Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Fargo

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

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 time factor

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Concept art for Toy Story 3

Earlier this week, my daughter saw Toy Story for the first time. Not surprisingly, she loved it—she’s asked to watch it three more times in two days—and we’ve already moved on to Toy Story 2. Seeing the two movies back to back, I was struck most of all by the contrast between them. The first installment, as lovely as it is, comes off as a sketch of things to come: the supporting cast of toys gets maybe ten minutes total of screen time, and the script still has vestiges of the villainous version of Woody who appeared in the earlier drafts. It’s a relatively limited film, compared to the sequels. Yet if you were to watch it today without any knowledge of the glories that followed, you’d come away with a sense that Pixar had done everything imaginable with the idea of toys who come to life. The original Toy Story feels like an exhaustive list of scenes and situations that emerge organically from its premise, as smartly developed by Joss Whedon and his fellow screenwriters, and in classic Pixar fashion, it exploits that core gimmick for all it’s worth. Like Finding Nemo, it amounts to an anthology of all the jokes and set pieces that its setting implies: you can practically hear the writers pitching out ideas. And taken on its own, it seems like it does everything it possibly can with that fantastic concept.

Except, of course, it doesn’t, as two incredible sequels and a series of shorts would demonstrate. Toy Story 2 may be the best example I know of a movie that takes what made its predecessor special and elevates it to a level of storytelling that you never imagined could exist. And it does this, crucially, by introducing a new element: time. If Toy Story is about toys and children, Toy Story 2 and its successor are about what happens when those kids become adults. It’s a complication that was inherent to its premise from the beginning, but the first movie wasn’t equipped to explore it—we had to get to know and care about these characters before we could worry about what would happen after Andy grew up. It’s a part of the story that had to be told, if its assumptions were to be treated honestly, and it shows that the original movie, which seemed so complete in itself, only gave us a fraction of the full picture. Toy Story 3 is an astonishing achievement on its own terms, but there’s a sense in which it only extends and trades on the previous film’s moment of insight, which turned it into a franchise of almost painful emotional resonance. If comedy is tragedy plus time, the Toy Story series knows that when you add time to comedy, you end up with something startlingly close to tragedy again.

Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II

And thinking about the passage of time is an indispensable trick for creators of series fiction, or for those looking to expand a story’s premise beyond the obvious. Writers of all kinds tend to think in terms of unity of time and place, which means that time itself isn’t a factor in most stories: the action is confined within a safe, manageable scope. Adding more time to the story in either direction has a way of exploding the story’s assumptions, or of exposing fissures that lead to promising conflicts. If The Godfather Part II is more powerful and complex than its predecessor, it’s largely because of its double timeline, which naturally introduces elements of irony and regret that weren’t present in the first movie: the outside world seems to break into the hermetically sealed existence of the Corleones just as the movie itself breaks out of its linear chronology. And the abrupt time jump, which television series from Fargo to Parks and Recreation have cleverly employed, is such a useful way of advancing a story and upending the status quo that it’s become a cliché in itself. Even if you don’t plan on writing more than one story or incorporating the passage of time explicitly into the plot, asking yourself how the characters would change after five or ten years allows you to see whether the story depends on a static, unchanging timeframe. And those insights can only be good for the work.

This also applies to series in which time itself has become a factor for reasons outside anyone’s control. The Force Awakens gains much of its emotional impact from our recognition, even if it’s unconscious, that Mark Hamill is older now than Alec Guinness was in the original, and the fact that decades have gone by both within the story’s universe and in our own world only increases its power. The Star Trek series became nothing less than a meditation on the aging of its own cast. And this goes a long way toward explaining why Toy Story 3 was able to close the narrative circle so beautifully: eleven years had passed since the last movie, and both Andy and his voice actor had grown to adulthood, as had so many of the original film’s fans. (It’s also worth noting that the time element seems to have all but disappeared from the current incarnation of the Toy Story franchise: Bonnie, who owns the toys now, is in no danger of growing up soon, and even if she does, it would feel as if the films were repeating themselves. I’m still optimistic about Toy Story 4, but it seems unlikely to have the same resonance as its predecessors—the time factor has already been fully exploited. Of course, I’d also be glad to be proven wrong.) For a meaningful story, time isn’t a liability, but an asset. And it can lead to discoveries that you didn’t know were possible, but only if you’re willing to play with it.

