The Cosmology of Serialized Television

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In less propitious times, the poet X would have become a popular hack. As a function of the times, however, X has become a bad Expressionist. Consequently, his work causes intellectual short-circuiting.
                                                                                 —Robert Musil, “Black Magic”

 

Mad Men began its sixth season by quoting from Dante’s Inferno—the first three lines.  I winced, and thought of the epigraph from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the spoof of cheesy 80s horror shows:

             This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.
             King Lear, p46

At least Darkplace thought to quote from the middle of the play.

How does the most acclaimed show on television end up pulling a high school writing trick of injecting a few famous lines to anoint itself in seriousness and relevance? Highbrow pretense is nothing new—the original Star Trek had titled episodes “The Conscience of the King” and “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”—but the origins of Mad Men’s simultaneous self-importance and insecurity take some explaining. They lie in how serialized storytelling has evolved on television, and how prestigious shows habitually promise viewers more than they can possibly deliver. They trumpet themselves as Art and Social Commentary in order to obscure their more fundamental structural flaws. The result is inferior Product.

 

The Steady-State Model
Let’s go back a ways. The Fugitive was a successful 1960s drama in which Dr. Richard Kimball was convicted of shooting his wife, only to escape from death row and be pursued by Lieutenant Gerard, all the while looking for the real killer, a one-armed man. Each week, Kimball would show up in some new place, help people in some way, then be found by Gerard and have to run off to next week’s location. The one-armed man occasionally popped up, but over the course of four seasons, very little changed. In the series finale, Kimball found the one-armed man and, after a few twists, finally gained his freedom.

Nothing in that last episode is determined by anything that wasn’t established in the very first episode (or, indeed, in the opening credits of every episode). In the days before VCRs, there was no easy way to catch up on a missed episode or watch an in-progress series from the beginning, so any overarching plotline had to remain almost entirely static, lest viewers lose track of the show.

Though The Fugitive stuck mostly to self-contained single episodes, it was possible to extend short plotlines over multiple episodes, as long as the overall situation remained unchanged. This was the strategy taken by daytime soap operas in the mold of General Hospital and As the World Turns. Plots were short-term but overlapping. The target audience for the programs, housewives, were reliably around to see the episodes, and supermarket magazines recapped developments in case episodes were missed. Prime-time soap operas followed the same formula, albeit with a bit more flash. The infamous “Who shot J.R.?” plotline of Dallas appears wildly overblown today because J.R. didn’t even die, yet the revelation of the killer earned a now-impossible 53.3% Nielsen rating.

From a financial standpoint, the best kind of show is one that is a universal container, able to survive shifts in actors, storylines, and writers with no damage to the overall franchise. Soap operas were constructed to be utilitarian and modular, swapping characters and plots with hardly any constraints whatsoever.

The surreal soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which ran for 325 daily episodes in 1976-1977, showed just how malleable and vacuous the format was, homogenizing everything from mass murder and animal slaughter to bathtub electrocution into the soap formula. It then took a metafictional turn when Louise Lasser’s Mary had a nervous breakdown while a guest on a talk show and ended up in a mental hospital, where she became part of a Nielsen family and was visited by Hartman fan Gore Vidal, playing himself.

The Steady-State model is still with us. Its flexibility and aimlessness fits nicely with the creative restrictions and interferences of television. Stephen Bochco made it critically respectable with cop drama Hill Street Blues, probably the most structurally influential television drama of the last fifty years. Multi-episode plot arcs quickly became a standard in “serious” television, even though this frequently amounted to little more than soap opera with risqué themes and bare asses. Bochco reused the formula in L.A. Law and NYPD Blue; David E. Kelley copied Bochco in The Practice and Ally McBeal. St. Elsewhere, the best written of the batch by far, became the prototype for every subsequent medical drama from E.R. to House.

The Steady-State show remains focused on the short term, with little attention paid to creating suspense toward some distant plot resolution that would signal, if not the end of the show, a major turning point. St. Elsewhere turned its ending into a joke by killing off many of its remaining characters and revealing the whole show to have been the fantasy of an autistic child: What, you thought that it matters how the show ends? The ending provided the writers their only opportunity to go nuts and willfully alienate viewers, since the future of the show was no longer a concern.

