The Newsroom, Retro-reporting, and Serial Storytelling

2012 July 10
by kvanaren

Of the multiple sources of disappointment and distaste relating to Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom, I find the resistance to the show’s so-called “retro-reporting” most curious and revealing.

If you haven’t seen the show, or do not frequent the internet TV criticism circles where the show has been pretty thoroughly panned, the background for this whole debate is fairly simple. Sorkin’s show, like several of his previous television series, deals with the behind-the-scenes drama of a television show – in this case, the politics, personalities, and backstage workings of an hour-long primetime cable news show. Unlike Sports Night or Studio 60, The Newsroom has no overt comedic element, which is probably a blessing given that Sports Night is most charming as a comedy that does its best not to be, and Studio 60 famously failed due to its position as a show about comedy that continually failed to be funny. Instead, The Newsroom is chalk full of the portentous and high-minded sweeping gestures about American values that worked surprisingly well in The West Wing.

The major difference between this new show and Sorkin’s other television show about American exceptionalism is also a feature which has drawn significant rebuke. Where The West Wing takes place in an imaginary White House, in which current events and modern politics are given the sometimes-transparent veneer of fictionalized representations. In The Newsroom, that veneer has been removed – News Night and its anchor Will McAvoy comment directly on real life news, and they do so from the comfortable distance of about two years. This narrative position comes as a surprising reveal in the show’s pilot episode, after News Night’s staff turnover and its anchor’s personal meltdown are co-opted by some dramatic event taking place off the Gulf of Mexico. As the audience realizes what’s happening, a caption fades in, revealing the date to be 2010.

This form of retrospective news commentary, the show’s “retro-reporting,” has borne the brunt of many critiques of the show. (Here’s one from Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker.) It’s not hard to understand why. Sorkin’s work already has the reputation for delving too far into preachiness and patronization, and the added narrative wrinkle of The Newsroom’s time-delayed setting feeds that inclination. Who, after all, has more opportunity to be smugly superior and obnoxiously condescending than the guy who chips in his two cents several years after the fact? He can be right about everything! He can put his characters in the most flattering light imaginable and make everyone else look like idiots! He can write lengthy speeches about the debt ceiling, safe in the knowledge that everything will indeed go pear shaped just a few months down the road! How infuriating!

Here’s why I love this whole debate, and why I find the complaints about retro-reporting to be both fascinating and ultimately unimportant. Tim Goodman touches on this topic in his discussion of the show, and his point – that Sorkin has the creative license to do whatever he likes, current events aside – is of course absolutely right. But it doesn’t touch on the full weirdness and possibility of the technique.

By the time almost any narrative reaches a wide audience, its author knows what’s going to happen. From the moment Pride and Prejudice begins, Austen knew exactly what will happen to Lydia, and how captivated Darcy will be by Elizabeth’s fine eyes, and what a creep Mr. Collins is. Safe in the full and complete knowledge of the story’s course, Austen could then write, edit and adjust her novel to calibrate her characters in relation to their ultimate conclusions – Elizabeth will be appealing but wrong here, contrite but still proud there, Darcy will be haughty and cold, and then polite but reserved. In this sense, every author is in the position of omnipotent, all-knowing God, capable of predicting the future and capitalizing on that knowledge for narrative ends.

The only type of narrative in which authors are often denied this position is in serial storytelling, where countless obstacles outside of their control and the vagaries of piecemeal production leave writers almost as much in the dark as everyone else. It’s a facet of seriality that we all find to be equal parts thrilling and maddening. We all want television showrunners to have a plan, but most of us know those plans are at the very least subject to change, and often completely nonexistent.

From this perspective, retro-reporting looks less like a writer elevating himself to new heights of smug 20/20 hindsight, and a lot more like a canny strategy to redress a serious and often baffling obstacle in television storytelling. The two-year time delay allows Sorkin and other Newsroom writers to work against a known framework, to look ahead and find at least some assurance of what the future will look like. There’s still an enormous – near infinite – opportunity for flexibility and change. Any depiction of current events requires significant selection and editing, which in turn makes it possible for many different kinds of stories to be told. And of course, it is entirely up to the Newsroom writing staff to determine how its characters will respond. But adding the “retro” to the “reporting” allows Sorkin to rebalance some of the narrative power in his favor, and to regain a little of the authorial omnipotence that the serial medium always wrenches away.

All of this is not to say that I think The Newsroom is necessarily a great show, or that its storytelling strategy will enable Sorkin to guide its characters safely through the tricky morass of the recent past. You can have all the advantage of hindsight and still make as many mistakes as you like regarding, say, depictions of your female characters, or the wisdom of tone-deaf stentorian lectures on the Tea Party cut into an even more obnoxious montage. But I am currently loving The Newsroom for the way it highlights this feature of serial storytelling and authorial power, and for Sorkin’s attempt to work around some of the form’s complications. I suspect the attempt will prove to be quixotic, but that too will be sufficiently Sorkin-esque.

It’s important for your alien invasion to have a clear agenda

2011 July 27
by kvanaren

I’ve been catching up on the TNT series Falling Skies this week.

Although I’d been meaning to look at it for a while, I was prodded into action last week at Comic-Con, where despite my inattention and the fact I didn’t go to the Falling Skies panel, it kept cropping up in my peripheral vision. One early morning, while hiking over to the Hall H line so we could see the Spielberg Tin-Tin panel, I was handed a free Falling Skies-branded cup of coffee, which I took (of course). “What’s Falling Skies?” David asked. Later that day, we showed up in the Fulfillment Room to trade in our swag tickets for a The River-branded flashlight (mine broke immediately), only to feel jealousy toward the people holding Falling Skies tickets, who were given very nice black hoodies. “What’s Falling Skies, again?” David asked. And finally, while wandering around the exhibit hall, I craned my neck to see what was going on behind a large crowd of excited fans, only to catch a glimpse of Noah Wyle et al doing a Falling Skies signing. “Wait, *what’s* Falling Skies?” David asked.

I can hardly blame him for never quite catching an explanation, as my answers were always unmemorable and vague. “Something about an alien invasion?” I hedged, basing my entire answer on the title, a few promotional stills, and a memory of Noah Wyle looking determined and post-apocalyptic.

So post-Comic-Con, I sat down with the pilot, and quickly found myself five episodes in. It’s a genre I like, and Noah Wyle as Dr. Carter on ER has featured significantly on my TV-viewing experience, and Steven Weber makes an appearance as a heartless, pessimistic doctor. Not too hard for me to enjoy, in other words. But I think Falling Skies makes some particular choices that help propel it past “huh, aliens” and “hey, there’s not much else on TV right now” and lands it squarely in “oh, that’s kind of interesting.”

First, I like the decision to begin the narrative significantly after the aliens first arrive on earth, skipping over the early posturing and confusion and jumping straight into post-apocalyptic survival mode. It’s not an easy or necessarily obvious choice to make. Alien invasions are fun. That first moment where a geek hears a mysterious radio signal, a child points at enormous ships appearing in the sky, clips of newscasters talking over images of the ships above the Eiffel tower, the Sydney Opera House, downtown Hong Kong — these are all entertaining, familiar, and effective, and I love Independence Day as much as the next person. Still, skipping over that part has a few very useful consequences. The writers can no longer rely on those familiar crutches for the first episode, which means original storytelling and character development get a nice jump start. When the tropes of a genre like this are so well-established, the audience is always waiting to find out what will differentiate it from V, or episodes of Doctor Who, or Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline, War of the Worlds, etc. etc. Leaving out the part where everyone first freaks out that aliens have actually arrived, means getting to the interesting, post-invasion stuff faster.

(Note: This was a big problem with V, where the apparently-nice aliens clearly had an evil agenda, but the audience was stuck waiting for the fictional world to figure it out so the story could get a move on already.)

Noah Wyle: father, history professor, destroyer of aliens

When you do make the choice to skip the actual invasion, of course, the next order of business is to have something potentially interesting to say about the aftermath and your band of plucky survivors. Falling Skies doesn’t stretch much in the plucky-survivor department: gruff former military guy, hot traumatized pediatrician, religious chick, teenagers-turned-soldiers, sad children, black guy with lots of guns, bad biker dude, pregnant lady, and of course, father and former history professor Noah Wyle. His is really the only character with an unexpected trajectory, and it’s pleasing to see that he can jump immediately into the role of a gun-toting militant without first having to pass through an awkward, academics-have-no-practical-skills phase. (Another benefit of jettisoning the classic invasion opening).

