Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Netflix

Stranger in the same land

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Stranger Things

Note: Spoilers follow for Stranger Things.

One of the first images we see on the television show Stranger Things is a poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing. (In fact, it’s only as I type this now that it occurs to me that the title of the series, which premiered earlier this summer on Netflix, might be an homage as well.) It’s hanging in the basement of one of the main characters, a twelve year old named Mike, who is serving as the Dungeon Master of a roleplaying campaign with three of his best friends. You can see the poster in the background for most of the scene, and in a later episode, two adults watch the movie at home, oblivious to the fact that a monster from another dimension is stalking the inhabitants of their town in Indiana. Not surprisingly, I was tickled to see my favorite story by John W. Campbell featured so prominently here: Campbell wrote “Who Goes There?” back in 1937, and the fact that it’s still a reference point for a series like this, almost eighty years later, is astounding. Yet apart from these two glimpses, The Thing doesn’t have much in common with Stranger Things. The former is set in a remote Antarctic wasteland in which no one is what he seems; the latter draws from a different tradition in science fiction, with gruesome events emerging from ordinary, even idyllic, surroundings, and once we’ve identified all the players, everything is more or less exactly what it appears to be. It flirts with paranoia, but it’s altogether cozy, even reassuring, in how cleverly it gives us just what we expect.

That said, Stranger Things is very good at achieving what it sets out to do. The date of the opening scene is November 6, 1983, and once Mike’s best friend Will is pulled by a hideous creature into a parallel universe, the show seems determined to reference every science fiction or fantasy movie of the previous five years. Its most obvious touchstones are E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there are touches of The Fury as well, and even shades of Stephen King. (Will’s older brother, played by Charlie Heaton, looks eerily like a young King, and the narrative sometimes feels like an attempt to split the difference between Firestarter and It.) Visually, it goes past even Super 8 in its meticulous reconstruction of the look and feel of early Steven Spielberg, and the lighting and cinematography are exquisitely evocative of its source. The characters and situations are designed to trigger our memories, too, and the series gets a lot of mileage out of recombining the pieces: we’re invited to imagine the kids from The Goonies going after whatever was haunting the house in Poltergeist, with a young girl with psychokinetic powers taking the place of E.T. As Will’s mother, Winona Ryder initially comes off as a combination of the Melinda Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss characters from Close Encounters—she’s frantic at Will’s disappearance, but she also develops an intriguing streak of obsession, hanging up holiday lights in her house and watching them flicker in hopes of receiving a message from her missing son. And it can be fun to see these components slide into place.

Winona Ryder on Stranger Things

It’s only when the characters are asked to stand for something more than their precursors that the series starts to falter. Ryder’s character doesn’t develop after the first couple of episodes, and she keeps hitting the same handful of notes. Once the players have been established, they don’t act in ways that surprise us or push against the roles that they’ve been asked to embody, and most of the payoffs are telegraphed well in advance. The only adult character who really sticks in the mind is the police chief played by David Harbour, and that’s due less to the writing than to Harbour’s excellent work as a rock-solid archetype. Worst of all, the show seems oddly uncertain about what to do with its kids, who should be the main attraction. They all look great with their bikes and walkie-talkies, and Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin is undeniably endearing—he’s the show’s only entirely successful character. But they spend too much time squabbling among themselves, when a story like this really demands that they present a unified front against the adult world. For the most part, the interpersonal subplots do nothing but mark time: we don’t know enough about the characters to be invested in their conflicts or romances, and far too many scenes play like a postponement of the real business at hand. Any story about the paranormal is going to have one character trying to get the others to believe, but it’s all in service of the moment when they put their differences aside. When everyone teams up on Stranger Things, it’s satisfying, but it occurs just one episode before the finale, and before we have a chance to absorb or enjoy it, it’s over.

And part of the problem, I think, is that Stranger Things tells the kind of story that might have been better covered in two hours, rather than eight. When I go back and watch the Spielberg films that the series is trying to evoke, what strikes me first is an unusual absence of human conflict. In both Close Encounters and E.T., the shadowy government operatives turn out to be unexpectedly benevolent, and the worst villains we see are monsters of venality, like the councilmen who keep the beaches open in Jaws or the developers who build on a graveyard in Poltergeist. For the most part, the characters are too busy dealing with the wonders or terrors on display to fight among themselves. In The Goonies, the kids are arguing all the time, like the crew in Jaws, but it never slows down the plot: they keep stumbling into new set pieces. It’s a strategy that works fine for a movie, in which the glow of the images and situations is enough to carry us to the climax, but a season of television can’t run on that battery alone. As a result, Stranger Things feels obliged to bring in conflicts that will keep the wheels turning, even if it lessens the appeal of the whole. The men in black are anonymous bad guys, full stop, and the show isn’t above using them to pad an episode’s body count, with the psychokinetic girl Eleven snapping their necks with her mind. (I kept expecting her to simply blow up the main antagonist, as Amy Irving—Spielberg’s future wife—did to John Cassavetes in The Fury, and I was half right.) Sustaining a sense of awe or dread over multiple episodes would have been a much harder trick than getting the lighting just right. And the strangest thing about Stranger Things is that it makes us think it might have been possible.

Peak television and the future of stardom

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Earlier this week, I devoured the long, excellent article by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez of Vulture on the business of peak television. It’s full of useful insights and even better gossip—and it names plenty of names—but there’s one passage that really caught my eye, in a section about the huge salaries that movie stars are being paid to make the switch to the small screen:

A top agent defends the sums his clients are commanding, explaining that, in the overall scheme of things, the extra money isn’t all that significant. “Look at it this way,” he says. “If you’re Amazon and you’re going to launch a David E. Kelley show, that’s gonna cost $4 million an episode [to produce], right? That’s $40 million. You can have Bradley Whitford starring in it, [who is] gonna cost you $150,000 an episode. That’s $1.5 million of your $40 million. Or you could spend another $3.5 million [to get Costner] on what will end up being a $60 million investment by the time you market and promote it. You can either spend $60 [million] and have the Bradley Whitford show, or $63.5 [million] and have the Kevin Costner show. It makes a lot of sense when you look at it that way.”

With all due apologies to Bradley Whitford, I found this thought experiment fascinating, and not just for the reasons that the agent presumably shared it. It implies, for one thing, that television—which is often said to be overtaking Hollywood in terms of quality—is becoming more like feature filmmaking in another respect: it’s the last refuge of the traditional star. We frequently hear that movie stardom is dead and that audiences are drawn more to franchises than to recognizable faces, so the fact that cable and streaming networks seem intensely interested in signing film stars, in a post-True Detective world, implies that their model is different. Some of it may be due to the fact, as William Goldman once said, that no studio executive ever got fired for hiring a movie star: as the new platforms fight to establish themselves, it makes sense that they’d fall back on the idea of star power, which is one of the few things that corporate storytelling has ever been able to quantify or understand. It may also be because the marketing strategy for television inherently differs from that for film: an online series is unusually dependent on media coverage to stand out from the pack, and signing a star always generates headlines. Or at least it once did. (The Vulture article notes that Woody Allen’s new series for Amazon “may end up marking peak Peak TV,” and it seems a lot like a deal that was made for the sake of the coverage it would produce.)

Kevin Costner in JFK

But the most plausible explanation lies in simple economics. As the article explains, Netflix and the other streaming companies operate according to a “cost-plus” model: “Rather than holding out the promise of syndication gold, the company instead pays its studio and showrunner talent a guaranteed up-front profit—typically twenty or thirty percent above what it takes to make a show. In exchange, it owns all or most of the rights to distribute the show, domestically and internationally.” This limits the initial risk to the studio, but also the potential upside: nobody involved in producing the show itself will see any money on the back end. In addition, it means that even the lead actors of the series are paid a flat dollar amount, which makes them a more attractive investment than they might be for a movie. Most of the major stars in Hollywood earn gross points, which means that they get a cut of the box office receipts before the film turns a profit—a “first dollar” deal that makes the mathematics of breaking even much more complicated. The thought experiment about Bradley Whitford and Kevin Costner only makes sense if you can get Costner at a fixed salary per episode. In other words, movie stars are being actively courted by television because its model is a throwback to an earlier era, when actors were held under contract by a studio without any profit participation, and before stars and their agents negotiated better deals that ended up undermining the economic basis of the star system entirely.

