After I wrote yesterday about feeling overloaded on both violence and baroque plot mechanisms that ratchet up the intensity of shows, Linda Holmes at NPR wrote a wonderful piece about what we lose about focusing on violent death as the only possible stake for dramatic storytelling:
But what is concerning is that this revolution has been deep but narrow; it’s like we have an army of dazzlingly fluent poets who all write in one language. That doesn’t, of course, make all the poetry the same, any more than all English-language poetry is the same. These shows are varied in many ways: The Wire is not the same show as The Walking Dead just because people get shot and otherwise brutalized, and American Horror Story and Boardwalk Empire are hardly identical twins. But they share elements, one of which is that the stakes involve — not solely but largely — avoiding being violently killed. And for that reason, they ask the viewer to want to watch people being violently killed now and then, and sometimes now and then and then and then, because otherwise the threats are false…
The “television versus film” debate is absurd and always has been; there’s no way to attain a weighted average of all of television and all of film, nobody sees all of either one, and comparing best versus best ignores everything else. But at some point, if dramatic television wants to be considered as vibrant and exciting as film can be, it needs a better mix. It needs love stories and family stories, workplace stories and friendship stories, and they can’t all be soaked in blood. Inevitably, there is a portion of the audience that is — as Alyssa pointed out — eventually exhausted by that. Not offended; exhausted.
I also took some time yesterday to talk to Maureen Ryan of Huffington Post both about Sons of Anarchy and some of the issues I raised in my piece. Sons fans may be interested in the whole diavlog. But I wanted to pull this section of it, where we talk a bit about how to work our way out of hugely complex plots that are dependent on violent stakes. We talked a bit about British series, which have developed in the opposite direction that Linda described, exploring a broad range of forms and tones but without delving deeply into a limited set of tropes and themes. And I suggested that maybe we need a halfway point between traditional procedurals, which devote very little time to long character arcs and keep their plots largely confined to single episodes, and serialized dramas, which have both very long plot and character arcs. Mad Men, after all, is fundamentally a procedural, a show that has a discrete task per episode, often one that very clearly snaps onto the previous episode’s task like a Lego in the construction of the major goal of the season, and one that leaves significant space in every episode for character development. And it’s avoided the trap of both the traditional procedural, and of violent death stakes as the only ones: