Sunday, June 16, 2019

How things end, or not – A problem of form [#QualityTV | Media Notes 3]

Consider what we might call the “traditional” one-hour TV drama, such as any in the Star Trek franchise. Each episode is a story independent of the others, with the end tied more or less “tightly” (whatever that means) to the beginning. This is true of, say, NCIS as well, and of Bonanza, a much older show that I watched in my youth. Occasionally we would have a story-line that is tightly linked across two episodes, but this is relatively unusual – sometimes this device would be used to link the end of one season to the beginning of the next. And occasionally we would have a loose story “arc” over several consecutive episodes. But there is no strong causal relationship between the first and final episodes in such a series. The last episode is simply the last episode.

And of course, in many cases the series is terminated because of poor ratings. In more fortunate cases the produces choose to end the show because, perhaps they see the audience disappearing, or because, you know, enough is enough. But in either case, there is no strong causal connection more or less directly between the first episode in the series and the last one. Each episode is an independent story and the first and last episodes are not exceptions. Except in the cases of double-episodes, and perhaps a story arc or three, one could watch the episodes in any order.

The Sopranos is different. It premiered in January, 1999, and ran for 86 episodes over six seasons and it told a more or less continuous story over the whole series. The final episode, Made in America, aired on June 10, 2007. During the season Tony had killed his nephew Christopher, whom he had been grooming to take over the operation, and the conflict between the New Jersey the New York mobs had reached a crisis point, with top men on both sides being murdered. Tony is alone and hunted. He gathers his family, his wife and two children, at a diner to have dinner, the screen goes black, and it’s over. The story just stopped.

And because of that the ending was controversial. Nothing was resolved. But what could resolution have possibly been in this story? It had long been clear that Tony was Tony and, despite his years of therapy, he wasn’t going to change. If he gets killed in the mob war, so what? If he wins and takes over New York, so what? If the FBI corrals them all, so what? And, yes, we have his wife an children, but so what?

Given the importance that eating has in the series – family dinner on Sunday, meals on ceremonial occasions, eating in the office at the back of the Bada Bing club, and so forth – one can see a loose kind of closure in the fact that the family was gathering for a meal. But that’s it. It resolves nothing. It just brings the ongoing narrative to a halt.

As such its quite different from the plotting we’re used to in novels, where we get one story from beginning to end with the end and beginning more or less tightly coupled to one another. The end resolves a conflict or closes a gap that existed at the beginning. And yet I found the ending of The Sopranos to be satisfying.

Why? Or, if you will, given that I’ve read many novels, and even written about a few of them, why is it that I find this rather different disposition of narrative energies to be satisfying. But then, I’ve watched a long of TV as well.

This, it seems to me, is a formal issue, though somewhat different from the formal issues that have most concerned me. How do we evaluate how tightly episodes are coupled with one another? How do we describe and examine the causal structure of a narrative?

An exercise for the reader: Consider The Wire, which had five seasons between January, 2002, and June, 2008. Like The Sopranos it consists of one-hour episodes with a continuous story over the episodes. But it introduces a new element with each season. The first season establishes a basic narrative of police vs. drug dealers; this continues throughout the season. But the second season focuses on the port, and the desperate attempt of a union boss to keep it alive. In the third season an imaginative police commander experiments with zones in which drug dealing will be permitted, thus freeing his men to deal with other crimes. The fourth episodes moves to the school system and the fifth and final system looks at The Baltimore Sun, a (once?) distinguished paper that had H. L. Mencken on staff.

The final episode concludes with a montage that shows us (some of the) the fate of at least some of the characters. But conclusion? Baltimore will keep on keeping on, there will be drugs, the police and the government will remain corrupt, the school system struggling, the port empty, and the newspaper dying. So, the action didn’t just stop, as in The Sopranos. But this hardly counts as a resolution. It’s just a different want to stop moving forward.

For extra credit: What about Deadwood? The show was simply dropped after three seasons (2004-2006), with no chance to plan a last season and a last episode. What happened? How does that halting feel different from those in The Sopranos and The Wire?

But then David Milch (creator, producer, and writer) was able to talk HBO into letting him do a two-hour movie to bring things to a more satisfying close. I’ve not seen it, but for those who have, how satisfying was it?

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