Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model

I Want To Believe

(After reading, check out my follow up post: “If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV?“)

It all started, like so many televisual things do, with The X-Files. The supernatural horror show was the first to pioneer the use of an intricate, series-spanning mythology in prime time television.

It was ambitious. Prior to the 1980′s, TV plots were all episodic, neatly wrapped up by the end of the 30 minute time block. In the ’80s, some shows began experimenting with seriality, creating stories that arced over several episodes. But the concept of creating season long, or as it turned out in the case of The X-Files, a nine season long narrative, was unheard of.

It was risky. A complex serial storyline makes it much harder for new viewers to tune in, and in a format where viewership is perhaps the most important factor, it’s a big gamble. Like the “art television” (Twin Peaks) that it took many of it’s cues from, The X-Files brought exclusivity to TV.

For the viewers that had been watching since the pilot, what would they think of this new type of storytelling? Would they like it? More importantly, would they understand it? Chris Carter and gang thought so. The best shows, the best works of art for that matter, are always the ones that don’t underestimate their audience.

But, it was messy. If you’ve watched the entirety of The X-Files,  you know what I mean. The mythology is rambling, sometimes ponderous, sometimes thrilling, sometimes elusory, and in the end, not really cohesive. But it was the first to undertake an open narrative in such scale and complexity, so I think it’s allowed a few mistakes.

Despite The X-Files’ many missteps, J.J. Abrams still owes a lot to Chris Carter and the writers of the series. Building off of Carter’s work, Abrams launched such hit shows as Alias and Lost. However, Abrams didn’t address the issues of narrative cohesion that plagued The X-Files, so each of his shows reached similarly unsatisfying endings.

I’m Lost…

If The X-Files pioneered this style, why am I calling this the J.J. Abrams model rather than the Chris Carter model?

Because Carter’s only hit (regrettably) has been The X-Files, whereas Abrams has created, written, or produced more shows than possibly any human being ever (hyperbole, but it goes without saying that he is one of the most prolific creators of TV today). While The X-Files did it first, Lost made it the current popular standard.

The success of Abrams’ shows, like Lost, early on eclipsed their dissatisfying ends and encouraged others, who might not be as capable as Abrams, to reproduce this complex narrative style. The result has been a slew of poorly constructed television that promises exciting twists and turns but ends up spinning out of control, offering up developments that are each more arbitrary and unlikely than the last or leaving important aspects unresolved.

Terra Nova is a good example of a Lostian format gone horribly wrong. The plots were poorly conceived or poorly executed (often times both), and the characters were one dimensional. Structurally, the show was unable to balance its “Monster of the Week” episodes with the larger mythology, which left the first season feeling like it had failed to create a mythology or self-contained storylines. All of this led to a very unsatisfying, and often maddening, viewing experience. Trust me. I watched and wrote about every episode. No, I did not receive hazard pay.

An American Horror Story 

Is there a solution to this increasingly frightening situation facing American TV today? I think so, and it starts with the quote made famous by Johnny Cash, or Albert Pennyworth, or possibly Kenny Rogers: know your limitations. It’s better to make an entertaining, tightly knit narrative than to create an inconsistent one with random or inconsequential plot twists in every episode. Try something new. Pushing the boundaries of any medium is the best way to find growth, but in an era where TV is struggling for relevancy in many ways, taking risks isn’t encouraged. But when it works, it really works.

Take, for example, American Horror Story, one of the biggest hits of the n 2011 Fall season. In an earlier post, I expressed concern that the show was following the J.J. Abrams model of leaping into the narrative before looking, and therefore it was was certainly headed for an unsatisfying conclusion. But, I was wrong. Creators Falchuk and Murphy recognized that AHS’ format was untenable to sustain over several seasons, so they decided to take a risk and conclude the current plot by the end of the first season and start over in season two with a whole new storyline. Whether this will pay off audience-wise remains to be seen, but I think it will certainly keep the show entertaining and interesting far longer than if they had tried to force the narrative onto subsequent seasons.

With Abrams producing several new shows this season (Alcatraz and Person of Interest) and another one of his projects, Revolution, having just been picked up by NBC, I hope we’ll see some evidence of learning from past mistakes. I’m not holding my breath on that, though. At least we have another season of Arrested Development, the pinnacle of narrative control, to look forward to.

Click It!

I spend a lot of time reading blogs, listening to podcasts, scanning Twitter feeds, and  I wanted to share some of the awesome things I’ve come across this week (note the ironic pairing of an NPR article next to an article that criticizes NPR. Don’t worry, NPR, I still love you.)

In Defense of Slow TV [A.V. Club]

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s TV show to be aired on Russian channel [The Guardian]

Gender bias at NPR – and what it reveals about the world of literary fiction [Boston Phoenix]

David Milch: Trying His ‘Luck’ With Horse Racing [NPR]

The Lucky Touch of Spartacus (Podcast) [Boob Tube Dude]

Letting The Right One In: Identifying with ‘Enlightened’s’ Amy Jellicoe

If you’ve read my thoughts on the top ten shows of 2011, you know that I think HBO’s Enlightened is pretty good stuff. Starring recent Golden Globe winner Laura Dern, Enlightened is billed as a comedy, but it’s the most heart-wrenching, cringe-worthy, rollercoaster “comedy” that I’ve ever seen. Each episode is like watching a car accident at varying speeds: dreamy slow-motion, desperate fast forward, and sometimes the pace of painful everyday life. And whose driving this out of control car? Amy Jellicoe.

