Friday, December 29, 2006

On the serial narrative

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I've recently gained an appreciation for comics that I didn't have before. They're not my favorite form of literature by any means (they all too often don't let the pictures do the work, choosing to underline a point with underdeveloped dialogue -- there's no subtext left unturned), but they're not bad, especially the very good ones, like my favorite, Fables, which avoids most of the pitfalls described above (though it often falls prey to the unwieldy exposition trap, but that's largely forgivable in a serial-driven narrative).

As I was reading the Christmas issue of Fables, though (pictured), I realized that one area the new serialized television sort of falls apart in is in its devotion to creating a richly textured universe and world of characters. Sure, shows like Lost and Heroes keep piling on character after character, weird item after weird item, but do they really devote themselves to creating a world worth visiting week after week?

Fables, of course, as you would know if you read my Oct. 24 post about adapting graphic novels for television, is about a bunch of fairy tale characters who are very much real and living in the East Village. It's a potentially silly set-up, but writer Bill Willingham treats it very, very seriously (while not forgetting the need for levity), showing how his characters move on from the apocalypse that forced them into our world and begin to live (and, in some cases, love) again. It's a pretty basic setup, admittedly, but Willingham's talent for creating nuanced characters who behave just enough like their fairy tale analogues to be instantly relatable while retaining their own dimensions keeps the series fresh and surprising. (It, of course, helps that the art is gorgeous, most often pencilled by Mark Buckingham -- the stunning covers are done by James Jean, and you can buy some of his work here.)

A lot of what makes Fables work is the huge cast of supporting characters that flit about the edges of his main story. He's got 10 or 11 major characters who appear in the majority of the issues, but the number of folktales and other stories he can draw from is well-nigh endless, and the characters who will appear for a handful of issues at a time and then recede into the background continues to grow.

And here's the thing. By taking his time to develop all of these characters (including Santa Claus in the most recent issue), Willingham has developed an arsenal of characters he can call on in new and surprising ways. If an issue were to end with a voice from off-panel saying, "It's me!" and the other characters in-panel all reacting in shock, there are literally dozens of different characters Willingham could have brought back that would have a marked impact on our main characters. It could be King Cole, and everyone would be thrilled for his diplomatic help. It could be Hansel, and everyone would be worried he was leading an army of invaders or something. It could be Reynard the Fox, and everyone would wonder how, exactly, he got there. And so on.

(A brief aside before I sound too geeky: I assume that everyone will be slightly familiar with the character names above from their childhood reading and such. Willingham has that in his favor. If King Cole shows up suddenly, a new reader needs only hear his name to have a rough idea of who he is as a character -- why, he's merry and old, and a merry old king is he. Longtime readers, of course, will know all of the vague complexities of the character, but you can get by with the very basic knowledge almost every adult in the West grew up knowing. That's a big help for Willingham in avoiding clunky exposition. He doesn't have to have a character say, "Why, it's Geppetto, Pinocchio's father!" We can fill that in already. In another comic, that wouldn't be the case.)

Indeed, this line of thinking was prompted by a panel in the Christmas issue. Santa was issuing a vaguely prophetic warning, and a small detail in the background (specifically, a pig's head on a stake, Lord of the Flies-style) indicated that Santa, indeed, was telling the truth, that dark days were ahead. To the uninitiated, this was a small detail worth skipping over. But to a regular reader, this simple sketch carried with it a lot of emotional weight -- that pig used to be one of the Three Little Pigs, until he was killed and made an example of, his head on a stake; as the years wore on, he often visited the series' main female protagonist, presumably in her dreams, to impart warnings and good tidings. Willingham has confidence that his readers are going to know what's going on, and he lets us do the busy work.

So what does this have to do with television? The modern television drama has roughly equal roots in film and in literature. But it's hard to evaluate television like you would a film. When you watch a film, presumably, the story is over during that film (even Lord of the Rings was split into three smaller stories that made up a larger one). The same with a novel. The story on television isn't over until the season (or, in some cases, the series) is over. Sure, the story has been broken into handy, episodic chunks (if it's a good series, at least), but we still can't evaulate, say, the characters' journeys over time without seeing the whole picture. We're grasping blindly, really.

Now, obviously, many of the classic novels of the 19th century were published in serial form. One of my favorite novels of all-time, Middlemarch by George Eliot, is marked by how obviously it is derived from being born from serial publication -- Eliot goes through some complicated hoops to make certain characters happy in the end, and there's some suspicion that was at the bidding of readers and letters-to-the-editor writers, the original bloggers and message board posters. But while I could talk about what 24 has to learn from Dickens, I don't know that that would be interesting to you.

Also, I couldn't post pictures.

Ooh! Genie!

Anyway.

Comics are also one big story told over incremental chunks. And there are plenty of shows that have been duly influenced by comics over the years. Buffy's Joss Whedon, for example, was so influenced by the X-Men in the plots he developed for Buffy (and how he deployed those plots) that he's writing the comic now. The staffs of Lost and Heroes have been filled with various comics writers. And numerous TV and screenwriters are turning to writing comics as well, including John Rogers.

But how many shows are using this seriality to create a whole UNIVERSE? Buffy certainly did -- one could see an episode in the show's seventh season concluding much like the Fables conclusion described above. And the character who had arrived could have been Giles or Angel or Faith or any one of a number of characters who would have changed everything. 24, in its own way, accomplishes this as well, largely because it has a deeply faithful audience and because it essentially recreates its cast every season. Both shows went in for the clunky exposition ("That's Kim, Jack's daughter! They've had a rocky relationship since her mother died.") to catch newbies up, but Kim Bauer isn't a name that registers as instantly as Little Miss Muffet.

Heroes and Lost, as much as I like both of them in their own ways, aren't accomplishing this as handily. Lost is limited by its setting, of course, so it overcompensates by piling on the oddness. But even if an episode calls back to a bit of oddness (oh, THAT's what the skeletons in the cave were all about!), it will never have the same resonance as calling back to a well-developed CHARACTER, something Lost doesn't have enough of, even with an ensemble that hovers around 15 regulars. Heroes, however, is introducing characters as fast as it can kill them. The characters never live long enough to be interesting and/or recurring. As fine an actress as Jayma Mays is, why didn't the show keep her Google Girl around a little longer?

By and large, the cable dramas do a fine job of building sustained universes -- heading into its fifth season, The Wire has developed a whole city's worth of characters who can alter everything, and it seemed as if Deadwood eventually created a vital character out of EVERY person who lived in the camp. Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos, while not as wide-ranging, also have huge catalogs of characters to pull from. Indeed, one of the biggest things that lets you know if you're watching an FX or Showtime show instead of an HBO show is when you realize that the latest recurring guest star is just going to be shunted off to the side and never mentioned again. For all their many virtues, Rescue Me, Dexter and Brotherhood don't bother with developing many characters beyond their central casts (and, in some cases, within their central casts -- see every non-Dexter character on Dexter).

The networks don't do as well because they don't trust that they'll be drawing the same audience from week to week. Lost will sometimes slip a mythology answer into the background of a scene (apparently, someone found a glass eye last season, and this season, we found out there's a guy out there with. . .an eye patch) without calling tons of attention to it, but that's usually done more as a wink to the fans. A character point that could be made more subtly will almost always be beaten over the head as often as possible. And forget about shows like Prison Break or Grey's Anatomy, where someone will be sure to pop in and remind us of everything we might have forgotten.

But I think we're turning a corner. Networks are realizing that serial dramas aren't for EVERYone, but they are for a rather large audience of someones that likes to figure this stuff out on its own. The further we get into this, the more willing networks will be to let producers not underline absolutely every plot point and character beat. And then, when the door opens at the end of the episode, we can be TOTALLY surprised.

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