TV is Contrary to Good Storytelling

Unless the story is already told…

Holt McCallany makes a strong point: most TV is writer/producer-driven. You gotta grind out the script, then grind out the shoot. Rehearsal is a minimum and re-shoots are not a thing.

How then, to square this with my disappointment with the new season, which felt exactly like a selection of tropes?

The problem is repetition. Successful TV shows by definition are supposed to keep going, but if a story is getting told well, characters and arcs should already be resolved. So we have to recreate arcs, build cliffhangers, and in general drag the thing out, because that’s where the money is.

Even Director-driven shows feel the need to do add character builds. Fifty-minute running times don’t write themselves.

Quick Review: Mindhunter Season 2

TV tropes are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they exist because they work: they create a kind of structural shorthand that writers can use to keep producing content reliably. On the other hand, used at the wrong time, or in the wrong show, they can smother any unique voices or angles.

I believe this is what has occurred with the second season of Mindhunter. What follows will constituted spoilers, so if you haven’t already binged it, you are accepting responsibility for this by reading any further. So, *SPOILERS* begin now.

The dirty secret of Mindhunter is that we don’t need the main characters to have full and rich emotional lives displayed on screen for us. The characters are not really characters so much as they are proxies for the exploration of darkness and the historical account of how the FBI codified the demonology of serial killers. That’s the hook; that’s what we want to see. Holden Ford and Bill Tensch and Wendy Carr are all more or less normal people, and the interest is watching normal people confront the void. Who they date and how much golf they play is of no interest unless it informs that confrontation.

No one found Holden’s girlfriend Debbie from Season 1 more irritating than I did, because watching him spend so much time with someone who could not stop belittling him and condescending to him got old fast. However, their relationship, at least in the early stages, did inform and inspire his thinking about what he was doing in the FBI. It was relevant. But Wendy’s relationship with a bartender this season was relevant to nothing, because it was the only thing we saw her do. All it serves is the trope of “we’ve revealed she’s lesbian, so we need to explore that, so she can *grow as a character*”. No. We don’t need to explore that, because Wendy Carr is not a teenager. She is who she is, and if we don’t know what we can do with her while Holden and Bill are chasing the Atlanta Child Killer, then do we need to see her at all?

The same with Holden’s psychology. Watching Holden have a massive panic attack at the end of Season 1, as he confronts the reality that the void, in the form of Co-Ed Killer Ed Kemper, has also gazed into him, was a strong way to close Season 1. We spend time with it in the early episodes, and it seems as if it’s going to matter, as both Wendy and Bill feel obliged to look after him. But then it goes nowhere, until it’s played off as an almost-joke at the end of the season (Bill telling Holden “You look anxious. You should take a Valium”). I don’t watch this show for lame cliffhangers.

I’d like to say that the breakdown of Bill Tensch’s family is better, but it isn’t. The creepy little boy is still a creepy little boy, and the incident involving the toddler feels like cheap drama. It seems to be so important, and yet it’s only Nancy not wanting to stay in the house that blows everything up at the end. It felt obligatory. A toddler died, and the result is Nancy packing everything up and moving out without leaving (so far as we can tell) so much as a Dear John letter. This isn’t where the emotional weight of the series should be. It’s not a character show, it’s a content show.

Meanwhile, the actual draw of the season gets almost short shrift. You’ve got BTK, who was mere shadowing in Season 1, suddenly landing on the Behavioral Science Unit’s radar, but by the end of Season 2, we’re back to watching him for a scene at the beginning or end of an episode acting weird. Which isn’t unreasonable, as BTK wasn’t caught until 2005. But other than a quick trip to Wichita for Bill, they seem oddly blase about the whole thing. Is this really the best use of the material?

The season works best when dealing with the Atlanta Child Killings of 1979-1981. The tantalizing mystery of this, with so many dead children, and so few leads, and a community deeply suspicious, is top-shelf stuff. More, it serves as a great challenge to the whole concept of “profiling”: although Wayne Williams fits the profile, physical evidence tying him too the dead children remains elusive. The story builds logically off of what we’ve seen them do in Season 1, but everyone except Holden treats it as an irritating distraction. The conflict between theory and reality should occupy the center stage, and everything the characters are doing should build off of that. Instead, we have conversations about authenticity and real estate but nothing about why Holden is so certain about the kind of man he’s trying to catch. He doesn’t get to make his case. It’s like the show just wants him to be wrong.

Fincher says he plans to do five seasons. I’m not going to wait with such anticipation for the next one.

The Wheel of Time comes to Amazon

Cue all the “At least this series is finished” snark.

Set in an epic world where magic exists but only women can use it, “The Wheel of Time” follows Moiraine, a member of the shadowy and influential all-female organization called the “Aes Sedai,” as she embarks on a dangerous journey with five young men and women across the world. Moiraine is interested in these five “because she believes one of them might be the reincarnation of an incredibly powerful individual, who prophecies say will either save humanity or destroy it,” Amazon said in a statement.

