Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The middle ground

leave a comment »

The Mad Men episode "In Care Of"

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What series are you waiting to dive into until you can do it all at once?”

Yesterday, while leafing through a recent issue of The New Yorker, I came across the following lines in a book review by James Wood:

[Amit Chaudhuri] has struggled, as an Indian novelist writing in English, with the long shadow of Salman Rushdie’s Booker-winning novel Midnight’s Children…and with the notion, established in part by the success of that book, that fictional writing about Indian life should be noisy, magical, hybrid, multivocally “exotic”—as busy as India itself…He points out that in the Bengali tradition “the short story and novella have predominated at least as much as the novel,” and that there are plenty of Indian writers who have “hoped to suggest India by ellipsis rather than by all-inclusiveness.”

Wood, who is no fan of the “noisy, magical, hybrid” form that so many modern novels have assumed, draws an apt parallel to “the ceaseless quest for the mimetically overfed Great American Novel.” But an emphasis on short, elliptical fiction has been the rule, rather than the exception, in our writing programs for years. And a stark division between big and small seems to be true of most national literatures: think of Russia, for instance, in which Eugene Onegin stands as the only real rival as a secular scripture to the loose, baggy monsters of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Yet most works of art, inevitably, end up somewhere in the middle. If we don’t tend to write essays or dissertations about boringly midsized novels, which pursue their plot and characters for the standard three hundred pages or so, it’s for much the same reason that we don’t hear much about political moderates: we may be in the majority, but it isn’t news. Our attention is naturally drawn to the extreme, which may be more interesting to contemplate, but which also holds the risk that we’ll miss the real story by focusing on the edges. When we think about film editing, for instance, we tend to focus on one of two trends: the increasingly rapid rate of cutting, on the one hand, and the fetishization of the long take, on the other. In fact, the average shot length has been declining at a more or less linear rate ever since the dawn of the sound era, and over the last quarter of a century, it’s gone from about five seconds to four—a change that is essentially imperceptible. The way a movie is put together has remained surprisingly stable for more than a generation, and whatever changes of pace we do find are actually less extreme than we might expect from the corresponding technical advances. Digital techniques have made it easier than ever to construct a film out of very long or very short shots, but most movies still fall squarely in the center of the bell curve. And in terms of overall length, they’ve gotten slightly longer, but not by much.

Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

That’s true of other media as well. Whenever I read think pieces about the future of journalism, I get the impression that we’ve been given a choice between the listicle and the longread: either we quickly skim a gallery of the top ten celebrity pets, or we devote an entire evening to scrolling through a lapbreaker like “Snow Fall.” Really, though, most good articles continue to fall in the middle ground; it’s just hard to quantify what makes the best ones stand out, and it’s impossible to reduce it to something as simple as length or format. Similarly, when it comes to what we used to call television, the two big stories of the last few years have been the dueling models of Vine and Netflix: it seems that either we can’t sit still for more than six seconds at a time, or we’re eager to binge on shows for hours and hours. There are obvious generational factors at play here—I’ve spent maybe six seconds total on Vine—but the division is less drastic than it might appear. In fact, I suspect that most of us still consume content in the way we always have, in chunks of half an hour to an hour. Mad Men was meant to be seen like this; so, in its own way, was Community, which bucked recent trends by releasing an episode per week. But it isn’t all that interesting to talk about how to make a great show that looks more or less like the ones that have come before, so we don’t hear much about it.

Which isn’t to say that the way we consume and think about media hasn’t changed. A few years ago, the idea of waiting to watch a television show until its entire run was complete might have seemed ridiculous; now, it’s an option that many of us seriously consider. (The only series I’ve ever been tempted to wait out like this was Lost, and it backfired: once I got around to starting it, the consensus was so strong that it went nowhere that I couldn’t bring myself to get past the second season.) But as I’ve said before, it can be a mistake for a television show—or any work of art—to proceed solely with that long game in mind, without the pressure of engaging with an audience from week to week. We’re already starting to see some of the consequences in Game of Thrones, which thinks entirely in terms of seasons, but often forgets to make individual scenes worth watching on a level beyond, “Oh, let’s see what this guy is doing.” But a show that focuses entirely on the level of the scene or moment can sputter out after a few seasons, or less: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had trouble sustaining interest in its own premise for even thirteen episodes. The answer, as boring as it may be, lies in the middle, or in the narratives that think hard about telling stories in the forms that have existed before, and will continue to exist. The extremes may attract us. But it’s in the boring middle ground that the future of an art form is made.