And it’s revealing that Costner, of all actors, appears in this example. His name came up mostly because multiple sources told Vulture that he was offered $500,000 per episode to star in a streaming series: “He passed,” the article says, “but industry insiders predict he’ll eventually say ‘yes’ to the right offer.” But he also resonates because he stands for a kind of movie stardom that was already on the wane when he first became famous. It has something to do with the quintessentially American roles that he liked to play—even JFK is starting to seem like the last great national epic—and an aura that somehow kept him in leading parts two decades after his career as a major star was essentially over. That’s weirdly impressive in itself, and it testifies to how intriguing a figure he remains, even if audiences aren’t likely to pay to see him in a movie. Whenever I think of Costner, I remember what the studio executive Mike Medavoy once claimed to have told him right at the beginning of his career:

“You know,” I said to him over lunch, “I have this sense that I’m sitting here with someone who is going to become a great big star. You’re going to want to direct your own movies, produce your own movies, and you’re going to end up leaving your wife and going through the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle.”

Costner did, in fact, end up leaving his first wife. And if he also leaves film for television, even temporarily, it may reveal that “the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle” has a surprising final act that few of us could have anticipated.

Written by nevalalee

May 27, 2016 at 9:03 am

The whole truth

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Making a Murderer

Like seemingly everybody else I know, I recently worked my way through all ten hours of Making a Murderer on Netflix. It’s a compelling series, but as I neared the end, I had the sinking feeling that it wasn’t going to persuade me that Steven Avery, its primary subject, had been framed by the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department for the murder of Teresa Halbach. This wasn’t because the documentary itself didn’t mount a reasonably convincing case: if you’re just watching the show in isolation, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. Once you start poking around online, however, you quickly learn that the filmmakers failed to include evidence that was unfavorable to their thesis, which subtly undermines their whole argument. And the curious thing is that this might not have been true if they had presented it in two hours, instead of ten. It’s easier to forgive the omission of important information if you feel that the work in question is operating under real time constraints: it isn’t always possible to cover every last detail. But this is a show that finds time for plenty of other byways, some of them of questionable taste or relevance—as in its endless scenes of the murder victim’s outraged brother talking to the press, which have the effect of making a totally blameless man seem like a villain. As a result, its lack of full disclosure feels less like a consequence of tough calls in the editing room than a deliberate attempt to slant the issue.

I’m not taking a stand here on Avery’s actual guilt or innocence, since attempting to unpack the details and contradictions of this case amounts to an endless rabbit hole of its own. And I’m not opposed to the show’s argument; I’m just unpersuaded by it. Ultimately, though, I’m more interested in how the show undermines itself, not through what it says, but through two related structural problems: its inordinate length and the easy access that viewers have to information from other sources. The filmmakers must have known that much of the show’s audience would quickly turn to Wikipedia to fill in the blanks, and they probably also suspected that think pieces, hot takes, and rebuttals would sprout up around the series like mushrooms. In that light, the combination of the show’s runtime and its omission of potentially damning evidence—like the fact that genetic material from Avery’s perspiration was found on the hood latch of the victim’s car—isn’t just a tactical mistake, but an aesthetic one. If the show had noted these details, even if it didn’t try to refute them, it would have exposed a weakness in its argument, but at least it would have been localized. Failing to mention them at all has the effect of clouding every other point the series tries to make: we can’t help but wonder what else has been left out, assuming that we’ve spent more than ten minutes looking into the case online. And a lot of viewers have.

Serial

Which raises a larger point about a media environment in which such topics can be treated at a greater length than ever before. As soon as a work passes a certain runtime, it begins to implicitly make a case for its own comprehensiveness, and it becomes harder to defend it from charges that any gaps are either serious artistic mistakes or deliberate omissions. (This applies to more than just matters of fact. Both Making a Murderer and Serial, which draws out its story in a similar fashion, suffer from a lack of attention to the victims of their crimes, who are the most unambiguously tragic figures in both stories. It certainly wasn’t for lack of time, and probably not lack of material, either, given the willingness of both works to spin endless minutes of content from the most gossamer of threads. And it’s a flaw that becomes more glaring the longer the narrative lasts.) It might even be possible to pinpoint when, exactly, a story’s length starts to become a liability. The Jinx lasts for six hours, but it’s admirably free of filler, which makes it easier to argue that certain aspects were left undeveloped because there wasn’t any room—which wouldn’t be the case if it ran for a few hours more. Much the same applies to longform journalism: I don’t doubt that the reaction against “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” would have been just as negative if it had been eight hundred words long, rather than twelve thousand, but its length makes its distortions and blind spots even harder to forgive.

And this means that writers and filmmakers need to be very careful with the gift they’ve been given of their audience’s extended attention span. Viewers who might never even consider sitting through the nine hours of Shoah in theaters—as I did in Chicago a few years ago—are willing to devote twice that to a podcast, but that investment of time demands a correspondingly rigorous level of credibility. (As it happens, Shoah itself is one of the few documentaries of that length that makes no claim to completeness: its long stretches of silence, its pauses, and its attention to the process of testimony and translation remind us of how its subject is too big for any one work to adequately explore.) This standard may seem unrealistically high, but journalists and documentarians need to take it into account, especially when it’s combined with the access their viewers have to other sources. Nothing stands on its own any more, which means, paradoxically, that works of nonfiction above a certain length have to strive to be even more comprehensive if we’re going to take them seriously. The converse also holds true: if you need to omit certain inconvenient details to make your case, you’re better off framing it in as brief a space as possible. Making a Murderer evidently has its heart in the right place, and it managed to persuade a lot of people. In fundamental ways, much of it may turn out to be correct. But it would have done better by Steven Avery, and Teresa Haibach, if it had devoted a fraction of those ten hours to raising the questions that would have come up anyway.

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2016 at 9:51 am

Posted in Television

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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.

Exactly the right number of cooks

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Too Many Cooks

By now, many of you have probably already seen, and can’t unsee, “Too Many Cooks.” If not, you can watch it here, and I’ll wait until you’re done. For those who can’t be bothered—and I don’t entirely blame you—I should explain that it’s a viral video, written by Casper Kelly, which starts out as a savage takedown of insipid sitcom opening titles from the likes of Family Matters and Full House, only to evolve gradually into something much darker and weirder. I’m not going to even try analyzing it here; there are already plenty of think pieces that cheerfully read too much into it. (I’m looking at you, Todd VanDerWerff.) But I will say that it feels both utterly insane and strangely inevitable, like watching all of Mulholland Drive in the span of eleven minutes. It isn’t perfect, and the quality of the parody varies considerably, but there’s a reason why it’s making so many heads explode. As Dave Sims writes in The Atlantic: “It’s the classic anti-comedy premise of taking so long with something that it goes from being funny, to being not very funny, to being boring, to suddenly becoming hilarious again.”

In other words, it’s a rake gag, which is partially true, although this really only explains the first few minutes. “Too Many Cooks” is a lot of things, but it’s also a sketch engaged in a constant dialogue with its own length, as well as the viewer’s expectations of how long a joke like this can be sustained. Sims goes on to point out—with a nod to his colleague Joe Reid—that “Too Many Cooks” would work even better if the video didn’t have that little timer at the bottom, telling you how long it had left to run. It would work beautifully, for instance, as a short subject before a midnight movie, maybe Mulholland Drive itself. In fact, that’s more or less how it originally aired, as part of Adult Swim‘s infomercial block, which unleashes odd, self-contained sketches on unsuspecting viewers at four in the morning. And what interests me the most about it, at least from a writer’s perspective, is how its strangest and most memorable qualities naturally arise from the format in which it was first presented. It acquired a new life online, but it came out of television, and it’s as a piece of television that it can best be understood.

Marc Farley in Too Many Cooks

A few days ago, on Reddit, writer Casper Kelly shared the following story about how the short was conceived:

I think it was a shower idea—just simply the idea of a show sitcom [sic] open that doesn’t stop. It made me laugh. But I didn’t think it could work for eleven minutes so I didn’t do anything with it. Then my coworker Jim Fortier (Squidbillies) told the idea to Mike Lazzo (head of Adult Swim) at a party and he laughed. So I decided to go for it. I told Mike I wasn’t sure it could work for eleven minutes—just adding actors. Mike said even Andy Kaufman would only do that for about four minutes—and then I needed to start zigging and zagging. He was right.

Which highlights a crucial, easily overlooked detail: nearly every informercial that Adult Swim airs is exactly eleven minutes long, give or take thirty seconds or so. If “Too Many Cooks” had been conceived from the beginning as an online video, without any length restrictions, Kelly might have been content to stick with his original four-minute conception, and the result would have looked a lot like the superficially similar sketch from MADtv that failed to set the world on fire.

Instead, Kelly was forced to think harder to fill the space he had, and the constraints of the format with which he was presented took him into increasingly demented, and inspired, places. In a way, it’s an inversion of the phenomenon that I’ve discussed here before with regard to television, in which fixed network timeslots force creators to deal with less room, not more. As I wrote then: “For most shows, though, the episodic format provides a useful set of constraints…It’s a force for selection, compression, and external structure, all of which a series discards at its own peril.” When a show lacks those boundaries, as we often see with Netflix Originals, the result can seem sloppy or overlong. And while shorter is generally better than longer, “Too Many Cooks” proves that even the opposite constraint can push the material into interesting directions, as the writer stretches himself further than he would have if left to his own devices. It’s like structure in poetry, in which a poet often has to fill out a thought to make it to the end of a line or stanza. Sometimes, this leads to simple padding, and not even “Too Many Cooks” is entirely exempt. But it’s still a valuable lesson. In fiction or film, you can do anything you like, but it’s only when you give up some of your freedom that you learn what “anything” really means.

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November 12, 2014 at 9:01 am

The fifty-minute hour

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Elizabeth Moss on Mad Men

Watching the premiere of Mad Men last night, I was struck by how nice it is to follow a series where there isn’t any danger of anyone being disemboweled. Don’t get me wrong: I love Hannibal and Game of Thrones, and violence, properly used, is just another tool in the storyteller’s arsenal. In retrospect, though, I’ve realized that much of my television diet over the last year has consisted of shows that gain much of their narrative power from bloodshed or sex. The Vampire Diaries, which probably has the highest body count of them all, likes to treat a broken neck or a beheading as a punchline, and even shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, where violence is doled out more sparingly, lean heavily on other kinds of graphic imagery. These are all good shows—well, maybe not House of Cards—and I’ve enjoyed watching them all. But it makes me all the more grateful for a show like Mad Men, which exists within the limitations of basic cable and often dials down the intensity even further, to the point where its drama consists of a lingering glance, a chance encounter, or a charged silence. As it happens, this Sunday’s premiere was its lowest-rated in five seasons, which may be a reflection of how much the television landscape has changed: set against its peers, Man Men can start to seem sedate, almost somnolescent.

Still, this kind of slow-drip pacing can be intoxicating in itself, but only if it’s given enough room to breathe, which is part of the reason why I found this season premiere less satisfying than usual. As many of you probably know, AMC has divided the final season into two segments, with the first seven episodes airing this year and the back half held until 2015. The decision makes good economic sense—with Breaking Bad gone, the network doesn’t want to lose both of its flagship shows in succession—but it’s frustrating to viewers, as well as problematic for the show’s narrative. For the past few seasons, Mad Men has premiered with a double episode, which gives it ninety full minutes to immerse us again in its world, mood, and enormous cast. Given the shortened run, the decision was evidently made to keep the latest premiere to the standard length, allowing the season to be parceled out over seven weeks. Unfortunately, it leaves us with an episode that feels like half a loaf. I have a feeling it will hold up better in retrospect than it does on first viewing; Mad Men has long been about cumulative energy, with countless small moments that need time and reflection to pay off. All the same, it was always nice to get an extra helping at the beginning of a season, which allowed scenes and arcs to cohere a little more on their way to the deep dive. And I miss it.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Which raises the issue of how length subconsciously influences our perceptions of television shows, both in its orderly format and in its deviations from the norm. A few months ago, Scott Meslow of The Week argued that Netflix wasn’t fully exploiting the possibilities of the streaming format, which in theory allows shows to be arbitrarily any length at all:

Someone could create a show where one episode is 75 minutes long, and the next episode is 15 minutes long. Someone could decide to release one episode every week, or every month, or every holiday—or at random, turning every new installment into a welcome surprise. Someone could release every episode of a series but the finale, then hold that finale back for six months—turning its premiere into a buzzy event that will be simultaneously shared by all its viewers.

Up to a point, that’s an intriguing suggestion, and I’d be excited to see a series that found a logical, organic reason for telling a story in such unconventional ways. For most shows, though, the episodic format provides a useful set of constraints that go far beyond the logistics of packaging and international markets. It’s a force for selection, compression, and external structure, all of which a series discards at its own peril. As it stands, I’d argue that Netflix is a little too flexible in this regard: nearly every episode of the fourth season of Arrested Development ran long, and I’m not alone in feeling that the result would have been better if Mitch Hurwitz had cut it to fit within twenty-five minutes.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for departures, but that the exceptions have more impact when they build on a baseline. Episodes in a television series, like chapters in a novel, are structural conventions that originated to fill a practical need, then evolved over time in the hands of artists to provide a means of delivering narrative information. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s no real reason why novels need to be divided into chapters, but the shape provided by section breaks, areas of white space, and the rhythm of titles and epigraphs is a tool that clever writers know how to exploit. The same applies to episode lengths. We know approximately how long a given installment of a particular television show will last, which affects how we watch it, especially near the end of an episode. When a show pushes against those expectations, it can be great, but a narrow range of variation is all we need: Game of Thrones, for instance, does just fine with a window between fifty minutes and an hour. And the best unit of narrative is still the episode, which can be used as a building block to create surprising shapes, like the uniform tatami mats in Japanese houses. I wish Mad Men had followed its own precedent and given us two such pieces side by side for the premiere, but I’m still glad to know that each episode that follows will look more or less the same on the outside, with endless variations within.

