Monday, August 08, 2005

The Television Novel: Thoughts and Musings

I

Once upon a not-so-distant time, there was a television show.

It was a bit of an odd duck. It combined a genre premise--aliens, supernatural occurrences, government conspiracies--with a decidedly mainstream setting. To the great surprise and bewilderment of almost everyone involved with it, it became a major success. Critics adored it for its clever writing and the superb performances of its two stars. Before long, it had so thoroughly penetrated the mainstream that everything about it, from the main characters' names to the distinctive six-note opening of its theme song, was instantly recognizable even to non-viewers. It spawned spin-offs and imitations, and even a feature film. For a while, genre and semi-genre television was the hottest thing around.

By the time all this had happened, however, the seeds of the show's destruction had already been sown. The show's creator, tired with self-contained, weekly stories, started telling a bigger story about a vast conspiracy and a tantalizing revelation that lay at its core. Fan reaction was ecstatic and intense. A barrage of theories and a mountain of criticism began to accumulate. The show's creator, meanwhile, having no idea where his bigger story was going and what the ultimate truth at its center was, began to stumble. Instead of answering questions, he compounded them, contradicting himself and degrading the integrity of his characters and the trust his viewers had placed in him in the process. By the time the show ended, several years after most people had stopped caring, it and the bigger story were parodies of their former selves.

The X-Files was on my mind quite a bit during the last television season. I was trying to pinpoint the moment in which I stopped caring. When did I realize that not only did the show's writers not know where they were going, they didn't care, and in fact had never had any intention of going anywhere? They were quite comfortable where they were, thank you very much, telling the same story over and over again while pretending to be moving forward. In essence, the X-Files writers had found a way to write formula that looked like a continuous, multi-part story. Mulder and Scully find some tiny piece of the alien conspiracy puzzle (which, as like as not, contradicts all the other pieces we've seen before). Their lives are placed in danger. They survive but lose all their evidence. Despite occasionally throwing the viewers tiny continuity bones (Scully's sister dies. Mulder learns his sister's fate), the 'mythology' episodes of the show, as they became known to fans, were as standardized as the ones about Fluke-men or reincarnated killers.

I started thinking about the moment I stopped being an X-Files fan because last January I stopped being an Alias fan, for largely the same reasons. Ostensibly a show that keeps reinventing itself, Alias never strays far from its formula--Sydney living a double life, unable to trust even the people she loves, working for Arvin Sloane and chasing after the secrets of Milo Rambaldi. It was the last iteration of this formula that caused me to turn off the TV in disgust (apparently I wasn't alone in this. According to Dark Horizons, the show's next season is likely be its last). As Alias' Byzantine games of trust get buried deeper and deeper under nonsensical and contradictory revelations, the characters cease to be human. They are merely meat automatons, positioned by the writers in familiar poses.

It's worth noting the qualitative difference between the collapse of a show like The X-Files and that of, say, ER. The latter show has devolved into a soap opera: the characters have lost focus, the writers have gotten bored, the premise is tired. These things happened on The X-Files, but their cause wasn't the passage of time but the writers' failure to live up to their unspoken promises--that the story they had started had an ending, that this ending explained and justified the many twists and turns the viewers had been taken on, and that the viewers would get to see this ending.

II

One of the smartest observations I've ever seen about writing in general and genre fandom in particular came from the weblog of Teresa Nielsen-Hayden, who writes:
When I’m teaching expository theory to young writers, I always tell them yes, you should figure out your world’s geography, history, economy, climate, material culture, religion, and quaint social customs; and then you should leave 98% of it out of the story. If you do, the 2% you mention will feel solid and accurate to your readers, but it won’t overtax their patience by making them remember details they don’t yet care about. Fiction should not make you feel like you’re studying for the test.
And then goes on to observe
There’s the paradox of it: A lively, fast-moving story can so engage the audience’s imagination that they’ll go to all the work of reconstructing the background notes; but if that same information had been left lying around underfoot on the surface of the page, slowing and encumbering the narrative, the readers wouldn’t have cared enough about the story to go on reading.
Which is equally true when it come to television series. Teresa doesn't point out, however, that readers, or viewers, are just as likely to become obsessively intrigued by a story whose author hasn't gone to the trouble of figuring out its ending before beginning it. If you were a fan of The X-Files in the early and mid-90s you know what I'm talking about. If you're a fan of Lost today, you know it even more. The illusion of depth is easy to create, so long as you're never asked to draw back the curtain on your work. All over the world, millions of obsessive fans are ready and eager to take the lies of some television writer and mold them into the truth.

