, Game of Thrones regards it as an unwanted variable, one that constantly spoils, or at least complicates, its plans. The real collision—which will occur as soon as the series catches up with the novels—has yet to come, although we’re already seeing hints of it: Bran’s material is already used up, so he won’t be appearing at all this season, off at warg school, or whatever, until the show figures out what to do with him. And when we see him again, he’ll look very different. A series shot over a period of years inevitably runs into challenges with child actors, and Game of Thrones seems less inclined to turn this into an asset, as Mad Men did with Sally Draper, than to treat it as an inconvenient complication.

Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men

For serialized shows, the tension between production schedules and the internal chronology can create real problems. It’s tempting to treat a season as a calendar year, as in most shows set in high school or college, even if there isn’t a pressing reason. Community, for instance, had to scramble to figure out what to do when its characters started to graduate, but there’s no reason why the entire run of the show couldn’t have taken place, say, between junior and senior years. And M*A*S*H didn’t seem particularly concerned that it spent eleven years fighting a three-year war. Occasionally, a show will try to compress multiple years within a single season, either with an explicit time jump—which is turning into a cliché of its own, although Fargo handled it beautifully—or with more subtle nods to the passage of time. This can create its own kind of dissonance, as on Downton Abbey, where months or years can go by without any corresponding advance in the story. And The Simpsons has turned its longevity into a running joke: Bart, Lisa, and Maggie don’t age, but they’ve celebrated thirteen Christmases. (Unless, as one fan theory has it, we’re actually witnessing a single, eventful Christmas from multiple perspectives, which is a supercut I’d love to see.)

And for showrunners, cracking the problem of time is more urgent than ever before. In the past, most shows were content to ignore it, but the rise in serialization and unconventional viewing habits make this strategy less workable. The breakdown of the conventional television schedule, which mapped neatly onto the calendar with a break in the summer, has led to increasing confusion. I suspect that Game of Thrones devotes so much time to resetting the stage because of the hiatus between seasons: only a few days have gone by in Westeros, but we’ve been waiting ten months to see these characters again. But I can’t help but wish that it would simply get on with it, as Mad Men does. Nine months have passed between “Waterloo” and “Severance,” but Matthew Weiner jumps right in, trusting us to fill in the gaps with the clues he provides. And it works largely because we know more about the timeline, at least as it relates to the changing world at the edges of the plot, than even the characters do. Ted Chaough’s hair gets us ninety percent of the way there. And it leaves us with the sense, despite the deliberate pace, there’s more going on at Sterling Cooper than in all the Seven Kingdoms.

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2015 at 9:14 am

The curated past of Mad Men

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Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What has Mad Men inspired you to seek out?”

Now that Mad Men is entering its final stretch at last, it’s time to acknowledge a subtle but important point about the source of its appeal. This is my favorite television drama of all time. I’m not going to argue that it’s the greatest series ever—we’ll need another decade or two to make that appraisal with a cool head—but from one scene to the next, one episode after another, it’s provided me with more consistent pleasure and emotion than any show I can name. I’ve spoken before, perhaps too often, about what I like to call its fractal quality: the tiniest elements start to feel like emblems of the largest, and there’s seemingly no limit to how deep you can drill while analyzing even the smallest of touches. For proof, we need turn no further than the fashion recaps by Tom and Lorenzo, which stand as some of the most inspired television criticism of recent years. The choice of a fabric or color, the reappearance of a dress or crucial accessory, a contrast between the outfits of one character and another turn out to be profoundly expressive of personality and theme, and it’s a testament to the genius of both costume designer Jane Bryant and Matthew Weiner, the ultimate man behind the curtain.

Every detail in Mad Men, then, starts to feel like a considered choice, and we can argue over their meaning and significance for days. But that’s also true of any good television series. By definition, everything we see in a work of televised fiction is there because someone decided it should be, or didn’t actively prevent it from appearing. Not every showrunner is as obsessed with minutiae as Weiner is, but it’s invariably true of the unsung creative professionals—the art director, the costume designer, the craftsmen responsible for editing, music, cinematography, sound—whose contributions make up the whole. Once you’ve reached the point in your career where you’re responsible for a department in a show watched by millions, you’re not likely to achieve your effects by accident: even if your work goes unnoticed by most viewers, every prop or bit of business is the end result of a train of thought. If asked, I don’t have any doubt that the costume designers for, say, Revenge or The Vampire Diaries would have much to say about their craft as Jane Bryant does. But Mad Men stands alone in the current golden age of television in actually inspiring that kind of routine scrutiny for each of its aesthetic choices, all of which we’re primed to unpack for clues.

Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner on the set of Mad Men

What sets it apart, of course, is its period setting. With a series set in the present day, we’re more likely to take elements like costume design and art direction for granted; it takes a truly exceptional creative vision, like the one we find in Hannibal, to encourage us to study those choices with a comparable degree of attention. In a period piece, by contrast, everything looks exactly as considered as it really is: we know that every lamp, every end table, every cigarette or magazine cover has been put consciously into place, and while we might appreciate this on an intellectual level with other shows, Mad Men makes us feel it. And its relatively recent timeframe makes those touches even more evident. When you go back further, as with a show like Downton Abbey, most of us are less likely to think about the decisions a show makes, simply because it’s more removed from our experience: only a specialist would take an interest in which kind of silverware Mrs. Hughes sets on the banquet table, rather than another, and we’re likely to think of it as a recreation, not a creation. (This even applies to a series like Game of Thrones, in which it’s easy to take the world it makes at face value, at least until the seams start to show.) But the sixties are still close enough that we’re able to see each element as a choice between alternatives. As a result, Mad Men seems curated in a way that neither a contemporary or more remote show would be.

I’m not saying this to minimize the genuine intelligence behind Mad Men’s look and atmosphere. But it’s worth admitting that if we’re more aware of it than usual, it’s partially a consequence of that canny choice of period. Just as a setting in the recent past allows for the use of historical irony and an oblique engagement with contemporary social issues, it also encourages the audience to regard mundane details as if they were charged with significance. When we see Don Draper reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, for instance, we’re inclined to wonder why, and maybe even check it out for ourselves. And many of us have been influenced by the show’s choices of fashion, music, and even liquor. But its real breakthrough lay in how those surface aspects became an invitation to read more deeply into the elements that mattered. Even if we start to pay less attention to brand names or articles of set dressing, we’re still trained to watch the show as if everything meant something, from a line of throwaway dialogue to Don’s lingering glance at Megan at the end of “Hands and Knees.” Like all great works of art, Mad Men taught us how to watch it, and as artists as different as Hitchcock and Buñuel understood, it knew that it could only awaken us to its deepest resonances by enticing us first with its surfaces. It turned us all into noticers. And the best way to honor its legacy is by directing that same level of attention onto all the shows we love.

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2015 at 9:33 am

“I’m sure he had no trouble remembering you…”

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"A few moments earlier..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 34. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One reason I’m so fascinated by the challenges of episodic television is the fact that I recently found myself writing what amounted to a series of my own. The Icon Thief was conceived as a standalone novel, and the possibility of writing a sequel never crossed my mind until it was raised by my publisher, which put me in a position analogous to that of a showrunner tasked with shepherding a series through an extended run of seasons. Some television shows, like Mad Men, reveal a novelistic sense of storytelling that remains shapely for years; others, like Downton Abbey, flame out early on. Most common of all is a series that falls somewhere in the middle, with the writers and producers trying to keep the underlying material fresh while dealing with the vagaries of television production. As a novelist, I don’t need to worry about cast departures or network notes, and the fact that my own series is conceived as a trilogy allows me to avoid some of the pitfalls faced by a show with no clear ending. All the same, I’d like to think that it’s given me a renewed appreciation for the surprises that an extended narrative can encounter.

Take the issue of the breakout character. This is a character, originally conceived as a minor part, that unexpectedly expands into a role of much greater importance, to the point where he or she often takes over the entire series. You can’t plan this kind of thing, and shows that come to structure themselves around a supporting character’s popularity, like Happy Days, are generally transformed beyond recognition. It’s usually the audience who latches on to a character like this, but he or she can also be one who seizes the creator’s imagination. This is more often the case in novels, which don’t benefit—if that’s the right word—from the continuous ratings feedback that a television series receives. And while the increased focus given to a breakout character on television can feel like pandering, in fiction, it’s more often a case of the author’s organic excitement taking hold, which is always thrilling. Most writers try to make their lead characters as interesting as possible from page one, and occasionally the strain shows. By contrast, when a character slowly grows in interest and importance, the result usually takes even the author by surprise.

"I'm sure he had no trouble remembering you..."

