Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Television

In a recent episode of the web program "Poliwood" screenwriters and Hollywood veterans Roger L. Simon and Lionel Chetwynd both concluded television programming is of a high quality today. Broadly speaking, anyway. I really could not fairly comment on such a statement because I watch practically no television shows. Yet I do not quite share their enthusiasm and this is mostly because I find television as a medium is really not well understood. There seems to be very little understanding of what the television medium is good for and what material is appropriate to it. Let us take a systematic look at television programming, aka TV.

First, what is the distinguishing characteristic of TV? Foremost is that TV is episodic in nature, consisting of many short episodes either 25 or 45 minutes in length. Second is that these shows are broken then into smaller bits of 7-11 minutes. This is the basic unit of TV and while some might criticize it simply for being, I will not. All art forms have their conventions, scenes, lines, stanzas, meters, et cetera. This is television's. Yet it does bear two faults. First is the persistence of the commercial interruptions and whirligigs on the lower third of the screen are so distracting and deleterious to enjoying the show it is surprising to me they are tolerated. Such tolerance, I believe, we owe mostly to habituation. Would anyone tolerate commercials in the middle of a movie, or between movements of a symphony? Since people time-shift their programming and skip commercials we will not belabor this point as we want to consider what TV might be at its best. Second is that this highly predictable unit creates highly predictable patterns of climax within the drama. This is both highly limiting for the writer and dull for the audience.

Let us return back to the length of the whole show, though, i.e. TV's episodic nature. Episodic content has been derided since Aristotle, who called episodic plots "the worst" for their lack of probability and necessity in the sequence of the episodes and their tendency stretch out a plot beyond its capabilities. (see Poetics, ix.) "Types of plots" and their hierarchy is the subject of its own and substantial essay. We may consider it at a later date. Let us instead focus on Aristotle's point that a given story, speaking generally, will have an ideal form. For as the musician has at first a highly abstract musical idea and then chooses the best structure and instrumentation to express it, so the author must choose the best form for his story. On the other hand we may observe that every given work of art has an essence and this essence may be expressed in different mediums, with the effect of generating variations on the main theme. This perspective is summed up by the [perhaps apocryphal] quote from director Stanley Kubrick, that "If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed."

Adopting this perspective we may then ask "Is there an idea, or at least an unacceptable form or artistic expression for a given work?"  This is impossible to assess without creating a taxonomy of plot types, though we may make a few general remarks: that abstract "stories" are suitable toward musical expression, less abstract but still general and concise concepts and personal statements for poetry,
plots that take place over the course of one day suitable for the stage, spectacle for film. . . and what for television?

Let us consider some existing, common TV genres. Two common TV species are the "Wagon Train" (i.e. a journey through a strange place) and "the [wacky] adventures of. . ." These genres have had countless TV incarnations and are perhaps the most appropriate for episodic expression as the drama of the episode is self-contained. As such they are a good form for morality plays and fables. The only commonalities from show-to-show are the characters, who never undergo any changes in this genre. This genre is commonly called the sitcom. The same is true for the similar genres of the police procedural or courtroom drama. The main problem with this particular style is that it is essentially the same plot over and over again. This fact coupled with the fact that the characters to not undergo any change makes the show dull and repetitive after a point.

Yet there are many TV shows and many in which the characters do change. These shows have several factors to balance: 1) crafting a sensible plot for a single episode (i.e. creating a self-contained drama), 2) crafting a dramatic arc over several episodes (i.e. creating one large drama, since as Aristotle says a proper drama consists not simply of a variety of things one person did, but a variety of significant actions and events, i.e. significant to the theme/moral/point of the story), and 3) working within the time limitations of a) the 7-11 minute blocks of individual episodes, and b) how many episodes they can/must make. As you might imagine successfully balancing these variables is quite a feat. The fact that episodes are written one at a time, often if not usually without a plan for larger story arcs bodes ill for achieving goal No. 2. The fact that the length of the season is not determined by the writer, with the show either being canceled too soon or extended beyond the limits of the material bodes ill for achieving goal No. 3. That TV shows are often canceled early in their run is no surprise, but also unfortunate is when popular shows often continue beyond what they ought to.

The last great challenge of episodic content was voiced by Edgar Allen Poe, who stated episodic content inherently produces no sense of unity for the sum of the episodes. Since they are spread out they cannot achieve the impact that a single event, like a short story or poem, can. Poe also says that certain classes of prose require no unity and uses Robinson Crusoe as an example. The parallel between Crusoe and episodic TV content is fortunate. Such is true and brings us to what I believe is the heart of television's appeal: the passage of time. Poe did not think any benefit could counterbalance the loss of unity attendant spreading out a story into multiple sittings.

