By Alan Glynn
Form and content. Discuss.
How about format and content? Or Platform and content? The thing is, technology drives behaviour, and with constant changes in technology – upgrades, new developments, the occasional revolution – our behaviour as consumers of “content” is never the same for very long.
An Amazon package arrived at my door the other day. The third and final season of Showtime’s Brotherhood. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m looking forward to it and will probably devour the thing in two or three sittings. Or maybe even just one.
But this isn’t the only way something like this can be “consumed”. (Okay, watched). If I lived in the US, I might have followed season three of Brotherhood when it was first aired on TV, week by week. Or, if I lived in a country with a decent broadband infrastructure, I could presumably watch it all on my laptop, without bothering the mailman or the guys at the Amazon warehouse. For the present, though, the DVD box set is the platform of choice. That’s how I watched The Wire and the first three seasons of Mad Men. In fact, the latest season of Mad Men has just started on BBC 4 and I could follow it week by week if I wanted to, but you know what, I think I’ll probably wait . . .
Despite the temptation to binge, having the entire thing in front of you to watch when and how you choose is a great modern luxury. There’s certainly a lot to be said for the old way, that of watching one episode a week – it often engenders a sense of community, of a collective response in the form of the water-cooler debate. I also remember as a teenager following, with all my schoolmates, the BBC’s brilliant serialization of I, Claudius and the unbearable, shared tension of waiting for the next episode. But that epic, almost tantric seven-day tingle of anticipation has now been telescoped down into the few fumbling moments between cutting short the end credits of one episode, getting back to Episode Selection in the Main Menu and booting up the next installment – at most, what, maybe a whole five or ten seconds?
But still, the DVD box set is a much more satisfying way to watch the sort of long-form, complex narratives we’ve been served up on TV in recent years. It’s an experience – like a form of self-medication – that we control. We can stop and start as we please, pace, review, repeat. The relationship we have to the long-form TV narrative is similar to the one we might have with the novel. There’s time, there’s architecture, there’s room to breathe.
Of course – and not to make too a big a deal of it – they’re not the same. They are different forms, and a very significant difference between them lies in the manner of their production. A novel is still written by a person sitting alone in a room, for months, even (koff) years on end – whereas a TV series is a collaborative effort on a tight schedule involving scores of people and a shitload of money. But the use of the word “novelistic” to describe, say, The Wire, is, I think, entirely legitimate. Look at its concluding season – the complexity, density and texture on display there, as the show’s various strands are drawn together and resolved, is breathtaking, and easily the equal in ambition to any Victorian 900-pager. Also, some of the characters we have come to know in the last few years on TV have the depth and fascination of any in prose fiction. Think Tony and Carmela Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Bunk Moreland, Omar, Bubbles, Don Draper, Peggy Olsen, Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, William Adama, the Caffee brothers. To name but a few.
Apart from literary adaptations, such as I, Claudius, War and Peace and so on, or the original works of a pioneer such as the great Dennis Potter (Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective), the long-form narrative is a relatively new phenomenon on TV. But it hasn’t happened overnight, or by accident. Which maybe brings us back to form and content. I hope it isn’t blasphemous to say this, but it seems to me (from memory) that the “season” structure, or arc, of The Sopranos, with many episode-specific subplots, was fairly loose. And that there was a quantum leap with The Wire, in that the thing was conceived in its entirety before it even went into production. Season structure then became an extremely tight and disciplined affair. The very opening sequence of season four of The Wire, for example, was baffling – Snoop buying a nail gun in a hardware store – but as the season progressed the sinister, devastating significance of this slowly unfolded for us.
Each new season, therefore, of high-calibre shows such as Mad Men or Breaking Bad has a satisfyingly cohesive structure. But is this in part because the producers are aware of, and influenced by, the changing habits of their viewers, who demand – or, at the very least, can easily tolerate – greater complexity? And if so, how will this evolution continue?
When Dickens’s novels were serialized in magazines, some were weekly, others monthly, and this affected the narrative structure and pacing of the respective novels. Later on, when novels were published without being serialized first, structure was also affected. Fewer natural breaks were required. It’s not unlike today where cable shows are structured differently from network shows that have multiple commercial breaks.
So what’s next? Where we are going – or rather, being taken – with all of this? How soon will it be before we, the viewers, start balking at having to watch the start and end credits for every episode? How soon will it be before the very words “episode and “season” become redundant? Will there be such a thing as the twelve or thirteen hour movie that bypasses the Tube of Plenty and goes straight to our computer screens? And why thirteen hours, why not fifty?
Okay, that’s a bit fuzzy and hard to imagine. But what’s certain is that things will continue to change. Perhaps what’s good and heartening here is that this is not another example of our culture dumbing down. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – it’s a healthy development where a contemporary form of storytelling continually succeeds in raising standards and in upping the ante.
But what’s that familiar sensation I’m suddenly feeling? Could it be a tingle of anticipation for Boardwalk Empire?