Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Orange is the New Black

The UnREAL world

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Shiri Appleby on UnREAL

Few television shows in recent memory have broken out as spectacularly as UnREAL, Lifetime’s toxically amusing scripted drama about the making of a fictional reality series. After reading Emily Nussbaum’s rave review in The New Yorker, I was inspired to check it out, and my wife and I have shotgunned the entire first season over the last two weeks. It isn’t perfect, but it’s fantastically watchable, and it’s all anchored by Shiri Appleby’s work as troubled producer Rachel Goldberg, which is nothing less than the richest, most purely enjoyable performance I’ve seen this year from any television actor, male or female. The writing on Rachel isn’t particularly subtle—she’s often introduced in a scene while stuffing food into her face, and a moment of heartbreak late in the season leaves her stalking through the set like a wraith from The Ring—but Appleby nimbly navigates an insanely difficult range of emotional notes. Rachel is called upon to be calculating, vulnerable, sexy, bedraggled, guilt-ridden, opportunistic, and borderline sociopathic, often all at the same time, and Appleby pulls it off by the skin of her teeth. Combine that with Constance Zimmer’s sour-apple charisma as Quinn, Rachel’s mentor and occasional nemesis, and you have a drama anchored by nothing less than the relationship between a pair of complicated female antiheroes. That’s a noteworthy achievement in itself, and the show isn’t above calling attention to it in the dialogue: “No one wants to watch a show about women working.”

That said, UnREAL isn’t without its problems, which grow increasingly evident as the season progresses. Despite some promising efforts early on, it never turns its fictional show’s contestants into compelling characters, and they’re rarely treated as anything more than easily manipulated pawns in Quinn and Rachel’s game. (It doesn’t help that the most intriguing contestant, Anna, as played by the striking Johanna Braddy, inexplicably disappears for a good chunk of the season, only to return for the final stretch.) Like Orange is the New Black, another uncategorizable show that has extended the range of tones and stories we’ve seen for women on television, it has trouble with its male characters. Adam, the bachelor at the center of the reality show Everlasting, starts as a caricature, inches toward complexity, and circles back around to being an idiot again as soon as the plot demands it. The love triangle between Rachel, Adam, and her hunky bore of an ex-boyfriend Jeremy never settles into anything more than a gimmick. Only Chet, the show’s creator, ever really comes into focus, with Craig Bierko, an old pro, sinking his teeth into every line of an otherwise underwritten part. And the plotting is a sometimes uneasy mix of cynicism, soap opera, and narrative convenience, with Rachel pulling the strings of everyone around her with an ease that puts Frank Underwood to shame. Still, every hour moves like clockwork, and it manages to create an entire world—and really two—over the course of only ten episodes.

Freddie Stroma and Johanna Braddy on UnREAL

What makes UnREAL so fun, and ultimately somewhat frustrating, is that it’s essentially a roman à clef in which the names that have been changed aren’t those of specific celebrities, but of an entire category of television. Its fictional reality show, Everlasting, is interesting precisely to the extent that it reminds us of The Bachelor. (One of the show’s many pleasures is how perfectly it replicates the glossy look of the programs it’s skewering: when intercut with the narrative taking place behind the scenes, which is shot in a rougher, grab-and-go camera style, the contrasting textures give each episode surprising visual heft.) And the closer it sticks to its obvious inspirations, the more engaging it becomes. That why it feels like a strategic mistake when the show veers toward genuine tragedy halfway through the season, with a plot development—involving the unexpected departure of one of the contestants—that would have resulted in any show in the real world going on hiatus at once. It’s a grabby episode, but it subtly undermines the rest of the season. When we watch a story like this, we want to feel like flies on the wall, and to believe that we’d find similar backstabbing and manipulation behind the scenes of any reality show, no matter how innocuous or mundane. What we don’t necessarily want to see is a cartoonish list of the worst things that could possibly happen on a reality series. Everlasting starts off as a careful knockoff of The Bachelor, but it mutates into a show that strains all belief, which weakens the exposé that the overarching series offers up backstage.

And it’s a curious misstep, because this show is otherwise so shrewd about what a good reality series does best: the queasy creation of empathy. By the time I’m done with a run of a show like Top Chef, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know many of the people involved, and UnREAL is very clever at showing us how so much of it is created out of smoke, mirrors, and convenient cutaways. But even if what a reality show presents is a fantasy, it has to ground itself in experiences and personalities to which the audience can unthinkingly relate. Rachel and Quinn understand this, but the creators of UnREAL itself seem to occasionally forget it. In a roman à clef, it’s paradoxically more effective if the stakes aren’t too high: we want to think that we’re glimpsing the sordid underbelly of something that plays placidly in the background of our living rooms. This may seem to undercut conventional wisdom about raising the stakes, but really, it’s about knowing where that pressure is best applied. By making Everlasting into a kind of perfect storm of worst-case scenarios, the show holds our attention for the short term, but it ends up making the entire season less interesting: we don’t want life and death, but the small betrayals and reversals that underlie the shows we take for granted. At its best, this is a remarkably assured series, with its two halves vibrating against each other in ways that can make you tingle with excitement. But the more it cranks up the drama, the less it implicates us, and it all ends up feeling safely unreal.

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2015 at 9:39 am

The unbreakable television formula

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Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Watching the sixth season premiere of Community last night on Yahoo—which is a statement that would have once seemed like a joke in itself—I was struck by the range of television comedy we have at our disposal these days. We’ve said goodbye to Parks and Recreation, we’re following Community into what is presumably its final stretch, and we’re about to greet Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as it starts what looks to be a powerhouse run on Netflix. These shows are superficially in the same genre: they’re single-camera sitcoms that freely grant themselves elaborate sight gags and excursions into surrealism, with a cutaway style that owes as much to The Simpsons as to Arrested Development. Yet they’re palpably different in tone. Parks and Rec was the ultimate refinement of the mockumentary style, with talking heads and reality show techniques used to flesh out a narrative of underlying sweetness; Community, as always, alternates between obsessively detailed fantasy and a comic strip version of emotions to which we can all relate; and Kimmy Schmidt takes place in what I can only call Tina Fey territory, with a barrage of throwaway jokes and non sequiturs designed to be referenced and quoted forever.

And the diversity of approach we see in these three comedies makes the dramatic genre seem impoverished. Most television dramas are still basically linear; they’re told using the same familiar grammar of establishing shots, medium shots, and closeups; and they’re paced in similar ways. If you were to break down an episode by shot length and type, or chart the transitions between scenes, an installment of Game of Thrones would look a lot on paper like one of Mad Men. There’s room for individual quirks of style, of course: the handheld cinematography favored by procedurals has a different feel from the clinical, detached camera movements of House of Cards. And every now and then, we get a scene—like the epic tracking shot during the raid in True Detective—that awakens us to the medium’s potential. But the fact that such moments are striking enough to inspire think pieces the next day only points to how rare they are. Dramas are just less inclined to take big risks of structure and tone, and when they do, they’re likely to be hybrids. Shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad are able to push the envelope precisely because they have a touch of black comedy in their blood, as if that were the secret ingredient that allowed for greater formal daring.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

It isn’t hard to pin down the reason for this. A cutaway scene or extended homage naturally takes us out of the story for a second, and comedy, which is inherently more anarchic, has trained us to roll with it. We’re better at accepting artifice in comic settings, since we aren’t taking the story quite as seriously: whatever plot exists is tacitly understood to be a medium for the delivery of jokes. Which isn’t to say that we can’t care deeply about these characters; if anything, our feelings for them are strengthened because they take place in a stylized world that allows free play for the emotions. Yet this is also something that comedy had to teach us. It can be fun to watch a sitcom push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, but if a drama deliberately undermines its own illusion of reality, we can feel cheated. Dramas that constantly draw attention to their own artifice, as Twin Peaks did, are more likely to become cult favorites than popular successes, since most of us just want to sit back and watch a story that presents itself using the narrative language we know. (Which, to be fair, is true of comedies as well: the three sitcoms I’ve mentioned above, taken together, have a fraction of the audience of something like The Big Bang Theory.)

