About ten years ago I tried to organize a conference that was to be called “The Long Story: The Art of Long-Arc Dramatic-Narrative Series in Contemporary US Television.” Here’s the text of the damn CFP:
In the past thirty years, television has replaced the movies and radio as the prime source of long narratives in American culture, just as those had replaced novels before them. From one perspective, tv has simply become the latest vehicle of the serial fiction that has acted as a social glue for modernizing, bourgeois societies since the 18th century. Beginning roughly in the 1980s, dramatic series began to appear on American screens involving multi-layered, deliberately developed narratives of novelistic complexity. These television novels created a space for dramatic and linguistic art consonant with the inherent flow of the television medium.
Some of these series were inspired by outside influences: the gritty realism of Prime Suspect and the elegant unfolding of Brideshead Revisited imported from British television, or the documentary techniques that shaped Homicide: Life on the Streets. But many seemed to emerge directly from the medium’s genre-universe -- and like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Thirtysomething seemed to create their devoted publics on the spot. With the inception of HBO’s policy of producing intensely crafted series -- The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and the like -- the quality and complexity of television narrative seems to have risen to an unprecedented level.
With this conference, we wish to take close looks at this development -- its sources (artistically ambitious television narrative did not begin in 1987), its conditions of possibility (production constraints, network/artist/audience relationships, socio-economic changes), its cognitive qualities and effects, and the ways in which, and the reasons why, long-arc narratives that are both aesthetically and cognitively challenging have attained mass popularity. Although much work has been done on cultural and social-political dimensions of these programs, relatively little attention has been paid to their aesthetics, or the role of their aesthetics in their social power.
Some themes we are interested in:
How different series have constructed their complex narratives; how they have distinctively organized their main arcs and their subarcs.
How long-arc dramas use artful, cognitively complex language.
The need for, and art of, constantly transforming characters and situations to keep interest going, and the possibilities for deepening the story this gives.
The significance of death in contemporary popular series -- a motif that sometimes evokes a sense that Life on Earth is a stratum of being in which souls are in transit to other zones, but think they are in a solid world.
The use of complex cinematic techniques and apparatus in the new tv serials.
Why is it that, and what is the effect when, involving and seemingly “authentic” dramas “jump the shark,” when the show begins to include storylines/actors/techniques that break the seductive charm that the show once had.
The effect of central TV writer-director auteurs on the medium (Whedon, Milch, Simon, Kelley, Roddenbery, Straczynski, Bochco, et al.)
How the medium has permitted surrealistic or surrealist-influenced storytelling.
What are the effects, and what is the meaning, of the cancellation of series with devoted audiences, in the midst of emotionally involving stories.
What are the effects of and preconditions for certain commercial series playing out to a “natural end,” evading both cancellation and adulteration (e.g., Babylon 5).
Does tv tell good stories any differently in a “post-9/11 world”?
The relationship between soap-operas/telenovelas (which were inherently long-arc narratives, but strictly constrained to formulas) and non-formulaic long dramatic narratives.
How and why did certain narratives inspire surrogate subcultures of millions of devoted viewers?
In what ways have certain series acted as surrogate national-cultural narratives?
Does Stephen Johnson’s claim that television narratives have become increasingly complex cognitively explain anything about the dramatic and narrative quality of tv shows?
To what degree does the attraction of these narratives hinge on the theme of recurrent local apocalypses?
Political-cultural counter-narratives on mainstream tv.
The significance of cross-cultural fan bases for the serial narratives.
How fan culture has influenced -- either directly or through distant attraction -- the writing of narratives.The internet universe of stories written around series.
I was very excited about it, and I got some excellent proposals – but the conference never happened. Too many folks who had committed bailed at the last moment. It’s still a conference I wish someone would organize, but it won’t be me. I’m done with that academic tangle.
Of the topics I dreamed up on that list, one has stayed with me more than others: what is the effect on a culture so deeply immersed in television when shows that have developed devoted audiences, and have explored new artistic territories, are canceled before their arc is completed? What are the effects on people when stories they have invested so much emotion and thought in are cut off, for no other reason that that the capitalist entertainment system has decided they no longer make enough money? It’s a problem that British or Danish shows, for example, rarely face, because their procurement and production system is based on shorter runs and/or full development of a season. The first season of the wonderful Danish noir series Forbrydelsen (The Killing) ran for 20 episodes. The subsequent two seasons were cut down to the US-standard 13 episodes, and they didn’t match the first season in quality, but they were essentially stand-alone seasons. There was no promise that they would continue – especially given the harrowing end of the final season.
I knew many young people in high school of my son’s generation who not only adored Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but were partially raised by it. They were misfits, goths, outsiders, often latchkey kids who depended on the show to give them models and hope and a space to imagine powerful community in difference. Buffy is one of the great exceptions to the standard interruptus routine. Its devotees and fan community managed to get it moved to a new network when it was first canceled, and it ran its course for seven seasons. That was an amazing psycho-cultural phenomenon – all those kids grew up with the heroine, through powerful fantasy dramas, one of the most complex displacements of a failed suicide attempt one could imagine (when Buffy is brought back to life by her friends, even though she wishes they had not), and a sense of full maturation at the end. Narrative, television, and psychological growth all allowed to evolve together, and resolve at the end.
That is the exception. Think of how many wonderful, involving series ended not just abruptly, but arbitrarily (and not just on the non-cable networks) – Deadwood, Firefly, Sense 8, Once and Again (whose last episode consisted of the cast speaking one by one to the camera, in black and white, mourning the end of their collaboration).
Another dimension of this is the show that simply ceases to be what made it artful and important, because the studio heads felt they needed to punch it up to get better ratings. I taught a course on Homicide: Life on the Street one semester. It’s never easy teaching more than one season of a TV series, but somehow we managed to cover 5 ½ season of the 7 of its run. I made the decision early that I wouldn’t waste time with the final two (except for a couple of brilliant outlier episodes) because the intense, innovative concept, which itself evolved in each season, jumped the shark in the 5th season; it became slick, formulaic, poorly acted and poorly directed, indistinguishable from all the other plastic cop shows. (It was a network show, produced before the great explosion of “quality television” on cable.)
So this brings me to The United States of Tara. As usual, I didn’t begin watching the show until its run was long over. (I very rarely watch anything until the dust settles around it.) I admire its star, Tony Colette, a lot – but I just didn’t believe a TV show about a woman suffering from DID could be good. But folks whose taste I respect recommended it. When Etti and I began bingeing on it, though, I was immediately sucked in. I’m not very familiar with its guiding writer, Diablo Cody. I gather she’s a well-respected screenwriter and showrunner. I was fascinated by the potential of using DID for comedy (it’s not a very comic thing in real life, but once you accept the distance that comedy requires, it seems irresistible). Colette won awards for her portrayal of the central DID-afflicted characters, but what I liked was the way it subtly showed that all the characters, who are supposedly “integrated,” are liable to shift into different roles and coping strategies when they’re stressed or at sea. Like most of the comedies that place a “deviant” character at the center, Tara was playing with the idea that DID and integrated identity are just matters of degree. The writing was sharp, smart, and full of wit. All the characters were sympathetic, but somewhat off balance. Tara’s family is basically no less dysfunctional than a “normal” one, so the implication is that no one is normal. The premise is familiar to us – Modern Family, et al. But much less satirical, and much more comical. The writing and direction worked together well – dynamic, fluid, and surprising, just like the “condition.” (And according to several blog entries by therapists and DID people in the know, it was fairly accurate – for a comedy.)
Here's a clip from the first season -- taken in isolation, it seems serious; in context, it's very funny. The alter known as Alice establishes for the first time that she's not a vapid stereotype of a 50s housewife -- a great surprise.
That lasted for two seasons. So now I’m watching the third season, and I’m horrified. It has acquired the glossy sheen and stiff direction of a common sitcom. The fluidity is gone in the filming, and the scripts are dull, the dialogue labored, the chemistry stifled, the camerawork relies on static frames and shot-reverse-shot – and the characters have become so solidified in their roles that even the volatile DID heroine is all but together. And it’s so pretty! Even the addition of Eddie Izzard doesn't help.
Here's Alice in season3.
Tara was cancelled after this third season. If I wasn’t so interested in it as an example of something, I would have stopped watching it long ago and just mused about what could have been. Apparently, many threads are wrapped up in the final episode, and mysteries resolved – although the cancellation came as a surprise to the entire crew. So what happened? I checked to see whether new directors replaced the old ones. But no, so the new shit was being directed by folks who knew better. Perhaps the production schedule was speeded up – but apparently not. Almost every important member of the production crew remained through all three seasons. (The original showrunner quite after Season 1, but Season 2 is still quite good.) The one big difference was that Diablo Cody was no longer the head writer. Hacks were writing the script, and the new scripts had no understanding of the subtle framework of the previous two seasons. Cody remained as executive producer (along with Steven Spielberg, btw, which might have been a factor). My suspicion is that Cody was giving more attention to other projects and had let the show go along without her. She may not even have chosen the new writers. This isn’t all that rare. Battlestar Galactica deteriorated mightily in its last season – and it was widely rumored that its creator, Ron Moore, had handed the series off to others while he pursued other projects. (Maybe that other series was Caprica, which I quite enjoyed, but was also abruptly cancelled.)
The decline of Tara and most other good shows that either become insufferably formulaic or are cancelled has to have a destructive effect on viewers’ psyches. This is especially true of shows that seem to address important social and emotional problems, family conflicts, and the like. I can imagine the anger and disorientation that the cancellation of Buffy would have caused for millions of disaffected young people. I can testify to the grief I felt when Once and Again was cancelled. It was as if a beloved therapist had been fired in mid-session.
All of us know why it works this way. It’s a given of American capitalism. Milk it while it provides the dough; punch it up until it jumps the shark when it doesn’t; or just cut it off, thank you ma’am. If you’re a creator in Hollywood, jump to the next project as soon as you can bankroll it with the collateral from the one that one that’s running. But the cost is, I think, very high. The intense emotional involvement, the art of these shows, is ultimately just another addictive product that the pushers can cut off at will. But even real pushers tend not to do that. So we are left more like a nation of hyperstimulated zombies, mistrusting narratives, and expecting to be screwed in the end. Pretty soon we’ll expect all our narratives – even our own attempts to formulate our big personal novel – to be cancelled.