The Uncanny Valley of Narrative Plausibility; or, Why Treme is weirder than Game of Thrones
There’s a scene in the second season of 30 Rock where Frank explains a concept called the uncanny valley (for the benefit of Tracy, who would like to make a porn video game). The concept is one first associated with robotics, but has become useful in other contexts like computer animation, and it describes a problem we have with representations and reality. “As artificial representations of humans become more and more realistic,” Frank explains, “they reach a point where the stop being endearing, and become creepy.”
The graph Frank uses, which I stole from the uncanny valley wikipedia page, and the accompanying Star Wars explanation Frank provides illustrates the problem quite nicely – on the far left side, you have R2-D2 and C3PO. On the far right side, Han Solo. The uncanny valley is, of course, Jar-Jar Binks. As a representation draws closer to reality, we are less inclined to accept the representation as a fictional construct that stands-in for real life, and we become more and more distracted by everything that looks wrong about it. The result is a strange but undeniable phenomenon where Mr. Incredible appears more persuasively realistic than the computer generated image of a young Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy.
I love this idea, and I think it’s applicable for representations of reality outside of the visual. In particular, I find it a useful explanation for a problem of plausibility in narrative, especially as it relates to coincidence and character networks. In my proposed Uncanny Valley of Narrative Plausibility, a movement toward reality maps onto the increasing role of chance in narrative, and the closer one moves toward the valley, the higher the likelihood that meetings between characters or important turning points in the plot appear to happen by accident. The idea is the same as that of the visual uncanny valley: there comes a point where we find plausibility in narrative less persuasive (and maybe just less interesting) than circumstances more patently contrived. Let’s look at some examples.
On the far right side of the graph, of course, we have reality, where chance meet-ups in a bar generally lead to nothing, and that one, totally unlikely time I ran into my college roommate in a New York State rest stop even though neither of us lives in New York is just that: totally unlikely. The role of randomness in our lives is so prevalent that we try desperately to pretend it doesn’t exist by believing in fate, and we so love coincidences that we see them all the time. Most of the time, though, the guy standing in front of you in the line for curly fries will not turn out to be your brother.
On the far left side of the graph are television shows like police procedurals and some soap operas. Coincidence is so prevalent and unavoidable on these shows that it doesn’t even register as coincidence – every character is someone else’s former lover, and every scrap of paper is a relevant credit card receipt for a rare color of automotive paint that just happens to be the exact same paint found at the crime scene. Everything is a clue, every pregnancy test comes back positive, and we hardly even notice how bizarrely significant everything is, because it’s a story. We want there to be clues everywhere! Clues are far more interesting than boring crumpled scraps of paper that mean nothing, and we watch shows like this because we like it when interesting, unrealistic things happen all the time.
In the middle area, things get more complicated, and we come to the reason I stumbled onto this idea in the first place. My two examples here are Game of Thrones and Treme, in part because they both air on HBO Sunday nights, and their proximity invites comparison. Mostly, though, I’m drawing on Treme because I think it’s actually fairly unusual to fall into the Narrative Plausibility version of the uncanny valley, and trying to figure out what’s weird about Treme is what first led me merrily skipping down this path.
So first, the not weird – as you move away from the police procedural end of the spectrum, things get bigger, and messier, and often darker. Game of Thrones is a good example, though you could just as easily use any number of critically-acclaimed hourlong dramas (certainly The Wire, but also Friday Night Lights, or The Good Wife, or Justified), and this point about coincidence is easiest to see in shows that have big, intersecting character networks. Game of Thrones, like the novel it’s based on, follows many different character groups (several feuding families, the Night’s Watch, the Dothraki horse people), and as events force groups to split apart and characters to splinter away from their families, the narrative increasingly resembles a map full of potential plot connections passing each other in the night. Inevitably, though, encounters happen, creating a cascade of new narrative possibilities. In one early example, Catelyn Stark is traveling across the country on her way home from a trip to the capitol, and happens to stop for a meal at the same inn where Tyrion Lannister, the man she suspects of attempting to murder her son, has also stopped for the day. When he recognizes her, she rallies support from the tavern full of people and carries him off to be tried in her sister’s court.
From one perspective, this whole plot seems to result from one chance meeting. It feels plausible because these things happen in real life (I, after all, ran into my college roommate in a rest stop in New York), and with so many significant characters all running around Westeros, it feels entirely appropriate that they should happen to show up at the same inn one night. On the other hand, of course, this whole plot is the epitome of narrative contrivance, every bit as unlikely as the tell-tale credit card receipt. One episode after Catelyn finds evidence to suspect Tyrion, they show up at the same tavern, at the same time, miles away from anywhere? What’s more, the tavern is full of men who just happen to be wearing the sigils of several houses that owe allegiance to Catelyn’s family? And then this incredibly unlikely encounter leads to a fight to the death in a terrifying mountain court and Tyrion gaining the support of a band of wildings? The event itself, and then just as important, the impressive chain of subsequent events caused by the meeting, is unbelievably unlikely, but it hits such an ideal narrative sweet spot. It feels random and plausible, but it’s also meaningful and significant, and we buy it right away because it’s fiction, and it’s doing exactly what we like fiction to do. Causes have powerful, immediate, interesting effects, and we can assume that boring stuff happens in the background while also only paying attention to the interesting stuff.
There’s an episode in this season of Treme with a scene not unlike the Catelyn/Tyrion tavern showdown. Two former New Orleans residents meet up in a bar in NYC to watch a Saints game, and Treme‘s audience already knows both of them. Janette used to own a restaurant in New Orleans and has moved to NYC to restart her career, is a former lover of Davis the DJ, and has run into several other characters while out and about during parades or in clubs. Delmond is an accomplished jazz trumpeter who has similarly moved to New York for his career, and whose father is one of the New Orleans Indian chiefs. In the bar, they meet and realize they vaguely recognize each other, and chat for a little while. Janette goes to one of Delmond’s gigs. A few episodes later, they have dinner. And then… nothing. They make no useful career connections. They like each other, but do not become best friends. They do not sleep together. The season isn’t over yet, but somehow I doubt they’ll convince each other to move back to their homelands. The best I’m hoping for right now is a slightly more fully-fleshed metaphor about how Janette’s new discovery of soulful yet refined food is similar to Delmond’s New Orleans jazz fusion.
No question, this scene from Treme is farther to the right of the reality spectrum than the one from Game of Thrones. As the episode makes clear, this is a bar full of New Orleans ex-pats who are all there for a Saints game, so the same time/same place thing actually makes a fair amount of sense. And really, the likelihood that these two would meet again without building a relationship that has a significant impact on either of their lives is also completely within the boundaries of normal life. It is… real. Weirdly real. Uncomfortably, oddly real. And instead of thinking, wow, Treme is truly dedicated to its verisimilitude, all you think is, “why should I care about this scene? What is its purpose?” Down there, deep in the uncanny valley of narrative plausibility, all you can see is artifice and missed opportunities, and you lose track of how good the acting can be, or the show’s political message, or the fact that you actually do like watching it.
So this is my proposed Uncanny Valley of Narrative Plausibility – a piece of storytelling so actually possible, it draws more attention to its flaws than its good attributes. I’m not sure how many other examples I could come up with, largely because there aren’t that many shows which try to move farther to the right side of the graph. In spite of all of this, I do like Treme. It worked its way into this unpleasant place by trying to do something experimental with television storytelling, by de-emphasizing plot and pushing against the ways we usually depict community.
I just wish it looked a little more like a story, and less like real life.