In part, it’s a problem of definition. When a drama pushes against its constraints, we feel more comfortable referring to it as something else: Orange is the New Black, which tests its structure as adventurously as any series on the air today, has suffered at awards season from its resistance to easy categorization. But what’s really funny is that comedy escaped from its old formulas by appropriating the tools that dramas had been using for years. The three-camera sitcom—which has been responsible for countless masterpieces of its own—made radical shifts of tone and location hard to achieve, and once comedies liberated themselves from the obligation to unfold as if for a live audience, they could indulge in extended riffs and flights of imagination that were impossible before. It’s the kind of freedom that dramas, in theory, have always had, even if they utilize it only rarely. This isn’t to say that a uniformity of approach is a bad thing: the standard narrative grammar evolved for a reason, and if it gives us compelling characters with a maximum of transparency, that’s all for the better. Telling good stories is hard enough as it is, and formal experimentation for its own sake can be a trap in itself. Yet we’re still living in a world with countless ways of being funny, and only one way, within a narrow range of variations, of being serious. And that’s no laughing matter.

The crowded circle of television

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The cast of Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite TV show of the year so far?”

There are times when watching television can start to feel like a second job—a pleasurable one, to be sure, but one that demands a lot of work nevertheless. Over the last year, I’ve followed more shows than ever, including Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Hannibal, Community, Parks and Recreation, House of Cards, The Vampire Diaries, and True Detective. For the most part, they’ve all had strong runs, and I’d have trouble picking a favorite. (If pressed, I’d probably go with Mad Men, if only for old times’ sake, with Hannibal as a very close second.) They’re all strikingly different in emphasis, tone, and setting, but they also have a lot in common. With one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment, these are dense shows with large casts and intricate storylines. Many seem devoted to pushing the limits of how much complexity can be accommodated within the constraints of the television format, which may be why the majority run for just ten to thirteen episodes: it’s hard to imagine that level of energy sustained over twenty or more installments.

And while I’m thrilled by the level of ambition visible here, it comes at a price. There’s a sort of arms race taking place between media of all kinds, as they compete to stand out in an increasingly crowded space with so much competing for our attention. Books, even literary novels, are expected to be page-turners; movies offer up massive spectacle to the point where miraculous visual effects are taken for granted; and television has taken to packing every minute of narrative time to the bursting point. (This isn’t true of all shows, of course—a lot of television series are still designed to play comfortably in the background of a hotel room—but it’s generally the case with prestige shows that end up on critics’ lists and honored at award ceremonies.) This trend toward complexity arises from a confluence of factors I’ve tried to unpack here before: just as The Simpsons was the first freeze-frame sitcom, modern television takes advantage of our streaming and binge-watching habits to deliver storytelling that rewards, and even demands, close attention.

Matthew McConaughey on True Detective

For the most part, this is a positive development. Yet there’s also a case to be made that television, which is so good at managing extended narratives and enormous casts of characters, is also uniquely suited for the opposite: silence, emptiness, and contemplation. In a film, time is a precious commodity, and when you’re introducing characters while also setting in motion the machinery of a complicated story, there often isn’t time to pause. Television, in theory, should be able to stretch out a little, interspersing relentless forward momentum with moments of quiet, which are often necessary for viewers to consolidate and process what they’ve seen. Twin Peaks was as crowded and plotty as any show on the air today, but it also found time for stretches of weird, inexplicable inaction, and it’s those scenes that I remember best. Even in the series finale, with so many threads to address and only forty minutes to cover them all, it devotes endless minutes to Cooper’s hallucinatory—and almost entirely static—ordeal in the Black Lodge, and even to a gag involving a decrepit bank manager rising from his desk and crossing the floor of his branch very, very slowly.

So while there’s a lot of fun to be had with shows that constantly accelerate the narrative pace, it can also be a limitation, especially when it’s handled less than fluently. (For every show, like Orange is the New Black, that manages to cut expertly between subplots, there’s another, like Game of Thrones, that can’t quite seem to handle its enormous scope, and even The Vampire Diaries is showing signs of strain.) Both Hannibal and Mad Men know when to linger on an image or revelation—roughly half of Hannibal is devoted to contemplating its other half—and True Detective, in particular, seemed to consist almost entirely of such pauses. We remember such high points as the final chase with the killer or the raid in “Who Goes There,” but what made the show special were the scenes in which nothing much seemed to be happening. It was aided in this by its limited cast and its tight focus on its two leads, so it’s possible that what shows really need to slow things down are a couple of movie stars to hold the eye. But it’s a step in the right direction. If time is a flat circle, as Rust says, so is television, and it’s good to see it coming back around.

A tale of two Larrys

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Jason Biggs and Taylor Schilling on Orange is the New Black

Note: Minor spoilers follow for the second season of Orange is the New Black.

Like all great television shows, Orange is the New Black lends itself to a wide range of interpretation, and it’s inspired diverse readings on such complicated subjects as race, gender, class, mental illness, and the state of the American prison system. There’s one thing on which nearly every viewer agrees, though: Larry is just awful. Piper’s fiancé, as played by Jason Biggs, has become the character fans hate to hate, both in terms of his actions within the plot and in his impact on the series. It’s doubtful that Biggs and series creator Jenji Kohan meant for Larry to come off as so unsympathetic—they certainly keep writing him as if he’s someone we’re supposed to like—but even if they did, I don’t think they intended for his scenes to so consistently derail the episodes in which they appear. He commits the worst sin of any television character: not only is he whiny and selfish, but he’s also a bore, and his writing is pitched at a lower level than the rest of the show. I’ve taken to using the Larry segments as an excuse to pop into the kitchen or refresh a drink, and I know I’m not alone. The excellent writeups by Myles McNutt of The A.V. Club, for instance, relegate all of his scenes to a short section near the end of each review, and it’s accurately titled “Ugh, Larry.”

Not surprisingly, then, I was curious to read the long first-person account published on Medium by Larry Smith, the inspiration for the fictionalized Larry Bloom. Smith, who has a book of his own on the way, comes off as a sane, likable guy—anyone who loves Vertigo and Miller’s Crossing can’t be all that bad—and he seems to be at peace with the negative reaction to his televised doppelgänger. What irks me the most, in fact, is the realization that the show makes Larry Bloom so much less compelling than his counterpart in real life. I don’t fault the writers for wanting to inject more conflict into that relationship, especially in the first season, when it made sense to show Piper’s life falling apart on the outside. Yet Larry’s storylines have been so static and grating that it’s all the more frustrating to discover that the real Larry was up to some pretty interesting things. Unlike the version we see on the show, he became close with several husbands of Piper’s fellow inmates, to the point where he’d carpool with them to the prison, talking logistics and commiserating over their shared situation:

Like at the men’s room at Giants Stadium, where the hedge-fund manager sidles up next to the pipe fitter, we were drawn together for a common cause, feeling exposed and maybe a little sheepish, but fiercely loyal and rooting for the same team.

Piper Kerman and Larry Smith

When I read this, I had an unexpected response: I felt angry. Here was a vein of fantastic material lying in plain sight, ready for use, and the show had refused to recognize it. It’s easy to imagine an alternate version of the series in which Larry’s experience—which brings him into close contact with men he might otherwise never have met—paralleled Piper’s in surprising ways. I’d love to see Larry getting close with Sophia’s family, say, or Red’s, or even just becoming friends with Yoga Jones’s husband, as he evidently did in real life. (Hell, even if you wanted to keep the subplot of Larry’s affair, there are far more interesting prospects in this scenario than the one the show decided to take.) We’d lose what rudimentary sense of contrast Larry’s humdrum existence provides, but given how little the show has been willing to do with it, it doesn’t seem like much of a loss. And while it’s possible that the show is saving its powder to do great things with Larry on his current trajectory, the evidence isn’t promising. It feels like a failure of energy, or curiosity, in a series that otherwise seems possessed of limitless quantities of both. And it’s enough to make me want to write fanfic.

Yet here’s the thing: it’s impossible to know why any show makes one narrative decision over another. Jenji Kohan is a smart, ambitious writer who seems very aware of her audience, and given the complexity of the task that she and her writing staff have set themselves—keeping what seem like twenty overlapping storylines moving forward simultaneously—it’s likely that something had to give. Larry has maybe five minutes of screen time per episode, and loading it up further might have fractured the show in more important places. (There’s a sense in which the Larry scenes function as interludes, or breaks, from the density of the material inside Lichfield: when we’re with Larry, we seem to be watching a different, lesser show, one that follows all the narrative beats we’ve come to expect, so maybe Kohan thought we needed the respite.) It’s easy to second-guess a show once it’s available for us to pick apart, and much harder to set that machine running in the first place. And the rest of the series is so good that I’m ready to grant it some slack in the Larry scenes, if it makes the rest of it possible. I can imagine a show that does all the things I’ve laid out above, but whatever form it took, it wouldn’t be the same series I’ve grown to care about so much. It only rhymes with Orange.

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2014 at 10:08 am

Watching with the hive mind

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Charles Dance on Game of Thrones

Occasionally, when I’m sitting through an episode of Game of Thrones, it’ll cross my mind that I enjoy reading and thinking about this show more than the experience of actually watching it. This isn’t always true: when the series is at its best, as in the back half of this weekend’s season finale, it’s every bit as gripping and emotional as it once promised to be. Still, the past ten episodes have sometimes felt like a slog, with the show’s most compelling character confined to a prison cell for most of the season and endless minutes devoted to the weakest of subplots. As Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club has shrewdly pointed out, the show sometimes feels like a mix tape of big moments and climaxes interspersed at random between long stretches of inactivity, and as much as I admire showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for making such an unwieldy narrative work at all, I still feel that dividing the third book across two seasons was a mistake. There’s a reason why the second season, which had to make some hard cuts and choices to fit all of A Clash of Kings into ten hours, is by far the show’s finest, and I’d love to see a fan edit that compressed A Storm of Swords into a similar space.

Yet the fact that I’m talking about “fan edits” at all speaks to the degree to which the way we’ve watched television has changed over the past decade. It’s been pointed out more than once that the rise of the golden age of television coincided almost perfectly with the emergence of online fandoms and extended weekly reviews. As in many things, it’s hard to figure out which way the causal arrow runs—it’s possible that the abundance of great television fueled passionate online discussion, rather than the other way around—but there’s no question that the Internet has resulted in fundamental shifts in our viewing habits in at least three ways. It makes it possible for critics to post insanely detailed breakdowns episode by episode, with none of the physical constraints of printed media: it’s difficult to imagine a lovingly obsessive writeup like Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style, for instance, existing in any other form. The easy availability of streaming options allows us to regard a television series as one big unit of narrative, which opens up new forms of storytelling. And given all the venues where fans can read and post commentary in real time, what used to be a highly solitary activity is now a collective one, with each show eagerly consumed by something approaching a hive mind.

Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner on the set of Mad Men

Ultimately, it’s a situation that nurtures and rewards ambitious narratives, both by keeping alive smaller shows that might not have survived ten years ago—even Community lasted longer than anyone could have expected—and by encouraging creators to take greater risks. There’s a sense in which someone like Matthew Weiner has been enabled and liberated by the level of scrutiny Mad Men receives to make the show ever more detailed and complex: it’s easier to drop in small touches and extended payoffs when you know that viewers are paying attention, or at least have recourse to power users who highlight the show’s choices for the benefit of others. I watch Mad Men with about as much care as any viewer can, but when I go online to read the recaps, I’m constantly alerted to tiny details and callbacks I missed the first time around. This doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t work in its own right: it functions, by design, on multiple levels, and there’s no question that it offers plenty to enjoy for viewers who are more concerned with surface pleasures. Yet the conversation and analysis that the show inspires has started to feel like an integral part of the experience, a chance to tap into the headspace of that perfect viewer on which nothing is lost.

And the fact that this perfect viewer exists, if only in the aggregate, is central to the renaissance in modern television. Of all art forms, television was the one best equipped to meet and fulfill a collective increase in narrative intelligence: unlike literature or film, it allows the story and its interpretation to unfold in parallel, and the combination results in levels of complexity that few other kinds of popular entertainment would be able to sustain. (In a strange way, the situation also serves as an unexpected argument for the importance of the weekly episode. Orange is the New Black is as rich as any show on the air today, but because we’re all watching it at different rates, there isn’t the same sense of collaborative viewing and appreciation that we get when a show parcels itself out over time.) Not every show needs to push the envelope, of course, and it’s important to meet the basic requirements of plot, character, and suspense on their broadest levels even as it becomes possible to drill ever deeper. But if every form of art naturally rises, or falls, to the level of its audience, it’s no surprise that television has evolved into such incredible forms. We may not be any smarter as individuals, but together, we’re more than worthy of the best that television can provide.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2014 at 9:44 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.

The title shot

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Twin Peaks

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 question: “What’s your favorite TV intro?”

A lot of positive developments have arisen from the proliferation of great television shows on cable and streaming services, but one that I’ve found especially gratifying is the return of the opening credit sequence. I’ve noted elsewhere that opening titles are becoming a lost art for movies—to the point where sometimes we don’t even get to see the title itself—and that’s all the more true for television, where executives are terrified, perhaps rightly so, that audiences will use any excuse to change the channel. As a result, it’s hard to imagine a sitcom these days getting the iconic extended credits of Cheers or The Simpsons, the latter of which rarely even survives syndication. (Admittedly, part of the problem is that the shows themselves are also getting shorter: with multiple commercial breaks eating into narrative time, a lengthy title sequence is a luxury that most showrunners can’t afford.) And that’s a real loss. For casual viewers, credits can be an annoyance, but for fans, they amount to a short film that ushers us instantly into the world that the show inhabits. If anything, that kind of transitional moment counts for even more on a network broadcast, in which shows with radically different tones and styles are often juxtaposed side by side.

Of course, it’s possible for a clever producer to make the most of the few seconds afforded by the network. The opening titles of Community make me happy every time I see them, and it occasionally toys with the format for special episodes, like “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” which is something I’d like to see more often. Still, it’s nice when a show has the breathing room to give us something really special. On cable, there’s less pressure to make every second count, and shows from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones have taken advantage of this fact. Netflix pushes it even further, with credits that can run to close to two minutes. Orange is the New Black goes a little far—as much as I like Regina Spektor’s theme song, I generally use it as an excuse to get a beer—but House of Cards has delivered an opening title sequence that instantly ranks among the greats. In some ways, it’s almost too good: House of Cards is both the most visually beautiful television series I’ve ever seen and deeply infuriating from a narrative perspective, and I always wish that the show itself lived up to the promise of its titles. (It helps that the credits are nothing but image and sound, without any dialogue to ruin the effect.)

House of Cards

What really fascinates me about opening title sequences is that they’re effectively a statement of intent, a declaration in forty seconds of what the show is going to be about, and it’s often completed before the series even knows its own strengths. The X-Files evolved in striking ways over its first few seasons, but those eerie credits always remained superbly right, which made it all the more jarring when they were revised after David Duchovny’s departure. Long before its glory days, The Simpsons stated in its title sequence that this was going to be the story about an entire city, populated with hundreds of memorable characters, a vast increase in ambition from those original shorts on The Tracey Ullmann Show. And the opening of Star Trek, perhaps the most iconic of them all, evoked a sense of adventure and possibility that the episodes themselves only intermittently managed to capture. Occasionally, a show will outdo its own credits, but find itself stuck with the opening sequence it used for the pilot: I find Mad Men‘s credits a little pedestrian, although it’s too late to change them now, and I occasionally wish Breaking Bad had used something more like the wonderful fan-made extended credits that were recently posted online

For all these reasons and more, I still believe that Twin Peaks had the most effective opening titles of any television series in my lifetime. This is partially an accident of my own biography: I first saw the show when I was just old enough to start taking these things seriously, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score—especially the songs sung by Julee Cruise—was an integral part of my life for a long time. Watching them now, they seem insolently long and uneventful: a shot of a bird, a sawmill, and a long pan across running water, accompanied by a comically interminable cast list and the instrumental version of “Falling.” Yet for me, that opening sequence is Twin Peaks, and when I go back again to watch the show itself, I’m sometimes surprised at how unevenly it captures the mood of those images, which have taken up permanent residence in my dreams. That music and those languorous shots are the emblem both of the show that was and what could have been. Perhaps that’s why opening titles are so precious: in the end, the countless hours of the series that we love are distilled down to a few images, a handful of memorable lines, and a sense of something lost, but when we put on a favorite episode and see those titles once more, we fall into it all over again.

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