The series draws on numerous elements of European and Asian culture and philosophy, especially Buddhism and Hinduism.

It also… kind of sucks.

Robert Jordan was the American Tolkein before George R.R. Martin was so dubbed, and the Wheel of Time series starts with a bang. It’s a fully realized world with a sprawling backstory, and the idea that magic has two components: one male, one female, but the male half has been poisoned and unusable for millenia, is a neat hook to hang an apocalyptic battle on. The first book was great.

The second book was good.

The third book was… I don’t remember. Let’s say goodish?

The fourth book I remember better than the third book. It was kind of interesting.

I don’t remember the fifth book at all.

I don’t remember the sixth book at all.

I gave up partway through the seventh book.

There are fourteen books in the series.

Jordan’s problem wasn’t production. He dropped 700+-page novels every 2-3 years, regular as clockwork. The longest fans had to wait for the next volume was four years, because Jordan died and Brandon Sanderson finished the series from Jordan’s notes. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire fans would give bloodleeches to Melisandre for that kind of predictability.

The problem was, for all that production, the story moved hardly at all. Whole books would be spent on a single narrative involving a single character, while other characters stayed in limbo. By the time I checked out, halfway through, the Wheels of Time were spinning in the mud.

This reached its culmination in Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in the series, which focuses on what every character but the protagonist was doing (mostly: nothing) while the main character, Rand al-Thor, did a big thing in the previous book. Rand is present for two chapters in CoT, mostly brooding. Or, as one of the thousands (yes, thousands) of negative Amazon reviews has it:

Here is a list of things that DON”T happen in this book.

Mat does not marry Tuon. Perrin does not rescue Faile or Alliandre or Morgase, Rand does not do anything. Elayne does not gain the Rose Throne. Egwene does not re-unite the White Tower. Elaida does not defeat the rebels. No darkfriends are unmasked. No black ajah are unmasked. Morraine does not come back from wherever she has been for the last 8 books. Savanne does not get what is coming to her. No Forsaken are unmasked. Mazrim Taim’s plans do not become clear. Logain’s plans do not become clear. The Seanchan don’t gain victory/defeat on any front. The Great Lord does not break free. Gawain does not join Egwene. I could go on.
What does happen in this novel? Elayne drinks lots of watery tea. Egwene has lots of headaches, Rand lies in bed with Min and wishes he were dead. Loail explains again why he is not ready to settle down. Aviendha wanders around in the buff again. Mat continues to not understand women. Aes Sedai and the Sea Folk, and the Kin continue to argue with one another about every little thing. We continue to get a fashion review of what every woman is wearing, and how much bosom she is showing (typically a great deal). That’s about it.

So, despite the “productivity”, both Martin and Jordan had/have the same unwillingness to finish. Whether this is from greed or simple logorrhea, Jordan could not bring himself to enter the series’ third act. In the end he did not, and another author finished the series for him.

This may be a risky series for Amazon to adapt. On the one hand, the sheer length of the thing begs for a long-form, serial treatment. TV can dig into the nuances of this in a way that movies can’t. But the showrunners will have to make smart choices, or the TV series will get bogged down in the same way the books did. Some of the fluff will need to be cut away, or around Season 10 the fans will be as frustrated and bored with the plot slows and the encyclopedic panoply of minor characters as the readers were.

The other problem is the characters. The world in Wheel of Time is much more intricate and realized than the characters are. The characters barely stand out at all, in fact. All the male characters are varying degrees of dim, and all the female characters varying degrees of shrewish. The symphony of confused grimaces and braid-tugging becomes a chore pretty early in the series, and it never relents. Rand al-Thor doesn’t have Jon Snow’s dogged rectitude, and Egwene lacks Danaerys Targaryen’s heroic passion. The sense of decisions that matter and shift the characters, the sense of life-or-death hanging in the balance, is peculiarly absent. The characters just seem to keep going, and they don’t ever seem to change.

Granted, I checked out half-way through. It may be that a TV series can move credibly through the vast scope of Jordan’s universe and give the characters distinct lives. But I’m probably going to wait on word-of-mouth.

I had no idea HBO was even doing this, and my instinct is to scrunch up my nose at it. I like the original graphic novel and found the film merely okay (among other things, they didn’t do the Comedian right). It was a provocative examination of super-hero tropes at the time, but I don’t know if it has any real purpose today. I mean, The Incredibles hit the same themes in a family-friendly Pixar flick. Do we really need to Subvert The Superhero more than we already have?

And I’m  a bit worried about HBO (and others) doing miniseries after miniseries based on existing hit IP’s. They’re going to start expecting everything to be Game of Thrones, and that’s not going to work for premium cable TV any better than it’s worked for Hollywood expecting everything to be Titanic.

The cast of HBO’s “Watchmen” pilot continues to grow. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Sara Vickers have both joined the project, which hails from Damon Lindelof. As with previous “Watchmen” casting announcements, HBO provided no details about the characters the two will play. They join previously announced cast members Regina King, Don Johnson, Jeremy Irons, Tim Blake…

via ‘Watchmen’ Pilot Adds Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sara Vickers — Variety

A Sci-Fi Series Based on “Heart of Darkness”

Crackle is developing a series reimagining of the Joseph Conrad novel “Heart of Darkness,” Variety has learned exclusively. The project is set in the future where Earth is a distant memory. It is described as an exploration of what it means to be human on a space odyssey where the survival of the human race hangs in…

via Crackle to Develop Sci-Fi Series Based on ‘Heart of Darkness’ (EXCLUSIVE) — Variety

I could be behind this. I blogged before about Heart of Darkness and the possibility of separating theme from setting:

I don’t think Heart of Darkness is actually about colonialism per se. The rapacious aspect of Belgian rule in the Congo is just the setting for the novel’s true theme: the collapse of human spirit under harsh conditions. The encounter between human societies at differing stages of development, and the inevitable mistrust and exploitation that follows, is a vehicle for this theme. But you could set it in any hostile environment and get similar results. If you can get a character from a place of idealism to a place of “The horror!”, then you can get what Conrad was going for.

Sci-Fi is custom-built for just this sort of re-imagining.

How ‘Stranger Things’ Got Passed Around Hollywood

In the midst of fisking the usual gang of idiots about raaaaaaacism, Larry Correia lets drop an interesting factoid:

For a long time entertainment tried to lump as many customers as possible into one big box to provide dumb bland mushy product to. To make a living at this stuff you needed to sell to everybody, including the easily offended. Now, you just need to appeal to one group of fans, and what appeals to them might not appeal to everybody, but screw those guys. You can make what you want. Technology has evolved so that you can get your product right in front of your target audience. It isn’t just books either. Stranger Things got rejected by something like 15 networks for being too weird, and now it is a hit on Netflix.

I double-checked to make sure that was true, and according to this article in Rolling Stone, Correia was low-balling it:

After they wrote the initial Stranger Things script, they never thought they’d have a chance at pitching Netflix; they thought it was only a place for established names like Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan and House of Cards producer, director David Fincher. Matt estimates the brothers were rejected 15 to 20 times by various networks, while other execs had balked at the idea that the show featured four kids as lead characters but that it wasn’t TV for children. “You either gotta make it into a kids show or make it about this Hopper [detective] character investigating paranormal activity around town,” one told them. Matt recalls replying, “Then we lose everything interesting about the show.” Some other people they knew in the industry understood their vision and helped connect them with Netflix. “There was a week where we were like, ‘This isn’t going to work because people don’t get it,‘” Matt says.

That’s the thing about the entertainment/content industry: they have to have product to connect with an audience, but they can’t know ahead of time what will, and there’s a cost factor with every bet. So if they gate-keepers don’t get it, viscerally, instantly, they assume that the disinterested masses won’t bother. Because the entertainment industry isn’t about connecting audiences and content, it’s about connecting audiences and content in such away that maximizing profit and minimizes loss. Thus, people are going to pass on things because they’re not getting it.

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Hating Fuller House is Like Hating Anchovies

No matter how much you do, there’s a market that doesn’t.

Good Article at the Daily Beast about why hating on the insipdidly-wholesome Netflix-reboot of the insipidly wholesome sitcom is probably more obnoxious than the show itself could possibly be:

Was Fuller House ever going to come back with sudden comic intelligence? Razor sharp dialogue? Angsty observations on the human condition? Was D.J. suddenly going to be cursing like Julia Louis-Dreyfus on a HBO series? Sex scenes featuring John Stamos (a person can dream)? A sudden allergy to Very Special Lessons set to twinkly music at the tail-end of an episode?

Of course not.

We keep asking for these reboots. What exactly are we expecting when they arrive?

The response to the above should mirror Tonto’s from the old joke: “What you mean, ‘we’, white man?”. And that’s the point: it’s not the critics who asked for Fuller House to be a thing, it’s a very specific audience that Netflix is catering to. And that’s okay. Because I don’t have to watch it just because it’s on Netflix. That’s how Netflix works.

So I don’t understand why anyone would write an entire blog about how Full House is the worst thing that ever happened and how it exposes the dark sick underbelly soul of America once you stare into its hideous maw long enough. Why would you do that to yourself? You aren’t going to convince anyone. You aren’t going to make anyone see the light. You’re just going to give yourself angst points for suffering under the tastes of the less-enlightened. And that’s a habit I find infinitely more tiresome than badly written sitcoms.