Telling a big story

The essence of commercial television story-telling is that nothing can ever change, but every episode has to create the illusion of change.  I Love Lucy: case in point.  Every episode involved Lucy trying to carve out a career for herself–usually in show biz.  The template: Lucy decides she wants to become, say, a playwright.  Ricky, her husband, tells her not to.  She tries anyway, and makes a comic mess of it.  She confesses her failure to Ricky; he forgives her.  Every episode. I mean, there were obviously changes, the most significant being the birth of Little Ricky in the show’s second season.  But essentially the show was about Lucy, and especially  Lucille Ball’s extraordinary gift for ditzy physical comedy. It also leads us inevitably to consider the nifty feminist twist at the heart of the show: I Love Lucy was about Lucy, a talentless woman desperate for her gifted husband’s approval. But it starred Lucille, a brilliantly talented woman who dragged her much less-capable husband behind, in her wake.  Nothing ever changed, except, in time, the gender assumptions it so brilliantly deconstructed.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Didja ever see the episode of Home Improvement where Tim offends his wife, and has to ask his neighbor, Wilson, for advice on how to make amends?  How ’bout the episode of Cheers where Sam and Diane almost hook up, but don’t quite.  You ever see the Bewitched where Endora enchants Darrin, makes him do something goofy, and Samantha has to provide a counter-spell to set things right?  Or the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon misses really obvious social clues, and is lucky to have Penny to set him straight?  While the other characters dress up like comic book loving dorks?

Multiply times ten thousand.  That’s television; that’s the narrative content of nearly all mainstream television programming. Change threatens, but in the end, Niles Crane’s love for Daphne remains unrequited, Archie never actually evicts Meathead, and Alex Keaton still lives with his hippie parents.  The Enterprise will always survive the latest threatening alien encounter, Matt Dillon will cope with the latest creep to pass through Dodge, Joe Friday and Bill Gannon always make the arrest, Perry Mason always gets the accused guy off (and finds the real killer), and Dr. House always finds a cure for the mysterious disease, which never turns out to be lupus.  We watch, mostly, because we like the characters.  And, in part, because it’s fun figuring out who-dun-it.  Even M.A.S.H. did this, featured the illusion of change without actually changing all that much.  Actors would leave, and so characters would go home (or, memorably, die), and the new characters were almost always more interesting than the ones they replaced, but still, it was a show about wisecracking doctors keeping soldiers alive in Vietnam Korea.  It was never not about Hawkeye Pierce, M.D.

But James Gandolfini just died.  Tony Soprano just died.  And I thought about the meaning of that remarkable show, and what strikes me as an utterly remarkable new entertainment phenomenon.  In recent years, we’ve seen something brand new.  We’ve seen the beginning of the long-form, extended narrative, anything-may-change television show.  The kind of television narrative with a beginning, middle and end, not just middle, eternally and forever. The Sopranos seems a particularly seminal example. It was a show where anything could happen, any change was possible, any character might die, any misfortune may befall them.  And that show, and a handful of others like it were generally regarded as the best shows on television, the critics’ darlings, the Emmy winners.  They’re the water cooler shows, the ones you talk about in the break room and at the dinner table and on dates.

Mad MenBreaking BadThe WireBattlestar Gallactica. The SopranosDeadwoodLostGame of Thrones.  I’m making a distinction here between shows where the point is the over-arching narrative, and really good shows where things do change some, but that are essentially episodic: St. Elsewhere or Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue or The West WingThe West Wing had a narrative–President Bartlett faces scandal, runs for a second term, deals with the kidnapping of his daughter. But what we remember isn’t the Big Story, it’s the incidents–Sam getting schooled by Ainsley, who then gets hired by Leo, or, on Big Block of Cheese day, when CJ learned valuable lessons about cartography.  It’s not until the final season,when the show really did turn on the Santos/Vinick Presidential race, that narrative took the upper hand.

I wrote a couple of days ago about Game of Thrones, which led to a conversation with my son.  We talked for nearly an hour about the show: who’s up, who’s down, who seems ascendent and does the Stark clan have a chance anymore, with Robb Stark dead.  It occurred to me that the entire conversation had been about narrative, about the larger, overarching story.

I remember my wife and I seeing trailers for Lost.  It looked intriguing, and when we talked to friends, it seemed like the kind of show we might enjoy.  But we never watched it.  We decided it was ‘the kind of show where you have to see all the episodes, from the beginning.’ And then it was in its second season, and it seemed like too much trouble to bother with. But that’s kind of a compliment, in a way.  We wanted to see the whole story unfold.  Other great shows, shows we love enough to purchase on DVD–Fawlty Towers, Grimm, Pushing Daisies, Firefly–you can sit and watch one episode and be perfectly satisfied.  But try that with Battlestar Galactica.  You won’t know what’s going on, and you won’t much care about the characters, not after one random episode.

Nearly all TV shows do have something resembling a master narrative. Every episode advances that main story, while also standing on its own as an episode.  To take one example (a good, not great piece of commercial entertainment), Burn Notice. Jeffrey Donovan is a former CIA agent, burned and involuntarily retired.  He gets together with his friends to solve various peoples’ personal problems, but he’s also intent on discovering why he was burned, so he can get his old job back.  So every episode, there are moments that advance the ‘Michael v. CIA story-line’, but mostly it’s about that episode’s single conflict–about someone in Miami who “needs our help, Michael.”

That’s a normal structure for most television series. But the shows I’m singling out here are shows in which the master narrative is the main thing, in which the larger story is the entire point.  On Mad Men, Don Draper has accounts he’s working on, but that’s not why we watch the show. We don’t actually care if he gets the Chevrolet account.  We want to know what’s going to happen to him. We’re caught up in his self-destruction. We want to know what’s going to happen with Ted, and Peggy, and Pete Campbell, and Roger Sterling, and Joan.  We follow the story of the ad agency, Sterling Cooper, and we look in on all its story lines and characters.

I think, in part, these shows are historical and political in ways normal television is not.  In Battlestar Galactica, we were always aware of the various political alliances of the characters, of their religious affiliations and what they meant, in both the Cylon and human histories unfolding before us.  That’s absolutely true of Game of Thrones, obviously.  On Breaking Bad, it’s a quieter family dynamic, but no less about the acquisition and retention of power, as was also true in The Sopranos.

What was the first show to do this?  What is the first show, in the history of television, to make a master narrative the point of the entire series?  One answer, of course, was Shakespeare, who brought the same broad narrative sweep to Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two, Henry V, Henry VI parts one two and three, Richard III.  But who did it first on television?

I’m going to propose a candidate: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  It was about a space station, located by a worm hole, close to the newly liberated planet of Bajor.  Bajor had been held by the Cardassians, who are still around.  The Ferengi had a presence on the space station, and were always sniffing around, and there were constant conflicts with the Maquis.  On the other side of the wormhole were the Dominion, who wanted to wield power from another quadrant in space.  It was an amazing show, especially after the first season, when the master narrative involving war with the Dominion and the Cardassians began to dominate the series.

DS9 was always my favorite of the various Star Trek series, and its broader narrative sweep was the answer.  It started in 1993, and closed in 1999, which was also the first year for The Sopranos.  I don’t know if The Sopranos was in any way based on DS9, but they were doing the same thing, really.  Telling a big story.

It’s an awesome innovation.  To paint on a huge canvas, to compose a whole suite of symphonies, to write, not a novel, but three trilogies.  The Lord of the Rings took three four-hour movies to tell its Big Story.  But Battlestar Galactica took 73 one-hour episodes.  And then, when the whole huge story was done, they stopped.  That may be the most remarkable innovation of all.

3 thoughts on “Telling a big story

  1. Mike Morgan

    There are purists out there that argue Babylon 5 was the first to fiddle with the long narrative in TV. I am personally in the DS9 camp but it is interesting that the two shows would try something similar at a similar time.
    I would also like to think that the early Borg episodes of TNG were the first toe-dips into the idea. From their introduction in “Q Who” to “The Best of Both Worlds” to Picard’s breakdown and fight with his brother in “Family”. They are some of the better episodes of TNG, even if Guinan’s interaction with Q was a little… odd. I am probably wrong but I think it is cool.

    Something fun related to this to wind up…
    http://www.topatoco.com/graphics/00000001/bird-sisko-print.jpg

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  2. Mike

    The ongoing narrative is both the brilliance and the albatross of series TV. You’ve got the opportunity to develop and ongoing storyline. The downside? You’ve got to develop an ongoing storyline.

    BTW, it was Sam who Ainsley schooled…”Sam’s getting beat up by a girl!”, run opening theme. I really wish we could’ve seen another year of West Wing with Matt Santos in charge.

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