Monday, September 21, 2009

Lost in the Wasteland

Part One: The Vast Wasteland

I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

Newton Minow, Chairman of the FCC, in the speech "Television and the Public Interest" delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961.

So said Newton Minow in his famous speech to the National Association of Broadcasters upon taking up the job of Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. It has since become known as the "Vast Wasteland Speech" taking its name from the last line of the first paragraph quoted above in which it is just as often mis-quoted that he said "television is a vast wasteland." To be fair, immediately preceding this most famous section, he actually praised television and specifically called out shows that he considered noteworthy including but not limited to Victory, Twilight Zone and CBS Reports. That section rarely gets mentioned but it's important because without it he is just another anti-television crank. With it he becomes a balanced observer. By recognizing the quality that television has to offer he can bemoan the fact that it also serves up generous portions of drivel that act as filler between the select few good pieces of drama and entertainment out there. Such it is with film, literature, music and probably any other art form to which one devotes anything more than casual attention. One must cut away at the weeds to find the beautiful saplings underneath. Most of the output of the popular arts is lazy, cliched and mediocre. Simply peruse the aisles of a bookstore or video store (if there are any left) if any of this is in doubt.

However, each medium produces a different kind of problem inherent to its method of production that produces in each a unique type of badness when the output is below the upper tier. That is to say each one has unique traits that allow them to be bad in very different ways, and equally good in different ways as well. Since television is the subject for this post, and that's a first here on Cinema Styles, it is television's unique methods of storytelling that will receive our focus and I leave it up to the reader to determine for discussion at a later date what exactly constitute the weaknesses or strengths inherent in film and literature when delivering their stories to the non-discriminating consumer. For our purposes we will stick with the tube, the boob tube as it so infamously known, and it's storytelling strengths and weaknesses.

Unlike a film or a novel, even a film or novel series, television is unique in that it has not only a continuing set of characters but their stories continue in real time. In other words, even in a serial, such as James Bond or Nancy Drew in both film and literature, the continuing adventures of these characters continues on a yearly basis, monthly at best. Where it can take decades to reach 26 installments in the story of a character in the mediums of film and literature, television can produce 26 installments in six months on a weekly basis. Given so much opportunity to develop the character, television can indeed produce great things and has done so with many characters over the years. Shows such as M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, Homicide, and The Sopranos enjoyed success by building on the lives of their characters over many seasons while other shows like Bob Newhart, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Law & Order and Columbo were content to develop traits for the characters that could be recognizable from one episode to the next while developing individual storylines that never required the character to be fully developed over time as each episode stood alone. These are in fact the two primary storytelling templates of television, usually referred to as serial and episodic, despite the fact that all television is episodic in that it is produced in segments, or episodes. Nonetheless for our purposes, episodic refers to shows that produce stand alone episodes, such as M*A*S*H, and serials are shows that provide a continuing, building story, such as Lost, the popular series still in its initial run, and these two shows will be the focus of Part Two.