So how, given this fact, do we separate truth from lies? How do we tell a show whose writers simply want to keep it on the air as long as possible from one whose writers are truly interested in telling a good story?

III

Once upon about the same time, there was another television show.

This show was decidedly not mainstream. It was set in space, several centuries in the future. It had aliens covered in green latex, massive space battles, interplanetary intrigue. At the time, the field of space-set genre television was rather thoroughly dominated by one family of shows, but to the surprise of almost everyone, this new upstart was able to steal the hearts of a many genre fans. It became the de facto standard for space opera, so much so that the writers of the older show began copying it. They, too, wanted to tell complex political stories that spanned several episodes and even several seasons. They, too, strived to make their characters morally ambiguous, to tell stories that didn't always end well for all concerned, and to question the intelligence, and the good intentions, of those in power. Before long, you couldn't write a show set in space without including these elements.

The secret of the new show's success, everyone said, was that its creator had had the entire story plotted out before he even began production. One story, spanning five years. Fans delighted in trying to puzzle out the story from the clues provided, knowing that even the most insignificant details had a place in the creator's grand design.

Things went wrong when the cable channel producing the show declined to pay for its fifth season. The creator scrambled to tie up all the loose ends he had left, and to reveal as much as he could of what was supposed to come later, only to find another channel willing to give him his final season. By then, however, the damage had been done. Too much of the fifth season's story had already been told. The creator had to drag the remaining storylines out, and he had to make them surprising to viewers who had already been told what was coming. The result was a mess, and one by one viewers started noticing what their enthusiasm for the show's unique format had caused them to miss--that the show wasn't actually that good. The writing tended towards melodrama and sentimentality. The acting, with one or two exceptions, was wooden. The dialogue was unnatural and overblown. To add insult to injury, the show's creator made several television movies and a spin-off series, all of which were quite dreadful. By the time the show wrapped up, it had left a bitter taste in the mouths of most of its fans.

It's probably giving Babylon 5 too much credit to say that it shaped modern television, but it was certainly a harbinger of things to come. Babylon 5 proved that there was more to television than formula, and that if they knew they could trust you, your viewers would stay with you week after week and be far more loyal than viewers of formula shows. Without B5, we might not have shows like Buffy, Angel, Farscape, Veronica Mars, and Battlestar Galactica (but also 24, Alias and Lost).

But Babylon 5 also demonstrated the dangers of telling a story that was too inflexible. It's a lesson that many television writers have failed to learn. After an intriguing yet slow first season, HBO brought its eerie Carnivale back for another season this past winter. The show dripped with foreshadowing, and the writers obviously had an intricate story in mind--at one point, creator Daniel Knauf announced that he had a three-act story in mind, each act spanning two 12-episode seasons. But the second season moved at a snail's pace, and the revelations, when they finally came, were thin and unconvincing. Viewers were left to wonder why they had given so much of their time and attention to a show that wasn't paying them back in a good story. Ratings dropped, and Carnivale was cancelled this spring. It's possible that, had Knauf been willing to compress his story and move the plot faster than his master plan called for, Carnivale's deficiencies might have been overlooked. (Of course, television history is littered with the corpses of shows that were originally intended as a multi-episode story with a predetermined ending but never had the time or the ratings to even get past the first chapter--Carnivale joins such shows as American Gothic and Pasadena, to name but two.)

IV

I started watching four new television shows this season--a high number for me--and it's interesting to compare their approaches to long-term storytelling.

Veronica Mars is the most carefully plotted of the bunch. The central conceit of the entire first season is that Veronica is obsessed with solving the murder of her best friend. Although individual episodes often revolve around a mystery unrelated to the murder, most of them advance the investigation in some way. The show's creator, Rob Thomas, knew who the murderer was going to be when he wrote the first episode, and he and his writers did a masterful job of laying down a foundation of clues, slowly building up to the revelation of the killer's identity in the season finale. In essence, the first season of Veronica Mars is a mystery novel in 22 chapters.

At the other end of the scale, there's the new Doctor Who, a show that was almost entirely episodic. I've already written about how the slowly building mystery, which the viewers were aware of long before the characters, served to tie the season together and give it the impression of a 13-hour story, but there's no denying that the threads that connect the separate episodes have more to do with character development (the transformation of the Doctor's brittle cynicism; Rose's growth from a star-struck child, excited at the chance of exploring the universe, to a mature, yet saddened, adult, capable of making decisions that affect an entire planet; Mickey's disillusionment with Rose) than with plot. At the same time, it's clear that Russell T. Davies knew how he was going to end his season when he started it.

