Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Todd VanDerWerff

Threading the needle

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Camel engraving by Heath

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

—Matthew 19:24

When people find an idea disturbing, especially if they have no choice but to trust its source, they’re often perversely eager to twist themselves into knots to avoid its implications. The quotation above provides as striking an example as any I know. Over the years, there have been many attempts to make this image from the New Testament seem less nonsensical or extreme than it initially appears: we’re told, for instance, that the eye of the needle was really a gate in Jerusalem through which a camel couldn’t fit without removing most of its baggage, or that “camel” is a faulty transcription for the Greek word for “cable” or “rope.” In fact, there’s no evidence that this passage means anything else than what it clearly states: the earliest attestation of the gate theory, which I remember hearing in Sunday school, dates from many centuries later. It’s a strange picture, but that’s why it lingers in the imagination. The Jesus Seminar, an imperfect but ambitious attempt to recover the historical deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, gives it high marks for authenticity, for the very reason that later readers found it so problematic. In their words:

The fact that this saying has been surrounded by attempts to soften it suggests that it was probably original with Jesus.

But it isn’t hard to see why many listeners would prefer to wave it away, even to the point of distorting the original or taking refuge in an apocryphal explanation. If it really refers to a camel squeezing through a gate, it seems that much more possible: if the camel can get through simply by unburdening itself, it implies that you can be just a little rich, but not too rich, and still push your way inside. The history of Christianity—and most other religions—consists of taking an uncompromising original message and looking for ways to pay homage to it while keeping things more or less as they already are. We’d all like to have it both ways, and the implication that reconciling wealth with eternal salvation isn’t just difficult, but physically impossible, makes most of us uneasy. But even those of us who aren’t conventionally religious would benefit from taking those words to heart. However we envision our own happiness, whether as a form of fulfillment in this life or as a reward in the world to come, there’s no denying that we’re more likely to reach it if we’re unrelenting about renouncing everything else. And this applies as much to something as modest as writing stories for a living as to trying to save one’s soul, which, to a writer, amounts to more or less the same thing.

Stewart Brand

I’ve been pondering this a lot recently, particularly in relation to making a living through art, which is often compared to threading a needle. It’s a phrase we see tossed around frequently, especially with respect to navigating our way through a world that seems ever more hostile to the idea of creative careers. If you want to be a novelist or freelance writer or critic, you soon find that the eye of that needle has grown increasingly narrow, as publishers are squeezed by declining sales, magazine circulation continues to fall, and websites search for sustainable business models while readers expect to read everything for free. I’ve been writing for a living for close to ten years now, and I don’t think I’m any closer to threading that needle than I ever was: if anything, the environment for writers has become so challenging that I’m not sure I would have tried to write professionally if I were faced with the same decision today. A few weeks ago, Todd VanDerWerff of Vox wrote a long article about the pitfalls confronting anyone trying to make it as a writer online—or anywhere else—in this climate, and if it peters out in the end without a solution, that isn’t his fault. Nobody, including people whose job it is to think about this stuff all the time, has yet managed to come up with a good answer. And the clock is ticking for all of us.

But the first step is to honestly acknowledge the challenges at stake. We aren’t dealing with a rope and a needle, or a camel and a gate, but a camel and a freaking needle. And it’s likely that anyone who pursues this life with any kind of seriousness will have to be just as methodical about stripping everything else away. I’ve always been heartened by what Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, had to say about voluntary simplicity: “What I find far more interesting [is] the sheer practicality of the exercise.” Anybody who tries to make a living as an artist soon finds that scaling back everything else isn’t just practical, but essential: threading that needle demands time, as well as many failed attempts, and you have to give up a lot to buy the necessary number of years it takes to get there. It doesn’t mean that you have to go up into the garret at once, as Thoreau advised, but it does mean that you can’t fool yourself into thinking that you can get there with half measures, or by pretending that the needle is a gate. The needles of the art world come in different sizes, but they’re all getting smaller, and if we can’t control the top line, we can at least control the bottom, by sacrificing as much as we can to buy the time we need. If we aren’t willing to do this, there are plenty of others who will. A compromise here and there may seem harmless. But sooner or later, one of those straws will break the camel’s back.

Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2015 at 10:24 am

American horror stories

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Colin Farrell on True Detective

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

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

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey on True Detective

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

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

Forget about your House of Cards

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Kevin Spacey on House of Cards

Forget about your house of cards
And I’ll do mine
And fall under the table, get swept under
Denial, denial…

—Radiohead, “House of Cards”

Note: Major spoilers follow for the third season of House of Cards.

Watching the season finale of House of Cards, I found myself reflecting on the curious career of director James Foley, who has helmed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. Foley is the quintessential journeyman, a filmmaker responsible for one movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, that I’ll probably revisit at least once a decade for the rest of my life, and a lot of weird, inexplicable filler, from The Corruptor to Perfect Stranger. It’s a messy body of work that still earned him a coveted entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which David Thomson writes: “You could put together a montage of scenes by Foley that might convince anyone that he was—and is—a very hot director.” And that’s equally true of House of Cards, which would allow you to cut together enough striking scenes and images to convince you that it was the hottest show on television. I’ve noted before that I’ve never seen a series in which every technical element was brought to such a consistent pitch of intensity: the cinematography, art direction, sound design, editing, and music are among the best I’ve ever seen. Foley’s handling of the finale is masterful. And yet it’s only a sad coda to a deeply disappointing, often outright frustrating show, which in its most recent season pulled off the neat trick of being both totally implausible and grindingly boring.

And it didn’t have to be this way. As infuriating as House of Cards often was, there was an undeniable charge, in the very last shot of the second season, when Underwood walked into the Oval Office and rapped his hand against the desk. We seemed primed to embark on a spectacular run of stories, with a scheming, murderous, Machiavellian psychopath positioned to move onto a grander stage. What we got, instead, was an Underwood who seemed oddly hapless and neutered. He’s still a hypocrite, but with no coherent plans for domination, and hardly any sense of what he wants to accomplish with the power he sought for so long. If the show were actively working to subvert our expectations, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case: for most of the season, it seemed as adrift as its protagonist, who starts off with poor approval ratings, a nonexistent mandate, and no ability to advance his agenda, whatever the hell it might be. In the abstract, I can understand the narrative reasoning: you want to open with your hero at a low point to give him somewhere to go. But if you can imagine, instead, a scenario in which Underwood starts out as popular and powerful, only to fight ruthlessly in secret against a scandal, old or new, that threatens to undermine it all, you start to glimpse the kind of drama that might have been possible.

House of Cards

And what’s really dispiriting is that all the right pieces were there, only to be systematically squandered. In Petrov, a thinly veiled surrogate for Putin, the show gave Underwood his first truly formidable antagonist, but instead of a global game of chess being played between two superb manipulators, we’re treated to the sight of Underwood rolling over time and time again. The one really shrewd plot point—in which Petrov extorts Underwood into forcing Claire to resign as UN ambassador—would have been much more effective if Claire had been any good at her job, which she manifestly isn’t. The interminable subplot about the America Works bill would have been fine if it had all been a blind for Underwood to consolidate his power, but it’s not: he just wants to give people jobs, and his attempts at extraconstitutional maneuvering seem like a means to an end, when they should have been the end in themselves. We keep waiting for Underwood, our ultimate villain, to do something evil, inspired, or even interesting, but he never does. And the show’s one great act of evil, in the form of Rachel’s fate, feels like a cynical cheat, because the show hasn’t done the hard work, as Breaking Bad repeatedly did, of earning the right to coldly dispose of one of its few sympathetic characters. (As it stands, there’s a touch of misogyny here, in which an appealing female player is reintroduced and killed simply to further the journey of a white male antihero in a supporting role.)

Yet House of Cards remains fascinating to think about, if not to watch, because so many talented people—David Fincher, Eric Roth, Tony Gilroy—have allowed it to drift off the rails. I’ve spoken at length before, most notably in Salon, about the dangers inherent in delivering a television series a full season at a time: without the intense scrutiny and feedback that comes from airing week to week, a show is likely to grow complacent, or to push deeper into a narrative dead end. In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff argues that this season can best be understood as a reaction to the show’s critics, a failed attempt to make a hard turn into a character drama, which only proves that it isn’t enough to plot a course correction once per season. And there’s a larger blindness here, perhaps one enabled by the show’s superficial gorgeousness. Is what Frank Underwood does interesting because he’s Underwood, or is he interesting because he does interesting things? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and that the echo chamber the Netflix model creates has lulled the show into thinking that we’ll follow its protagonist anywhere, when it has yet to honestly earn that level of trust. (In a way, it feels like a reflection of its leading man: Kevin Spacey may be the most intelligent actor alive when it comes to the small decisions he makes from moment to moment, but he’s been frequently misguided in his choice of star parts.) House of Cards is still a fun show to dissect; if I were teaching a course on television, it’s the first case study I’d assign. But that doesn’t mean I need to give it any more of my time.

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.

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2014 at 9:01 am

Community values

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The Community episode "Basic Sandwich"

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season. For shows that are perpetually on the bubble, renewal and cancellation decisions can seem arbitrary or worse, but this one was especially inexplicable: Community has never been a highly rated show, but it’s still been consistent enough to think that NBC would want to keep it in reserve, along with Parks and Recreation, to fill a few slots in the spring after other shows have failed and the entire lineup is competing against football on Thursday. (Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club laid out that scenario here.) Instead, at a moment when the series seemed so confident in renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone. Later today, the network’s Bob Greenblatt is scheduled to go into more detail about the thought process behind this decision, and I’m curious about what he’ll say, even if the explanation turns out to be as boring as I expect: sitcoms still cost more to produce than reality shows, so if you’re going to hold onto a mediocre performer, better it be something like The Biggest Loser.

Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen. Shows with poor ratings but a vehement fanbase have been resurrected in surprising ways, whether via another network (Cougar Town), a streaming service (Arrested Development), or a Kickstarter campaign (Veronica Mars), and it’s easy to imagine Community taking any one of these routes. (If Dan Harmon wants my money, I’m pretty much willing to give it to him with no questions asked.) The possibility of a show returning in some other form isn’t a new phenomenon: Police Squad did just fine for itself on the big screen, while movies as different as Serenity and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me indicate that executives are willing to take a flier on a niche property for the sake of tapping into an existing audience, even if the results are never quite as successful as anyone hopes. And if we’ve learned one thing from the curious ups and downs of Arrested Development, it’s that even after years of speculation, rumor, and teasing possibilities, you sometimes do get what you want—although the form it takes may not be what you expected.

The cast of Community

As a result, when a show like Community ends, it’s less of a full stop than an ellipsis, possibly with a question mark attached. And for a series that always had its eye so clearly on the long game, it represents a real loss, at least for now. Sitcoms have traditionally had an uneasy relationship to the very idea of a finale: since every episode was meant to stand on its own, even the penultimate installment of a show usually felt like business as usual, saving all the thankless work of setting up the ending for the following week. (“The Puerto Rican Day” episode of Seinfeld, for instance, which was the last regular episode before its finale, really could have aired at any point in the show’s run.) Aside from the practicalities of syndication, in which episodes can aired in any order, there’s a good reason why sitcoms often prefer to confine all this material to the finale: it generally isn’t a lot of fun. Community was always a little different; each season had a clear arc, albeit with room for many bizarre digressions, and even if this was designed in part to gently mock the whole idea of overarching storylines, if the show knew that it was ending for real, the tone of the entire season would have been very different.

As stands, we’re not going to get that season, and even if it materializes in some other form, it’s inevitably going to be altered by outside circumstances. (Obviously, this is nothing new to Community, which has never been as free as it would have liked to shape its stories according to their internal needs: over the past two seasons alone, it weathered the firing and return of its creator and the departure of a pair of crucial cast members, and the strain on the storytelling often showed.) It’s instructive to compare this to Parks and Recreation, which just ended its own season with an episode that felt empathically like a series finale: it found room for all of its lead and supporting characters, included callbacks to six years of history, tied emotional bows on every major storyline, and concluded with a flashforward that worked beautifully as a closing gag. Watching it, I assumed that Michael Shur and his collaborators had approached it as a potential ending while waiting on the resolution of the show’s fate, but in fact, it seems that they’d already been guaranteed a renewal. In other words, their approach was the exact opposite of Community, which structured its finale with another season in mind even as its future hung by a thread. I shouldn’t be surprised: no other sitcom on television has consistently taken such big risks. And if it had played it safe at this last, critical moment, it wouldn’t be the show I’ve grown to love.

The art of improvisation

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John Coltrane

Yesterday, while writing about what currently stands as my favorite show on television, I concluded: “The only thing I can say for sure is that both Hannibal and his show have a plan.” Shortly after typing this line, however, I realized that it was a little misleading. Clearly, this is a show with its eye on the long game, and I hope that Bryan Fuller and his team get the five seasons that they need to tell this story properly. Yet there’s also room for improvisation within the structure laid down by Thomas Harris’s novels and the show’s own narrative arc. Anyone reading the excellent weekly walkthroughs that Fuller has been giving to Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club knows that Hannibal often makes radical changes late in the game. The identity of Will’s secret admirer, for instance, was changed at the last minute to simplify a complicated storyline after several episodes had already been shot, and the shocking revelation at the end of last week’s installment was originally intended to conclude the first season. Fuller’s explanation for this last change is particularly revealing:

I just think it’s so much better for [it to happen] in this way, as opposed to putting [it] as part of the cliffhanger of the first season, because it actually would have taken a bit of the power away from that last moment between Will and Hannibal, which I think needs to have its air.

This only means that the series has both an overarching plan and the freedom to move around within it as the material itself suggests changes and improvements, which is the key to good improvisation. Television, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, provides some of our most fascinating case studies in the tension between structure and serendipity, since so much of it unfolds in public. I’ve argued that a show like House of Cards suffers from its inability to react in real time to its own reception, and in recent years, we’ve seen examples of shows that improvise brilliantly within a strong narrative framework (Breaking Bad) and ones that suffer either from too little structure (Glee) or from an existing plan imposed on reluctant material (How I Met Your Mother). The ability to balance these two extremes is the mark of a great artist, and not just in works of narrative. Improvisation itself is a concept rooted in music and poetry, and from the beginning, it referred to a form of invention within constraints. An oral poet can improvise verse on demand thanks to an existing structure of meter, rhyme, and traditional formulas and epithets, while musical improvisers from Bach to Coltrane know how to wander far and wide while always returning to the rigorous logic of the chord progression.

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

In fact, you could make a convincing argument that structure is what makes good improvisation possible. Improv comedy thrives on implicit rules that provide beautiful guidelines for any kind of storytelling: add new information, focus on the here and now, establish the location, and don’t block your partners. A good improviser is always thinking ahead, and one of the keenest pleasures of a great improv set is watching the performers file away details that can recur later to give the scene a shape and a punchline. I’ve said before that formulas and clichés originate as a way of solving problems, and one of their most valuable functions is to provide a framework for exploration: a crime procedural, for instance, is flexible enough to accommodate any number of vignettes and locations, and if you drift too far from the point, the formula is always there to lock you back into focus. Matt Groening likes to talk about the “rubber-band” reality of The Simpsons, which allows the logic to be stretched for the sake of a joke, only to quickly snap back, and much of the joy of its classic seasons comes from that push and pull. (Like any rubber band, though, it gets looser over time, and that loss in elasticity goes a long way toward explaining why the show grew increasingly less interesting.)

There are also times when the illusion of improvisation can be as powerful as its presence. Anyone who has spent time listening to live jazz knows that many of those “improvised” riffs are really just good tricks, kept in the performer’s back pocket and brought out periodically to wow the audience, and that’s true for narrative as well. Some of my favorite movies are those that give the appearance, from minute to minute, of being made up on the fly, only to reveal a meticulous design in the end, as in the best work of Steven Soderbergh or the Coen Brothers. (It’s interesting to note, in passing, that both Soderbergh and the Coens edit their own movies under pseudonyms, which implies that finding the right balance between structure and discovery requires an especially intimate engagement with the raw footage.) Done properly, it feels like real life, which also reveals surprising shapes behind apparent randomness. And as a writer, I know that I only feel comfortable going off on tangents when I know that there’s a larger structure waiting in reserve when I need it. The underlying plan can take the form of an existing work, a detailed outline, or a sequence of chords in a fake book, but whatever it is, it allows us to be more daring than we could otherwise be. If we’re not sure how to find our way home, we aren’t likely to stray far from the path, but once we have a good map and compass, we can really explore the territory.

The hero paradox

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Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Every year, the Academy Awards telecast makes us sit through a bunch of pointless montages, and every year, we get to complain about it. As I mentioned last week, I’ve long since gotten over most of the weird choices made by the Oscars—I like to remind myself that the ceremony isn’t designed for the television audience, but for the movers and shakers sitting in the auditorium itself—and I’ve resigned myself to the prospect of a few pointless production numbers. But the montages always seem particularly strange. They don’t add much in the way of entertainment value, and the opportunity cost for what is already an overlong show is unforgivably high: one fewer montage, and perhaps we might have had room for Dennis Farina in the In Memoriam reel, not to mention the canceled appearance by Batkid. This year’s ceremony, with its “salute to heroes” theme, resulted in an even more random assortment of clips than usual: here’s Gandhi, and Lawrence of Arabia, and just as we start to think there’s a pattern emerging, here’s Sidney Poitier as Mr. Tibbs. (I actually had to look up In the Heat of the Night to reassure myself that it hadn’t been based on a true story.)

The result was inexplicable enough that it inspired Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club to tweet: “Next year: A tribute to protagonists!” But it also raises the larger question of what a hero really is, at least in terms of what we look for in storytelling. From a producer’s point of view, the answer is simple: a hero is the actor with the greatest amount of screen time, or whose face takes up the most room on the poster. (Or as the producer Scott Rudin once said when asked what a movie was about: “It’s about two movie stars.”) A writer might put it somewhat differently. The protagonist of a movie is the character whose actions and decisions drive the plot, and if he or she happens to embody qualities that we associate with heroism—courage, integrity, selflessness, resourcefulness—it’s because these attributes lend themselves both to wishful identification from the audience and to interesting choices and behavior within the confines of the story. All things being equal, a brave, committed individual will end up doing things on camera that we’ll hopefully want to watch. It has nothing to do with morality; it’s a logistical choice that results in more entertaining narratives. Or at least it should be.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

The trouble, of course, is that when you’re not sure about your own story, you tend to fixate more on what the hero is than the more crucial matter of what he does. Screenwriters are always told to make their leading characters more heroic and likable, as if this were something that could be separated from the narrative itself. At worst, the movie simply serves up a chosen one, either explicitly or implicitly, which is often an excuse to give us a protagonist who is interesting and important just because we’re told he is. Sometimes, this problem can be a subtle one. Watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for the first time over the weekend, I felt that even though Jennifer Lawrence sells the hell out of the part, Katniss Everdeen herself is something of a wet blanket. This isn’t anyone’s fault: Katniss as written is almost unplayable, since she needs to be admirable enough to inspire a revolution and carry a franchise, vulnerable enough to serve as one corner of a love triangle, and a resourceful warrior who also hates the idea of killing. That’s a lot for any one character to shoulder, and it means that poor Katniss herself is often the least interesting person on the screen.

In general, though, it’s hard for a hero to come to life in the way a more incidental character can, simply because he’s under so much pressure to advance the plot. The great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky hinted at this last week on Reddit:

The difference between character actors and the leading men is that everything the leading men do is on film. Character actors have to invent that life off screen and bring that reality on screen. It’s much more imaginative work and the hours are better.

That’s why we often find ourselves wishing that we could spend more time with the supporting cast of a television show: they’re so much more full of life and vitality than the lead, whose every action is designed to carry forward a huge, creaking machine. Being a hero is a thankless role, both in fiction and in real life, and it inevitably leads to a loss of freedom, when in theory the hero should be more free than anyone else. As Harold Bloom observes of Hamlet, he could be anything in the world, but he’s doomed to play out the role in which he has been cast. Finding a way to balance a hero’s narrative burden with the freedom he needs to come alive in the imagination is one of a writer’s greatest challenges. And if the movies succeeded at this more often, those montages at the Oscars would have made a lot more sense.

The completist’s dilemma

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Bart's Comet

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 pop culture that you once loved became a chore?”

At some point, almost without knowing it, we all became completists. Twenty or even ten years ago, the idea that you couldn’t dip into a show like, say, The Vampire Diaries without first working chronologically through the four previous seasons would have seemed vaguely ridiculous. When I was growing up, I thought nothing of checking in occasionally with the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation without any notion of trying to see every episode. That’s the beauty of the medium—we’re all naturally good at figuring out stories in progress, so it’s possible to to start watching midway through an unfamiliar show and catch up fairly quickly with the narrative. (David Mamet, who advises writers to throw out the first ten minutes of every script, notes: “When you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatsoever understanding what’s going on?”) Yet between Netflix, various other streaming options, and the rise in intensely serialized storytelling, many of us have gotten to the point where we feel like we need to watch an entire series to watch it at all, so that committing to a new show implicitly means investing dozens or hundreds of hours of our lives.

This hasn’t been a bad thing for the medium as a whole, and it’s hard to imagine a show like Mad Men thriving in a world of casual viewers. Yet there’s also a loss here on a number of levels. It makes it harder to get into a new show that has been on the air for a few seasons: as much as we’d like to start watching Person of Interest or Elementary, there’s the nagging sense that we need to put in hours of remedial work before we can start tuning in each week. It’s hard on the creators of shows that don’t lend themselves to this kind of immersive viewing, many of which find themselves trying to split the difference. (In a recent discussion of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club referred to this problem as “how to tell a 22-episode story in a 13-episode world.”) At worst, it can turn even the shows we love into a chore. When you’re catching up on three or more seasons—keeping an eye out for spoilers the entire time—a show as great as Breaking Bad can start to feel like homework. And when you’re staking so much onto a single series, it’s easier to get burned out on the whole thing than if you were sampling it whenever you caught it on the air.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

This isn’t always fair to the shows themselves. My wife and I may have been less forgiving toward Lost and Battlestar Galactica, both of which we started on Netflix and abandoned halfway through, because the effort required seemed greater than either show’s immediate rewards. (It didn’t help that we had only begun to build some momentum when word trickled out about what were widely regarded as their unsatisfying finales. It’s hard to give a show your all when you suspect that the destination may not be worth it.) Yet this experience was only a highly compressed version of what happens to many of us once our favorite shows start to lose their appeal. There came an indefinable point when it no longer seemed worth the effort for me to keep up with Glee or 24, but it wasn’t exactly a burnout—more of a slow, steady fade, to the point where I don’t even remember where I gave up. Saddest of all are the cases of arguably my two favorite shows of all time, The Simpsons and The X-Files, neither of which I managed to watch—or, in the case of The Simpsons, continue to watch—to the end. Part of this was due to a drop in quality, part to changes in my own life, but it seems likely that I’m never going to be a true completist when it comes to the shows that have mattered to me the most.

But then again, maybe that’s how it should be. The trouble with being a completist is that once you’re finished, there isn’t much more to discover, while the best television shows seem to go on and on—often because there’s so much there we haven’t experienced. David Thomson, speaking about the work of Japanese director Mikio Naruse, whose films he once claimed to have never seen, has written: “There is nothing like knowing that one has still to see a body of great work. And no gamble as interesting as pushing the desire to its limit.” That’s how I feel about many of my own favorite shows. As much as I look forward to squeezing every last drop out of Mad Men, I’m also oddly reassured by the fact that there are still excellent episodes of The X-Files, Star Trek, and even The Simpsons that I’ve never seen, and possibly never will. They’ll always be out there, tantalizingly unexplored, and the worlds they encompass remain open and unbounded. And it’s possible that this is a healthier, more natural way to think about television, or any work of art that lends itself to elaborate, obsessive fandoms. Being a completist has rewards of its own, but there’s also something to be said for the promise of the incomplete.

