Unsatisfying TV? : The J.J. Abrams Model (And More)
Read This First: Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model.
I’m not sure of the etiquette in situations like this but Lindsey’s post was not just an interesting piece of television theory but an important one too, for serialization is surely the biggest creative riddle that television is currently trying to solve, that I simply couldn’t stop at commenting and so i’ve done this re-post, press this thing instead.
As i’ve said many times before, we are on the brink of an eclipse of sorts when it comes to entertainment; the once separate worlds of film and television are growing ever closer as their differences change and dissolve thanks to social and technological factors. There is though one distinction between the two that will always continue to be true and it is just that, continuation. Since prose adopted the form of one-off published paperback as its primary form sometime back in the Elizabethan era, television has become the only medium intrinsically effected by serialisation ( trilogies and the like are the exceptions that prove the rule) but that’s not to say that it was always so. This current concept of ongoing narratives is, as Lindsey so aptly abridged, a somewhat modern movement in the medium and so arbiters of the audience are still struggling to define and more importantly refine it, which is why I think that this J.J. Model thesis is so terrific. The reason that I re-posted your article and replied to it in this way is because I wonder why we should stop there; for instance I see your Abrams and raise you a David.
It’s interesting to me that the J.J. Model seemingly has such mass appeal ( though this may now be waning, what with the backlash and burden of bad copies ) while the structure favored by HBO’s dramas horrifies most audiences, when at their core they are really very similar. Both of these narrative models rely on particularly slow pacing and the obfuscation of usually obvious details until later on in the run, knowing that thanks to their immortality television shows need to be about ‘What will happen Next’ rather than ‘What is happening Now’, but each approaches this idea in drastically different ways. If you were to say compare Lost to Luck or The Wire then you will see that both are heavily reliant on their sense of mystery but whereas the Abrams show attempts to apply this feeling through a constant stream of question and non-answers, the David show simply does so by withholding from us what we are normally given through contrived exposition and contextual familiarity; here we don’t just have to guess the answer, but the question too.
A recent examples of this theory in execution is Game of Thrones; though many would make the argument that the shows scripts were nothing but exposition it still followed in the footsteps set down by Milch, Simon and Chase by making mysteries out of these mundane elements: Who is related to who and how, where is location A in relation to location B and how long does it take to travel from one to the other etc. ‘Who is the protagonist?’ is even a valid question in this case. For the first few episodes the game is to try and guess what the synopsis of the show should be, because unlike in traditional television its not instantly obvious. The David then requires more patience from its viewer; it’s common to hear that HBO shows don’t truly begin or break through until after the fourth episode or so, because they have that purposeful pacing without any of the pleasing magic tricks, but unlike the Abrams it usually has an end point and purpose in mind. In this way the David method is a short-term one, like American Horror Story’s; though they are a major part of drawing the audience in eventually these questions will all be answered and the show can then quite easily evolve into a program that is able to focus on the content of its characters and plot, the here and now, whereas the Abrams can only end up tangled in a knot of its own extravagance and diminishing returns.
While this seems like the best method creatively speaking it is not a commonly held one, in fact the opposite is much more common. Ever since watching Six Feet Under many, many years ago – it was my first foray into serious, cable television – i have always noticed the way that many shows develop their serialization as they go, dropping the MotW structure more and more with each passing season, and have wondered ever since, is this right? Though the television landscape supports heavy serialization now I can see us soon returning to a time where such demands of dedication will likely cause the death of a new show ( we may even be there now) and so it seems likely that this approach may return. Luring the audience in with digestible morsels and then asking more and more of them with each bite; this may be the Chris Carter method, because unlike Lost The X-Files built itself within the parenthesis of a procedural police drama, sprinkling in the mythology when it dared. I don’t know though if these shows should just be true to themselves from the beginning instead of wasting that time or if we, the audience, actually need the time to adjust? The ratings and critical reactions to new serialised shows versus stand-alone sit-coms and procedurals suggests that maybe we do, but also that show runners maybe shouldn’t care. It’s a tough call.
Justified is my current example of the ideal in this field, and it obeys neither method. Though the show has attempted both in the past this season is neither a straight, serialised stream nor a series of stand alones but sits instead a chain of links; each episode is a self contained story with a beginning and an end but a facet from one usually begets the next, the climax and introduction of subsequent episodes interlocking in a way that is utterly unique. In this way you get the added stakes and emotional attachment of a serialised drama while still fully utilising the unique qualities of the episode, something that the overly novelesque David doesn’t always do. I’m not sure that some other show could replicate it, but I do think that the writers are managing to mine the best of both worlds with this and so others then should surely try.
I’m obviously nowhere near as sure of all this as you are, this post for example is all over the place, but I find the question fascinating enough to ask and attempt to answer in all these different forms. I don’t know what the future of serialisation holds, but for every instance where it is unsatisfying there is an example of the inverse. There is a reason why even the flawed attempts like Lost will still be held in high esteem in that future while the more Sisyphean shows will have ultimately been forgotten; life goes on so we expect our stories to do the same, to take us on journeys and not day trips, though the latter are oft safer and simpler to organise. Speaking of journeys I have rambled far too much in this response, I fear that it has long since followed Abrams and become the unsatisfying form of serialisation, so I best stop now before i too end up spinning out of control.