Sunday, March 18, 2007

Why Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and most other serial dramas are really starting to suck

The first televison show I ever loved, and I mean adored, was Babylon 5. Despite its stupid haircuts and dialogue that sometimes threatened to offend kosher sensibilities with its hammyness, it was awesome. It used physics in space combat. Articial gravity didn't exist. The bad guys were vampires, or something.

And it was a serial drama. One of the first. The whole sucker was mapped out from the beginning to be five years, and that's all it was. It was a novel for film, with five discrete chapters, thematic arcs that could be traced throughout, and payoffs in season three that you could see--in detail--foreshadowed in the first season. Its sometimes rediculous costumes belied a narrative tightness that was beyond anything on television.

Other shows pretended to offer the same. X-Files promised a grand narrative that spanned years, but quickly devolved into a mass of killer bees, alien assassins, and plot machinations that rivaled a Cretan labyrinth in their complexity. Without a planned narrative arc, the showrunners were left to make up plot twists on the fly, struggling to fit them within the vaguest of plot threads dribbled along the way. The longer the show went on, the larger the twists needed to be, both in number and in dramatic punch. The premise of "an FBI agent struggles to discover the secrets behind the mystery of his sister's abduction" certainly seemed promising; I'm sure that in the writers room there was much excitement over how the conspiracy would unfold, and the shock the audience would experience when they discovered that at its root was the survival of the human race.

The fault, however, was in mistaking a premise and a conclusion for a complete narrative. It's true that the heart of a story lies not in its conclusion, but in its middl--in the development of characters and the unraveling of the plot. Television shows are about questions, not answers, after all. However, the development must be building towards something cohesive. If, at the show's end, the final revelation of the dramatic conflict requires a table drawn from a Tolstoy novel to make sense of it, it belies lazy writing rather than narrative conplexity.

Planning ahead allows the small answers dabbled througout the show to be genuinely earned, and worthwhile when viewed over ones shoulder at the end. A narrative plan should allow some viewers to actually predict the ending of the show with the evidence provided, and that number ought to increase as the show continues. This, I think, is the mark of a genius (and genus) of storytelling that has been absent for some time.

That is, until shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes offered a glimpse of promise. A chance for a serial drama that held a grand arc, as well as the appetite of the North American viewer for such an idiom. Alas, the former two have each shown symptoms of falling to the same disease that plagued the X-Files: revealing the mystery of Jack's tatoos while ignoring innumerable untended plot threads concerning the shows greater mystery has long ailed Lost, and it may be reaching a terminal point. Battlestar Galactica, too, is showing signs of increasingly sloppy writing and a failure to show foresight that only undercut significant revelations when they finally occur.

Heroes is the best bet on television for what I'm looking for: a serial drama that puts effort into planning its stories in such a way that the viewer's payoff at show's end (of, failing that, season's end) is built on the foundation of the episodes that came before.

Rumor has it that Lost may limit its run to only five season, and plan the rest of the show with that in mind. One can only hope.


Phronk said...

Well said. I'm choosing to believe the producers of Lost when they say they have a complete story in mind, and that it is 5 seasons long. I'm just beginning to think that, while they may have a plot, it could have been better told in 3 seasons. Then there wouldn't be a need for an episode on Jack's tattoo, and an episode on Little Miss Sunshine. I enjoy each episode on its own, but it would be much better if the parts fit in with a whole. That last episode was good though.

Same with BSG I guess...though I find it harder to pinpoint what went wrong there. It just doesn't feel right any more. Again, the last episode was good.

Maybe TV has evolved this weird obsession with season finales, where a season consists of 18 episodes of filler, 2 episodes leading up the finale, and a very special 2-hour finale event extravaganza of real plot.

Dave Himself said...

I am in complete agreement. Babylon 5 was one rock solid sci-fi series. The fact that the story was on paper before shooting began really comes through.

As for Battlestar (besides the obscene ignorance of gravity) I cannot respect a crew that destroys precious resources which exist in the universe's smallest ecosystem. Smashing glasses and bottles, cutting up matresses, tearing and burning paper. Tossing and spilling booze... the list goes on and on.

If that "fleet" actually existed they would be unrolling their Q-tips to write on.