Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mad Men

The reviewable appliance

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Last week, I quoted the critic Renata Adler, who wrote back in the early eighties: “Television…is clearly not an art but an appliance, through which reviewable material is sometimes played.” Which only indicates how much has changed over the last thirty years, which have seen television not only validated as a reviewable medium, but transformed into maybe the single most widely reviewed art form in existence. Part of this is due to an increase in the quality of the shows themselves: by now, it’s a cliché to say that we’re living in a golden age of television, but that doesn’t make it any less true, until there are almost too many great shows for any one viewer to absorb. As John Landgraf of FX said last year, in a quote that was widely shared in media circles, mostly because it expresses how many of us feel: “There is simply too much television.” There are something like four hundred original scripted series airing these days—which is remarkable in itself, given how often critics have tolled the death knell for scripted content in the face of reality programming—and many are good to excellent. If we’ve learned to respect television as a medium that rewards close scrutiny, it’s largely because there are more worthwhile shows than ever before, and many deserve to be unpacked at length.

There’s also a sense in which shows have consciously risen to that challenge, taking advantage of the fact that there are so many venues for reviews and discussion. I never felt that I’d truly watched an episode of Mad Men until I’d watched Matthew Weiner’s weekly commentary and read the writeup on The A.V. Club, and I suspect that Weiner felt enabled to go for that level of density because the tools for talking about it were there. (To take another example: Mad Style, the fantastic blog maintained by Tom and Lorenzo, came into being because of the incredible work of costume designer Jane Bryant, but Bryant herself seemed to be make certain choices because she knew that they would be noticed and dissected.) The Simpsons is often called the first VCR show—it allowed itself to go for rapid freeze-frame jokes and sign gags because viewers could pause to catch every detail—but these days, we’re more likely to rely on recaps and screen grabs to process shows that are too rich to be fully grasped on a single viewing. I’m occasionally embarrassed when I click on a review and read about a piece of obvious symbolism that I missed the first time around, but you could also argue that I’ve outsourced that part of my brain to the hive mind, knowing that I can take advantage of countless other pairs of eyes.

Danny Pudi and Donald Glover on Community

But the fact that television inspires millions of words of coverage every day can’t be entirely separated from Adler’s description of it an appliance. For reasons that don’t have anything to do with television itself, the cycle of pop culture coverage—like that of every form of news—has continued to accelerate, with readers expecting nonstop content on demand: I’ll refresh a site a dozen times a day to see what has been posted in the meantime. Under those circumstances, reviewers and their editors naturally need a regular stream of material to be discussed, and television fits the bill beautifully. There’s a lot of it, it generates fresh grist for the mill on a daily basis, and it has an existing audience that can be enticed into reading about their favorite shows online. (This just takes a model that had long been used for sports and applies it to entertainment: the idea that every episode of Pretty Little Liars deserves a full writeup isn’t that much more ridiculous than devoting a few hundred words to every baseball game.) One utility piggybacks on the other, and it results in a symbiotic relationship: the shows start to focus on generating social media chatter, which, if not exactly a replacement for ratings, at least becomes an argument for keeping marginal shows like Community alive. And before long, the show itself is on Hulu or Yahoo.

None of this is inherently good or bad, although I’m often irked by the pressure to provide instant hot takes about the latest twist on a hit series, with think pieces covering other think pieces until the snake has eaten its own tail. (The most recent example was the “death” of Glenn on The Walking Dead, a show I don’t even watch, but which I found impossible to escape for three weeks last November.) There’s also an uncomfortable sense in which a television show can become an adjunct to its own media coverage: I found reading about Game of Thrones far more entertaining over the last season than watching the show itself. It’s all too easy to use the glut of detailed reviews as a substitute for the act of viewing: I haven’t watched Halt and Catch Fire, for instance, but I feel as if I have an opinion about it, based solely on the information I’ve picked up by osmosis from the review sites I visit. I sometimes worry that critics and fans have become so adept at live-tweeting episodes that they barely look at the screen, and the concept of hate-watching, of which I’ve been guilty myself, wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have plenty of ways to publicly express our contempt. It’s a slippery slope from there to losing the ability to enjoy good storytelling for its own sake. And we need to be aware of this. Because we’re lucky to be living in an era of so much great television—and we ought to treat it as something more than a source of hot and cold running reviews.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2016 at 7:59 am

Revenge of the list

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his memoir The View From the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose…”

We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

“She had been presented with one setback after another…”

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"She had been presented with one setback after another..."

Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 30. You can read the previous installments here.

Aside from a handful of striking exceptions, a novel is a linear form of storytelling, designed to be read in sequence from first page to last. Yet writers are irresistibly drawn to metaphors from the visual arts to describe what they do, in part because they naturally think in terms of the shape of the work as a whole. As readers, when we refer to a novel as a tapestry or a mosaic, it’s less about our experience of it in the moment than the impression it creates over time. This shape is impossible to describe, but when we’re finished with the story, we can sort of hold it in our heads, at least temporarily. It reminds me a little of Borges’s definition of the divine mind:

The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The divine mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.

One of the pleasures of a perfectly constructed work of fiction is that it allows us to feel, however briefly, what it might be like to see life as a whole. And although the picture grows dim once we’ve put down the book and picked up another, we’re often left with a sense of the book as a complex shape that somehow exists all at once.

It’s tempting to divide books into groups based on the visual metaphors that come most readily to mind. There are stories that feel like a seamless piece of fabric, which may be the oldest analogy for fiction that we have: the words text and textile emerge from the same root. Other stories gain most of their power from the juxtaposition of individual pieces. They remind us of a mosaic, or, in modern terms, a movie assembled from many distinct pieces of film, so that the combination of two shots creates information that neither one had in isolation. The choice between one strategy or another is often a function of length or point of view. A short novel told with a single strong voice will often feel like a continuous whole, as The Great Gatsby does, while a story that shifts between perspectives and styles, like one of Faulkner’s novels, seems more like a collection of pieces. And it’s especially interesting when one mode blurs into the other. Ian McEwan’s Atonement begins as a model of seamless storytelling, with a diverse cast of characters united by a smooth narrative voice, but it abruptly switches to the juxtaposition strategy halfway through. And sometimes a mosaic can be rendered so finely that it comes back around to fabric again. In his review of Catch-22, which is essentially a series of comic juxtapositions, Norman Mailer observed: “It reminds one of a Jackson Pollock painting eight feet high, twenty feet long. Like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere.”

"Wolfe spoke up at last..."

My own work can be neatly categorized by length: my short stories do their best to unfold as a continuous stream of action, while my novels proceed by the method of juxtaposition, intercutting between three or more stories. I’ve spoken before of how deeply influenced I’ve been by the book and movie of L.A. Confidential, which cut so beautifully between multiple protagonists, and I’ve followed that model almost to a fault. From a writer’s point of view, this approach offers clear advantages, as well as equally obvious pitfalls. Each subplot should be compelling in itself, but they all gain an additional level of interest by being set against the others, and the ability to cut between stories allows you to achieve effects of rhythm or contrast that would be hard to achieve with a single narrative thread. At the same time, there’s a danger that the structure of the overall story—with its logic of intercutting—will produce scenes that don’t justify their existence on their own. You can see both extremes on television shows with big ensemble casts. Mad Men handled those changes beautifully: within each episode’s overarching plot, there were numerous self-contained scenes that could have been presented in any order, and much of their fun and power emerged from Matthew Weiner’s arrangement of those vignettes. Conversely, on Game of Thrones, there are countless scenes that seem to be there solely to remind us that a certain character exists. The show grasps the grammar of intercutting, but not the language, and it’s no accident that many of its best episodes were the ones that focused exclusively on one location.

And I haven’t been immune to the hazards of multiple plots, or the way they can impose themselves on the logic of the story. When I read Chapter 30 of Eternal Empire, for instance, I have trouble remembering why it seemed necessary. Nothing much happens here: Wolfe interrogates a suspect, but gets no useful information, and you could lift out the entire chapter without affecting the rest of the plot whatsoever. It’s been a long time since I wrote it, but I have the uneasy feeling that I inserted a chapter here solely for structural reasons—I needed a pause in Maddy and Ilya’s stories, and Wolfe hadn’t had a scene for a while, so I had to give her something to do without advancing the story past the point where the other subplots had to be. (I can almost see myself with a stack of notecards, shuffling and rearranging them only to realize that I needed a chapter here to avoid upsetting the structure elsewhere.) I did my best to inject the scene with whatever interest I could, mostly by making the interrogation scene as amusing as possible, but frankly, it doesn’t work. In the end, the best thing I can say about this chapter is that it’s short, and if I had the chance to write this novel all over again, I’d either find a way to cut it or, more likely, revise it to advance the story in a more meaningful way. There’s nothing wrong with having a chapter serve as a pause in the action, and if nothing else, the next stretch of chapters is pretty strong. But as it stands, this is less a real chapter than a blank space created by the places where the other parts meet. And I wish I’d come up with a slightly better piece…

In praise of mediocrity

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David Duchovny on "The X-Files"

Over the last few nights, I’ve been revisiting select episodes from the first season of The X-Files, which was quietly released in high definition earlier this year on Netflix. I started with “Ice,” a germinal effort that still ranks among the best four or five classic casefiles the show ever did, and I was happy to see that it played as well as always. Purists might object to the alterations to the original image, but it looked fantastic to me, and there were only a few moments when I noticed any change in the formatting. It helps that the story sucked me in completely: in terms of pure efficiency, few if any hours of television have ever gotten down to business so quickly. (“Pusher,” the sophomore effort by a young writer named Vince Gilligan, is still my favorite episode of the series, but “Ice” isn’t far behind.) Yesterday, though, when I queued up “Fire,” another installment that I remembered fondly, I discovered that it didn’t hold up as well. My memories of it were colored by a handful of fun guest performances—Mark Sheppard, Amanda Pays, and a nice little vignette by Duncan Fraser as an arson investigator—that still land nicely. Elsewhere, though, the storytelling creaks, and the budgetary limitations of a freshman drama on Fox are woefully apparent, with a roaring hotel inferno represented by a single flame glimpsed from around the corner.

Yet I still enjoyed it. Part of this is due to nostalgia: “Fire” was one of the first episodes of the show I ever saw, and watching it immediately takes me twenty years back in time. But its sheer mediocrity was also endearing. At its best, The X-Files was responsible for some of the greatest episodes of television ever produced—the ones I’ve mentioned above, the four installments written by Darin Morgan, and a handful of other standouts—but it also ground along for season after season with aliens, conspiracies, and miscellaneous boogiemen that failed to make any impression. All the while, the chemistry between the two leads kept things interesting, and there aren’t many episodes from the first five seasons that don’t have flashes of wit and invention. A little mediocrity was to be expected from a series that altered its setting, its supporting cast, and even its tone from week to week, and you could say that the breathing room the middling stories provided made the high water marks possible. And even the more forgettable casefiles are fun. At this point, I’ve long since sucked all the pulp from “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” so there’s something enticing about going back to revisit, say, “Lazarus” or “Born Again,” which is nothing more to me than a name.

The X-Files episode "Ice"

You could even argue that a touch of mediocrity deserves to be a part of any balanced diet, for both creators and audiences, whether it’s in books, movies, or television. I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with someone who read nothing but volumes of the Great Books of the Western World or watched nothing but films from the Sight & Sound poll, any more than someone who had no interest in them at all. If we love great art, as Pauline Kael observed, we need to learn to love great junk as well, or, failing that, at least to appreciate an hour’s diversion on its own merits. Anything else leads to snobbism, cynicism, or worse. There’s something to be said for works of art that leave us untouched, since they allow us to live unimpeded with our own thoughts, while leaving open the possibility of pleasant surprises. As the critic Christopher Morley once wrote:

There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what may perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

Morley, a legendary scholar of Arthur Conan Doyle, knew the value of mediocrity well. Of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, perhaps a third benefit from constant rereading; another third are fine but unexceptional; and the last third are best forgotten except by completists. Conan Doyle, who could be seen as the showrunner and sole creative force behind the most lasting procedural series of them all, wrote so many stories that it’s unrealistic to expect all of them to be great. The fact that the best of them, from “Silver Blaze” to “The Red-Headed League,” merely rearrange the standard components into a more perfect form suggests that it was his sheer volume of work that enabled the outliers. If Conan Doyle had sought only to produce masterpieces, we might not have any of these stories at all—and certainly not efforts like “The Reigate Squires” or “The Beryl Coronet,” which may not be standouts, but which provide undeniable comfort on a long winter’s evening. And although most of us don’t devour short detective stories on a regular basis these days, their place has been amply filled by television, which depends on a certain dose of mediocrity to survive. A few select shows, like Mad Men, have managed to deliver nothing but high points, but that can be exhausting in itself. Otherwise, it’s best to keep the words of Shostakovich in mind: “The real geniuses know where their writing has to be good and where they can get away with some mediocrity.”

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2015 at 10:12 am

How to say goodbye

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Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Spoilers follow for Mad Men, The Vampire Diaries, and Game of Thrones.