The caption in the opening credits of the new Battlestar Galactica keeps assuring us that the Cylons, the seemingly indestructible robots bent on the extermination of the human race, have a plan. That plan is the reason they attacked humanity when the one ship that could conceivably escape their weapons was still a few days away from being decommissioned. It's the reason they're manipulating several members of the Galactica's crew, toying with the surviving humans rather than simply killing them off. It's a plan that has a great deal to do with the Cylons' religious beliefs, and according to Ronald D. Moore, neither the plan nor the theology have been completely worked out.

One of the factors in Moore's favor is that Galactica's storyline is progressing at close to real time--four episodes into the second season, the entire show has spanned just over three months. It makes sense, given the short period of time since the extermination of nearly all of humanity, that the survivors should still be primarily concerned with keeping themselves alive, and less interested in asking questions that viewers have been obsessing about for months. Nevertheless, the longer Moore takes to answer these questions, the more data accumulates that he's going to have to incorporate into the Cylons' master plan when it is finally revealed to us, and the more frustrated his audience will become at being left in the dark. It seems hard to credit when talking about such a smart, unpredictable show, but Battlestar Galactica could easily collapse under the weight of its own unanswered questions.

Just look at Lost, a show with an almost unprecedented quality differential between the superb first half of its season (carefully plotted in advance back when the show was supposed to be a 10-hour miniseries) and its frustrating and boring second half (written after the show shot into the stratosphere and was renewed until 2023). The Gilligan's Island comparison, an unfortunate joke at the beginning of the season, is now an unfortunate reality--it is against the writers' interests to tell us anything of substance about the survivors' situation, and they will therefore work very hard to keep their characters in the status quo. They'll ask questions, but never answer them--they have no idea what the answers could be, and anything they come up with will be inherently disappointing and badly foreshadowed.

At first glance, the lesson here seems to be that carefully plotted, novelistic storytelling=good; pulling revelations out of a hat in order to extend your story's shelf-life=bad. But is it really that simple? The examples of Babylon 5 and Carnivale certainly suggest that not only is planning ahead not enough to make a good show, it can sometimes prove a hindrance. Some of the best television series of the last decade have taken a laid-back approach to novelistic storytelling. Joss Whedon famously foreshadowed Buffy's death at the end of the fifth season all the way back at the end of the third, but most of the details that bridged those two seasons weren't planned in advance. Should we conclude, therefore, that planning ahead and knowing where you're going are all well and good, but only within limits? Can a television series tell a novel-like story only if it's contained within a single season? And if so, does this restriction only apply because of the economic model of modern television, in which writers can never be certain of more than a season's grace?

V

Television is probably the visual medium most suited to novelistic storytelling. Why then are true TV novels so rare? Why do so many shows scuttle themselves by pretending to tell a continuous story when in reality their writers are making the story up as they go? Why do so many truly novelistic shows fail to find an audience, or end up crushed under their own weight?

The current economic model of television prefers longer-running shows to shorter ones, and open-ended shows to those with a predetermined length. Which gives us two approaches that can destroy a show. In the first, the writer introduces a mystery without knowing himself what its solution is. In the second, the writer knows the solution, but intends to delay its revelation for as long as possible. It's probably not a coincidence that these two problems--bad plotting and under-editing--also plague the world of book publishing.

So, where is the happy medium? How much planning ahead is too much? The secret is probably to remember what kind of show you're writing. In an episode of Law & Order, remembering the characters' personal issues is practically optional. If your show is 24, on the other hand, you might not want to pull the name of the traitor out of a hat. After the season finale of Lost aired, a lot of television reviewers berated viewers for being disappointed, reminding them that Lost is a character-driven show. This is, of course, complete crap. There is character-driven television out there--shows about people who keep making the same mistakes over and over again, shows whose plots are merely lenses through which the writers can focus on their characters' flaws and imperfections--but Lost isn't one of them, and if your premise is '50 people trapped on an island where weird shit happens', then one of your writing goals should be to explain that weird shit before your audience gets tired of your prevarication. By the same token, if you've got every scene of your multiple season-spanning story planned out before you even get a green light, you had better be certain that a) you've actually got a story worth telling, b) said story really needs to be as long as it is, and c) no one and nothing can change your format once you've started.

All of which comes down to writers who know their material and know what kind of story they're trying to tell. Russell T. Davies has consistently called the first season of the new Doctor Who a love story and a character exploration, and the writing, for better and worse, reflects that. Rob Thomas knows that, as good as his characters are, he is, first and foremost, telling a mystery. Joss Whedon understood from day one that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was only ever about the question of being a superhero in the real world--how do you carry the world on your shoulders and still remain a part of it?

