I love TV. I love narrative and voice and character and journey, and for these reasons, I love TV. If you’re looking for excellent writing on screen, of course there’s wonderful examples in the cinema. But there’s even more numerous examples of good writing on TV.
Instantly, I know, some people have tuned me out. ‘TV?! Bah!’ After all, there’s dross on TV, there’s a bunch of mediocre shows and predictable storylines and the same-o’ characters we’ve seen a dozen times. There’s a heck of a lot of soap operas with nothing new to say, and there’s sitcoms that plain aren’t funny. And worse, there’s so-called ‘reality TV’ — a heavily manipulated presentation of “real life” where good guys & bad guys are shaped on the editing room floor.
Equally, there are hundreds of examples of good TV shows being murdered before their time — far more examples of this than of shows being allowed to carry on into a well-earned dotage. TV is impatient and cruel. Such is the nature of the beast.
Like film, like books, like all entertainment, there’s currently a glut of mediocre content. Capitalism wants art to be product. Capitalism craves market. Broad market. Capitalism thinks ‘broad market’ means ‘lowest common denominator’. Ergo, we get the great Dumbing Down, we get stuff that is too meek to risk offence, too bland to be palatable, we get a niggling sense of dissatisfaction that leads to an uneasy consumerism. We get to wake up one day realising we’ve all become flaccid hosts to a global domination by insatiable machines that use us like batteries. No, wait, that’s The Matrix.
But when TV does work, when something comes along that’s got the guts & courage to stand up, and is given room enough & time enough to find itself & develop its momentum, its gait, if you will — then wow! There’s nothing greater, and nothing more exciting than finding it, nothing more reassuring than enjoying it knowing it’s been brought direct to your loungeroom by a team of similarly-minded individuals.
So you get Arrested Development, West Wing, Oz, M*A*S*H. You get Six Feet Under, Soap (remember Soap, anyone??), Scrubs, Due South, Human Remains, Buffy, Strangers with Candy, Nip/Tuck. You even get The Simpsons and Futurama. Smart, funny, sharp writing is key to all of these. A fair few of them also make use of drama and darkness and the kinds of comments on life and living that make you pause, and wonder, and sometimes worry.
A feature film is like a short story — you get a backbone, a ‘through-line’, and some idea of the characters. You can pack a lot into a short story, of course, but what you don’t get is time. Time to fit in other stories (though films like A Very Long Engagement can push, successfully, on the boundaries of this, of course), time to develop a friendship with the characters. I think that’s what you get much more clearly in TV — a sense of knowing the characters you’re investing your time in. In that way, TV has a lot in common with novels.
Take, as one example, the HBO prison drama Oz. There are plenty of reasons to watch Oz. Watch it, for example, if a) you like super-charged narrative that pulls no punches, or b) you think there’s not enough full frontal male nudity on TV. But watch it, particularly, if c) you think strong characterisation is what underpins all powerful storytelling.
Oz has been called gritty and realistic. If gritty means nasty, bloody and violent, then yeah, it’s that. But ‘realistic’? I’m not so sure. I mean, true, I haven’t spent much time in a maximum security experimental correctional penitentiary, so what the hell do I know. But I would say Oz is too beautifully stylised and too — dare I say — Shakespearean to be realistic. There’s violence, rape, murder, liaisons, betrayals, love, alliances, eye gouging, throat cutting, arm breaking, leg breaking, enforced tattooing, sex, poetry, cross-dressing, a hanging, a crucifixion, the temptation of a nun, manipulation, murder, more murder and more betrayal — and yes, shower scenes. And I’ve only seen half of the six seasons.
One guy is suffocated and another is burned to death — in episode one.
It’s all on, it’s full on. There’s nothing slow mo about Oz.
Oz makes no concessions for newcomers. It’s a brave choice, & trying to join the thrill ride at anything other than the first episode must be like trying to swim through molasses. I love that about it. I can picture late comers asking ‘What the fuck are these guys talking about, who is this ‘Ortolani’ they keep mentioning, & what on earth does it mean when that guys claims to go ‘bra-less’ in Oz?’ (It doesn’t mean what you probably think it means, BTW.) ‘And why … ??’
Ah, why. Or rather, as a writer, I wanted to know how. I watched it the first time for fun, but the second time was to see how it was made. Such is the pleasure of DVDs that you can take in an entire season over a couple of weeks (you shouldn’t mainline Oz too quickly, it does screwy things to your head). This time through, I’m realising how much I missed or barely understood that first time.
Oz is the ultimate paradox: a story set inside the contained environment of a prison (precious few scenes occur outside its walls, even for non-prisoners), yet with barely any containment in its events. I mean, it hasn’t gone supernatural on me yet — not quite — but it could. It’s high stakes, is Oz, & you never can tell where it’ll end up. Like limbo in hell. You want to ask the writer just ‘how low can you go?’ And then you want to ask, ‘dude, how are you doing this — are you hepped up on goofballs, or do you actually have a plan?’
Creator Tom Fontana has an interesting way of working with the globals and specifics of storytelling. He writes the arcs first. But he doesn’t write ‘story arcs’ — he writes ‘character arcs’. He writes the story of each character. Then he breaks those stories into scenes, then he slots the scenes into place across the season. Sometimes, he says, he winds up trying to build a scene between two characters, only to realise a little later he’s already killed off that other guy. Mostly, though, he says it works out.
So character is what comes first. That explains it. Every character has a life. Their motivations drive their own stories, and intersect each other’s. I imagine this approach is what gives the show its organic feel, the sense of the story naturally rolling out of actions, which rolled out of earlier actions, which etc, etc. It must also be what provides the show with its extremes.
Fontana further says that he treats the specific pieces (the scenes or events) as short stories. During each episode, he gives the short story however much space it needs in order to be told. So you might spend fifteen minutes checking how newbie Beecher is dealing being the prag (ie. whipping boy) for the neo-nazis, but the rest of the episode might be about O’Riley jockeying for power by setting the brotherhood against the goodfellas while also befriending the guards.
Sometimes by the end of an episode you’ve forgotten what happened in the beginning.
I was overwhelmed the first time I watched Oz. But if you watch it as a character study, if you find one character to focus on (be careful picking one, ‘cos a lot of them die — I’ll be surprised if anyone makes it out of this show alive by the end) — if you watch it this way, it begins to make sense. Patterns reveal themselves. Accept that Fontana has placed each character in a situation where they must attempt to live at the edge of what they find acceptable in the extreme environment they’re in. Accept, further, that they will be pushed beyond their edges by other characters and not one of them will be allowed to find a comfortable equilibrium for very long. This is where the show is at, in the push & shove of characters, in the slow descent and even slower rise of the characters you’ve come to know and, yes, even to love, over time.
This, then, is where the power of TV lies.