“A kind of symbolic shorthand…”

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"A kind of symbolic shorthand..."

Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 36. You can read the previous installments here.

When we remember a story after the fact, our minds have a way of producing juxtapositions and connections that weren’t there before. Most fans, for instance, are aware that Kirk and Khan are never in the same place at the same time in Star Trek II, and their only real face-to-face confrontation, courtesy of a viewscreen, consists of a single scene. Still, they’re indelibly associated in our imaginations, certainly more so than the modern incarnations of the same two characters who shared so much screen time in a far less memorable movie. Similarly, in the movie version of L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes says just one line to Bud White—”White, you better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody”—and Bud doesn’t even bother responding. Yet we rightly think of Vincennes and White as two points in the movie’s central triangle, even if they interact largely through the contrasting shapes that they assume in our heads. As I wrote in a post on Legolas and Frodo, who also interact only once over the course of three Lord of the Rings movies: “We think of a novel or movie as a linear work of art that moves from one event to the next, but when we remember the books or films we love the most, even those that follow a strict line of action, we have a way of seeing everything simultaneously, with each piece commenting on every other.” When the book is closed and put back on the shelf, all the pages overlap, and links appear between characters that aren’t really there when the story is experienced as a sequence.

You could also make the case that separating characters can paradoxically result in a closer relationship than if they were physically together. When two characters share a scene, they can’t help but be themselves; when they’re further apart, each one begins to seem like a commentary on the other. Closeness tends to emphasize dissimilarity, while distance stresses the qualities they share. Some movies do this deliberately—like Heat, which keeps Pacino and De Niro separated and invites us to draw the parallels—while others do it by accident. (In L.A. Confidential, it seems to have been a little of both: Vincennes and White simply wouldn’t have much to talk about, and trying to force them into a conversation would have subtly diminished both men.) Movies and books benefit from the way we’ve been taught to read them, in which we assume that two lines of action will eventually converge. It’s a narrative technique as old as the Odyssey, and it can be used to create anticipation and lend structure to the story even if it never quite pays off. The first season of Fargo devoted a lot of time to foreshadowing a confrontation between two characters, played by Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton, that it ultimately didn’t feel like providing. This worked well enough as a strategy to unite a lot of disconnected action, but the second season, which has consisted of a series of immensely entertaining collisions between disparate characters, reminds us of how satisfying this kind of convergence can be if it’s allowed to play out for real.

"I'm not responsible for what you've heard..."

And one of the unsung arts of storytelling lies in drawing out that distance as much as possible without losing the connection. One of the basic rules of visual design is that two elements in a composition, like two dots on a canvas, create a tension in the space between them that didn’t exist before. Elsewhere, I’ve written:

Two dots imply a line…No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story…In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.

The tricky part is the placement. Put your dots too far apart, and they no longer seem related; too close together, and we tend to see them as a single unit. Much the same goes for characters, and it’s no accident that many of the fictional pairings we remember so vividly—like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, or Holmes and Moriarty—consist of two figures who spend most of their time apart, which only adds to the intensity when they meet at last.

I thought about this constantly when I was cracking the plot for Eternal Empire, in which Wolfe mostly keeps her distance from Maddy and Ilya, the two other points in the narrative triangle. Maddy and Ilya eventually converge in a satisfying way, but Wolfe isn’t brought into their story until the very end, and even then, their interactions are minimal. In the case of Maddy, they consist of a voice message and a long conversation in the last chapter of the book; with Ilya, Wolfe has little more than a charged exchange of glances. Yet I think that Wolfe still feels integrated into their stories, and if she does, it was because I devoted a fair amount of energy to maintaining that connection where I could. Wolfe spends a lot of time thinking about Maddy and following her movements, and even more so with Ilya—who also gets to send her a message in return. In Chapter 36, I introduce the concept of the “throw,” a symbolic shorthand used by thieves to send messages. An apple cut in half means that it’s time to divide the loot; a piece of bread wrapped in cloth means that the police are closing in. And when Wolfe finds a knot tied in a dishtowel at the crime scene in Hackney Wick, she realizes that Ilya is saying: I’m not responsible for what you’ve heard. As a narrative device that allows them to communicate under the eyes of Ilya’s enemies, it works nicely. But I also love the idea of a visual symbol that allows two people to speak over a distance, which is exactly what happens in many novels, if not always so explicitly. As Nabokov puts it so beautifully in his notes to Eugene Onegin, which I read while plotting out this trilogy: “There is a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another…”

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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American horror stories

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Colin Farrell on True Detective

As a devoted viewer of the current golden age of television, I sometimes wake up at night haunted by the question: What if the most influential series of the decade turns out to be American Horror Story? I’ve never seen even a single episode of this show, and I’m not exactly a fan of Ryan Murphy. Yet there’s no denying that it provided the catalyst for our growing fascination with the anthology format, in which television shows are treated less as ongoing narratives with no defined conclusion than as self-contained stories, told over the course of a single season, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. And American Horror Story deserves enormous credit for initially keeping this fact under wraps. Until its first season finale aired, it looked for all the world like a conventional series, and Murphy never tipped his hand. As a result, when the season ended by killing off nearly every lead character, critics and audiences reacted with bewilderment, with many wondering how the show could possibly continue. (It’s especially amusing to read Todd VanDerWerff’s writeup on The A.V. Club, which opens by confessing his early hope that this might be an anthology series—”On one level, I knew this sort of blend between the miniseries and the anthology drama would never happen”—and ends with him resignedly trying to figure out what might happen to the Harmon family next year.)

It was only then that Murphy indicated that he would be tackling a different story each season. Even then, it took critics a while to catch on: I even remember some grumbling about the show’s decision to compete in the Best Miniseries category at the Emmys, as if it were some kind of weird strategic choice, when in fact it’s the logical place for a series like this. And at a time when networks seem inclined to spoil everything and anything for the sake of grabbing more viewers, the fact that this was actually kept a secret is a genuine achievement. It allowed the series to take the one big leap—killing off just about everybody—that nobody could have seen coming, but which was utterly consistent with the rules of its game. (It wouldn’t be the first or last time that horror, which has always been a sandbox for quick and dirty experimentation, pointed the way for more reputable genres, but that’s a topic for another post.) The result cleared a path for critical favorites from True Detective to Fargo to operate in a format that offers major advantages: it can draw big names for a limited run, it allows stories to be told over the course of ten tightly structured episodes rather than stretched over twenty or more, it lends itself well to being watched in one huge binge, and it offers viewers the chance for a definitive conclusion.

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey on True Detective

Yet the element of surprise that made the first season of American Horror Story so striking no longer exists. When we’re watching a standard television series, we go into it with a few baseline assumptions: the show may kill off important characters, but it isn’t likely to wipe out most of its cast at once, and it certainly won’t blow up its entire premise. American Horror Story worked because it walked all over those conventions, and it fooled its viewers because it shrewdly kept its big structural conceit a secret. But it reminds me a little of what Daffy Duck said after performing an incredible novelty act that involved blowing himself up with nitroglycerin: “I can only do it once.” With all the anthology series that follow, we know that everything is on the table: there’s no reason for the show to preserve anything at all. And it affects the way we watch these shows, not always to their benefit. During the first season of True Detective, fan speculation spiraled off in increasingly wild directions because we knew that there was no long game to keep the show from being exactly as crazy as it liked. There wasn’t any reason why Cohle or Hart couldn’t be the killer, or that they couldn’t both die, and I spent half the season convinced that Hart’s wife was maybe the Yellow King, if only because she otherwise seemed like just another thankless female character—and that couldn’t be what the show had in mind, could it?

And if viewers seem to have turned slightly against True Detective in retrospect, it’s in part because nothing could have lived up to the more outlandish speculations. It was simply an excellent genre show, without a closing mindblower of a twist, and I liked it just fine. And it’s possible that the second season will benefit from those adjusted expectations, although it has plenty of other obstacles to overcome. 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. Instead of Southern Gothic, its new season feels like an homage to those Los Angeles noirs in which messy human drama plays out against a backdrop of urban development, which encompasses everything from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I’m a little mixed on last night’s premiere: these stories gain much of their power from contrasts between characters, and all the leads here share a common dourness. The episode ends with three haunted cops meeting each other for the first time, but they haven’t been made distinctive enough for that collision to seem particularly exciting. Still, despite some rote storytelling—Colin Farrell’s character is a divorced dad first seen dropping off his son at school, because of course he is—I really, really want it to work. There are countless stories, horror and otherwise, that the anthology format can tell. And this may turn out to be its greatest test yet.

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

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