Post nervous breakdown and treatment, Amy returns to rid her former life of its poison, literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, the world she returns to is not as responsive to her breathy assurances or laid-back attitude as she had hoped. In fact, it remains relatively intractable. Newly focused on environmentalism, activism, and sustainability, Amy chafes against her data entry job at her former employer, a company that knowingly sells toxic personal products to consumers. As she tries to change the company and her life, she encounters constant roadblocks that challenges her, and the viewer, to ask, “Can we really affect change?”

Watching Amy is painful, because, well, she’s Amy.  And she’s always Amy. Whether she was always oblivious to social cues and parameters or she has recently overlooked them as part of her new lifestyle is unknown (I suspect the latter), Amy blunders around like a brahma bull in the china shop. She is always late for work and constantly overstepping the boundaries of coworkers and loved ones in the hopes of reigniting former friendships and allies. Her genuineness drives people, and potentially viewers, away.

So how do we relate with an in-your-face character like Amy? It’s writing 101 that the audience has to identify with a character to engage with a show, book, movie etc. That doesn’t mean we have to like them. There are lots of detestable characters throughout history that have captured the attention of audiences. Hannibal Lecter comes to mind. Despite his perversity, we root for him. We admire his intellect and cunning, and sympathize with him when he’s treated with disdain by the prison officials. Of course, it helps that we don’t really see all the horrible things he’s done. But what about Amy? Do we admire her despite witnessing all her awkward, oblivious interactions?

Certainly, there are admirable things about Amy. She never gives up on her journey to change her life and the lives of others, even if that means swallowing her pride. But, at least for me, admiration is pretty low on my list of emotions I associate with Amy. At the top of list are: uncomfortable and frustrating.

So if I don’t strongly admire Amy, why do I stick with her, other than the rubbernecking desire to see how the car crash ends? It’s because I recognize traits that Amy and I share. It’s tough to swallow that I, or anyone watching, has anything in common with Amy. She’s a total disaster. I don’t want to admit to myself that I know what it’s like to be sucked into total despair. I don’t want to admit to myself that I’ve said and done awkward things in public that probably cause others around to judge me. I don’t want to admit to myself that I know what it’s like to yearn for strong human connections only to be rejected. But I do. I think we all do. And that’s why we stick with Amy.

It’s hard to realize that you identify with a character because of your shared flaws, but it’s a powerful link. You might push Amy away at first, but letting her in is cathartic. You may realize something new about yourself. And isn’t enlightenment what you, me, and Amy are all looking for?

The Artist: This (Mostly) Silent Film Will Have You Talking

The darling of critics and award shows, The Artist has already taken home a few statuettes and is a shoe-in for Oscar gold. While other films may be more viewer friendly, none can match the wit and charm of this film. Much of that charisma is due to leading man Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a silent movie superstar whose career is being crushed under the wheels of progress. The “talkies” have come to Hollywood, and nothing, not the movie business, not Valentin’s life, will ever be the same again.

Audiences who see The Artist will also likely never be the same again. Sitting in the darkened theater without any of the usual noise is disorienting at first. What our brains have come to expect – the sound of words with moving lips or a slam with the image of a closing door – is suddenly not there. Eventually, you adjust. The language of the movie -  dramatic gestures, lots of dancing, and the occasional title card – becomes clear and you realize that the relative silence allows you to appreciate a shared chuckle or gasp with your fellow viewers that much more.

Then, The Artist throws a curveball. A glass clinks, a dog barks and modern life intrudes on the audience and Valentin. In many ways, this film is great because of what it chooses to leave out, and when it chooses not to leave it out anymore. Director Hazanavicius cleverly plays with sound and other contemporary techniques to address the audience and make a point or share a joke. Each deviation from the rules of silent cinema, whether it’s the simpering laugh of a showgirl or a shadow with a mind of its own, is a reminder that The Artist knows you’re watching and that it wants to subvert your expectations.

Just as Hazanavicius blends current and old-fashioned techniques, the actors must bridge the gap between the silver screen days of cinema and today. Luckily, the magnetism of Dujardin and his co-star Berenice Bejo, who plays Hollywood starlet Peppy Miller, is undeniable. They can play broad and subtle, which allows them to be expressive enough to convey their emotions without dialogue, but not be so campy that they alienate modern audiences.

On top of Dujardin and Bejo’s engaging performances, there are some great cameos by more well-known actors. John Goodman is an imposing studio exec, James Cromwell is the loyal chauffeur, and Malcolm McDowall just happens to be on set one day to see Peppy Miller off on her promising career.

At its heart, The Artist is a movie about movies, and its ardent enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. While it’s never clear who the titular artist is, I suspect that it refers not to a someone but a someplace: Hollywood, and everything that goes along with that iconic name.

TV To Watch In 2012: The Flowchart

Was one of you new year’s resolutions to watch more TV?. With all the great new shows premiering and old favorites returning, it probably should have been. But how to choose what to watch? Let my flowchart be your guide! (Click to enlarge)

Cross posted at The Faster Times

Blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.

%d bloggers like this: