Saturday, August 27, 2011

Seven-Course Storytelling or A La Carte?

Scott D. Parker

What do Harry Potter and Donald Draper have in common?

I've been catching up on "Mad Men" these past couple of weeks. Last year, in the show's fourth season, I decided to sample "Man Men" and see what all the hubbub was about. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but realized I was probably missing a lot of context. So, my wife and I have been blazing through the first three seasons this month. Marvelous storytelling, to be sure, and the historian part of me revels in the period details. Heck, we've kept going and are now re-watching season 4 now that we know the whole story.

It was in watching the first few episode of season 4 again that I realized something crucial to Man Men's storytelling: the show doesn't bother to fill in the gaps. This became crystal clear to me while re-watching season 4 and seeing conversations I saw last year but with new eyes. When Don references his trip to California to a new character, he just says it. There aren't any slow-mo flashback scenes to bring new viewers up-to-speed. You either knew the reference and smiled or you didn't and moved on. Frankly, last year, when I watched season 4 the first time, I had to ask a friend for some background. It helped, but what helped more was watching seasons 1 through 3.

The Harry Potter films are the same way. If you think the movie "Serenity"--the feature film based on TV's "Firefly"--was, in essence a thank-you card for fans of the TV show, you might see the Harry Potter films as the ultimate reward to fans of the book. In the week leading up to this summer's last movie, my wife and I re-watched (a lot of that, huh?) films 2-7.1. We've read the books so we know what's in store for us as we watch each film. But there isn't a recap at the beginning of each film. You're just supposed to know what's going on. The editing of the final film--broken into two parts--was abrupt. Part One just ended and Part Two almost literally picked up right where the first one left off. Again, that's okay, for folks "in the know," as we don't necessarily want to be bothered by needless recaps.

What about the rest of the people? As fantastic as the Harry Potter films are, one they started being made, you pretty much had to catch up. I doubt any newcomer just up and decided to watch Movie #5. Well, they could have, but they'd be lost. Mad Men is a little less like that, but I'm getting a whole lot of new meaning in scenes and lines of dialogue now that I know the whole story.

Building a mythology for a TV show or movie series is like building a silo. It separates us from other people. You're either a fan of the exploits of Don Draper or he just that guy Jon Hamm plays in that TV show. You either know what a Muggle is or you don't. I'm perfectly fine with building silos. It's a good way to interact with others and enjoy yourself. But is it limiting?

Mad Men gained two new fans with my wife and I because of good storytelling and production values. Last year, we knew we were missing stuff, but the episodes were good so we just went with the flow. We joined the Mad Men silo, are proud members, and think the writing is above average in almost every category.

But I also like my mainstream network shows, too. There's something nice about the a la carte nature of shows like "Castle," "CSI: Miami," or "Monk" that's different than the seven-course-meal nature of shows in which there is a set mythology. The a la carte show may have a backstory, but it'll either be explained or it's not really that important.

Here's my main question about these different types of shows and the writing therein: which is better? Which wins awards?

It it any wonder that Man Men consistently wins the outstanding drama awards? Is it any wonder why people think "The Wire" is almost the best cop show TV ever produced? Silo shows, like Mad Men and Harry Potter, by cutting themselves off from traditional mainstream-type storytelling, produce more expansive canvases. Without the limitations of network rules or, in the book world, reader expectations set by brand-name authors, silo stories flourish with genuine, in-depth characterizations and story arcs.

What do you think?

Video of the Week: OK Go doing "The Muppet Show Theme" I love the Muppets and was really jazzed to discover that there is a tribute album out now called "The Green Album." OK GO gets the nod to do the opening track and, while the version is trippy (and far from my favorite track on the album), the video is pretty darn entertaining. Give it a look.


Dana King said...

I never had any interest in MAD MEN, but now you have me thinking about it. The stroytellling techniques you described are among the keys that made THE WIRE our favorite show of all time, and prompts us to re-watch the entire series every year-and-a-half or so. (About to finish Season 4 again this weekend, weather permitting.)

John McFetridge said...

In some ways the difference between a season long arc show and an episodic is like the difference between a novel and linked short stories - maybe there should be different writing awards for each one.

I like the idea that you can't sell to everyone and it's okay to get a loyal following and make the best show possible for them - then if others want to join up it's easy for them to start at the beginning (DVDs, Netflix, iTunes and other services make this a lot easier than in the past).

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can't watch shows without a larger arc anymore. It just seems to simple. BREAKING BAD is another good example. My husband misses a lot of references because he skipped a whole season and episodes here and there and consequently doesn't get as much out of it.