In other words, the secret to good novelistic television is the same as the secret to good novels--get a good writer, with a clear idea of the kind of story he wants to write, give him a decent editor who will reign him in and let him know when he's gone off-course, keep commercial considerations out of the equation, and then sit back and enjoy the show.

7 comments:

Joel Bass said...

Very well said. I think shows like the X-Files and Lost have really abused the trust of their viewers, and I'm no longer interested. Veronica Mars may be the only series I've seen with a true and satisfying ending, and I'm dreading its next season.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I was actually going to say something (because, clearly, I hadn't written enough) about how, if we view the first season of Veronica Mars as a novel, then the next season won't be a continuation but a sequel, which is a word that strikes terror into the hearts of fans. Sequels are never as good as the original work. They can be better, and they're often worse, but I can't think of a sequel that maintained the level of quality. I have a great deal of faith in VM's production team, but it's mixed in with some serious concerns, especially when you consider that next year's mystery probably won't have the emotional resonance of the Lilly Kane murder.

Rich said...

Rather than a novel, think of a season -long TV show of this type as being a collection of short stories with shared characters and setting. Rather than a sequel, the following season becomes a follow-up collection of stories building on the first set.

The problem with the X-Files was that they ran out of stories to tell. Even if the larger arc was left nebulous, I think the fans would have forgiven it if the stories themselves maintained the quality and variety of the earlier seasons.

Babylon 5's fifth season? Never happened. (We're currently rewatching the season 3 DVD set and enjoying it all the way.)

Lilian said...

Very interesting. I'm quite surprised you don't mention Twin Peaks, which exemplifies some of the points you're making: the first series was tigtly plotted to reveal Laura Palmer's dad, aka BOB, as the eventual murderer, so despite massive amounts of internal whimsical twiddly myseriousness by Lynch, the series hung together and was able to mix humour etc etc with an almost unbearable tension at tmes. The second series by contrast clearly never quite knew wheer it was going and had a sudden weirdo wrap up when the series was cancelled.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I didn't mention Twin Peaks, Lilian, for the simple reason that I've never managed to watch the show's entire run. I was just a kid when it first aired, and although a local channel aired the show a few years ago, it did so just as I was getting ready to leave the country for five months. I caught the first five or six episodes before I left (and liked them quite a bit), and came back just in time to catch the very end of the second season. Since I know that the story ends badly (and that Lynch apparently compounded weirdness upon weirdness for no other reason than to befuddle his audience) I don't feel particularly motivated to fill the gaps.

hidden identity000 said...

Well said, but I'm wondering if you think there's any way that a narrative can be interesting without needing to go anywhere, climax-wise. The X-Files for example. To me the trouble came when they tried to reveal too much: at which point it did seem like a satire of itself. Had they never done that - and given, like you say, the mainstream detective format of the show - isn't that in itself kind of cool? Kind of really cool? That two detectives never manage to figure anything out, or really to save anyone, but are constantly searching? Isn't that more like life?

The same with Lost. That show is like a blank canvas, they could play with anything on there. The characters ARE so good, and they've got all their philosophical undertones, John Locke and Rosseau and etc. All those philosophers talked about the state of nature and what it means. Why can't thye just keep playing with it? Why does it have to be tied up?

I guess I'm asking if you think the only point of a narrative is to provide that tense to climax moment when it's resolved and done with.

Same with novels, really. I take it you don't like Tristram Shandy?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm wondering if you think there's any way that a narrative can be interesting without needing to go anywhere, climax-wise

I'm not sure I thought so when I wrote this piece, lo, these many moons ago, but I've been rethinking the issue lately. I wrote a companion piece to this essay that reassesses some of its core assumptions.

You're right that a narrative can be worth watching even if it doesn't tend towards a conclusion (and anyway, stories can develop and advance in ways that aren't directly linked to plot). The problem with the shows you list - The X-Files and Lost - is that they bill themselves as novelistic, and keep promising a resolution their writers can't or have no intention of delivering (I think Lost has other problems besides, and I'm not thrilled with its characters, but this is probably where its problems begin). It's the lie, and its inevitable discovery, that are at the root of the shows' failure.

That said, I think novelistic television is something worth striving towards, a worthy exploration of the medium's capabilities and strengths. There's nothing wrong with formula, but that's been, and is still being, done. I'd like to see this new format explored, as some shows are already doing, with varying degrees of success.

(Tristram Shandy is on my to-be-read list. I'll let you know what I think when I get to it.)

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