You can’t always get what you want

leave a comment »


Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of Glee.

“The best way to criticize a movie,” Jean-Luc Godard once said, “is to make another movie.” Intentional or not, we find apparent examples of this everywhere: the works of art we experience are constantly commenting on one another, often because similar ideas are in the air at the same time. And two parallel approaches viewed side by side can be more enlightening than either one on its own. Take, for instance, the series finales of Parks and Recreation and Glee, which aired less than a month apart. Both are built around an identical formal conceit—a series of self-contained flashforwards that tell us what happened to all the characters after the bulk of the story was over—and both are essentially exercises in wish fulfillment, in which everyone gets more or less exactly what they want. Yet the Parks and Rec finale was one of the best of its kind ever made, while the conclusion of Glee was yet another misfire, even as it offered a few small pleasures along the way. And the comparison is telling. On Parks and Rec, the characters get what they need, but it isn’t what they thought they wanted: Ron ends up working happily in a government job, while April settles down into marriage and family, even if her firstborn son’s name happens to be Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack-o-Lantern Dwyer. It’s sweet, but it’s also the endpoint of a journey that lasted for six seasons.

On Glee, by contrast, Rachel wins a Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Musical—or exactly what she told us she wanted within five minutes of appearing onscreen in the pilot. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. Glee always approached characterization as a variable that could be altered at will, or by Will, from one moment to the next, cheerfully dumping entire story arcs for the sake of a cheap gag or a musical number. When you can’t be bothered to sustain anyone’s emotional growth for more than an episode at a time, it’s no wonder that each student or teacher’s ultimate fulfillment takes a form that could have been predicted from a few lines of character description written before the pilot was even shot. Those capsule summaries are all we ever learned about these people, so when it came to write endings for them all, the show had no choice but to fall back on what it had originally jotted down. For a show that always seemed endlessly busy, it’s startling how little happened in the meantime, or how much it sacrificed its long game for the sake of a minute of momentum. It was ostensibly about the collision of dreams with reality—or about how hard it can be to escape the small town in which you were born—but in its final, crucial scenes, it seemed to say that happiness lies in getting everything you wanted in high school, and within five years, no less.

The cast of Glee

There’s one large exception, of course, and it’s a reminder that however haphazard Glee could be, it was also forced to deal with factors outside its control. Cory Monteith’s death was a tragedy on many levels, and it crippled whatever hope the show might have had for honoring its own premise. From the start, it was clear that Finn was the one character who might be forced to confront the reality behind his own dreams, looking for a form of meaning and contentment that didn’t resemble what he wanted when he was a teenager. His absence meant that the show had to recalibrate its endgame on the fly, and there’s a sense in which its decision to give everyone else outsized forms of happiness feels like a reaction to the real loss that the cast and crew endured. (It reminds me a little of The West Wing: originally, the Democratic candidate was supposed to lose the election in the final season, but after John Spencer’s sudden passing, the storyline was altered, since a political defeat on top of Leo’s death felt like just too much to bear.) I can understand the impulse, but I wish that it had been handled in a way that lived up to what Finn represented. His most memorable number expressed a sentiment that Glee seemed to have forgotten at the end: you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

And by trying to be all things, Glee ended up as less than it could have been. Last week, while writing about three recent sitcoms, I pointed out that for all their surface similarity, they’re very different on the inside. What set Glee apart is that it wanted to have it all: the flyover sentimentality of Parks and Rec, the genre-bending of Community, the rapid succession of throwaway jokes we see in the likes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That’s a lot for one show to handle, and Glee never lacked for ambition; unfortunately, it just wasn’t very competent or consistent, although its good intentions carried it surprisingly far. After the finale, my wife pointed out that the show’s most lasting legacy might be in the inner lives of teenagers coming to terms with their own sexuality, which can’t be denied. But it could have done all this and been a good show. I’m grateful to it for a handful of unforgettable moments, but that’s true of any television series, which time and memory tend to reduce to little more than a single look on an actor’s face. As Howard Hawks, one of Godard’s idols, said: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.” For television, you can multiply that number by five. Glee had all the great scenes we could ever need, but it racked up countless bad scenes and diminished itself as it tried to be everything to everyone. And it got the finale that it wanted, even if Finn deserved more.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2015 at 9:25 am

The unbreakable television formula

leave a comment »

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.

%d bloggers like this: