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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Top Ten TV Shows In 2011

Meth shenanigans, Austenian redux, zombies, and dawning enlightenment.

1. Breaking Bad Like a modern day Heart of Darkness, Breaking Bad continues to masterfully chart chem-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White’s descent into immorality. Bad is addictive, and this season delivered perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the series.

2. Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes’ ode to Austen may not have been on your radar because it aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, but if romantic period dramas brimming with meaningful lingering looks, sentences that trail off uncompleted yet potent, witticisms, and Dame Maggie Smith are your thing (let’s be honest, everyone loves Maggie Smith), you need to watch this show.

3. Community One part TV show and one part grand experiment – can we make a critical observation about My Dinner with Andre and Pulp Fiction that ends in a poop joke? Or how about an anime sequence about Foosball just to test the waters for an entire anime episode? – Community is perhaps the smartest show on TV. Unfortunately, like other smart shows that came before it (#SaveOurBluths), Community currently faces the ratings ax. Instead, we get Whitney.

4. Homeland The return of Claire Danes and the complex political TV thriller, Homeland is 24 meets The West Wing with a savvy post 9/11 perspective and a captivating story arc that makes it the most talked about new show of 2011.

5. The Good Wife A study of the modern id couched in a smart procedural format that riffs on current events, The Good Wife showcases human nature, which carefully orchestrates and twists societal and legal rules to its advantage. At the center of this Hobbesian universe is a strong woman who confronts and redefines the titular characteristics at every turn.

6. Enlightened The best show on TV that you’re not watching, Enlightened is sometimes a maelstrom and sometimes a gentle breeze, but it is constantly, urgently, gently, pushing and at the heart of it all is Laura Dern who has immersed herself so deeply in the painfully genuine Amy Jellicoe that you don’t realize how brilliant the show is until you let Amy in.

7. The Walking Dead Last season saw Rick Grimes and gang moving often and quickly, but this season has so far been about immobility. Each week felt like the characters were on the edge of a cliff, and any number of things could push them into the abyss, not the least of them being Shane’s alpha male huffing and puffing (and blowing out Otis’ kneecap). In reality, not much happened from week to week, but to the show’s great credit, The Walking Dead managed to maintain its heart-stopping tension.

8. Parks and Recreation Eternally optimistic and dedicated Leslie Knope would seem a rarity amongst government employees, but not in Pawnee, Indiana where effervescent optimism seems to fortify the drinking water and even curmudgeons Ron Swanson and April Ludgate have good intentions hidden behind their misanthropic refrain. Parks and Rec’s bubbly do-gooder mission remains refreshing amidst the often depressing media landscape.

9. Game of Thrones They said it was un-filmable, but like the Lannisters, HBO laughs in the face of danger and high price tags. A brooding and intricate epic of the caliber rarely seen outside of miniseries territory, Game of Thrones demands your loyalty and pays you back by subverting expectations and not coddling you with simplification. Also, what would you say about the weather if you couldn’t say, “Winter Is Coming?”

10. New Girl Quirky, and though I hate to say it, “adorkable,” New Girl is a love/hate half-hour of TV, and I think that’s good. Shows that polarize their audiences usually have a strong voice (like the aforementioned Enlightened), and New Girl is nothing if not it’s own brand of comedy. Deschanel’s Jess is this generation’s Seinfeld, the actor inextricable from the character and seemingly unaware of absurdity. New Girl won’t likely find itself on many TV top ten lists, but I think its interpretation of the sitcom will have an impact and therefore merits a place (albeit, barely) on this list.

Cross posted at The Faster Times

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