So it is with some of the prestige shows today: shows like Six Feet Under, True Blood, Big Love, and 24 are not written with any concern for the ultimate ending. Like true soap operas, they will change characters’ personalities on a dime in the pursuit of excitement and ratings. There is a fundamental torpor, where no event has any greater significance than any other, because next week the main character might be hexed or become a sex addict or both. Viewer retention is obtained through short-term narrative fixes and long-term involvement with the “characters,” who are put through assorted machinations with coherency provided by the actors rather than the writing. The better shows, like Friday Night Lights and Big Love, strive to maintain some consistency of character and linearity of plot, so that craft can emerge momentarily if not at length. Most don’t try so hard.

But what if the entirety of a show could add up? What if the mythology was made primary? Other models for crafting a serial narrative would be possible, other models of Verschleppung—a word which means both postponement and prolonging, immortalized in Kafka’s The Trial as Josef K.’s most viable legal strategy.

 

 

The Expansionary Model
In 1973, Harlan Ellison created The Starlost, a sci-fi series set on a planet-sized spaceship containing the last remnants of humanity. Having long forgotten that they are on a spaceship, some of the survivors discover that the spaceship is in trouble and have to find the ship’s control room to save humanity. Ellison was surprised to hear from the producers that they were building a control room set for the pilot:

          “You’re building the control room?” I said. “But you won’t need that till the
           last segment of the series. Why are you building it now?

           “Because you had it in your bible,” [producer Bill Davidson] explained.

           “That was intended to show how the series ended, for God’s sake! If they find
            it the first time out, we can all pack our bags and play an hour of recorded
            organ music!”

           “No, no, they still have to find the backup computer, don’t they?”

Ellison took his name off the show before it aired.

This is how the Expansionary model works. As long as the show continues, no resolution can ever be final. The show’s story simply enlarges, with new plot elements and characters injected into it. There is always another control room to find.

In the early 1990s, Twin Peaks spun out a complex web around its basic murder mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. Letters found under fingernails, cryptic references to BOB, baffling dream sequences–fans plumbed these for any possible revelations, freeze-framing (with now-ubiquitous VCRs) the more cryptic sequences to look for clues. Creators David Lynch and Mark Frost were tight-lipped, but when ratings dropped in the second season and the killer was revealed to try to pull in more viewers, two things became known:

             1. Lynch and Frost had never wanted to solve the mystery, ever.
             2. Lynch and Frost were making it up as they went along.

The resolution of the Laura Palmer murder didn’t help the ratings. If anything, it removed the one focus point that the show had, leaving a mess of incoherent plotlines and secondary characters. Because Twin Peaks was more concerned with tone and mood than with plot or character, the series did not actually dive off a cliff so much as slowly dissipate. The plot was never particularly coherent in the first place, so the resentment Lynch earned was more for his disingenousness than his artistic failure per se.

But when plot and character development are primary, these shaggy dog shenanigans can be devastating to the artistic integrity of a show. The X-Files and Lost built up a tremendously complex mythology during their runs, only to piss off their fans  when things utterly failed to fit together.

Lost was particularly vile in that creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse repeatedly claimed that everything had a forthcoming explanation (2007: “We could hand you an envelope right now [with the answers]”), from that sequence of numbers to the wacky smoke monster. Lindelof did, to his credit, let himself be raked over the coals in a 2012 interview. In response to Joshua Topolsky’s “Have you no shame?” (I paraphrase), Lindelof said:

             If there was one regret that I had, there were times over the course of the show where
             in interviews I said the answers are coming. But… once we said there’s going to be 48
             episodes left, at that point a firm plan had to come into motion. Then, from that point
             on, I think that I started saying publicly, “If you are watching the show for the answers
             to your mysteries, you are not going to like the ending.” And I will pull at least ten
             instances of Carlton and I saying this in interviews in major publications and on
             television, and I’ll say, “Hey, if you didn’t do your due diligence and listen to what we
             had to say, you were warned.” It’s not that I didn’t care about the mythology of the
             show, I just feel like many shows have come and gone that are very focused on their
             mysteries and their mythologies and their ambiguity, and there’s no worse scene in the
             history of genre than the Architect explaining to Neo everything that happened in the
             Matrix. I wasn’t going to fucking touch that with a ten foot pole.