How I learned to love The Vampire Diaries

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The cast of The Vampire Diaries

Last night, I finished the third season of The Vampire Diaries, a series that has rather unexpectedly turned into one of my favorite shows on television. I got into it at the beginning of this year, as a way to fill time between baby feedings while my wife was home from maternity leave. We were looking for a show that was fast, addictive, and conducive to binge viewing, and Carrie Raisler’s ecstatic recommendation on The A.V. Club was enough to sign me up. At first, the show more or less met my expectations: it was watchable and fun but little else, and it showed only occasional signs of the narrative momentum I’d been told to anticipate. Bit by bit—or bite by bite—it began to figure out its own potential, and by the end of the first season, it was one of the fastest, shrewdest, and most inventive genre shows I’d ever seen. (I’d still recommend that newcomers start with the pilot, then skip all the way to the last three or four episodes of the first season, filling in the rest as necessary online. Once you hit that first season finale, there’s no going back.)

In short, a guilty pleasure had been transformed into something much more: a pleasure that I can recommend without any trace of guilt or condescension. The Vampire Diaries is a stellar example of Roger Ebert’s dictum that a work of art “isn’t about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it”: it’s still ultimately a show about a bunch of teenage vampires and witches and ghosts and werewolves, but instead of getting stranded in its ridiculous mythology, it uses it as a launching pad for some delightfully twisty and surprising storytelling. As the series piles up the complications and cliffhangers, you can sense the writers taking pride in their own ingenuity, and if the first two seasons were often characterized by a winking self-awareness, it’s since been supplemented by a startling degree of feeling. In just three years, it’s built up more narrative memory than most series that run twice as long, but instead of losing its emotions in the machinery of the plot, it uses the history the show has established to confront its characters with one impossible choice after another.

Nina Dobrev and Ian Somerhalder in The Vampire Diaries

And this sort of thing is really hard to do well. When we talk about narratives in which character is inseparable from plot, we tend to think first of stories in which the events are driven solely by the characters’ organic needs and objectives. To put it mildly, this isn’t always the case with The Vampire Diaries, in which story arcs have a way of being shaped by forces outside anyone’s control: a curse, a revelation from the past, a vengeful ghost, a seemingly endless series of MacGuffins. Roughly half of any given episode consists of the characters explaining the plot to one another, with the other half devoted to the usual stakings, decapitations, and high school dances, and I’d be lying if I said that the result didn’t often come off as artificial or contrived. (If the real hero of Mad Men is Matthew Weiner, as Todd VanDerWerff has suggested, then much of the drama of The Vampire Diaries seems to take place in the writers’ room.) Through it all, however, the major players have remained remarkably consistent—at least when they aren’t possessed or supernaturally compelled—and much of the show’s interest comes less from the vampiric dilemma of the week than from how a character like Damon Salvatore will react to it.

In other words, a show that could have gotten lost in its own excesses—as wonderful as those excesses can be in their own right—has used them, instead, to deepen a cast of characters who derive their complexity from the absurd, externally imposed situations in which they find themselves. (I should also note that the show’s actors, especially Nina Dobrev, Ian Somerhalder, and Candice Accola, have consistently risen to the occasion.) An episode like “The Departed,” the third season finale, depends entirely on our knowledge, or at least our vague memory, of the rules and assumptions the show has laid down, and its final moments gain their power from how fluently they draw upon the rich store of material that the series has accumulated in record time. There’s still an entire season for me to watch—and I’m waiting impatiently for it to show up on Netflix—and it’s unclear if it’s managed to live up to the high standards that have been set so far. That’s why I’m setting down my thoughts here now, with the high of those first three seasons still intact. If you’d told me a year ago that The Vampire Diaries would become one of my favorite shows, I wouldn’t have believed you. But if there’s one thing this series has taught me to value, it’s suspension of disbelief.

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2013 at 9:14 am

Mad Men and the man behind the curtain

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Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner on the set of Mad Men

As I’ve said here perhaps more often than necessary, television is a very strange medium, and the fact that it occupies such a familiar place in our lives can blind us to how weird it really is. It creates characters and stories that can feel as vivid as our own friends or memories, and it’s like real life in another way: sooner or later, it ends, and nobody—including the creators—ever really knows how. Even the best narrative plans have a way of going sideways, and much of the fascination of a great television show comes from how it deals with the unexpected, whether in the form of a cast change, a creative departure, or an unexpected extension or cancellation. Television can be as unpredictable and uncontrollable as life itself, except that we know, or think we know, who really pulls the strings. While it’s true that many viewers probably don’t care much about where television comes from, in recent years, there’s been a greater degree of engagement than ever before between the audience and the men and women behind the curtain. And it inevitably changes the way we experience it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since watching “The Crash,” the latest episode of Mad Men, and reading Todd VanDerWerff’s thoughtful—if somewhat bewildered—review on The A.V. Club. (Its opening sentence: “What the ever-loving merciful fuck?”) VanDerWerff is one of my favorite writers, and I’ve been reading his articles and criticism with pleasure for years, but I was particularly struck by one observation:

A lot of the core conflicts on this show are the sorts of core conflicts one might find in a TV writers’ room, and to a degree, for the people who follow this show obsessively, its true protagonist is Matt Weiner. The question for many of us obsessive fans isn’t what Don Draper will get up to next but what Matt Weiner will get up to next.

I think VanDerWerff goes a little too far when he says that the episode seems like Weiner’s “dare to the weekly review culture,” but otherwise, his analysis is right on the mark. Weiner is the secret hero of his own show, which more than any other series in history is about the process of writing itself: Don Draper writes ads, but he’s also the author of his own life, and it’s fascinating to see how the show continues to exercise the same chilly emotional control even as Don’s story spins apart.

