Episodic v. Serial – Complications Ensue

Episodic v. Serial – Complications Ensue:

So when we actually saw Rob Thomas (creator of VERONICA MARS) giving a talk at Banff, DMc asked him about his thoughts on episodic vs. serial.

Rob busted out a factoid I’d heard before, but which really hadn’t sunk in. When people say they watch a show, on average, they watch one out of four episodes.

One out of four.

It’s a shock, because when I watch a show, I really want to see every episode. I missed maybe one or two FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTs last season, and I was really unhappy about it. One out of four? So the average audience member is really not that involved in the season arcs even of a soap opera like FNL; they’re just going along for the episodic ride.

Rob said if he’d been able to do a fourth season of VM, he’d have made it entirely episodic. No serial story at all. That was a shock.

Wow, one of the better shows developed for episodic viewing, and the writer wouldn’t do it that way again. Also – who watched Friday Night Lights that way? Good god. That show was amazing for layers and building. Why would you watch it for an episode here or there?

Maybe many people watch TV that way, but I sure don’t. There’s got to be two camps on this – I wonder what the split is?

And could you write a show that works for both camps?

Friday Night Lights

While I’m working through my CD ripping project, I’ve been knitting and doing some marathon Netflix watching. I can’t remember what prompted me to start watching Friday Night Lights, but I’ve been working my way through the first several seasons – and it’s GOOD. The writing is amazing. I wish I’d been watching this all along. The problem is that after watching the show continuously, I’ve started talking with a Texas twang. It’s a little embarrassing.

My Early Fan Fiction

A short list of shows and books I have written femslash fan fiction about – often in my head, but sometimes written down. Early on I actually wrote it down and posted on usenet forums, and I discovered recently that some of it is still out there. I’m not linking to it, because it’s pretty terrible, and since it was anonymously published, I don’t have to claim it.

Star Trek: TNG – Deanna Troi and Dr. Beverly Crusher

Anne of Green Gables – Anne and Dianna

Kate & Allie – one or two Kate and Allie, but more Jennie and Emma
Kate450

The Facts of Life – Jo & Blair, obvs.

Princess Diana (RPF, OMG!)
I shouldn’t even bring this up now, but in the interest of being complete, yes, I wrote romantic fiction pairing princess Diana with other famous women. I feel bad about it now, given that celebrities tend to feel icky about RPF written about them.

Reva Shayne & Maureen Garrett from The Guiding Light
Who knows what I was thinking of here; Reva and Maureen barely interacted with each other. I wished they did, though.

The character of Buddy, from Family
I barely remember any of the episodes, but boy did Buddy have some girlfriends in my writing. I believe she had a crush on some girl Willie was dating? God, I can’t remember that far back.

Little House on the Prairie
(I know; blasphemy! In my head, Nellie Olson got a lot nicer and Laura liked blondes.)

Colette’s Claudine series
I thought Claudine should have ended up with Annie and not the asshole husband.

Star Trek: DS9
Jadzia Dax and Kira Nerys, please. I wasn’t placated by Lenara Kahn.

Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman
No clue who I was shipping Dr. Quinn with. Probably some guest star.

Ready or Not – Amanda and Busy
Most of this was pretty tame and just involved them realizing they loved each other.

Touched by an Angel (definitely going to hell for that).
I only wrote a couple of stories, so I don’t remember what this one was about.

Xena: Warrior Princess
Obviously, Xena and Gabrielle, but I had a long story I need to dig out where I shipped Artemis and Aphrodite, too.

The X-Files
I didn’t hate Mulder, but he was too much of a kook for Scully, so I gave her girlfriends.

The Lost Finale

Kottke does a nice round-up of sites’s comments on the Lost finale. Many of them express what I’ve heard as a common theme among fans – it’s okay that all of the questions weren’t answered, because most of them were. The major storylines were wrapped up.

io9, on the other hand, came up a with a list of 50 questions that they felt Lost really did need to answer with their series ending show, and a tally of what was actually covered and what was left open (more questions than not, unfortunately).

I’m with io9 on this one. Sure, red herrings are a mystery tradition. But they’re always exposed as red herrings in the end. That’s just good storytelling to wrap up the loose ends. Lost left way too many of them. Writing them off as unimportant is just yanking people’s chains. People who don’t think much may be okay without all the mind-benders solved. But thoughtful people want real closure in their storytelling. I wonder how many of the “it’s okay, they don’t have to explain everything” folks read novels regularly.

And I’m really dissatisfied with the ending as well. If you’re going to sell me a series of religious programming, label it as such so I can watch the sci-fi channel instead. Don’t disguise your religious blah blah blah as science fiction for 5 and a half seasons and then zing me with mysticism at the end. It’s pretty clear that the writers very much wrote themselves into a corner. They didn’t have an end in mind when they started, and they got a giant kick out people’s excitement at the layer-upon-layer of mysterious events, so they kept laying it on thick even after they had laid out so much they couldn’t explain it all. I cry deus ex machina foul. My fierce belief in free will over fate leaves me feeling this series was ultimately a giant turd.