Where Falling Skies does little to advance the typical formula for apocalypse survival groups, though, it does make some smart choices about its colonizing horde. The “skitters” are a classic, reptilian model Alien Overlord: always good for the initial revulsion factor but lacking in long-term appeal without further development. Thankfully, Falling Skies immediately opens a few avenues for entertaining stories, the most important of which is to question the skitters’ motives. Too often you’ll run into alien invaders with little more than a Dalek-ian desire to exterminate, and for a television story that runs over several episodes, it’s helpful to give your aliens a little something extra. In this case, the skitters have a disturbing propensity for stealing human children and attaching them to alien harnesses for frightening, as-yet-unknown purposes. There’s also a great moment where a minor character points out that although the skitters themselves have six legs, they build bipedal robots. This small detail is just the sort of thing to elevate an otherwise basic invasion story — it’s simple, suggestive without being overly obvious, and it piques curiosity without telegraphing its purpose.

One of Falling Skies's two-legged robots

Falling Skies is perhaps most intriguing as a television show (as opposed to a movie, or the premise for a few individual episodes), and it uses a device that gives it an edge over a show like V, which had a similar premise but clearly lacked momentum. Especially in its first few episodes, Falling Skies uses an episode structure that most resembles the narrative formulas in video games, and I say this with admiration rather than disdain. The show faces a problem any serialized drama copes with — how to portion out the big story into small pieces, and how to make each of those pieces individually entertaining — and at least in the beginning, Falling Skies solves this by employing a mission formula much like Gears of War, or Mass Effect, or any number of other games. In order to tackle the Big Bad, protagonists must first complete some related, smaller-scale tasks, and the success or failure of these missions gives the episode shape while also developing the larger story. In one episode, Noah Wyle’s character Mason leads a raid on a motorcycle shop, because the survivors need more vehicles to scout the skitters efficiently, and this task facilitates the later mission of rescuing Mason’s son from a skitter patrol. After several episodes, the individual mission formula breaks down a little, but that’s all right: at this point, it’s done its job. I credit the video game mission structure for a significant piece of what differentiates the dynamic, perpetually-moving Falling Skies from V, a show that remained astonishingly static for too long.

I’m pleased Falling Skies was renewed for a second season. It’s exciting to see a television show take a familiar genre and freshen it up just a little, and it makes very good summer TV viewing. And hey, here I am saying that promotional materials do actually work, especially when they come in the shape of a free cup of coffee.

The Uncanny Valley of Narrative Plausibility; or, Why Treme is weirder than Game of Thrones

2011 June 16
by kvanaren

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.

Poor Tyrion, victim of narrative happenstance

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.

Janette and Delmond

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.

Fringe, Metadialogue, and the Multiverse

2011 April 14
by kvanaren

I have a post up at the Hooded Utilitarian today on why I look forward to new episodes of Fringe every Friday. There are also some thoughts on metadialogue in the post, and in the comment section you’ll find my complete inability to make meaningful comments on seriality in comics. Enjoy!

Horatio Ogden’s The Wire

2011 March 24
by kvanaren

I owe many, many thanks to Jason Mittell and others for making sure I noticed this piece from The Hooded Utilitarian – “When It’s Not Your Turn:” The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s “The Wire.” It’s a great essay written by Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson that re-imagines The Wire as a piece of serialized Victorian fiction which, due to its complexity and length, has been nearly lost to academic attention. Some of its best parts are the literal recreations of the show as a serial novel, including the excellent illustration of Omar walking down a narrow street (I would pay good money for a poster of it), and the hilarious novelization of the famous one-word Bunk/McNulty scene from season one. A taste:

“Mr Moreland – having more stake in the proceedings, or rather less interest in pursuing what amounted to, in his opinion, a goose chase the likes of which only Mr McNulty would subject himself – put his cigar in his mouth and looked down at the sketches which they had obtained from Scotland Yard. Years of detective work such as this had compelled Mr Moreland into an attitude of complaisance; in most investigations his attitude was one of general affability and a charming lack of anything like concern. As he flipped through the sketches, however, he tok out his cigar, and his tone was exactly that of a child at last being forced to chores when he said: “Aw, fuck.”

Many of the strongest comparative points relate to The Wire‘s characterization, especially when the essay describes the relative complexity of someone like Jimmy McNulty in contrast with the typically idealized Dickensian protagonist. I also love the description of Omar as potently literary character, full of myth and the Gothic and something extra-human. I am totally on board with the image of Omar walking straight out of a Victorian serial, except where the article suggests Omar would be incompatible in a Dickens novel, I think he’d be perfect. Particularly in his later novels, Dickens loved playing with moments that border on magic, betraying his interest in the more supernatural sensational novels of colleagues like Wilkie Collins. In Bleak House, the illiterate Krook dies of spontaneous combustion, covering his eerie rag and bone shop with human slime and exposing the immense collection of legal documents which he collected obsessively but could not actually read. At the end of Little Dorrit, as the secrets and betrayals which led to poor Dorrit’s deprived childhood are finally revealed, the house where they were hidden actually collapses, as though the secrets were the only things holding it together. Surely this would be perfectly in keeping with Omar’s ability to exist outside the laws of The Wire‘s obsessively realistic nature – he walked away from a jump out of a fourth story window!

The essay’s conceit – the close relationship between a television show like The Wire and the Victorian serial novel – is something I’m pretty invested in, and am absolutely thrilled to see starting to show up as an area of interest. But because I feel like it’s so important, and also so completely apt, I do just want to point out a few places where I don’t want people who think about TV to get some misconceptions of the Victorian serial. My previous point about Omar as a feasible Dickens character is interpretive and up for debate, but this other quibble is more straightforward.

Robinson and Delyria suggest that Dickens was able to write his serial novels using installments as individually contained pieces of narrative, much like the television episode. “Each installment,” they write, “contained a series of elements engineered to give the reader the satisfaction of a complete arc, giving the reader the sense of an episode, complete with a beginning, middle, and end.” There are certainly some authors who play with the installment as a constraining, rule-bound form, and Dickens is one of them, although his installments are less strictly constructed than someone like Collins’s. Even in the most regular, formulaic examples of installment construction, though, no Victorian installment comes close to the kind of episodic structure that underlies a television show, and I think it would be incredibly hard to point to more than one or two installments in any given novel that have anything like a “beginning, middle, and end.” I bring this up because it’s my bugaboo (read: enormously crucial to my dissertation), but also because I don’t want the collapse between serial fiction in novels and serial fiction in television to happen without keeping alive some of the qualities that simply do not translate from one medium to the other – and the episode is one of them.

As a side point, for anyone who thinks that Victorian novels never achieve The Wire‘s bleakness or dark characterization, please read some Thomas Hardy. Although his focus is more on human nature and less on the institutions which provide the framework for David Simon’s pessimism, I guarantee you will walk away as depressed and fatalistic as the day you finished The Wire.

All that said, “When It’s Not Your Turn” is fantastic, and I’m not joking about wanting that poster. Seriously. Name your price.

I remembered why I have a blog! (It’s to complain about things)

2011 February 3
by kvanaren

It’s blatantly obvious that I haven’t been able to really figure out what to do with this whole blogging thing for a while. The problem is that I’m trying to figure out how to make the switch from Early-Mid Grad Student mode to Late Grad Student mode – ie, from taking and teaching classes, working on the occasional paper, and generally consuming (TV, novels, theory, cookies) to generally producing (a dissertation, hopefully, but probably also cookies). I’ve never really been good at writing more than one thing at a time, which is why the blog was much easier to do every day when the rest of that day’s goals weren’t necessarily to Write Something Totally Made Up Out of My Own Head. The goals tended to be things like reading The Ambassadors or finding something to do in section that relates to Mrs Dalloway or writing a paper for Readings in Close Reading (oh yes), which made blogging a totally different thing, a thing springing completely from My Head. As it turns out, though, dissertations are apparently largely the productions of Your Own Head, or Someone’s Head, anyway – (I read this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the growing economy of ghostwritten academic work, so maybe some peoples’ dissertations come from Other Heads than Theirs) – and it’s made my blogging fall to the wayside as a lesser Heady pursuit.

But then I read this piece from the New York Review of Books on Mad Men, and I thought, “I am never going to be able to adequately express my disdain for that review in my dissertation. So this is what the blog is for.”

The piece is called “The Mad Men Account,” and its premise is that Mad Men is actually much, much worse than everyone seems to realize, but the reason we all like it anyhow is that it allows people who were children during the 1960s to relive their childhoods. We are supposed to be identifying with Sally and Glen rather than Don and Betty, argues Mendelsohn, and it is this complicity with a child’s eye view of the world that creates such appeal for a show that is otherwise poorly written, poorly acted, shallow, and over-designed. To restate the argument in a way that might be more generous, the static, staged and superficial quality of the show’s cinematography can actually be read as a child-like cinematic narrator, who observes the grown-ups with curiosity and admiration, but cannot understand their motivations or inner lives.

