The demands of television – what viewers expect and don’t expect out of it – warps narrative storytelling in weird ways. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because what else am I do to without 30 Rock,? Short of living every week like it’s Shark Week (which, sadly, you cannot), I can only read lots of internet articles; a couple brought up something I haven’t really thought about, because it’s kind of an obvious issue: TV storytelling’s strange interaction with time. From The AV Club and The Renaissance Gamer:
Sure, the first season or two—the first 26 hours—are rough and not terribly interesting, but you have to watch all of them anyway to understand the really good stuff that you’ll love once you finally get there!
I imagine a well-balanced show to be circular. Everything fits best in a circle; they’re the most efficient use of space. Most shows have an efficient premise, but as they add characters, cliffhangers, history, and continuity, they start getting ungainly. The mythology takes over from the storytelling…There’s no plan, things get lost, forgotten, ignored, or worst of all, lose their impact because they get cut out of the story, by retcons or resurrections or whatever.
Both of these deal with long form narrative storytelling, which is its own very particular species within the Television family. A show like Law and Order, CSI or even comedy half-hours like The Office and 30 Rock can have long-running narrative threads. Will Jim and Pam get together? When will Liz adopt a baby? Will the Team catch that serial killer? Plots and relationships can carry over from episode to episode, across seasons and across a series as a whole. But the revelation of those plot and character arcs are not central to the identity of those shows.
With something like Lost or How I Met Your Mother the revelation of narrative information is indeed central to the show’s overall progression: this is to say that you tune in every week to get a little bit more information on what the hell the Island is, on who the hell The Mother might be. It may not be what happens every week – or there may only be leaps forward during Sweeps and season finales – but the telling of A Story is ingrained in the show’s design.
It doesn’t have to be serial mystery or question – your “Will the Galactica find Earth?” or “What happened to Mulder’s sister?” or even “(How) Will the Glee club win nationals?” and their ilk. Some long form narrative shows place their center of gravity in a character and revolve around telling their story – Walter White’s decent into darkness, Buffy Summers’ rise to fight vampires. The Wire seeks nothing less than to create a multifaceted exploration of the city of Baltimore, and through it to plumb the soul of the American urban experience. It’s concerns are societal, almost biblically so.
I would argue that all of these shows place their feet in both camps, that they aren’t solely concerned with one kind of serialized appeal. But they are designed such that you are supposed to want their universes to expand and for their characters to grow and change. Frustration occurs when the situation remains static, or regresses somehow. You want progress in the long run; you want fulfillment of a narrative that occurs over time.
Hence the strange situation wherein satisfaction can accumulate along with continuity, the situation in which the kind of pleasure the viewer is seeking is one that has to be earned over tens or scores or even hundreds of hours of viewing. An example: there’s a moment in the season five premiere of Mad Men in which Joan brings her baby to show around the office, gets called away for a moment, and leaves the pram with Pete and Peggy; the two share a look, neither knowing what or wanting anything to do with the baby. They argue over who should watch it. Pete leaves. It’s a funny beat because of the incongruity of two people who clearly are not comfortable with children being forced into contact with one.
But, if you’ve watched the earlier seasons and you know that Peggy secretly had Pete’s child and put it up for adoption, that beat has an entirely more complex, acetose taste. Yet this visual stab of meaning is incidental to the story, and over in an instant. It’s not as if Peggy and Pete get saddled with the baby all day and a subplot of the episode revolves around the two confronting the life they might have had together. It’s a gag of sorts. It’s like a visual garnish, appreciated fully only by the discerning Mad Men connoisseur. There’s a multivalence to the moment you simply cannot grasp without more than an hour, most probably more than forty hours, of extra story experience.
Think about how crazy that is. Think how much you as a person change over the course of three years, or five years, or ten. What other medium asks for or rewards that kind of long term investment? A film major friend confidently bragged to me that he can tell whether a movie will be good or not in the first ten minutes. The most someone has advised me to plow through a novel before my effort would be rewarded is the first hundred pages. Growing up after the advent of mix tapes and burned CDs, I’ve never really experienced albums as discrete entities, but I can’t imagine there are too many, outside of prog-rock and free-form jazz, fans would ask my patience of for over an hour before “you really get it,” or “it really gets good.” Television storytelling asks you to live with it, to carry it around, to remember that Pete got Peggy pregnant three years later.
For this reason I completely understand The Rennaissance Gamer’s frustration with shows whose universes are not as well ordered or whose axis of rotation degenerate over time into a nonsensical squiggle. It’s a lot of time to waste. Yet the traits of unplanned continuity he identifies – retcons, resurrections, lost/forgotten (Waaaaaaalt!) plot threads, or a sense of ungrounded improvisation guiding the narrative’s progression – are not inevitable or insurmountable, or even necessarily problems at all. Structurally, The Wire’s seasonal focus on an individual institution tainted by the drug trade – gangs and police themselves, the ports, politics, education, and media – is crisp, clean, and perfectly suited to delivering the all-encompassing, soulful damnation of David Simon’s love letter to Baltimore. But a structure as comprehensive as this, or even something like Babylon 5’s Five Year Plan which I still need to watch, isn’t the norm or the only successful way to keep a long running series from sagging.
I think ‘sagging’ is the wrong word to deal with unplanned or ungainly narrative choices, because all of these writers are very, very smart people. Even if they don’t make deliberate foreplans, they make choices. For me, my Television Trinity is Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These are the series that have shaped me the most as a person; these are the ones I come back to again and again, and let’s face it: they can be messy. They have whole seasons, or chunks of seasons, or plotlines that didn’t work, or got dropped, or dragged on for too long. Their writers did not have a Master Plan, even if they said they did, or found their Show Bibles to be as just as contradictory as ancient texts often are, or had to cope with outgrowing their initial premise, a changing cast list, and multiple networks. Bear with me here, but I want to explore some long form narrative problem solving.
If you had asked newly minted film major-me about the sixth season of Buffy, I probably would have defended it along these lines: “I mean, aw, you can’t not love the musical! And so many great standalones in that one. I mean, it’s sort of the SADNESS FOREVER season, with the, you know, super not subtle magic as addiction metaphor and the character deaths to facilitate a Dark Phoenix homage and well, Spike, who they’d clearly written to the limit a season ago. But it’s not terrible!” Season Six executes many of the Renn Gamer’s problematic narrative choices, although it doesn’t do so in service to a foundational series mystery, and so does not distort the series’ structure quite so fundamentally.
Yet, I came to a completely new appreciation of season six of Buffy after I graduated college. It was only after I had accomplished everything that I’d set out to do as a student that I fully grasped the pain and fear of being without direction, of feeling like you cannot get back to the place where you knew yourself. I don’t bring this up to speak about how one’s appreciation of a story changes over time (that’s another article) but because, that’s the true conflict of the season: how life will get away from you if you let it. It’s a case where efficiency isn’t the ideal, where frustration with the narrative is the emotion the writers want to create, where the circle should be an oval. The point of the season is that these people’s problems keep them from going anywhere. I just didn’t have the life experience before to come to that interpretation.
And yet the season got to exist, got to play to audience of youngsters like me, because it has five other seasons of not-existential crisis (by and large) in which fans have invested and come to care for the characters. Even though there is no ultimate endpoint sketched out to Buffy, the season is a serial digression. (Though, as in all things, not entirely. In the premiere, Buffy has to climb her way out of her own grave; in the finale, she and Dawn climb out of one together, a combined beat of character growth and narrative circularity.)
It is, of course, a question of taste whether you believe such digressions or creative serial problem-solving are valid means of structure. I will only say that those with preference for complete foreplanning and pristine structures have precious few shows that fit the “better” model. Most embrace television’s unique relationship with time: because the art isn’t packed into a single experience, the way a film or a painting or a musical composition is, there is more room for the artist to play and more for the artist to play with over time. I think this is what we’re getting at when we call long form TV narratives “novelistic” because novels have that same breathable space in which to unfold, the same distance between experiences which allows experimentation in tone, direction, and format.
A show like The Wire has the fiercesome, breathtaking precision of something like Gawain and the Green Knight, with its seasonal structure of four parts and the symbolism of its 101 stanzas. Lord knows how vigorously scholars defend digression in Joyce as essential to the overall affect of his prose, even though Finnigan’s Wake gets more unreadable by the hour. Do you skim the whale anatomy parts of Moby Dick or do you man up and learn about the Right Whale Folio? Should you watch the entire first season of Dollhouse, or just skim the pilot and skip to the episode with Patton Oswalt where it starts to pick up?
What we’re talking about here is a pleasure that’s directly connected to the time-commitment the viewer gives to the show. Part of the pleasure of television as a medium is its variety, even among shows with long runs and narratives of great serial ambition. And even among those without them. When Liz and Tracey end up in the same strip club from the pilot in the series finale, Tina Fey is giving you something for your time by having the show’s present interact with its past, an acknowledgement that you know this place, that these people mean something to you: that the series is a part of your life and not just some flickering, fluttering magical silver screen that overawes you in the dark.
In conclusion, the narrative meaning and pleasure of most TV shows deepen over time as the show allows the viewer to interact simultaneously with multiple moments, past and present, as it creates the emotional wealth to expend experimenting or making creative choices that aren’t as well ordered, even just as the viewer experiences the basis for fanservice moves later on. If you’re bingeing on a series, you really do (usually) want to spend that time, even if in terms of “quality” certain sections are uneven or outright bad compared to where the series hits its stride. The people who thrust season 1 of Buffy on you want you to like it and they want you to like the “Previously On” for the season five finale. If The Sopranos and Netflix and the “rise of serialized TV” has done anything, it’s really been to make that particular kind of pleasure prized by TV viewer.
In conclusion conclusion, I miss you already, 30 Rock. Kenneth forever.