The Man Men episode "The Crash"

Every week, after watching the latest episode of Mad Men, my wife and I will play the short featurette that accompanies it on iTunes, in which Weiner and members of the cast share their thoughts on the latest installment. These videos presumably began as an easy promotional extra, but they’ve evolved, at least to me, into a weirdly exegetical part of the show itself: as soon as the closing credits roll, I just want to know what the hell Weiner was thinking. Weiner seems aware of this, too, and there’s a teasing quality to many of his comments, which are lucid and reasonable, but which also seem to explain a lot more than they actually do.  They’re a little like T.S. Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land, which are less a way of clarifying the poem than an integral part of the text. Sophisticated readers and viewers know that you should never take a writer’s statements about his own work at face value, and although Weiner comes across as a smart, ordinary, entirely earnest guy when he explains himself to the camera, there’s something Nabokovian in the way he elucidates a few select points while leaving the rest of it shrouded in mystery.

And it’s made me reflect about the ways in which television is an ongoing dialogue, imaginary or not, between a creator and his audience. This isn’t true of every show, of course, and it’s never more clear than when it’s no longer there. It’s fair to say that Community‘s new showrunners are highly conscious about how the series is perceived, and they’ve been good—almost to fault—about honoring the show’s history and giving fans what they think they want. Yet that old sense of interchange or possibility is missing: you never catch the show in a moment, as you often did in the old days, in which you could almost hear Dan Harmon thinking out his next move. The result feels a lot like the second season of Twin Peaks, after the departure of David Lynch and Mark Frost: it was still weird, but in a calculated way, as if strangeness were simply a part of the premise, rather than something that the show’s creators found themselves doing while trying to tell a story in the only way they could. Mad Men is both the best and the strangest show on television, and it’s dazzling in the way Weiner lays out the pieces and dares us to put them together. He even gives us a few helpful hints. But I’m not sure if I entirely trust him.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2013 at 9:22 am

Vince Gilligan and the dark genius of Breaking Bad

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It’s generally agreed that the two greatest dramas on television today are Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two consistently fascinating shows that air on the same network and appeal to similar demographics, but which in other respects couldn’t be more different. Mad Men, as I’ve said before, is almost fractal in its simultaneous commitment to fine detail and shapely storytelling, and it comes off as a seamless piece of narrative that could go on serenely forever. Breaking Bad, by contrast, is a lumpier, shaggier, messier show that often seems on the verge of coming apart entirely. It has narrative problems that I don’t think it ever truly solved—notably involving the character of Skyler White—and it didn’t really come into its own until halfway through the third season. It can feel contrived, and its seams often show. But at its best, it reaches greater heights than any other recent show, Mad Men included. And much of its appeal comes from the fact that creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff clearly don’t always know what will happen next, but are willing to follow the characters into strange, dark places.

I’ve been a big fan of Gilligan ever since I first saw “Pusher,” my favorite episode of The X-Files, and one of the great pleasures of  Breaking Bad is the chance it affords to watch Gilligan and his writers think in real time. Breaking Bad is all but unique among important television shows in that its underlying conception changed radically after its first season, as the writers began to honestly examine the story’s implications. The series began as a finely crafted but somewhat facile black comedy about an essentially decent family man forced into a life of crime to pay his medical bills. As the show went on, however, it became increasingly clear that this premise, which made for a great elevator pitch, was unsustainable over the course of many seasons—at least not without a radical shift in tone. The result is a show that has become increasingly bleak in ways I don’t think even Gilligan anticipated, but to his credit, he has remained fully committed to the show’s new direction, based on a simple concept of dazzling audacity. As Gilligan said to the New York Times Magazine: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”

Which is exactly what Breaking Bad has done. The fact that it has succeeded so completely is a testament to the strength of its cast, especially Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, but also to the power of committing fully to the logic of the narrative, even if you don’t know precisely where it will lead. This applies to individual story arcs and episodes as well as to the shape of the series as a whole. In a wonderful series of interviews with Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club, Gilligan admits that his writing staff will generally begin each season with only a vague idea of where it ends, and often plot only three or four episodes ahead. This is very close to how I write my own novels, with detailed outlines taking me a third of the way through the story at a time, and it’s a thrilling way to write fiction, since it allows you to control the narrative to a certain extent while still being unsure of where the characters will ultimately go. The difference, of course, is that Gilligan and his team are doing it in public, with each season airing before they move on to the next, and it’s especially fun to see the show revisit elements from earlier seasons—like the sinister figure of Tio Salamanca—in ways that nobody could have anticipated.

And it’s also careful to keep its options open. Gilligan notes that even the writing staff doesn’t know much about the mysterious background of Gus Fring, the icy antagonist played so brilliantly by Giancarlo Esposito. This is partly because Gilligan feels, and rightly so, that certain characters “are sometimes more interesting the less you know about them,” but also because they don’t want to commit themselves without reason. Similarly, they’ve never said anything about Walt’s mother, or even shown us her picture, in order to keep certain possibilities alive. Whether or not these elements will ever pay off is an open question, but Gilligan and his writers have proven themselves experts at playing the long game, even if they aren’t entirely sure what the next move may be. It’s that constant play between constraint and possibility—between honoring the rules that the show has established while also leaving a few things in reserve—that makes the series so riveting from episode to episode. And it’s a measure of the show’s mastery that even as Walter White’s options continue to contract, the show’s own options seem limitless.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2012 at 10:15 am

Farewell to Glee

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I can’t quite remember when I gave up on Glee. For the first two seasons, I watched the show regularly, both because I enjoyed it and because it was the kind of creative, ambitious mess that can be more interesting to think about than a conventionally tidy series. Glee often fell flat on its face, but it did so in unexpected ways that made me reflect on the nature of storytelling, the challenges of episodic television, and the power of ensembles. After a while, though, it just became too exhausting. The show was still good for a handful of transcendent moments, but I found it increasingly hard to sit through the rest, especially as it became clear that the writers had no idea what to do with their most important characters. Finally, I just stopped. Until this week, I hadn’t watched an episode all year, not since “Asian F,” which aired all the way back in October.

