Scott Ellington's Blog

Just another weblog

Friday Night Lights — End

It isn’t every television series that’s afforded the opportunity to ripen, mature and end gracefully in an honorable act of thematic and theatrical sepuku.  Most aren’t produced, and many are abortively cancelled.  Friday Night Lights managed its termination nicely.  It’s interesting that both commentaries on the final DVD disk for the fifth and final season are delivered by producers who happen to be relentless stammerers; “uh.  uh.  y’know…the uh, uh reason for this — y’know thing is almost self-evident.  It’s that y’know uh uh uh…” and listening to them yammer is unbelievably annoying.  On the other hand, several interesting points about the show were made, generally anecdotally.

Lead actor Kyle Chandler’s part (as Coach Taylor) in a given scene (according to the commentator) was beautifully written to provide the actor with wonderfully poetic and philosophical talking points that were intended to be delivered verbatim at an extended crucial moment.  And the actor spoke privately with the writer/producer asking for permission to slough the words in order to ddliver the information nonverbally.  They tried the actor’s approach, and printed it because the nonverbal approach was significantly better than the scripted, wordy alternative version.

The point I’d like to make here is that the television medium is loaded with powerful, influential verbal-communicators.  It’s the platform that celebrates writers (whose scripts are customarily regarded as inviolable) because showrunners, producers and writers are the creative power in television — unlike cinema, in which money and directors generally rule supreme, and writers are valued like toilet paper.

I have a number of qualms and misgivings about the 3cameras-constantly-shooting scheme of Friday Night Lights.  This “performance-based” storytelling design requires camera operators to work handheld, and insists that operators “find the action” in the scene.  Despite my skepticism, every season of this show has delivered moments of intense emotional tension and release that make it difficult to argue against an innovative design that has worked admirably.  Nonetheless, I’ve never enjoyed looking at the unfocused backs of actors’ heads, the jiggle, the interminable seconds that pass as the camera moves past posts, lampshades and irrelevant objects before “finding” the face of the person who’s been speaking all along.  After four years, I ought to have known that this show was never really about football, and the ways they photograph/edit games illustrates constantly how little the sport matters in this context. 

Perhaps someday somebody else will noticed that every important problem in every season invariably revolved around the choices and eccentricities of female characters in a layered, overlapping subtly-misogynist show ostensibly devoted to the primarily-male enterprise of Texas high school football.

I think television writers have a tendency to hammer home their points in words, rather than trusting actors and directors to stress necessary connections for their not-particularly-perceptive audience.  It’s a point that’s made in the commentaries for season one of Treme, that standard network approach to televised storytelling is significantly more didactic and on-the-nose than the ways Simon says it, and the cast of Treme appreciates the respect both they and the audience are accorded.

One last point gleaned while watching Robin Hood; the prince of thieves last night.  It’s that the physical action and stunts are recognizably, ridiculously improbable/impossible…and despite the obvious intention to make Kevin Costner appear to be wonderfully deft, they can’t give him a fraction of the charismatic virulence of Errol Flynn, who generally lacked the gravitas of Russel Crowe.  The most  (perhaps only) delicious line in the Costner version was that nobility isn’t a birthright, it’s what you do with what you’re given. And television’s artistic nobility depends on a small minority of gifted writers who trust their audiences and the actors who play to them more than they trust blather, network executive notes and the forces that counsel scaled-back ambition. 

Actors are louder than verbs.  Arrested Development‘s narrator is measurably louder than its dialogue.  Maybe that’s a meaningful observation, Maeby not — but the place where experienced and admirable practitioners of the various and sundry skills necessary to successful crossmedia production of radio, cinema, gaming, comics, literature and televison entertainment talk to one another is damned hard to find.  If it ever does appear, I’ll happily shut up and listen as they debate the theoretical and practical parameters of telling/showing stories across platforms.  I suspect those platforms aren’t as fluidly interoperable as transmedia evangelists theorize.  And that the obvious proprietary barriers that prevent Wonder Woman from joining the Avengers (transnarrative collaboration) also throw phantom blocks at transmedia narrative — as though corporations that own IP simply can’t own cultural archetypes, and that actors who move from role to role are the realest adversaries of transnational media conglomerates.