I’m hoping that with on-demand technologies, television writing will start moving in the direction of series treated as long mini-series – with a completely plotted story line from beginning to end and more tightly written detail, rather that completely open-ended affairs that peter off after awhile. Television programs do have a predictable end point, no matter how popular they are. Using that to create a real story that holds together throughout would be much more satisfying.

In search of the next Lost

Entertainment Weekly has an interesting article in their current issue about all of the shows written to be the next big Lost and how none of them seem to be taking off in the way the networks are hoping. I am watching FlashFoward, and it’s interesting, but most of the shows are missing a key ingredient to the formula…

The reason I got hooked on Lost was because I had no idea at first that it was a mystery. The first episodes seemed like a scripted version of Survivor (an interesting idea by itself) – and when strange stuff started happening, there were tons of “Wow, what the heck just happened?” moments. A mystery is a mystery because you don’t realize at first that’s what it is – you think you’re going along with life, an you start noticing little stuff that just doesn’t make any sense. You pull the string, and it all unravels into one big pile.

All of these Lost imitator shows – FlashFoward especially – are coming out of the gate with “hey look at this big mystery! We’re gonna solve it, yay!” scripts that just seem too self-conscious. When you have to tell people you’re really cool – probably not so much. Start by telling an interesting story first.
I don’t know that there’s any way to really “fix” this about FlashFoward – they started off on the wrong foot to begin with. It’s interesting enough, but the constant references to how mysterious all of it is – over the top.

Fascinating Interview with David Simon

David Simon is the producer of HBO’s “The Wire” – a highly acclaimed series that I have on my Netflix queue since I’ve heard so many rave reviews calling it “The Best Show on TV Ever.” Here is part of an interview he gave with Nick Hornby for The Believer:

We got the gig because as my newspaper was bought and butchered by an out-of-town newspaper chain, I was offered the chance to write scripts, and ultimately, to learn to produce television by the fellows who were turning my first book into Homicide: Life on the Street. I took that gig and ultimately, I was able to produce the second book for HBO on my own. Following that miniseries, HBO agreed to look at The Wire scripts. So I made an improbable and in many ways unplanned transition from journalist/author to TV producer. It was not a predictable transformation and I am vaguely amused that it actually happened. If I had a plan, it was to grow old on the Baltimore Sun’s copy desk, bumming cigarettes from young reporters and telling lies about what it was like working with H. L. Mencken and William Manchester.

Another reason the show may feel different than a lot of television: our model is not quite so Shakespearean as other high-end HBO fare. The Sopranos and Deadwood—two shows that I do admire—offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of the central characters (Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen). Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The modern mind—particularly those of us in the West—finds such fatalism ancient and discomfiting, I think. We are a pretty self-actualized, self-worshipping crowd of postmoderns and the idea that for all of our wherewithal and discretionary income and leisure, we’re still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious. We don’t accept our gods on such terms anymore; by and large, with the exception of the fundamentalists among us, we don’t even grant Yahweh himself that kind of unbridled, interventionist authority.

But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.

NH: How did you pitch it?

DS: I pitched The Wire to HBO as the anti–cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television. I am unalterably opposed to drug prohibition; what began as a war against illicit drugs generations ago has now mutated into a war on the American underclass, and what drugs have not destroyed in our inner cities, the war against them has. I suggested to HBO—which up to that point had produced groundbreaking drama by going where the broadcast networks couldn’t (The Sopranos, Sex and the City, et al…)—that they could further enhance their standing by embracing the ultimate network standard (cop show) and inverting the form. Instead of the usual good guys chasing bad guys framework, questions would be raised about the very labels of good and bad, and, indeed, whether such distinctly moral notions were really the point.

The show would instead be about untethered capitalism run amok, about how power and money actually route themselves in a postmodern American city, and, ultimately, about why we as an urban people are no longer able to solve our problems or heal our wounds. Early in the conception of the drama, Ed Burns and I—as well as the late Bob Colesberry, a consummate filmmaker who served as the directorial producer and created the visual template for The Wire—conceived of a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.

First season: the dysfunction of the drug war and the general continuing theme of self-sustaining postmodern institutions devouring the individuals they are supposed to serve or who serve them. Second season: the death of work and the destruction of the American working class in the postindustrial era, for which we added the port of Baltimore. Third season: the political process and the possibility of reform, for which we added the City Hall component. Fourth season: equal opportunity, for which we added the public-education system. The fifth and final season will be about the media and our capacity to recognize and address our own realities, for which we will add the city’s daily newspaper and television components.

Did we mention these grandiose plans to HBO at the beginning? No, they would have laughed us out of the pitch meeting. Instead, we spoke only to the inversion of the cop show and a close examination of the drug war’s dysfunction. But before shifting gears to the port in season two, I sat down with the HBO execs and laid out the argument to begin constructing an American city and examining the above themes through that construction. So here we are.

“Mary Sue” in Online Fan Fiction

MARY SUE (n.):

1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment.

2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author.

3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories.

4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it’s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as “self-insertion.”

Sounds dirty.

Making Light’s lengthy article on the concept of “The Mary Sue” is well worth reading.