As to the two types of television storytelling I have more often than not preferred episodic to serial. The episodic show can still develop characters, such as M*A*S*H listed above, but has the freedom to explore different stories without a continuous need for a connecting thread at the end of each episode or even more dramatic, and difficult to achieve on a weekly basis, the cliffhanger. Episodic television also avoids the problem of deciding when the mid-point of the show has been reached since thematically it doesn't matter. Not knowing when the story will complete itself often cause serials to repeat themselves while awaiting a decision or to provide endless loose ends few of which are ever resolved. The cliffhanger, or connecting thread at the end of each episode, is necessary to keep the viewers coming back, but without a definable beginning, middle and end those cliffhangers can't produce real change on the show lest they ruin what may become an important story thread later. Back in the nineties Fox aired a serial drama about five siblings making their way after the death of their parents, Party of Five. Its greatest strength was that its teens and twentysomethings spoke like teens and twentysomethings and not like clever Hollywood writers, an annoying trend of ignoring the character for which the lines are being written and simply giving every character the same clever voice, that of the writer (This hallmark of bad writing plagued such atrocities as Dawson's Creek and continues to plague much television drama and comedy as well as everything on the Disney Channel). It's greatest weakness was that there was no dramatic arc, a weakness shared by most serial dramas. Most serial dramas (most, not all - see Part Two), aren't building towards anything and Party of Five was no different. It was just there, week to week, as we followed the characters living their lives. There was nothing the show itself was moving towards, no goal, no endgame and that was not and is not conducive to good dramatic storytelling. Storytelling likes beginnings, middles and ends. Serial storytelling rarely if ever knows where that middle is and even more rarely has an end in sight. Usually the end arrives simply because the characters have run out of steam and viewers are tuning out. As the seasons went on with Party of Five the characters grew weaker and the desperate attempts at weekly cliffhangers grew more deceptive. Near the final season was a particularly deceptive one. The scene: Bailey (Scott Wolf) and Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt) go to the apartment of her mother because Sarah has not heard from her for days and is worried. As the episode reaches it's climax the two enter the apartment together with Bailey then entering the bedroom alone. The music ominously swells to a crescendo as the camera zooms into a tight close-up of Bailey's horrified face as he stammers "oh my God." Smashcut to black, to be continued. Pretty dramatic huh? Was the mother dead? Suicide? Murder? Did a grisly scene await Sarah just outside the door? No, no, no and no. The mother was simply gone and the room was in disarray. That was where the "oh my God" had come from, seeing the room in disarray. Then they found a message that she had gone on an impulsive trip, to Vegas I believe. And that was it. After a couple of bait and switch routines like that you learn to stop trusting serial television and start expecting mediocrity and laziness. But you can't fault the writers too much. They were tasked with bringing the audience back even if they knew there was no dramatic arc and nothing would ever happen.

The bait and switch of deceptive cliffhangers becomes necessary in a storytelling structure that has no beginning, middle or end. They all have a beginning to be sure but without knowledge of where the second act commences even the beginning is questionable. Daytime soap operas rely on cliffhangers on a daily basis and yet they continue for years, sometimes decades, without any meaningful story or character changes occurring. At their core, serial characters and stories progress virtually unchanged, languishing in a storytelling limbo that has no idea what final resolutions await the characters. This is, I believe, the fundamental flaw of network television. Episodic or serial, the characters and stories flop about, playing for time as executives and ratings determine whether the show will continue or not. All the rich character development in the world is meaningless if the character ends abruptly because the writers never knew what was the story arc of the drama.

A novel or film has an enormous advantage over television in that the writer knows going into the story where and when it will end. That doesn't mean every novel and film is better than every television show, quite the contrary, simply that the method itself in producing novels and film is more conducive to proper storytelling. But what about the long term story?

The long term story is one in which the writers at least know how the story will end even if they don't know exactly when it will end. In the cases of miniseries they do know both the "how" and the "when" but we will stay with regular seasonal series for this discussion. In the case of the long term story, television has its advantage over novels and film in that it can take its time developing the characters knowing full well their final fate. The long term story can be told quite differently from show to show and can exist in both episodic and serial series. Let's look at one from each, an episodic and serial example, M*A*S*H and Lost.


Part Two: The Long term Story, M*A*S*H and Lost

M*A*S*H debuted in 1972, two years after the successful Robert Altman film based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. While the show was episodic in nature with each episode standing alone the creators and writers of the show knew how it would end, with the cease fire in 1953, if not when it would end. This allowed them to slowly build towards a finale and build stories for the main characters that could be continued in a non-serial sense. For instance, Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, played by Alan Alda, hailed from Crabapple Cove, Maine, was unmarried, had a strong relationship with his father, womanized, drank heavily and slowly but surely developed affection for and sexual intimacy with Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit. The writers continued to develop these character traits and situations of Hawkeye without necessarily connecting one episode to another with a continuing serial plot line. The story continued but the plots changed from episode to episode.

During the course of its eleven year run M*A*S*H "remembered" what had happened in previous episodes to keep the basic story going and characters developing as they made their way towards a conclusion. But the show also broke traditional episodic television norms with its character changes. Most episodic television, then and now, replaces a departing character with a similar character to keep what was popular going. For example, if Gomer Pyle exits The Andy Griffith Show then his brother, Goober Pyle, takes over providing almost the exact same character for fans to enjoy. When the simple minded Coach leaves Cheers a younger simpleton, Woody, takes his place. But M.A.S.H. did things differently. When McLean Stevenson left the show his character of Colonel Henry Blake was killed, and the befuddled, gentle non-military Blake was replaced with a career military man, sharp and disciplined, Colonel Sherman T. Potter, played by Harry Morgan. When womanizing Trapper John left, faithful father and husband B.J. Hunnicutt arrived. Incompetent buffoon Frank Burns stepped out, highly skilled, erudite and culturally aloof Charles Emerson Winchester stepped in. And that mirrored reality more than situation comedy. It's rare anyone is replaced at a job they've left with an oddly similar doppelganger. But television is more often than not afraid to take the chance that the audience will stay with them if something new is introduced, hence the preponderance of pod-people replacement characters in the history of network television.

In the end, M*A*S*H knew where it was going but didn't know when it would arrive and this hampered its originality as the show progressed. Because the show was immensely popular the network kept it going despite the fact that the story was based on a historical three year long event. They knew eventually the actors would clearly look to have aged more than just three years but didn't want to lose a cash cow and the writers and actors didn't want to stop developing characters of which they had grown so fond. As a result, plot lines started to feel familiar and the show began to borrow from itself heavily. Hawkeye writing a letter home to his father became a familiar and all too easy way to show a variety of vignettes that required no plot but could keep the show going. Other episodes used "racing against the clock" plots in which the surgeons once again struggled to save a patient before time ran out. It is not to say that the writers and actors did a poor job with this, just that over time, most dramatic situations had been done multiple times and were starting to feel stale.

After eleven seasons M*A*S*H finally made its way to the historical cease-fire of the textbooks and did its best to tie up loose ends and give the characters a fitting send-off. For the most part it succeeded but as a story with a dramatic arc, a beginning, middle and end, it failed. Despite having a firm conclusion in advance there is no feel of a building storyline ever present when watching an episode of M*A*S*H Watching an episode from the second season back to back with an episode from the ninth season, the viewer would notice different characters and a bit of age on the returning characters but otherwise see no furthering along of the story. They would see doctors in Korea in a M*A*S*H unit, they would see dramatic moments and comedic moments and then see the credits roll with that episode's plot neatly wrapped up. And here is the curse of episodic television: The beginning can only be the very first episode, the ending can only be the very last episode and the middle is doomed to be everything in between, and that makes for one hell of a long second act, too long to work dramatically.

But what about serial television? As noted earlier, it suffers from the same fate when it has no endgame in sight but what if the series is developed with not only a conclusion in mind, but an end date as well? Such is the case with Lost, the current ABC dramatic series about the survivors of downed flight Oceanic 815 on a mysterious island somewhere in the... well, somewhere in the Pacific. Supposedly, Lost was developed with an end in sight and its principal writers and developers stated well in advance that it would end after its sixth season, the one to begin this January. Is it really as tight as all that? Perhaps.

The time frame of Lost is brief. From beginning to end it covers only a few months on the island, however, there are three years that take place off the island as well as three years that take place back on the island thirty years prior with other time displacement events scattered throughout. All this is to say that the main story of the crashed survivors on the island itself, in the present day of the story, last only a few months. Having never watched an episode of Lost on commercial television but in fact watching all of the first five seasons online I was able to approach the show from a unique perspective. Roughly speaking, I was able to watch the show in about the same time as the events on the show were taking place. And I must say, considering that the actors have been playing the roles for five years now but are supposed to have only been on the island for a little over a hundred days, they look remarkably similar from one season to the next. The continuity alone is extremely impressive and probably deserves some sort of special award. But it is the development of the characters and the story that are our concern, and the question of whether Lost succeeds where so many other serial dramas have failed. It does but not without some of the same longevity problems that will most likely always plague serial drama.

First, the story arc. Watching the show every day online, often several episodes at a time, until reaching the end of season five, may have impressed with its continuity prowess but revealed flaws perhaps not as noticeable to the weekly viewer, and the show didn't necessarily produce an episode every week in the first place. Those flaws came in the form of redundancy. Most of season two into the first half of season three felt like watching the same episode over and over and I admit, after the beginning of season three I was ready to call it quits. Apparently the shows creators and producers; J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof; were in negotiations with the networks and an end date was undecided so they didn't want to continue much further with the arc of the story until it was. Watching all episodes back to back to back on a daily basis this was more than obviously the case.

More importantly the series has created an abundance of characters and an over-abundance of story threads that makes one suspicious of how easily all the loose ends will be tied up. Take the characters of Ben Linus and John Locke, played by Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn, for my money far and away the two most interesting characters and two most skilled actors on the show. Their two characters have undergone multiple jarring revelations of who they are, where they come from and what their motives may be for their actions. Logic is applied and then abandoned. Red herrings are most assuredly the order of the day. They are fascinating characters but the misdirections concerning them seem to be doubling over onto themselves at this point. There is a feeling too many cans of worms have been opened to close at this point and perhaps those negotiations in season two and three will be, in the end, the tragic flaw of Lost. By playing for time they may have introduced too many story arcs with which they have to deal. Or maybe, as some fans fear, they're going to reboot for season six to make the clean up a little tidier.

Without going into many details (and to a non-fan of the show explaining the plot at this point would be a fundamentally futile endeavor, a more intricately latticed plot line you will rarely find in network television history) Lost deals with familiar science fiction tropes including that of time travel. At the end of season five a catastrophic physical event made possible by several characters occurs, in the past, which will, they hope, set everything back to normal, but which may just set the show back to day one, when the crash occurred, so that the viewer can watch the final season possessing knowledge the characters don't have as they achieve a conclusion to their woes. While it would be interesting to watch a final season repeat the first season but at a ninety degree angle it would also be a cop out of the first order to destroy every loose end by simply blowing them up. Still, there is a feeling more than most shows I have watched that the writers do indeed know where they are going, and even though it hasn't yet concluded, I can discern a distinct beginning, middle and end. The beginning seems clearly to be season one through the halfway point of season three, the middle is the halfway point of season three through season four and season five clearly feels like the machinations of a final act. To the writers of Lost, bravo, especially considering how complicated the storyline has become.

So the story arc of Lost is good but its quality cannot be fully determined until the series concludes. What about its character development? Here we find Lost's greatest strength and its completist approach to the backstory for each character, achieved through flashback coupled with the present day situation, provides the show with characters as well drawn as any in film. So well drawn that it sometimes becomes distracting to have to follow the plot because of the desire to watch certain characters simply interact.

Lost proves, so far at least in its unfinished condition, that television can produce a proper story arc over multiple seasons, providing an identifiable beginning, middle and end. While it suffers from the fact that two of its defacto leads, played by Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lily, aren't nearly as interesting as most of the other characters and certainly nowhere nearly as interesting as the second leads of Linus and Locke, it still holds the viewers attention and I am as eager as any to follow it to its conclusion, although now I wish I had waited for it to end and just watched the entire series online so there would be no infernal waiting for a final season.

Unlike film and literature, television has great difficulty bringing a story full circle because it operates in the dark most of the time. It wanders around that vast wasteland that Newton Minow described so many years ago, wandering and waiting to learn its fate, rarely knowing when the end will come. But it can succeed and many times has even if many more times it has failed. It probably deserves more credit than it is given for having to extend most characters lives well past their expiration date and continue stories with no end in sight. Maybe in the future more shows will determine their story arcs in advance, allowing the creators and writers to develop a show fully before the first scene is even shot. Until then most television will continue to wander blindly but not all will be without direction. Currently, on ABC, there is a show that, so far, proves one can wander the wasteland...

...and not get lost.