Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Stakes

A conversation with Maggie of Bootstrap Productions today got me to thinking about stakes -- how television is uniquely dependent on them, how they're raised, how they matter more in some genres than others.

Maggie likes stakes. She likes to know that what's going on on an episode of television matters (and forgive me if I am misrepresenting you, Maggie). Two of her favorite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Grey's Anatomy, mix personal stakes (the soap opera plotlines) with the more typical stakes (the monster of the week in Buffy, the medical case of the week in Grey's). In the best episodes of those shows, the episodic stakes inform and comment on the soap operatic stakes -- in Buffy's "Hush," the monsters steal your voice, but Buffy and her friends are struggling to communicate their loneliness (and assorted other things) at being college freshmen -- and so on.

The stakes in a dramatic series aren't hard to find most of the time, even if the show doesn't have continuing storylines like Grey's or Buffy -- if the CSI detectives can't catch the killer, he may kill again; if House can't catch the disease in time, it may kill the patient of the week. Even the dramatic shows that don't take place in a police station or hospital have fairly high stakes. In Friday Night Lights, the guiding question is whether any of these kids can get out of the hellhole town they're stuck in. The way they're going to get out of town is (usually) through football. So if they can win the game of the week, they increase their chance of getting out of town. Similarly, Everwood was about a family on the verge of falling apart that tried to fix itself by moving to a tiny town. While the stakes were smaller here (and the show, to be fair, had a weekly medical plot too), they were high stakes for the characters they were affected by -- good drama waiting to happen.

By contrast, though, the stakes in a comedic series are often very, very small. In an episode of The Office, it's essentially how our characters will get through another work day without killing each other or themselves. On How I Met Your Mother, it's how our groups of friends in New York will be able to have a good time and keep their fractious romantic relationships together. On Seinfeld, the stakes were practically non-existent -- which selfish impulse will our central foursome get to indulge this week? To a large degree, this is because a lot of humor comes out of exaggeration. If Norm and Cliff on Cheers mess up their scheme to videotape a family reunion by running out of tape, it's not going to alter the course of human history, but it's going to be a HUGE deal to them, and they're going to blow it out of proportion so that we (who know their characters) are amused by just how big their exaggerations become. Comedy lives in theatrics; drama lives in realism. There are exceptions to every rule, but these general ideas apply.

Can you do a drama with low stakes? Of course you can, but you have to have perfect touch. Studio 60, for example, has tremendously low stakes -- will our characters manage to produce the show in time and without a hitch this week? While it's important to our characters, it never reaches beyond them. Those who love the show tend to identify with the characters and care FOR them whether it will get done or not. Those who don't can't buy the characters OR get past the lowered stakes.

And what of a comedic series with high stakes? M*A*S*H, of course, had the highest stakes of all -- life and death -- as does Scrubs most weeks. But other series that try to marry comedy with high stakes fail often -- think of the short-lived Whoops!, which tried to set a sitcom in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. Now, obviously, a little dark humor would be appropriate for the end of the world, but a sitcom? It didn't work, and audiences figured that out quickly.

Now, Maggie doesn't like sitcoms (the only one on the air right now that she's a fan of is 30 Rock). She's gone on record as saying that she dislikes most of the ones I hold dear. And it's not just a recent thing either; she doesn't like a lot of the classics. Part of this is because she likes the high stakes -- when Buffy's facing down the end of the world and she cracks a joke, it makes her that much more of a badass; when Barney on HIMYM is facing down yet another woman he wants to sleep with and he gets shot down then cracks a joke, the joke just makes him more of cad. If you like the character, this works. If you don't, it's insufferable.

And that may be one of the (myriad) reasons sitcoms aren't doing as well. We live in high stakes times, after all. Shows that engage our fears of terrorism and war head-on have become hits, but they're all dramas (it's hard to imagine a full-length sitcom about the war on terror, though I'm sure someone out there is pitching one right now). When you've got Jack Bauer saving the world on one channel, do we really care if Earl finishes another entry on his list on another? Now, obviously, people have enjoyed sitcoms in times when the world was going insane (just look at the dumb shows that were popular in the 60s), but in those days, dramas hadn't yet figured out how to satisfactorily channel the free-floating national nightmare. Now that we've got Jack to save us from the terrorists (every season, like clockwork), a silly sitcom might feel just a little bit sillier.

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