Digital and Analog Storytelling

The entire history of human expression, slightly abridged

Some thoughts on binge television and the novel

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Image from RENEGADE CINEMA

My first thought on watching Season 4 of Arrested Development was, “Oh my god oh my god it’s finally here oh my god.”

My second thought was, “This reminds me of Confederacy of Dunces.”

Like John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterwork, AD S4 switches back and forth between individual episodes (using the broader meaning of the term) which focus on an individual character’s predicament and on larger set pieces where the characters’ hilariously overwrought psychodramas bash up against each other.

When I read Confederacy of Dunces, though, it didn’t remind me of anything except maybe other novels.

When Mitch Hurwitz calls AD S4 “a new medium,” and when Grant Mccracken talks about the idea (in his awesome article on Wired) of “sudden continuity” being essential to shows that get binge-watched (and I totally agree with him, and, if it’s his term, I think he deserves some kind of medal), I think, “Yes, a new medium,” and I also think, “No, an old one.”

Technology—the printing press—allowed the novel to occur. Now technology—streaming movie/TV services like Netflix and Amazon Prime—is enabling this new form to take shape.

But the storytelling ideas that Hurwitz is playing around with—sudden continuity, a few events which slowly unravel more and more details and character intersections, gags which get second and third and fourth acts (not just running gags, but bits that actually transform a little with each new incarnation)—aren’t new to anyone who ever watched General Hospital or One Life to Live or any other soap opera.

What is new is the sophistication of the artistry involved in the story’s manufacture. What’s also new is the experience of the viewer, who does not experience the show in some years-long unspooling like a series of letters from some petty, dramatic, occasionally dumb pen pal but over the course of a few hours or a few days, like that one girl or boy you stayed up all night talking to because you just connected so intensely with them.

It has to be said, though: Binge watching has already affected the way television is made. Mad Men and Game of Thrones are only possible (not as shows, but as the kind of shows that they are or have become) because of this higher level of sophisticated long-form television which was pioneered earlier by shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and The West Wing (also Sportsnight, but I feel embarrassed by putting to A. Sorkin’s in here, so Sportsnight goes inside the parentheses).

But notice how a lot of this stuff is happening on HBO? HBO, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, makes original content in order to woo subscribers. That’s where the money is, and in order to get those subscribers, they need the best writers and actors and showrunners in America, and in order to get those people, HBO has to (also, probably WANTS to) give them more creative control than they might get on broadcast television. This has and hopefully will continue to lead to more ambitious programming.

The idea that HBO, Showtime, AMC, Netflix, and, I’m assuming, in the future, Amazon Prime and Hulu, the idea that they will all have to compete to have the best, coolest, most ambitious projects going in order to seduce good shows into setting up shop with them makes me really, really happy, and it makes me hopeful that more television shows can regularly compete in sophistication and artistry with novels. Now, sad to say, I can totally count the good ones without taking off my shoes.

It also means, I’m pretty sure, that another season of Arrested Development has to wind up somewhere, right?

*

I like Grant Mccracken’s article on Wired.com a lot, but I think he gets some things wrong. Mccracken says that we enter these second homes of story (describing in many ways exactly the way I feel about a great book) looking for some respite from our own lives and worlds, and undoubtedly this is true for some people some of the time.

But stories really do more for us than Mccracken gives the stories or us credit for.

Arrested Development’s final season, like the rest of the show, works best when and succeeds overall because it describes our world. If I told you that a show included commentary on crony capitalists, corporate greed, the housing bubble (esp. cheap new construction homes), the strange world of upper crust Orange County CA, racism, the flighty and inconstant nature of American liberalism, infidelity, I think you might imagine a drama, something serious. AD doesn’t do that, but it does show us all of that stuff. It’s satire but it’s not a show about the satire, it’s about the people in it. When Lucille Bluthe says that she’s tired of being a villain (in Season 4), I feel sorry for her, I do, because she’s been betrayed too (by the same greed that she exhibits constantly, sure, but still, [SPOILER] having everybody mark your stuff so that when you die/go to prison they’ll know who gets what has to suck [END SPOILER].

The point is that AD reflects our world. It’s a world ruled by greed but lived in by real live totally imperfect human beings. Sounds a lot like the place outside of my window (not my neighborhood, I mean Earth).

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This entry was posted on May 29, 2013 by in deep thoughts and tagged .
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