It Only Gets Worse, John

In response to Homeland Season 1 and Christopher Dorner.

I won’t address the politics because this repulsive pro-terrorist pose of the left makes me physically angry.  (And that’s just assuming it’s merely a pose and not their true, repulsive sentiment.)

But the show gets bad, as it must get bad.  The model for American television is 22 episodes per year, forever, or at least for as long as it can be sustained — 7 years optimally, maybe even 10.

 This model, however, doesn’t work for telling a story.  No story needs 150 episodes to tell (or no story worth wading through).  The sort of show that this format favors is sitcom episodes — each episode a slightly-different new story about a light premise — or endlessly repeatable detective show episodes, where each episode is its own story (albeit a small variation on the pilot episode).

But when telling an actual story, as in singular story, well, at some point, a story needs to end.  Or else it’s not a story at all.  And thus the model — keep this going for 100 episodes or more — fights with the actual needs of storytelling.

And these type of shows become — as Homeland has — a struggle between presenting the illusion of changing circumstance and forward progress to the audience (or else why would they watch?) while simultaneously preserving the reality that nothing ever changes (because if it did change — if the story actually came to a resolution — you’d have killed your cash cow).

Season 2 of Homeland presents a slight variation of Season 1 (first he was a patriotic Marine POW come home… or is he?; now he’s a reformed terrorist working for the CIA, but is he?) and Season 3 has tipped its hand as being a slight variation on that (now he’s on the run because he’s been framed by the terrorists… or has he?).

 This may be conservative heresy but I could not stand 24.  Let me guess: This week Jack gets captured, and next week he escapes, and then he captures the villain, and then the villain escapes, and then the Vice President commits treason, and then… cougar attack.

 There’s definitely a great deal of skill involved in writing episodic this way — creating the illusion of forward narrative progress while safeguarding the economic necessity of absolutely no progress whatsoever– but one wonders, is this skill worth further utilizing? Is it a good skill?

I don’t like the show myself, but American Horror Story presents a great model for tv series that actually want to tell stories:  A limited run of episodes for a story, say 10-14, after which the story definitely ends.  (What a concept– a TV show with a beginning, middle, and ending.)  And the neat little trick they employ is that even though the subsequent season is a whole different story, it has many of the same cast members returning, albeit playing different roles.  So the production winds up being a bit of a troupe– kind of like the old 50s dramatic playhouse format.  Back to the future, then.

Homeland might have been a decent little show, if it had stuck to a one-season run, but they got greedy.  Like everyone else in TV entertainment, they’ve got their eyes set on Season 7, when all those huge bonuses start kicking in.  I don’t blame working actors and crew for shooting for such a financial windfall but its effect on storytelling is lethal.

The model only works for a very limited number of show types.  They should use a different model, a more suitable model, for all other types of stories.

An awful lot of interesting stories– stories worth telling, and worth watching — just can’t be padded out to 100 episodes.

Given that the cinema has more or less completely given up on telling any stories that do not involve giant robots and vampire wedding planning, the only hope for some kind of satisfying mass-market filmed storytelling is now TV.  But they have to adapt their model to actually start telling stories– defined and terminating — rather than endlessly repeating Same But Different (But Mostly the Same) episodes.