And yet I occasionally found myself missing it. Sometimes I’d watch a clip online, or think back to the promise of Glee‘s first season, or just remember the characters, some of whom I still cared about, at least in their earlier incarnations. (I also had a surprisingly good time watching the concert movie on a plane.) Still, I wasn’t really tempted to check in again. As I recently put it to a friend of mine, there’s so much good television available these days, both on the air and on DVD, that I have no excuse for watching a show that doesn’t stand at the very top of its game. Mad Men, for instance, is basically awesome all the time, and Community isn’t far behind. And when I still haven’t seen most of the Sorkin years of The West Wing or all but a few episodes of The Sopranos, it’s hard to justify investing time in a show that pays off only intermittently.

Of course, if I’d followed this rule my entire life, I never would have watched The X-Files, my favorite show of all time, which seemed perversely intent on punishing viewers who expected anything like consistency. And sometimes it can be thrilling to see a show you love suddenly return to form. Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club has always been one of Glee’s most interesting critics—he’s the one responsible for the theory of the three Glees—and he has an interesting take on this. To his mind, Glee could have been an observant, sad, but ultimately triumphant series about growing up in a small town while dealing with the failure of your own dreams, which is what it felt like in the pilot. Instead, it was taken over by ridiculous high concepts, big production numbers, and theme episodes, but would occasionally still send dispatches from an alternate universe where that other show still existed.

All of which is to say that I watched the show again this week, if only to see the kids win Nationals at last, and I enjoyed it. Still, it’s startling to realize how little I regret missing the past fifteen episodes: there were plot points or characters I didn’t recognize, but for the most part, this is the same show I remembered—and perhaps more fondly than if I’d been around for some of the low points in between. And as much as I liked this episode, I can also safely say that after this season, I’m done with Glee. Every television show ultimately boils down to a handful of moments in the viewer’s memory, an idealized version constructed out of its best pieces, and the Glee of my imagination—the one that was wistful, funny, and occasionally spectacular—is now complete. It was good to tune in one last time, but now that I’ve shared in that moment, it’s finally time to graduate.

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May 17, 2012 at 9:49 am

What would the Community think?

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The more I think about it, the more I suspect that making great television over the course of multiple seasons might be the most challenging of all sustained creative acts. On a practical level, it’s arguably harder than directing a movie or writing a novel, not just because of the scale and speed required, but because of the uncertainty inherent in network scheduling, in which a show’s creator doesn’t know whether he’ll have one episode, half a season, or six seasons and a movie. Few series have suffered from more uncertainty than Dan Harmon’s Community, which, despite a vocal fan following, has always seemed on the verge of cancellation. Its return is therefore all the more cause for celebration, not simply because the show survived, but because it thrived under awful circumstances: no other contemporary series, not even Mad Men, has faced the vagaries of modern television as well as Community, which has pushed the boundaries of the sitcom in every episode while somehow adding up to a satisfying whole. The result is a master class in both comedy and storytelling.

When I think of Community, the first word that comes to mind is balance. This may seem surprising, given some of the truly unhinged episodes that the show has produced over the past few years, but what really stands out with this series is its ability to coordinate a wide range of impulses and ambitions—any one of which, left unchecked, would lead to disaster—within one remarkably cohesive vision. It’s a fantastically structured and plotted show that also leaves room for its characters to evolve through improvisation. It’s breathtakingly smart and honestly emotional. It’s a whirlwind history of recent pop culture (the second season is the first thing I’d throw into a time capsule to give future generations a sense of what this decade was like) and also fundamentally grounded in the lives of its seven major characters. And like Glee, it began with a cast meant to evoke sitcom stereotypes and then gradually reveal greater depths, but unlike Glee, it succeeded.

The comparison with Glee, which I’m not the first to make—Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club has set it out admirably—is perhaps the most instructive. From its first episodes on, Glee was manifestly a show of vast ambition but limited ability to realize its goals. Community, by contrast, has aimed even higher and nailed every challenge it set for itself. And its ambitions have only grown over time. This was a smart, funny show right out of the gate, but it wasn’t until late in the first season that it locked on to its true potential. Part of this was its discovery of the range of things it could do, from tightly written bottle episodes to fake clip shows to epic parodies of action and science fiction movies, but it also involved refining the characters to take advantage of the strengths of its cast, particularly the astonishing triumvirate of Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, and Gillian Jacobs. (Jacobs, in particular, has been a revelation in the second half of the show’s run, as Britta evolved from a bland voice of reason to a glorious train wreck of a human being.)

Above all else, Community reminds us how to be clever. I’ve written at length about the perils of cleverness, and there are certainly critics who see the show as nothing more than a cleverness machine, churning out movie references and pastiches for its tiny audience. Yet the show’s real cleverness doesn’t lie in its inside jokes and nerd-culture homages—otherwise, it would be little more than a more cuddly version of Family Guy—but in its ability to integrate them into a world that feels emotional and real. Greendale is one of those fictional places in which we want to believe, populated by characters who feel like our friends, and whose lives and problems remain consistent even as they’re fighting zombies or split into alternate timelines. That’s more than clever; it’s astounding. My favorite episode consists of nothing but the characters talking around a table for twenty minutes, but it works because they’re doing exactly what the show does every week: telling stories. And it does it as well as any show I’ve ever seen.

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2012 at 10:20 am

The road to mastery

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“Ten thousand hours,” writes Malcom Gladwell in Outliers, “is the magic number of greatness.” That is, ten thousand hours of hard practice, at minimum, is a necessary prerequisite for success in any field, whether it’s chess, the violin, or even, dare I say it, writing. There’s also the variously attributed but widely accepted rule that a writer needs to crank out a million words, over roughly ten years, before achieving a basic level of technical competence. Both of these numbers are, obviously, sort of bogus—many people will require more time, a few much less. But they’re also useful. Ultimately, the underlying message in both cases is the same: mastery in any field takes years of commitment. And if you need some kind of number to guide you on your way, like Dumbo’s magic feather, that’s fine.

