Hope Lies On Television #14 – Chasing The Moment
Edwin Davies returns with an in-depth examination of Luck, the new show from Michael Mann, and places the show within the wider framework of the future of serialised television.
Part of the reason why there are often such long gaps between the instalments of this column is that each takes a great deal of time to research. Once I decide upon a theme, sitting down to watch episodes of television that support or reflect that theme can be quite time consuming. Though in this instance the main reason why there has been such a long gap between this column and the last one is that I had originally planned to write about the way in which television has become an increasingly serialised medium in the wake of The Wire, which favoured long-form narrative over a more traditional episodic structure. Considering that this is quite a broad subject, it required a lot of research, and I had pretty much hammered it all into shape, when The A.V. Club ran a (very good) article making some of the points that I wanted to make in my article, and I had to start from scratch. (Though I do plan to revisit that theme at some point in the future, once everyone has forgotten about the article that I just reminded you all existed.)
So, considering that I could no longer write about the growth of serialisation in television, I started to wonder about where exactly that particular trend could end up. Now, predicting the future of a medium is a foolish endeavour because nine times out of ten, it just ends up leaving you looking foolish. A critic writing in 1960 would not have been able to predict the monumental cultural changes that would fundamentally alter the nature of American film-maker over the next few decades, and I can’t possibly claim to know what changes television will undergo in the coming years. However, looking at the changing nature of television at the moment may offer a glimpse into how television series will evolve in a post-Wire landscape.
What do we mean when we talk about serialisation? The term generally refers to a movement in television away from a model where a season is made up of individual episodes telling self-contained stories to one in which each episode forms part of a longer arc, with the episodes working less as standalone works than as pieces of a much larger picture. This is nothing new to television –miniseries have used the format for years – but in the wake of US cable dramas like The Wire, Deadwood and Mad Men, there has been a slow but inexorable move towards that style in long-form, open-ended shows. It’s even possible to see it influencing shows like the Elmore Leonard-inspired series Justified, which started out as an episodic show with some serialised elements but which has spent much of its current season focusing on one long master plotline, at the expense of the fun, inventive one-off episodes that it excels at.
What’s interesting about these kinds of shows, and what makes them problematic for networks, is that they have slowly conditioned people not to watch them. Or at the very least, they have conditioned them not to watch them when they initially air. Like many others, I didn’t start watching The Wire until it had been going for a few years, at which point I watched the first three seasons in the space of about a month on DVD. I became obsessed with the show, and eagerly awaited the arrival of the fourth season on British television. Yet when the season started airing, I found it to be a far more frustrating experience than watching the show on DVD, since the novelistic approach to the material, which treats each episode like a chapter in a slowly unfolding story, is far better suited to chain watching episodes on DVD than to watching one episode then having to wait a week to see what happens next. Considering that so little can happen in an episode of The Wire, it’s no surprise that the show has enjoyed a far better life on home formats than it ever did when it aired on television.
The same is true of Mad Men, a show which I watched the first season of as it aired, but which I have waited to catch on DVD for each subsequent season, since that show’s deliberate pacing almost demands that it be watched in a handful of sittings, rather than piecemeal on a weekly basis. This style of slow-burn television is as much a result of changing technology as it is an artistic movement, since the proliferation of television boxsets and digital recording technology now allow people to consume these languid shows at a pace that suits their style. Whether the technology shaped the art or the art shaped the technology is a little difficult to determine, but we have reached a point where a kind of long-form drama exists which could not really have existed on television when it was prohibitively expensive to buy the entirety of a series and watch it at your leisure.
This stands in contrast to the traditional storytelling model, which emphasised standalone stories, with whatever serialisation often being of the cliffhanger variety, so as to ensure that people would watch live every week to see what happened next, or in which the grander narrative formed the backbone to the series, only occasionally coming to the fore. It’s for this reason that Lost, which is so often considered to be a serialised show thanks to its overarching mythology, was actually one of the best examples of the episodic model: each episode left the fans waiting with bated breath to see what would happen next. Perhaps unsurprisingly, shows like Lost and 24, which prioritised thrilling episodic storytelling over a cohesive overarching story, suffer greatly when watched on DVD, since the sense of anticipation is completely lost when you watch a great cliffhanger, then decide to just watch the next one straight away.
That’s not to say that those shows can’t be really fun to watch on DVD, but they are meant to be watched on a weekly basis so that you can get excited about what is going to happen next without having to worry too much about the subtle nuances of the performances or the intricacies of the plots. It’s like how a friend of mine has often said that by reading the collected trade paperbacks of The Walking Dead comics, I’m inadvertently missing out on part of what makes them special, since half the fun of that series lies in getting to the end of an individual issue, then having to wait a few weeks to see how the characters will deal with whatever horrible new crisis has befallen them.
If television shows – or at least a certain kind of television show: there are still plenty of very good shows, mostly sitcoms, who use the episodic model to great effect – is inexorably heading in a direction where the art of the episode is falling by the wayside, why should people watch a show live anymore, especially if they increasingly expect that a show will only really make sense when viewed as a whole entity on DVD?
The answer to that question may have already been provided by a couple of television shows which – much like the wave of shows that started the movement away from episodic storytelling in the first place – have aired on HBO. Furthering that connection to those pioneering works, these shows have been created by David Simon and David Milch, who were behind two of the key texts in the ongoing battle for the soul of television, The Wire and Deadwood. Those two shows are Treme, which has so far run for two seasons with a third due to follow later this year, and Luck, which is currently partway through its debut season.
One of the chief criticisms levelled at both The Wire and Deadwood is that they’re fairly slow, methodical shows that take a great deal of time and effort on the part of the viewer to understand, let alone enjoy. I don’t know anything about the creative decisions that were made on the part of Chase and Milch in putting together their current projects, but they certainly seem like Fuck Yous to the people who felt that their earlier works were too slow or obtuse. Treme, in particular, feels like the natural evolution of the approach that Simon brought to The Wire, creating a show about a city and its people (post-Katrina New Orleans) without the procedural elements that gave The Wire its narrative backbone. There’s an amorphous, sprawling quality to the show that makes it feel like the sort of series that Robert Altman would have made if he had a slightly more disciplined visual style and far less disdain towards scripts.
By following the lives of a group of disparate characters, each of whom is trying to make sense of their lives in the wake of one of the worst disasters in the history of America, Simon and his team create a beautiful mosaic of American life and a heart-rending portrait of a vibrant city trying to put itself back together. There’s a tremendous sense of place to Treme that really captures the magic, wonder and danger of New Orleans without resorting to trite clichés or caricature. It’s a very warm and human series full of interesting, difficult characters who can be hard to like, but who feel more real than almost any other characters on television. It is not, however, the sort of show that anyone could dip into on a casual basis. Even though its narrative focus is very diffuse, meaning that people could theoretically tune in and not have to worry about keeping up with what is going on, the emotional journeys of the characters are so nuanced and subtle that you have to watch the show from the beginning to really get a sense of why the seemingly minor – and sometimes major – things that happen on a given episode have any meaning.
Luck follows a very similar path to Treme, though in keeping with David Milch’s previous series the dialogue leans more towards stylised and elaborate than earthy naturalism. Set at a racetrack, it follows the lives of a group of gamblers, jockeys and criminals for whom horse racing means everything, from the chance for revenge to the possibility of salvation and redemption. Like both of Milch’s previous series, Deadwood and John From Cincinnati, Luck’s incredibly specific viewpoint offers a vision of humanity in microcosm, striving to illuminate the ways in which people can be joined by a shared passion or goal, and how we are all part of broader organism which can be affected by the actions of those who make up parts of it. It’s also, much like those two shows, largely unintelligible, at least in the early going. Milch has been obsessed with horse racing for pretty much all of his adult life, so there is a strong emphasis on technical language since he believes very much in immersing his audience in the worlds he creates, leaving them with no choice but to swim or drown with little more than a cursory bit of explanation to help keep them afloat. After a few episodes, the show settles into its own distinct groove, balancing its emphasis on difficult language and slow-moving plotlines into something that is unlike anything else on television.
What really sets Luck and Treme apart from the many slow-burning cable dramas which share their pacing and style is that they both place a very strong emphasis on the importance of individual moments to not only express the grand themes of the shows, but also to act as stepping stones to keep the audience invested whenever the main plot seems to be in a holding pattern. Take, for example, the horse races that work as the set pieces in Luck. The scenes themselves are beautifully shot, thrilling action sequences full of drama, tension and emotion, particularly when they end with the death or injury of one of the horses, but they’re also like short films that capture the transcendent beauty of the sport, and by seeing the way in which they connect all the characters watching the races, they capture the idea of humanity as one organism more succinctly than anything else in the rest of the show (This one from episode four is particularly great at illustrating the way in which the show does this to haunting effect).
Similarly, the musical performances that form a large part of Treme often convey the life and soul of its city better than any of the conversations between the characters ever do. Watching the community come together for Mardi Gras, temporarily escaping the drudgery of their own personal struggles to take part in an act of celebration is incredibly moving, and these scenes can often illustrate something about the characters that could never be effectively explored without the perfect combination of music, character and setting.
The racing scenes in Luck and the musical numbers in Treme are, in essence, little mini-episodes within the main episodes themselves, encapsulating the themes and ideas of their respective shows at their most elemental. They boil the shows down to their basic ideas, and then illustrate them with extraordinary grace. In some ways, this represents the shows acting on a micro level in a manner which is diametrically opposed to how they act on a macro level. Whilst the series surrounding them feel at times diffuse and unfocused, taking a lot of time to do seemingly very little with their larger narratives, these moments are like short films within the episodes themselves that manage to work as their own separate entities whilst also commenting on the broader themes and ideas of the series.
By pursuing these small moments of transcendence, both Luck and Treme manage to offer something that rewards watching the show on a weekly basis, just as the cliffhangers in Lost and 24 do. Those moments would lose their power if viewed in a single burst, without a week between in which the audience can properly digest them and prepare for the next one. Maybe, in an age in which television series are increasingly favouring a narrative structure that owes more to feature films than the traditional structure of television, they could look to short films to recapture the thrill and power of the episodic format, making episodes within episodes that offer visceral thrills without compromising or distracting from the larger story being told, because those little moments are worth waiting for in an age when people seem to favour watching everything in one go.