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.

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Some Uninformed Impressions of ‘American Horror Story’

I’ve watched approximately 23 minutes of American Horror Story, FX’s new haunted house yarn spun by Glee & Nip/Tuck creators Murphy and Falchuk. There’s a part of me, the part that follows TV critics on Twitter and blogs who love AHS, that wants to go to the “Catch Up” category on On Demand and immerse myself in the series. But there’s another part of me that is avoiding AHS like the plague. Here’s why:

AHS seems incredibly misogynistic. Granted, I’ve seen less than half an episode, BUT the part that I did see turned me off from watching any more because it was so violently sexist. There are critics on both sides of the fence on this one. One of my favorite TV thinkers argues that the show is not sexist – it’s just following horror tropes. But this doesn’t preclude the show from being misogynistic; the horror hallmarks AHS calls on are not exempt from scrutiny just because they’re traditional to the genre.

If David Lynch had no class or vision, he would have made AHS. By that I mean the show is sensational for sensationalism’s sake. The gimp suit, the nurse costumes, the two versions of Moira etc. make great visuals and one-off mysteries but don’t really serve the larger plot. Which brings me to the next problem…

There is no larger plot. Remember when Lost ended and you felt lied to and hurt like when you realized dinosaurs never existed? Well, even though my 23 minutes of AHS viewing is not long enough to get a sense of the story arc, it was enough to tell that the show is headed down the Lostian path. AHS is still figuring out where it wants to go, which concerns me because a show which relies heavily on serialization should already know it’s destination (at least for the first season). But it’s clear that Murphy & Falchuk’s latest project is flying by the seat of it’s proverbial pants.

Perhaps Julieanne Smolinski at NYMag said it best: “did NO ONE make plans to write this series beyond, ‘It’s a haunted house. Sometimes there are butts.’ ???” Side note: “Ghosts and Butts” is actually an early Jane Austen novel, but she stole the premise from the Bronte sisters. The Bronte version was heavy on the ghosts whereas Austen really focused on the butts. See what I mean? No focus in this show! It makes me dream up fantastic yet non-existent 19th century Brit lit rather than pay attention to what’s actually going on because the creators don’t even know what’s going on!

For now, AHS can sit in it’s little creepy box and maybe, when I feel like I won’t give up in frustration because I think there won’t actually be any reward for my efforts after the gimp suit fades, I’ll watch American Horror Story.

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