Lindelof’s blame-the-victim attitude is immensely disingenuous, since the show’s very premise was a drawn-out mythology tease. Driven ultimately by a none-too-bright faith-based agenda, Cuse and Lindelof ensured that the show will quickly be forgotten. The Jewish-raised Lindelof hasn’t learned his lesson: Prometheus director Riddley Scott said that the events of the Lindelof-scripted film were alien punishment for killing Christ—who was also an alien. The Catholic Cuse, for his part, teamed up with megachurch pastor Rob Bell to develop a show called Stronger based on Bell’s life as a musician-turned-religious-entrepreneur, which the networks wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Most cases are not quite so egregious as Lost. Even The X Files spent a comparatively small percentage of its episodes on long-term mythology, sticking mostly to a “monster of the week” format. But the 15 or 20 percent of the show that was mythology is deeply unsatisfying and downright annoying, which is why the extremely talented Darin Morgan, who wrote the funniest (and, as it happens, best) standalone episodes–the one with the circus freaks, the one with the cockroaches, the one with Charles Nelson Reilly and Jesse Ventura–is more fondly celebrated today than series creator and mythology architect Chris Carter.

As long as there’s a good-faith agreement between creators and fans that mythology is not central to the show, the sins of haphazard mythology are venial. But the more time an Expansionary show spends building and promoting its mythology, the more dangerous the game becomes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes its decline specifically to the mistaken emphasis the show put on raising its stakes to increasingly epic levels (a mistake the better-crafted Veronica Mars never made). Because there was no overarching plan, the show was destined to collapse into aimlessness.

The same goes, albeit less literally, for The Sopranos. At the show’s start, I only knew creator David Chase as the writer of the weaker episodes of The Rockford Files, the heavy-handed ones frequently populated with ethnic caricatures. So while the subject matter of The Sopranos wasn’t a surprise, I wasn’t sure what he had in mind for the long-term, once the well-wrought initial conflict between Tony and his diabolical mother Livia was resolved. Apparently, neither did Chase. Unexpectedly faced with a huge success that HBO demanded be stretched out as long as possible, the show careened from one direction to another, occasionally hitting the jackpot (everyone remembers the episode in the snow with the two Russians), but more frequently playing musical chairs in reverse with an increasing roster of sociopaths. Can anyone recount the last three seasons without it sounding like “just a bunch of stuff that happened”?

Yet unlike a Steady-State show, The Sopranos nevertheless maintained an accumulated continuity, keeping track of long-term storylines and attempting, generally unsuccessfully, to give some overall shape to the entire run: some sense that it was going somewhere. The accumulated continuity of an Expansionary show is central, not peripheral, even though the continuity may ultimately be directionless.

The importance of continuity owes much to superhero comics, particularly the model popularized (though not invented) by Marvel Comics writer/Svengali Stan Lee. While masterminding Marvel’s Silver Age in the 1960s, Lee liberally inserted footnoted cross-references to other stories and titles, building up a rococo, ad hoc, but vaguely coherent mythology that encouraged fans to buy everything. While lucrative, the mythology was an utter straitjacket for writers, who had to hew so strictly to almighty “continuity” that storylines became exercises in threading dozens of needles carelessly placed by their predecessors. Forced resets of continuity, where some overarching event would negate huge chunks of past mythology, became significant marketing events in themselves, such as DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, or today’s increasingly ubiquitous “reboot.” It takes a certain shamelessness to hype such acts of creative failure as revolutionary narrative climaxes, but the sheer success of that shamelessness is why P. T. Barnum is a patron saint of the United States.

If this sounds creatively bankrupt, then I’ve overstated my case. Even the most garbage writing in the world wouldn’t harm the quality of Jack Kirby’s art…but neither would it hurt sales figures. The writing, too, can still contain moments of quality that stand up when abstracted away from the larger, unresolved and unresolvable mythology. What’s usually worthless is the mythology itself, which often becomes a container as empty as a soap opera. The more creative effort is devoted to advancing the mythology rather than creating immediate moments of creative worth, the less aesthetic value the work has, since the effort is being devoted to something with no structural integrity.

Comic book publishers do not want fans to realize this, lest they only buy the titles that are actually good, rather than owning the whole mythology. So comics evolved by directing creative effort away from any moments of quality and toward large-scale creative bankruptcy. This leads to cognitive dissonance among fans, who are attached to the mythology but eventually realize they’ve been tricked, as well as among the writers themselves, who generally don’t like thinking that their work actually requires them to avoid artistic merit.

Again, the problem of mythology entirely relates to ends. As long as there is no imagined or projected end to a work, then any aspect of that work devoted only to advancing toward that end is artistically worthless, since it is intrinsically in bad faith. There are sometimes worthwhile side effects, such as a satire of the very aimlessness of the work, but the life of the continuity plotter is not a happy one. Even a declared end to a title is a Pyrrhic victory, since none of the continuity established to that point was created with the idea that an end would ever come.

So what if the end is planned for?

 

 

The Big Crunch Model
You may remember that Battlestar Galactica ended with the remnants of humanity choosing to abandon technology on what was revealed to be our prehistoric Earth, three characters unveiled as “angels,” and a close-up of dancing toy robots in today’s Times Square. Creator Ronald D. Moore had this to say in an interview:

                  Given how much of Battlestar Galactica was made up on the fly by you and
                  the other writers, how well do you think everything hangs together?

                 I think it hangs together better than it has any right to. I do feel good that the
                 process I always believed in and really defended—about feeling the story
                 instinctively as you go through it, and not being tied to, “Oh, we know exactly
                 how it’s going to end up”—that that was true. We were able to get there and
                 could say, “We’ve been making this mosaic, and now we just need to put the
                 final touches on it and we’ll have a complete picture.” There’s loose threads
                 and things that don’t quite work, but I think that’s in the nature of almost any
                 show. By and large, I think we did a pretty good job of it.

Moore, who had worked on the Expansionary Star Trek: Deep Space 9 to mixed results, takes a different and more honest approach than Lindelof. Moore argues that his approach forced him to compromise narrative integrity by assembling clues toward a complete picture without knowing what the complete picture was. Hence, “It hangs together better than it has any right to.” Though Moore leveled with the audience, such excuses ring hollow in light of the horrendous ending.

I do believe that the success of The Sopranos took David Chase by surprise and he made a Faustian bargain to stretch out the show at the cost of its integrity, having only a clear plan for the initial mother-son conflict. But subsequent shows were aware of that danger and so set out with a clearer final destination in mind. But only partly.

In the case of a Steady-State show, the ending can come at any time and the course of the series has little effect on the ending. In an Expansionary show, the ending is disappointing because it cannot possibly unify the divergent plot threads that have been built up. In the Big Crunch model, the developments over the series genuinely do constrain the actual ending, limiting the possibilities. The Big Crunch attempts to merge the focus of the Steady-State model with the long-term suspense of the Expansionary model, putting in clues that will mostly, hopefully, add up in the end. The Big Crunch show does not need to have a definitive ending planned out from the beginning. Rather, the show constrains its possible destinations as it goes on, minimizing pointless detours and Expansionary subplots.

The problem is that the Big Crunch model doesn’t account for the changing commercial agenda of a show. The tug of war between networks and creators results in contention over how long a series should run. In the case of both The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, for example, the networks kept asking for more seasons and the creators acceded, adding an extra half-season or season to make the networks happy and drawing out the plot that much more. The problem begins long before that, though, since even getting an agreement on the end date of a show will only occur a season or two before that end.

If you’re The Wire’s David Simon, you’re ornery and single-minded enough that you do exactly what you want and let the mountain come to Mohammed—a stunning and fortuitous achievement, especially given The Wire’s near-cancelation after its third season. If you’re Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski, you plan out the entire story ahead of time, including contingency plans for early cancelation and losing actors. We could use more like those two, since the long-term plotting of those two shows easily bests any other serial of the last thirty years.

But most creators take a more pragmatic approach and improvise to cope with the caprices of television. So most successful shows (ones that don’t get canceled) follow a sequence something like the following:

           1. Sprinting start to suck viewers in and establish fanbase.
           2. Peak period of creativity and exploration as show gets into groove.
           3. Grinding halt as show is drawn out to extend its run and story is
           artificially prolonged.
           4. Jarring, jump-started conclusion papers over discontinuities in          
           previous three stages.

For The Sopranos, this sequence resulted in aimlessness, as new Expansionary plots were added in to delay the end. But for Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad, the focus remains on the main arc. In Breaking Bad, the cast has remained small, major characters have died without being replaced, and Walter White’s scheming and moral turpitude have reached levels that signal an impending closure to the story.