Because the only real path to mastery is staying in the game. Terry Rossio, on his very useful Wordplay site, makes a similar point, noting that when he was just starting out as a writer, he realized that anyone who spent ten years at a job—”grocery clerk, college professor, machinist, airline pilot”—had no choice but to become an expert at it. He concludes:

This insight freed me from the fear of picking a so-called “impossible” job. I could pick any field I wanted, free of intimidation, because it was guaranteed I would become an expert…if I was willing to stick to it for ten years. So I picked the job I really wanted deep in my heart: writing for movies.

The concept of a necessary amount of time to achieve expertise is what inspired the old master/apprentice relationship, in which, for instance, a focus puller would spend ten years observing what a cinematographer did, and at the end, be ready to shoot a movie himself. Writing doesn’t offer such neat arrangements, but it still requires the same investment of time, along with an occasional push in the right direction.

In fact, the best argument for writing full-time is that it allows you to accelerate this process. In the nearly four years I spent at my first job in New York, I wrote perhaps 30,000 words of fiction, only a fraction of which was published. After quitting my job, in the five years since, I’ve written about 600,000 words, not to mention another 100,000 words for this blog—a number that gives even me pause. While not all these words were great, they’re getting better, and close to half are going to end up in print. The number of hours is harder to quantify, but it’s probably something like 7,500, which, combined with the untold hours I spent writing bad fiction earlier in my life, has brought me close to Gladwell’s number. And if I hadn’t spent the past five years doing little else, I wouldn’t even be a third of the way there.

Of course, time by itself isn’t enough. The road to mastery is paved with well-intentioned grinders who work diligently on the same story or comic for years without showing any sign of improving. (The cartoonist Missy Pena memorably described this type to Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club at this year’s Comic-Con. VanDerWerff writes: “Plenty of people who get—and deserve—bad reviews come back year after year after year, never quite getting what it is they could do better, treating the whole thing as a kind of weird theater.”) But even if time isn’t a sufficient condition, it’s at least a necessary one. Every great writer has served an apprenticeship, even if he or she doesn’t like to admit it, and if you haven’t rushed into print, you can always deny it when the time comes. As Hemingway said, when a suitcase filled with his old unpublished stories was lost: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2011 at 9:05 am

What I’ve learned from Glee

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The other night, my wife asked, with genuine curiosity: “Why do you like Glee?” Which, honestly, is a really good question. I don’t watch a lot of television; I’m not, as far as I can tell, anything close to Glee‘s target demographic; I know that Glee is fundamentally flawed, and often disappointing; and yet I find it fun to watch and, more surprisingly, interesting to think about. But why?

My only answer, aside from the fact that I like musicals, that that I enjoy Glee because of its flaws, because it can be frustrating and horrifically uneven, because it regularly neglects its own characters, and because an average episode can get nearly every moment wrong—and yet still remain a compelling show. For a writer who cares about pop culture, it’s the most interesting case study around. (As opposed to, say, Mad Men, which is the best TV drama I’ve ever seen, but much less instructive in its sheer perfection.)

Here, then, are some of the lessons, positive and negative, that I’ve tried to draw from Glee:


1. Do follow through on big moments. Howard Hawks defined a good movie as having three good scenes and no bad scenes. The average episode of Glee has maybe three good scenes and eight bad scenes, but the good stuff is usually executed with enough conviction and skill to carry the audience past the rest. The lesson? Every story has a few big moments. No matter what else you do as a writer, make sure those moments work.

2. Do invest the audience in your characters as early as possible. Glee‘s pilot, which now seems so long ago, did an impressive job of generating interest in a massive cast of characters. Since then, nearly everything the pilot established has been thrown out the window, but the viewer’s initial engagement with Will, Rachel, and the rest still gives the show a lot of goodwill, which it hasn’t entirely squandered. (Please note, though, that a cast of appealing actors goes a long way toward maintaining the audience’s sympathy. In a novel, once your characters have lost the reader’s interest, it’s very hard to win it back.)

3. Do push against yourself and your story. A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff has done a heroic job of arguing the “three authors” theory of Glee: that the show’s creators—Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan—each have distinct, and conflicting, visions of what the show should be, and that this inherent tension is what makes the show so fascinating. Similarly, much of the interest of an ambitious novel comes from the writer’s struggle against the restrictions and contradictions of his or her own story. (Of course, if you don’t give yourself at least some constraints, such as those of genre, you aren’t likely to benefit from this.)


1. Don’t neglect structure. Remember the importance of constraints? The trouble with Glee is that it doesn’t seem to have any. Early on, the show established a tone and style in which almost anything could happen, which is fine—but even the most anarchic comedy benefits from following a consistent set of rules. In Glee‘s case, a little more narrative coherence, and a lot more character consistency, would go a long way towards making it a great show, rather than a fascinating train wreck.

2. Don’t take your eye off the long game. Glee rather notoriously went through four years’ worth of plotlines in its first season, and as a result, the second season has seemed increasingly aimless. Obviously, it’s hard for most TV shows, which hover precariously between cancellation and renewal, to plan much further ahead than the next order of episodes, but a novelist has no such excuse. A writer has to maintain the reader’s interest over hundreds of pages, so as tempting as it is to put all your best ideas up front, it’s important to keep a few things in reserve, especially for the ending.

3. Don’t give the audience what it wants. Joss Whedon, as usual, put it best:

In terms of not giving people what they want, I think it’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need. What they want is for Sam and Diane to get together. [Whispers.] Don’t give it to them. Trust me. [Normal voice.] You know?

Glee, because it was so successful so early on, and with such a devoted fan base, has repeatedly succumbed to the temptation to give viewers exactly what they want, whether it’s more jukebox episodes, bigger musical numbers, or a romance between two of its leads. (And fans don’t like it if the show takes one of these things away.) This approach might work in the short term, but in the long run, it leaves the show—as is becoming increasingly clear—with nowhere else to go. Remember: once your characters, or your readers, get what they want, the story is essentially over.

Of course, none of these issues have hurt Glee‘s success, and judging from the last few episodes, the show is making an effort to dial back the worst of its excesses. And I do hope it continues to improve. As much as I enjoy it now, a show can’t work as a case study forever. Because a show like Glee is always interesting…until, alas, it isn’t.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2010 at 12:11 pm

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