Yet the ability of television to reach the viewer weekly, potentially for years on end, is exceptional. Because of this, people, consciously or not, essentially perceive TV as real at some level. Listen to people talk about television characters and how frequently they bring their favorite characters up. This is possible first because of the temporal aspect of TV we already mentioned and second because of the commonplace element of TV. No matter how much one is attached to certain historical or traditional dramatic figures, their remoteness limits how often we relate to them. What TV inherently loses in unity its structure then it inherently provides in apparent veracity. The obvious but extreme case of "soap operas" is the clearest example of this phenomenon. These lives go on and on, paralleling ours for years. (Such shows also have the most banal plots and the plots are stretched out immeasurably beyond their proper duration.)

TV being a young medium we essentially have no barrier in relating to it: it exists in our world. We are not distanced by differences of dress, language, or culture. It progresses with us in our lives unlike a single, self-contained event like a Greek drama. Aside from fantasy and science fiction shows, TV programs are also usually plausible, or more specifically they depict events and places more or less common to us. People know what court rooms, hospitals, and sitcom locales look like and we relate to the quotidian situations most readily. In contrast even "plausible" dramas in the forms of plays and films usually depict scenes and situations we have not been in.

As an aside, one might make a similar point about video games. While being able to make certain moral choices in a game increases identification with the character and situations, having to solve puzzles and perform mundane tasks like walking around diminishes the overall impact of the story.

Above we observed: "a series of events that befall one person do not necessarily make a dramatic plot." TV writers observe this insofar as some of the episodes are self-contained and others have permanent effects on the character and plots which will be developed over time. This blending can be dramatically effective but it also adds to the element of veracity we perceive because in our own lives some days are normal and others (and other events) more broadly significant. Is this mixed style to be praised? Let us perform a little test. Consider your favorite story, a movie or novel or anything. Now consider the main character. Would that movie or novel be enhanced by adding dozens of incidents that do not, or barely, affect the plot? Sure you might feel like you know the character better because you remember when he argued with his wife, was in a car accident, and so on? Of course not. On the other had a series of relevant episodes depicting character-forming struggles might. Veracity then is by itself not a virtue, but an element of TV, potentially useful to great effect. Thus what the plot loses in unity by expansion it does not automatically gain in significance by its veracity. Rather it must use its episodes toward a larger dramatic plot, otherwise it is no better than the "adventures of. . ." species of television.

As we have said some plots then may support interspersed episodes while others may not, likewise a short-form treatment and a long-form treatment have different effects. Yet what stories require dozens and dozens of hours to be told? Miniseries and even films have achieved tremendous breadth of time with the durations of 2-12 hours. Films like Wild Strawberries, 2001: A Space Odyssey and TV miniseries like The Six Wives of Henry VIII, I, Claudius, and John Adams all have tremendous scopes of time. A film need only suggest the passage of time for the viewer to feel it. A filmed version of events that take many years need not in fact take many years. No plot needs so many hours as TV can provide, but rather may optionally be expanded and potentially with good effect.

Briefly we may discuss "reality TV" which may appear ideal insofar as it is indeed "real" and proceeds at a "real" pace. In fact it is the worst of both worlds, providing neither the accurate depictions of particulars (the function of history/documentary) nor the philosophic axioms of art.

TV then is not a poor or inferior medium but it simply tends toward vulgarity, banality, and repetition, yet probably not at a greater rate than any other form. Perhaps the quotidian element of TV is prone toward such things. TV is unique also regarding our expectations of it: we expect a great deal of constant programming content. This puts unnecessary pressure on writers. Good TV, and by that I mean a good TV show from the first episode to the last, is exceedingly difficult to do, consider again the challenges outlined in paragraphs four and five above, without such added limitations. Even if they are met, other than the purpose of achieving a quasi-reality the common "TV Show" structure has no purpose as no plot could require it. That which is not required, is extraneous, and that which is extraneous detracts. Dramatic long-form programming would  better served by the form of the miniseries, which balances concise drama with some and relevant episodic content.

While the miniseries seems to be less popular today, TV programming, especially on cable TV, seems to follow the same pattern, with short 10-12episode seasons. This is not a guarantee for success but it may help remove some of the bloat.

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