Such a focus on closure runs into two problems:

            1. Ignorance: The creators do not know exactly what that final
             resolution is.
            2. Timing: The creators do not know exactly when that final
             resolution will occur.

Breaking Bad mastermind Vince Gilligan (who also happened to be the second funniest writer on the X Files) has enough of a sense of the shape of the series—it’s a classic morality tale, after all—that ignorance is not proving too much of a problem. But timing certainly is, and the need to stretch out a clearly limited plot to milk the show’s success frequently slowed the last three seasons to a crawl. The beautifully shot but structurally pointless “Fly” episode is a case in point; any episode that causes a critic to gush over “the Aristotelian unity of time and place” immediately deserves suspicion. Nonetheless, Gilligan has handled the progression with far more skill than has been shown in the blatantly inept Dexter, Homeland, and The Walking Dead, where the foreshadowed day of reckoning approaches and recedes like a yoyo.

For shows with a more complex narrative, like Battlestar Galactica, ignorance is far more deadly. The writers lay plot points with apparent care, only for everything to fail to gel in the end. As the possible resolutions become constrained, so too does the creativity, allowing for increasingly limited development as the end approaches. Again, delay and redundancy become the order of the day. And while the ending doesn’t dissipate in the way of an Expansionary show, it rarely satisfies, because it was not planned for, but only improvised. At best, “It hangs together better than it has any right to.”

A historical setting can mitigate the problem of ignorance. It’s not coincidental that Chase’s two deputies on The Sopranos, Terence Winter and Matthew Weiner, both went on to create serials based around specific historical periods. Taking a cue from the canceled Deadwood, Weiner’s Mad Men and Winter’s Boardwalk Empire have a steady stream of historical events to draw on in their respective periods, providing a sense of progression with the underlying causality that reality tends to provide, as well as huge dollops of Temporal Dramatic Irony that provide easy suspense and social commentary. In Deadwood, you knew the town would burn down (though the show was canceled before that happened). In Mad Men, you knew the 60’s would happen. And so on.

Weiner clearly learned some lessons from working on The Sopranos, but history’s structure is unforgiving. It provides yet another restriction on a show’s narrative that may prove even more incompatible with coherent character development and plotting, history often proving to be anything but coherent. Characters come to reflect received archetypes, leading critics to parrot clichés like “The journey of America in the 60’s was from a world of carefully repressed emotions and psychological states to one with more openness.” That wouldn’t be Weiner’s fault except that lines like Don Draper’s “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be” practically go begging for critics to write such crap.

So while the Big Crunch may seem to be an advance over Expansionary and Steady-State models, it is often a step backwards, as it wraps Expansionary continuity far more tightly around the creators’ necks without providing any more real coherency. Since the overall narrative still stands little chance of being satisfying as a whole, the limiting of nonessential content actually impoverishes the possibilities for creative excellence by forcing writers to focus on a core story that cannot proceed at a natural pace, but which much be dishonestly strung out. Arty and impressionistic set pieces become ideal delaying tactics, alongside flashbacks, dream sequences, and redundant exposition. And quotes from Dante.

The ending, when it comes, will consequently not quite fit. Mad Men’s Weiner has taken to making excuses in advance, correctly predicting that any ending to Mad Men stands zero chance of not being pilloried by fans. He vented at a Q&A:

             You know the show is going to end on an ambiguous note. My God, people
             must be prepared for that. Honestly, I can’t even tell what closure is to this
             audience.

Weiner seems to acknowledge that the medium has forced him to promise what he cannot deliver: a coherent story. So he hates himself for lying, and he hates the audience for being dumb enough to believe him—and then trying to hold him to it. This is the mantra of the self-loathing hack: “I can’t believe people buy this shit!”

Perhaps the most dangerous effect of the Big Crunch mentality has been to make television creators think of themselves as auteurs, to convince them that in spite of the massive interference with their work, they can somehow create a work of aesthetic integrity and sociological insight even if they don’t know where it’s going. Well, sometimes you get lucky, but more often, the result is disaster, and the effort spent toward that failure is redirected from where it would be better put: creating great trash. The quality hack becomes a crap expressionist.

             Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we
             have very little reason to be interested in them.                                 
                                                       —Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (1969)

 

Prestige Television of the Last 20 Years (placement does not necessarily reflect quality):

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