It’s a funny thing. Over the past few weeks I’ve read an increasing number of blogs and posts that posit the future of cinema being increasingly creatively challenged. It’s as if only now folks are coming to realize that the movie industry has been encountering a great divide – at one end the tiny, independently produced character driven stories, at the other the air-fuel-bomb inspired Hollywood tent-pole action showcases.
Meanwhile, the handful of really talented writing and creative types have been quietly migrating to that bastard cousin of ‘important’ media – television.
The thing is, I think that the watershed moment really occurred several years ago – specifically when “The Wire” became the single most respected bit of dramatic character-driven writing to ever find an audience. Yeah – “The Wire” is the creation that television needed to finally put a metaphorical stake into the heart of Hollywood.
Well, let’s face it, “The Wire” was emphatically NOT the first TV show to present well written drama, complex metaphor underlying stories, or anything else that it did so well. It was simply the first show to package all that shit into a single box and get noticed by a larger audience (and the first one where writers managed to convey a very complex bit of business while the characters never uttered a single word that wasn’t a variant on the f-bomb). The award for first-to-the-post with ridiculously clever plotting that dragged viewers back week-after-week goes to “Twin Peaks”. Flawed as it was, with the writers making it up as they went, it made for compelling television. The award for “morality tale well told” goes back to the sixties and “Star Trek”, which was the first TV series to truly grapple with socially relevant issues in a palatable format — while some might argue “The Twilight Zone” should hold that mantle… as much as I’d like to agree that Rod Serling was a tremendous inspiration, it was “Star Trek” that really grabbed hold of the audiences’ cerebral cortexes and squeezed mercilessly.
However, it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that we really witnessed intelligent writing forced off the feature-length cruise liners and left to swim for TV’s shore. Let’s face it – Hollywood has abandoned character for spectacle. If there’s a choice to be made between an intimate moment of dialogue or a big-freaking-explosion, we know which way that axe is going to fall. Boom, baby, boom.
Meanwhile, television, lacking the insane budgets of theatrical features, has quietly become the haven of folks interested in telling actual stories. Sure, TV writers are not adverse to blowing up the occasional building, but they have the security of knowing that the audience is ultimately more hooked to their series because of the characters and the slowly developing arcs that now stretch out over dozens (and potentially hundreds) of hours of media. An exploding building is an indulgence – a bit of fun. The bit of dialogue where one of the main characters reveals that they feel responsible for the heretofore-unrevealed death of their sibling – that’s the real hook.
You see, in the old days, TV was dominated by a singular principle… You did your 22 or 44 minutes of programming, and at the end of any episode the characters needed to be in exactly the same place as where they started. The golden rule of the TV series was that “nothing must change”. At the end of every episode of “Gilligan’s Island” the island-dwellers remained just as stranded as they were at the start. Every episode of “Star Trek” concluded with the crew still on their infinitely unending ‘five year mission’.
But sometime during the nineties television changed. Perhaps one of the instigators was “The X-Files”, where the show became more about the overall progression of the character’s individual quests – folks tuned-in not just to watch the ‘monster of the week’, but to find out if Mulder would uncover some tiny hint about the grand mystery he was pursuing. Heck – maybe it’s even more essential than that, since the crowd watching “Moonlighting” during the 80’s were really just waiting to see if the sexual tension between the leads would ever be resolved (and look what happened when it finally was…) We could even make a case for “Ren & Stimpy”, which utterly eschewed environmental consistency and simply dumped the characters into whatever random environment facilitated the story – a choice which was entirely foreign and frightening to the broadcaster at the time (and resulted in the creative evisceration of the program and its premature demise).
At some point during that era, television went from being an episodic media where the initial state of the characters was locked and unchanging, into a media where the continuing development of the characters became the primary hook that held the audience rapt. How astoundingly different that is from the most successful series of the sixties and seventies – Imagine if “All in the Family” had begun with Archie Bunker as a hothead bigoted asshole and then transformed him OVER THE COURSE OF YEARS into a sympathetic, reasonable advocate for racial tolerance? If you’d even suggested that intent in the seventies you’d have been laughed out of a network pitch session. Nowadays? That’s actually a pretty compelling premise (though you’d have to start with Archie being a Clansman who slowly turns on his ‘associates’ and risks life and limb – so drama more than comedy).
I suppose what got me thinking about this was ultimately the discovery that Frank Drabont, the guy responsible for writing one of the finest dramatic screenplays ever crafted (go re-watch “The Shawshank Redemption” immediately if you didn’t flash to it at the mention of Drabont) is now producing a TV series about a post-apocalyptic-zombie-takeover which is focused primarily on how the ‘characters deal with the day-to-day difficulties of survival’. Man, can you say drama-heaven? Yeah, I knew you could. The best way to build tension between central characters is to put external pressure on them, and the end-of-the-freaking-world is about as intense as it gets. Give them a goal, force them to work (unwillingly and with opposing intentions) together, and you’ve got a great stage on which to play. I just wish I’d thought of it first. Then again, I still have “Warped”, and an insane AI that is determined to kill everyone at a moment’s notice, so perhaps I’m not doing so badly (yes, I’ll post it in the screenplay section Real Soon Now).
What I’m really getting at here is that theatrical motion pictures are destined to become spectacle rather than compelling entertainment. For human beings, real bottom-line entertainment is about learning – we spend our lives hungry to further our understanding of the people around us, to improve the ‘models’ we hold in our brains that inform our decisions. We are compelled to understand marginal personalities because we don’t encounter them daily and do not have readily available responses to them. We are fascinated by the Dexters and Stackhouses because we don’t have expertise in coping with those interactions otherwise. And so we watch.
“Quality” entertainment is really just a prophylactic that conceals learning and processing – we all seek a better understanding of the world around us (which, to a great degree, explains why “The Social Network” has been so successful – everyone is pretty much baffled by the Facebook phenomena). Good entertainment is really nothing more than cleverly disguised social education. The other sort of entertainment – spectacle – is what Hollywood has become expert in providing. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying and fails to provide the illumination we crave.