Netflix Originals and the loss of constraints

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Arrested Development

The history of television has always been one of confronting, exploiting, and finally eliminating constraints. In half a century, we’ve gone from live monochrome broadcasts to widescreen color in high definition, often with production values approaching those of theatrical releases. Cable television has eased restrictions on adult content, language, and violence, and although this hasn’t always been a good thing, many shows have used these freedoms to astonishing effect. And the widespread availability of recording devices, both legal and otherwise, have allowed shows to reach unprecedented levels of narrative density: it’s no accident that the golden years of The Simpsons coincided with the presence of a VCR in every home. Until recently, however, two big constraints remained in place. Most shows are still parceled out gradually, usually on a weekly basis, and they’re required to fit into convenient whole- or half-hour increments. With commercials, that translates to just over twenty minutes for most network sitcoms and forty minutes for dramas, and that number has steadily shrunk over the last few decades. Even on cable, shows are rarely allowed to spill beyond the edges of their assigned timeslots.

Netflix Originals has changed this, of course, and to watch the entire runs of House of Cards and the fourth season of Arrested Development is to be reminded that for every constraint we overcome, there’s usually a loss as well as a gain, at least until storytellers figure out how to use the tools they’ve been given. To their credit, the creators of both series have thought deeply about the possibilities of this new delivery system, which gives viewers access to the entire season at once and allows episodes, at least in theory, to be any length at all. In both cases, episodes are conceived as chapters that aren’t meant to stand on their own, leading to some curious narrative choices. House of Cards has a way of introducing characters and subplots with slow, talky scenes that don’t have any particular relevance to the episodes in which they appear, while Arrested Development sets up clues and puzzle pieces for gags that won’t pay off until near the end of the season, if they ever do. Unfortunately, the execution hasn’t always been up to the level of the conception: House of Cards is often a poorly written show, at least compared to its gorgeous technical merits, and Arrested Development is clearly struggling with limits of cast availability and budget, leading to an incohesive, often frustrating whole.

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Still, there’s something genuinely exciting about the idea of television seasons that are written, shot, and edited as a single unit, and I’m interested in seeing what else Mitch Hurwitz can do with the form: Arrested Development‘s fourth season is undeniably flawed, but this seems to have been partially the result of the circumstances under which it was made. (I’m less optimistic about House of Cards, which had far greater resources at its disposal and still managed to be mostly underwhelming.) But the issue of episode length is more troubling. Most of the new installments of Arrested Development are over half an hour long, or ten minutes longer than the episodes of the original run, which leads to a lot of unnecessary moments and jokes that keep going long after the point has been made. Keeping each episode of the first three seasons down to twenty minutes or so forced Hurtwitz to cut stories to the bone, and much of the breakneck pacing of the show’s classic years was a result of the demands of the format. Occasionally, the new season benefits from the additional breathing room—as when G.O.B. and Tony Wonder spend thirty seconds drinking a glass of water—but it more often results in scenes that slowly run out of air.

And I’m hopeful that Hurwitz will recognize this if he gets a chance at a fifth season, which seems likely. (He already seems aware that certain constraints are worth preserving: bleeped dialogue is funnier than swearing, and act breaks are a useful way of structuring an episode even when you don’t cut to a commercial.) And the actual number of minutes per episode is less important than the fact of the constraint itself. Shorter isn’t always a good thing; I can’t argue that The Simpsons becomes a better show after two minutes are cut for syndication. But every writer knows from experience that the habit of respecting a set length, even an arbitrary one, has benefits that go far beyond those of concision: you’re forced to take a hard look at every line, asking if it’s really necessary or could be expressed more effectively in a smaller amount of space. The broadcast networks certainly didn’t have the creative benefits in mind when they required all their shows to fall within a narrow range, but the result is usually a better, tighter show, and especially when it’s driven by an imagination that strains against those limitations. Neither of the shows I’ve seen from Netflix has been an unqualified success, but eventually, it will happen—and in more senses than one, it’s only a matter of time.

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2013 at 9:01 am

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