The argument that Mad Men might have more sympathy toward, complicity with, or even identification with its child characters is worth considering, although the connection Mendelsohn makes that Glen = Matt Weiner’s son, and thus Glen = Matt Weiner is clearly a reduction of Glen’s complexity (or at least, one has to hope so for Matt Weiner’s sake). I’m open to the suggestion that occasionally Mad Men can suffer from a lack of subtlety – some moments are about as subtle as cheetah-print stilettos or a hammer to the thumb – and I don’t have a problem with Mendelsohn’s nearly categorical disapproval of both the writing and acting on the show. Surely that opinion also lacks subtlety, but it’s an opinion, and he’s entitled to his own.

My real problem with “The Mad Men Account” comes in this territory:

“Worst of all – in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues” – the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.”

Boo, soap operas! Apparently Mad Men isn’t “dramatic” like The Sopranos, The Wire or Friday Night Lights, shows approved by Mendelsohn. Instead, Mad Men…

“…is, essentially, the stuff of soap operas: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets.”

Because there are no abortions on Friday Night Lights, no adulteries, alcoholism or drug addiction on The Wire, and certainly no “dire family secrets” on The Sopranos! Either the author has never seen any of these shows he professes to enjoy, or the argument against Mad Men is actually something else that goes unspoken. It feels to me as though the real meat of this problem is in the term “soap opera,” what it means for Mendelsohn, and what its alternative might be. At least twice, Mendelsohn defines the soap opera with a list of troublesome, soapy plotlines, despite their ubiquity on television (and novels, and comic books, and radio drama, and epic poetry for Pete’s sake), but his real definition actually comes earlier. Soap operas, he says, “proceed[ ]…serially…generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises,” and this melodramatic form of fiction is opposed to his preferred dramatic structure: “exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena.”

Never mind that of course, The Sopranos, The Wire and Friday Night Lights also proceed serially, generating and resolving personal crises, and never mind that if Peggy Olson isn’t a means of “exploring, by means of…conflict between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena” then I don’t know who is. No, the craziest thing here is that all Mendelsohn’s really saying is that he doesn’t like serial fiction. Sure, he complains about the acting and the writing, but his biggest problem is that the show lacks a single direction or obvious trajectory. The one episode he does enjoy, “Hands and Knees,” he describes as both “Aristotelian” and “Sophoclean,” knowingly or unknowingly suggesting that good fiction is complete unto itself, containing balanced internal structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s no surprise that Mendelsohn also points to his pleasure in Law and Order, even though the thing he points to is not its episodic structure, but the fact that people walk in and out of the frame. (Really? Law and Order? Not Sorkin?)

Listen, there’s nothing wrong with not liking serial TV. The issue here is that Mendelsohn is ragging on a television show for being a television show, or at least, an American-style TV show, where personal crises wax and wane with the crest and valley of each season. It’s anyone’s prerogative to dislike serial fiction, but don’t pick on Mad Men for qualities shared by nearly everything else on television, including The Sopranos, The Wire, and Friday Night Lights. Or at least, do it a little more thoughtfully.


2011 January 12
by kvanaren

I have returned from our extended, almost-entirely-internet-free trip to New Zealand, and after about a day and a half of rapidly scanning down my twitter feed and reading the titles of about two hundred blog posts, I feel mostly caught up. Surely that’s sufficient, yes?

We were without the internet in New Zealand, but on occasion, we did have the good fortune to stumble across a television, much to my delight. I did live in England for several months, and so some of the basic television landscape was familiar – a mix of both American and British programming, number of channels just barely making it into the double digits, fewer commercials (which nevertheless resulted in us both absent-mindedly singing “The Warehouse – where everyone gets a bargain!” at frequent intervals), programs that begin at odd times, lots of cricket. Out of a desire to feed my Anglophilia, we watched the Queen’s Christmas message; out of a need to quell my (well-deserved) fear of our impending kayaking trip, we watched an episode of Castle; out of our concern about the upcoming weather we watched a lot of the national news at 6pm, which allowed me plenty of time with TVNZ’s adorable gay weatherman, Tamati Coffey.

He also won New Zealand's Dancing with the Stars!

And we did have the opportunity to watch a few things it would be hard to find in the States. One show that had us glued to the TV was a British reality show about two couples who have to transform their modest homes into a restaurant for one night. I cannot for the life of me find the show’s name now, as any google search for “British reality show restaurant in home” is completely buried in Gordon Ramsay-related results, but the premise was pretty simple. Two couples get the same budget and have a limited amount of time to choose a menu, decide how many people to serve, get supplies, rearrange their homes as necessary, and then open their “restaurant” for one night. They have to cook for and manage the whole evening themselves, and each patron pays whatever they feel the meal deserves. The winning couple is the pair that makes the most money. It’s a fun concept, combining a number of proven reality show concepts: head-to-head competition, food, marital relations, time constraints, and a snarky voiceover commentary. Can someone help me figure out what the heck this show is called?

Another BBC program I thoroughly enjoyed (although I don’t think David got the same kick out of it that I did) was the final segment of Joanna Lumley: Jewel of the Nile. In case you are not familiar, Joanna Lumley was one of the incredible stars of Absolutely Fabulous and played a platinum blonde wino, barely capable of walking in a straight line, but still well up to the task of slurring appalling insults. In Jewel of the Nile, a travel documentary about Lumley’s journey down the entire length of the Nile River, the platinum blonde hair and fondness for alcohol remain, but the arch intoxicated dialogue is replaced by awesomely breathy invocations of the beauty of Africa, and the occasional dry comment as Lumley endures some of the inconveniences that necessarily accompany exotic travel. When, at the end of her journey, Lumley is forced to help carry her small boat over shallow water, she intones on the voiceover, “the French word for this is portage. [Pause] The British call it ‘messing about with boats.’” I’m crushed that I only got to see the final part of the series.

Finally, my favorite television discovery was made not in New Zealand, but on the plane ride over, and the show is actually Australian. It’s an incredibly weird half hour comedy called The Librarians. And yes, it is about a public library in Australia. The show is sort of built on the bones of The Office, where the librarians of the Middleton Interactive Learning Centre are an occasionally well-meaning but hardly admirable bunch of public servants. Frances O’Brien, head librarian, is deeply Catholic and also casually racist, and her stern, often despairing reign as head librarian is marred by disappointment and the quirks of her fellow employees. In one episode I saw, while Frances is out dealing with her senile, violent mother, another employee successfully turns the library into a video rental store. It’s a very strange show, and its reliance on frequent short flashbacks can come off as a jarring, hiccup-y rhythm, but it’s also darkly hilarious.

So those are my brief hotel room impressions of television in New Zealand. Excuse me while I go try to find DVDs of Joanna Lumley: Jewel of the Nile.


2010 December 23
by kvanaren

Well, not quite. But I am going to be off for the next few weeks, exploring the beautiful and frequently internet-less expanses of New Zealand, which sadly means there will be no blog posts until well after the New Year.

With that in mind, a few of my favorite moments from this year in television:

This is of course from the Mad Men finale, although were I to embed an entire episode rather than a single image, it would be “The Suitcase,” hands down. That aside, it’s hard to deny this moment as one of the biggest jaw-droppers of the last year. What are you DOING, Don Draper?!

Competing for jaw-dropping moments, the Lost finale is undoubtedly next on the list (or probably, another contender for first place).

Oh man, did I love this season of Doctor Who. I think Amy Pond is the best companion since the reboot began five seasons ago, and despite my initial doubts, Matt Smith is unquestionably a worthy Doctor Who – scary, funny, believably ancient and childlike at the same time. While I’m concerned about TV withdrawal over the next few weeks, I’m holding out hope that I actually get to see the Doctor Who Christmas Special on Christmas. (I hear it’s rude to show up at relatives houses and immediately demand the TV be turned on, though.)

Community has been one of the bright spots on network TV this fall, and although it’s impossibly hard to choose between the zombie Halloween episode, the claymation Christmas episode, and last spring’s “Modern Warfare,” I went with the bottle episode from this fall for sheer ballsiness. Truth be told, it’s probably due in large part to my fondness for bottle episodes (see above re: “The Suitcase”).

Oh hey, speaking of bottle episodes! Every day I wake up and wish Breaking Bad were on TV right now, and a minute later remember that watching an episode is like voluntarily putting yourself through an emotional cheese grater. Last season, “The Fly” was Breaking Bad‘s height of emotional self-destruction, and I cannot wait for this show to come back.

RIP, Terriers. This scene from “Fustercluck,” when Robert Lindus dies and everything kicks into crazy overdrive, was the moment I fell head over heels.

Happy New Year, and here’s hoping next year provides many more scenes as amazing as these.

The Talking Cure

2010 December 15
by kvanaren

After putting it off for a while, I’ve just finished the first season of In Treatment, which I completed in a remarkably short period of time given that there are over forty episodes. It took a long while to get used to how different time, plot, character, space – really, everything – works on this show, but I chalk up my voracious consumption the fact that I found In Treatment compulsively (and counter-intuitively) watchable.


I say counter-intuitively for fairly obvious reasons. Compared to nearly any other show I can think of, In Treatment is willfully devoid of the sorts of things that tend to make shows addictive. Every weekday, Paul sits down with a patient and talks with them about whatever they want to talk about, and then the next day it’s another patient, and another on Wednesday and on Thursday, and on Friday he goes to see his own therapist of sorts, Gina. It takes a while to get into the rhythm, particularly in that first episode where we leap into an intense session of Paul’s therapy with Laura even though she’s already been seeing him for a year. So it’s the first episode, and Laura’s weeping and her makeup is all smudged and she’s wearing extremely sexy clothing. She begins recounting a torrid anonymous sexual encounter from the previous night and then starts complaining about David even though we have no idea who he is, and just as her world starts to form into some coherent shape, her appointment is over. Not only is her appointment over, but there are four whole episodes where the exact same thing is going to happen all over again (with Alex the traumatized Navy pilot, Sophie the traumatized teen gymnast, Jake and Amy the traumatized angry couple, and finally Paul’s session with Gina to recount all of that trauma) before we even get to return to Laura.


Aside from the show’s unusual weekly procedure, which alienates you from characters as soon as you get to know them, the whole set-up and pace of In Treatment is oddly disconcerting. The sensation that you’re staring at someone too closely and for too long is pervasive, but what other option do you have? The overwhelming majority of the show is just Paul and another person, sitting across from each other and talking. And the pace is limited by that same restriction – it is perpetually, almost wearily conversational. No plot can happen unless either Paul or his patient brings it up, and certainly at first, watching characters meander through various life stories and random memories feels like sifting through a lot of potentially unrelated material in search of a plotline, even though you don’t really know what that plot looks like. He mentioned his friend is gay – is this going to be a repressed sexuality thing? Is it a daddy issue? Are we talking about guilt? As the show returns to characters three or four weeks in, it becomes easier to see the recurring patterns, the sore points and nagging fears, but even then, it’s hard to know.


In Treatment is constantly under threat of being derailed by an anecdote. Paul tells them frequently (often as a way of reassuring or hinting), but it’s really about the patients, who tell anecdotes about their childhoods, odd moments they had in a coffee shop, a weird association they had with a pair of shoes, a vivid social encounter, or any mundane detail of the day. Tiny stories accumulate, pulling the narrative toward sex or suicide or shame, and it feels like each therapy session is an opportunity for one story or another to suddenly lurch into dramatic, irrepressible significance. Aha, the lunchbox! It was a sign of absent maternal nurturing; no wonder you still carry it around with you!


With all of this evidence mounting against In Treatment’s compulsive watchability, it looks as though I have to resort to the obvious answer, which is that voyeurism is indeed engaging. It is hard to deny the sheer transgressive pleasure of a show built entirely on gaining unobserved entry into a person’s most private self, but I’d like to believe it’s something more. Until I figure out exactly what that might be, I’m sticking with the second most obvious answer, which is that In Treatment is an academic’s wet dream. There’s a reason English departments still read Freud when no one else does, and there’s a reason so many major theoretical movements in the past several decades have distinct psychoanalytical bents. We like analysis, and we especially like close reading, which is exactly what Paul does every hour of the week. It’s funny, he’ll note, that you use the same words to describe your mother as you do this random stranger you met on the train. Isn’t it odd, how you pause every time before saying the word “best”? He’s just sitting there gathering enough verbal evidence until he can persuasively argue his thesis on why you quit your job. It’s so satisfying and populated by the possibility of a correct answer.

Er, that’s what I’m telling myself. No analysis, please.

How I Met Your Autodiegetic Televisual Narrator

2010 December 7
by kvanaren

I am about to give a show with which I am particularly displeased this week a lot more attention than I’d like to give it, but I suppose sometimes that’s the nature of the game.

Last night’s episode of How I Met Your Mother was really, really bad. It let the characters be more misogynistic, simplistic, and self-involved than unusual, but it also highlighted an aspect of the show that is narratologically fascinating. Just in case you haven’t watched (and based on last night’s episode, I wouldn’t blame you), the premise is that an older version of one of the show’s main characters, Ted Mosby, is retelling stories from his youth for the enlightenment of his teenaged children. The main sections of an episode are these past-tense stories, narrated in a typical sitcom style, with occasional interventions from future-Ted in the form of a voiceover. Usually there’s an introduction (“Kids, in the winter of 2010…”), and sometimes a call back to a joke or plot point from a previous episode (“You may remember the goat from…”), but future-Ted isn’t often overly meddlesome as narrators go.

It’s mostly because of the show’s longevity, I think, that this strange storytelling technique no longer seems exciting or complex, but in the beginning it was a big deal. When will Ted actually catch up with the show’s title? How do occasional hints about characters’ futures change the way time on the show moves? I think, though, that even now, when the shine has worn off, there are some even more interesting questions that I’m probably only thinking about because I’ve been TAing a Narrative and Narrative Theory class. Much though I hate to give current, depressing How I Met Your Mother more credit than it deserves, they’re worth asking.

There aren’t very many examples of protagonists who narrate their own shows at the moment, although voiceover is relatively common. There’s Dexter, and Burn Notice, and I suppose we could probably count the voiceover segments at the beginnings and ends of Grey’s Anatomy. The voiceovers on Desperate Housewives or Gossip Girl are first person, but aren’t autodiegetic (from the viewpoint of the protagonist). Glee plays with voiceover, but it gets handed from character to character and is never sustained for very long. I’m sure there are other examples I’m missing (remind me of them, please!), but for the most part, voiceover from a protagonist seems so cheesy and simplistic right now that either it has to be supported by hefty generic convention (Dexter, Burn Notice, Veronica Mars, all of the Star Treks) or revel in its own sentimentality (Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City) or both (In Plain Sight).

This was not always the case, as anyone who’s seen The Waltons or The Wonder Years well remembers, but television and any visual narrative form has a particularly hard time standing up to the device’s inherent goopiness. There is rarely any concern about the veracity or reliability of a first person narrator on TV, because the images are right there in front of you, confirming the truth of anything a voiceover tells you. Meredith Grey wonders about the stability of surgeons outside work, and there they all are, knocking back shots and bemoaning their personal lives. When Dexter feels paranoid that someone’s chasing him, we know it’s because someone actually is chasing him, because we saw the car in the rearview mirror! This is not the case in primarily verbal forms. When a narrator in a novel says, “I saw a ghost appear before me,” the absence of an image of a guy covered in white powder and shaking his chains makes it much easier to question whether a ghost is actually there. My favorite example of a particularly recalcitrant narrator will always be in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, where Lucy Snow is so reluctant to narrate her own story that she consistently lies to her reader to preserve her own privacy. It would be really hard for a voiceover to create that level of uncertainty about the reality of what’s taking place, because the visuals always appear trustworthy.

Which brings me back to How I Met Your Mother. Future-Ted Mosby is telling this story for his children, but unlike almost any other first person narrator I can think of on television, his memory’s not always great, and he tends to edit for the sake of censorship. For the most part, Ted stays out of his own way, narratorially speaking, but last night, Ted couldn’t remember the motivation for a fight between Lily and Barney. As he told the story, he would revise his account of who said what, and the visuals then changed to fit the new version. At one point, Barney balances a beer bottle in mid air, which makes no sense whatsoever until Ted remembers that at this point Lily was pregnant, and is then able to add her large belly as the support for Barney’s levitating drink.

This kind of overt reference to future-Ted’s fallibility doesn’t happen that often, but there are small reminders along the way. The most consistent example of this happens whenever future-Ted tells a story about his college years, and giant sandwiches act as visual stand-ins for drug paraphernalia.

As has become obvious over the last six seasons, future-Ted’s narratorial influence extends much farther than most TV narrators, going beyond the voiceover and including the order in which a story is told, which events are left in and which omitted for later (the goat), as well as what that story actually looks like. Scrubs used to be a little like this, particularly in some of the later seasons when JD’s surreal imagination was no longer indistinguishable from the rest of the show.

Even when I’m angry at How I Met Your Mother, I still like this central conceit for the show. I like the idea of a televisual narrator with abilities and influence that goes beyond the voiceover and has a more consistent, personified, flexible impact on the story.