Earlier this month, in the span of less than a week, I said goodbye to three television shows that had been part of my life for a long time. One farewell, to Mad Men, was an involuntary one, forced by its series finale; the others, to The Vampire Diaries and Game of Thrones, were a matter of choice. And while my decision to bail on the latter two might seem to have clear reasons—namely a major cast change and a repellent scene of sexual violence—it was really more gradual and complicated. When we fall out of love with a show, it’s often like the end of any relationship, where it can be hard to pinpoint the moment when it all went wrong. In many cases, as with Glee, I can barely remember when or why I stopped watching. And even a more obvious trigger might only catalyze a growing sense of disillusionment. At first glance, it might seem that I gave up on The Vampire Diaries because Nina Dobrev, its ostensible lead, was leaving, or that I’m abandoning Game of Thrones because of what it did to Sansa Stark and how it did it. Really, though, I’m bowing out because of a calculation, reluctant in one case and decisive in the other, that neither show is the best use of my limited time. An isolated scene or cast departure isn’t likely to send viewers packing if a series remains rewarding in other ways. But in both cases, sadly, the shows made my choice an easy one.

This becomes all the more clear when we compare it to a show that I loved and savored until the very end. The last scene of Mad Men is fiendishly clever, almost a little too clever, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am at how perfectly it encapsulates everything the series, and particularly the character of Don Draper, has been building toward for years. Matthew Weiner hit on the one perfect image that both tied a bow on the story and raised countless questions of its own, and it works because of how deeply he understood and identified with Don himself. And it looks even better next to The Vampire Diaries, which muddled through Elena Gilbert’s endgame precisely because it never quite figured out who she was. Elena, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine, but after season after season of personality changes, possessions, and memory wipes—and the inexplicable choices she made just because the story demanded it—we were left with an empty shell. (It’s no accident that Elena is sidelined for most of her own last episode, asleep in a magical coma while the real action unfolds everywhere else.) And if I’m bidding farewell to a show I once really liked, it isn’t because I’ll miss Elena so much, but because a series that can’t decide what to do with its protagonist doesn’t seem likely to make smart choices once she’s gone.

Sophie Turner and Iwan Rheon on Game of Thrones

Any series that runs for an extended length of time will experience a few bumpy transitions, and the real issue is less about any one development than about whether the show can be trusted thereafter to pay back our investment. This is what makes the case of Game of Thrones so interesting, and ultimately so sad. What many of its defenders fail to recognize is that the issue isn’t a rape scene in itself, but its presentation, its context, and what it says about the narrative strategy—or lack thereof—of the series as a whole. For its first two seasons, this was an uneven but masterfully paced show that burned quickly through plots and knew how to balance subversion with payoffs. Later, perhaps as the showrunners realized that they were coming too rapidly to the end of the material in the books, it began, for lack of a better word, to stall: long stretches of inaction or reversions to the same few beats were punctuated by the “Oh, shit” moments that were the only way it knew to hold our attention. Even a year ago, this pattern was becoming grindingly obvious, and using Sansa’s rape as an episode’s punchline only confirmed how mechanical, even lazy, the approach had grown. In particular, the fact that the show’s writers thought that it was a good idea to capitalize on it, after a similar scene had aroused such outrage the previous season, implies that they’re either clueless or don’t care. And neither possibility fills me with much hope that this show will continue to be worth watching.

It all boils down, as I said before, to a question of trust. A show with any narrative ambition asks for some degree of patience from its viewers: when we don’t know where a story is going, we can only hope that we’re in good hands. Game of Thrones has slowly been squandering that goodwill for a long time, and last week’s episode eliminated what little remained. It’s a show that no longer seems to remember that a subversion of the viewer’s expectations can only be justified if the payoff is greater than if it had been played straight, and for too long, this series has been all subversion and stasis without any reward. (Even if Sansa’s arc is “going somewhere,” as I’m sure the writers would insist, it’s a basic mistake to put the scene of her wedding night at the end of an episode, without any sense of what comes next, which leaves us with nothing to anticipate except whether our time would be better spent catching up with old episodes of Deadwood.) I honestly don’t know how I might have reacted to the scene if this season of Game of Thrones had been consistently fantastic, any more than I know if I’d still be watching The Vampire Diaries in Elena Gilbert’s absence if the show had maintained its quality from its height. Both had a good run, but in the end, they lost the narrative trust that Mad Men maintained up to its final minute. And it’s why I watched one show to the very end, and I’m saying goodbye to the others now.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2015 at 10:16 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.

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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