The breakout character in my own work is clearly Rachel Wolfe. As I’ve noted before, Wolfe originated as a plot convenience, to play the role of Watson to Powell’s Holmes, and in the original outline, she wasn’t even a woman. I didn’t know she was a Mormon until the rewrite—after briefly toying with the idea of making her South Asian—and even in the book as it currently exists, she’s clearly a secondary character. Yet she stuck in my mind, and it’s only now, as I’m making the final changes to the third book in which she appears, that I can begin to figure out why. In a series where I’ve done my best to create flawed, complicated characters, and in which the moral lines aren’t always clearly drawn, Wolfe represents virtue and courage. Needless to say, this wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if I’d conceived her from the start as my answer to Eliot Ness. She was simply a character who demanded to be treated as a hero in a series that was more interested in ambiguity. And a big part of why I enjoy writing her so much is that I’ve been forced to work within the constraints I chose for her almost at random, more than four years ago.

Chapter 34 of The Icon Thief provides some tantalizing hints of the qualities that I developed more fully in City of Exiles. At first glance, it’s a transitional chapter, with Powell and Wolfe conducting surveillance on the exchange inside the courthouse. As they wait for the principal parties to arrive, I take the opportunity to include some exposition that didn’t fit anywhere else—in fact, their discussion here is pieced together from several other conversations that originally took place in different chapters. When I read this chapter over again today, however, I’m more struck by what’s happening between the lines, as Wolfe signals to Powell to remove his earpiece so they can have a private conversation. Wolfe, it seems, has been busy: she’s looked into the background of Maddy’s art fund and obtained crucial information from a partner at a law firm, an occasional instructor at Quantico, who “loves to sound off to his former students, especially the girls.” Powell responds: “I’m sure he had no trouble remembering you.”  And while I didn’t think much of that line when I wrote it, it’s only today, two novels later, that I really understand what he meant…

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

Downton Abbey and the problem of time

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Note: Mild spoilers follow for the first season of Downton Abbey.

Time, in television, can be a tricky thing. Because most series are still viewed over the course of several years, the way in which narrative time maps onto the show’s actual duration can present some unexpectedly thorny problems. In general, sitcoms and police procedurals do their best to ignore the passage of time altogether, while teenage soaps and other shows faced with the problem of aging casts tend to cover one year per season, which at least makes intuitive sense. Things get stickier with serialized dramas like Lost or Breaking Bad, in which events that viewers experience over multiple seasons really only cover a few highly eventful weeks or months. And although most shows, whatever their approach to chronology, tend to keep the flow of time more or less consistent, there are also cases like the third season of 24 or the fifth season of Desperate Housewives, in which the internal timeline is abruptly advanced by several years.

I’ve been mulling over these issues while watching the first season of Downton Abbey, which my wife and I just finished. When we first began, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I quickly realized why this series has acquired such a passionate following: for the most part, this is a really compelling show, even for those of us who haven’t seen much drama in the Upstairs, Downstairs mold. Among its many other virtues, it rapidly introduces a huge ensemble cast, so that by the end of the third episode we know at least a little about twenty men and women, which is no small feat. Its Yorkshire country house setting is flexible enough to encompass a wide range of stories, from melodrama to romance to farce. And while there’s rarely much in the way of action, it’s edited with the pace of a thriller, with the show cutting swiftly between parallel storylines that hit their dramatic beats and move on. The result is a show that really sucks you in, and the first five episodes are close to perfect.

Once again, however, we’re presented with the problem of time, which Downton Abbey never really solves to its own satisfaction. The show opens with news of the sinking of the Titanic and ends with the declaration of war against Germany, meaning that the internal chronology of its seven episodes extends over more than two years. Yet the events of the show seem to cover much less time, both subjectively and dramatically: the relationships don’t advance between episodes, and certain subplots, like the question of who has been pilfering bottles from the wine cellar, are stretched out beyond all belief, once you realize how much calendar time has allegedly passed. This becomes a real problem in the sixth episode, in which the chryon “May 1914” is prominently displayed and a character self-consciously mentions that he’s been at Downton for two years, when it still seems as if he’s just arrived. It’s a jarring effect that throws the entire series off balance, at least to this viewer, until what had seemed almost effortlessly involving suddenly feels artificial and strained.

I can understand why Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, wanted the first season to be framed by the Titanic and the war, but the fabric of the narrative can’t quite sustain it. (It would have been better, perhaps, if he’d chosen to open the show with something besides the Titanic: Downton’s heirs could have been dispatched in some other way, eight months or so before the war began, and the show wouldn’t have had to sweat so much to make it to August 1914.) By the end of the first season, the wheels are coming off: the second half of the finale, with a dozen plot threads crammed into the last act, is especially weak, with characters we care about left with only a few minutes to finish up their business before the war is declared. Downton Abbey deserves to unfold at its own pace, but can’t avoid being forced into an inconvenient timeline. And while this may serve as a commentary on history, it more likely reflects the slippery nature of television itself.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2012 at 9:37 am

Posted in Television

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