I think Star Wars is an excellent model of oldschool transmedia (merchandising) narrative, perhaps Arab Spring is a better model of the new one in which an unexpected audience rises to participate in the production as though the membranes separating news from fiction from means from will from commodities from people were old habits in need of change.  What if unsubstantiated rumors of revolution fomented hopes that resulted in a North African snowball?  What if the most powerful human force on Earth were inadvertantly unleashed by evolving technology’s crossing an unanticipated threshold of instantaneous global communication?  What if that force were the normally-adversarial/contradictory will of The People for whom cohesive, coherent action becomes possible through interactive communication?  What if FDR and Churchill broadcast better shows than Hitler — remember to consult Nielsen — no don’t.

A few nuggets of coincidence from Vince Gilligan; dated one day later than the junk I wrote above:

Were there particular things that Carter taught you?
Well, I became a better writer, and things that he taught all of us that I still carry with me are: Show your story, don’t tell it. Try not to depend too much on dialogue. Try to remember that it’s very much a visual medium and that sometimes more can be said with a look between characters than a whole spate of words. I also learned how to tell a story economically. If they’d shot the first draft of my first script for The X-Files, it would have cost 20 or 30 million dollars! So, all the tools that I have in my toolbox now, I got them on The X-Files.

What show do you wish you had created?
The Twilight Zone, and I wish Rod Serling hadn’t died so young. That’s a man I truly would love to have met. He was the first showrunner whose name the country at large actually knew.

How much do you care about what fans think?
I care greatly. We wouldn’t have a show if not for the viewers. But having said that, I don’t think that equates with a need on my part to constantly check in with what the fans are saying. I hear about it anecdotally at best. Because on the Internet, you get what are often, I think, unrealistic responses — you get the highs and the lows; the people who love something enough to type something into their computer about it, and you get the people that hate it, but you don’t get the great vast middle. So, it’s an interesting gauge, but not necessarily an accurate one.

Can fans ruin shows?
I don’t think fans are capable of ruining anything. I think only the showrunner and their writers and actors are capable of that. If a showrunner logs on to the Internet and a fan’s telling them to add a lovable robot to his or her ensemble, they’ve only got themselves to blame if they take that kind of advice.

…and in the same series of New York Magazine interviews with showrunners:


 Mike Schur:
Episodes would vary in length from week to week.

I’m not sad that there are commercials, but every episode of our show has to be exactly 21 minutes and 17 seconds long. It’s unlikely that the optimal length of every episode of our show is exactly 21 minutes and 17 seconds.

 Carter Bays:
No more notes from the networks.

Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one who says “No more notes.” If that’s the case … ha ha, just kidding, guys. I’m not Spartacus. I’m just some gladiator. Hail, Caesar!

 Vince Gilligan:
Take more risks and assume the audience will go along.

 Dan Harmon:
In a world where everyone can watch anything all the time, and where we spend all this money making lots of shitty pilots, why don’t we have special website events where all the pilots are aired and people vote for their favorites? Make this populist medium genuinely populist.

Shonda Rhimes:
The wonderful Mad Men, in its first four seasons, has made as many episodes as we made in seasons one and two of Grey’s Anatomy. After twelve episodes, I’m tired, the crew is tired, everyone is tired. The break of a few months that cable shows get would be amazing.

Jason Katims:
Thirteen-episode cycles twice a year would also allow the writers to write all their scripts before shooting starts. It would raise the level of storytelling, you’d have more time to prep, and that would make the show less expensive to produce. And you should be allowed to say “Jesus” and “goddamn.” How offensive is it? I guess it is. I guess I don’t understand it all.

Graham Yost:
More patience.

Don’t be so quick to cancel shows.

Kurt Sutter:
Stop making decisions based on research data, and hire development executives with degrees in art, literature, and theater instead of marketing, business, and law. If people followed those two rules, TV would be a fuckload better.

Here’s a little Roseanne Barr-based razor-edged (holy crap, this is almost exactly what I was asking for!) bonus:

15 May 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment