Beyond Your Wildest Streams, Part IV: 'Better Than Movies'

Anybody watch "The Blacklist" on NBC?

It’s a sort of guilty pleasure of a show, the pleasure mainly being staring at the 850 weekly close-ups on Megan Boone’s magnificent eyes and watching James Spader chew the scenery as a nearly omnipotent sociopath with a heart of gold. But to watch Boone and her four FBI pals save America from a fresh existential threat in exactly 46 minutes every episode requires one to willingly suspend disbelief.

No, “suspend” isn’t quite accurate. It requires one to expel disbelief and escort it from the premises. Because the slightest consideration of the show’s overall premise -- never mind the particulars of every episode -- can lead one only to conclude that it’s all preposterous to the point of inanity.

But that’s not "The Blacklist'"s fault. Like "24," "Law & Order," "Mission Impossible," "Perry Mason," "Murder She Wrote," "CSI," and every other network show with good guys trying to get the bad guys, the dramaturgy of television requires weekly closure. Sure, there can be a through-line here or there (Who Shot J.R.? Is Agent Keen’s nerd-dreamboat husband leading a double life?), but mainly someone has to be locked up or shot dead before the last commercial.



That leaves not much opportunity for either verisimilitude or, shall we say, narrative richness. Actual law-and-order and character development, face it, take years.

Please note: that was not a problem for "The Wire." Or "Breaking Bad." Or '"Mad Men."  Somehow HBO and AMC -- and now other cable channels -- have exorcised the Demons of Closure. They subscribe to a narrative arc, not a fever chart, and permit audiences to view television in chapters that may not themselves be discrete, unified tales with a beginning, middle or an end.

Which is why those shows have more than created a new Golden Age of television. They have created an altogether new form, vastly superior to everything that came before. This was explained to me almost five years ago by my eldest daughter, who was frustrated at the time that I refused to watch “Breaking Bad.”

“Katie,” I told her. “TV shows are too contrived. I just prefer movies. They can be about something. Plus, they’re 93 minutes long and then they’re over. No ongoing commitment.”

“Dad, you don’t understand. TV is now better than movies.”

And it is. Not on NBC, of course. But on cable and its soon to be successors, Netflix and Amazon. They have the storyteller’s ultimate luxury: to take their time. Like Dickens, Tolstoy, Garcia-Marquez, masters of the novel.

Yes, I have just -- in dead earnest, while discussing TV shows -- invoked Tolstoy. To justify the comparison, I turn of course to Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of the Fox comedy-turned-Netflex comedy "Arrested Development." All right, Harold Bloom maybe he’s not, but he understands his form:

"There’s a reason a short story can grab you more than a novel in the same amount of pages,” Hurwitz says. “The novel is building something bigger, perhaps. I think if you look at great shows in the past few years they’ve had to endure a lot of criticism: ‘Oh, 'Mad Men's not good this year. 'Mad Men' has really gone downhill.’ They’ve seen one or two episodes. ‘Breaking Bad.' What happened to 'Breaking Bad?' They’ve seen three. By the end of that season they say, ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing ever,’ because they’ve taken in the whole experience. That’s what streaming allows.”

Or, as Joe Lewis of Amazon Studios states the proposition: “We start a story, we’re gonna finish it.

“It may be 5, 6, 8, 9 seasons. That to me is what the new paradigm of TV is all about. It’s about telling stories that aren’t just episodic but you can go deep into character. ..if people watch in order, it leads to a whole other level of drama. It’s compelling. It’s like real life.”

Ordinarily, when someone invokes the words “new paradigm” you should grab your wallet and run out of the room. But that is precisely what we are experiencing: a new way of video storytelling that will not only improve on the broadcast status quo, it will render network fare irrelevant.

Yes, the broadcast business model is in disarray, but there is also the question of the offering, which is -- let’s face this, too --  execrable. And the lion’s share of cable isn’t much better. So sit back and watch the exodus as fragmentation gives way to atomization.

That assertion was triggered by an insight courtesy of Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.  In a streaming universe, Cole so eloquently observes, “There is no longer any reason to watch crap.”


2 comments about "Beyond Your Wildest Streams, Part IV: 'Better Than Movies'".
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  1. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, March 24, 2014 at 12:47 p.m.

    The trick is to have an arc and within the arc a completed episode. The kids who play trivia with me at bars in the city, tell me this is the opposite of "procedural" shows which complete a story in a half hour and yet have no arc other than the characters. Speaking of the wire, they killed off another wire actor on The Blacklist, but a couple of them remain alive on The Walking Dead, including D'Angelo Barksdale whose Baltimore credits go back to Homicide.

  2. Alfredo Pedroso from Sony Pictures Television Networks, March 24, 2014 at 8:20 p.m.

    I'm sure that Jeffrey Cole is a lot smarter than I am so as to his assertion that there's no longer a reason to watch crap I would ask: so why do so many?

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