The burdens of audience expectations and economic realities in “Smallville” and “Game of Thrones”

I come not to bury “Smallville,” but lightly praise it. Kinda. Having a ten-year run of anything these days is impressive, with the 21st-century littered with far more first season flame-outs than anything approaching the longevity of this show. It hasn’t been in my Must See rotation since Season 5, and even by then I was suffered from a case of the Lana Langs. (You know the symptoms: fetishization of a an incredibly dull character at the expense of both our hero and far more interesting supporting characters that could have enhanced the overall show.)

However, I did manage to watch essentially every episode of the next four seasons, an exercise that bespoke as much masochism as my love for Superman stories. There were stretches of episodes SO BAD during that time that I actively hated myself for having it on my weekly watch list. But then an episode like “Justice” would come along (with the show’s first constitution of the Justice League) and the goodwill that episode engendered kept me going through another season. There’s such potency in the underlying mythology that despite itself, “Smallville” sometimes achieved true, un-ironic greatness.

superman.jpgThe potency of the underlying source material is why I wanted to jot down a few thoughts in the aftermath of last night’s series finale. The math majors among you might notice that my viewing patterns led up to the end of the ninth season, but didn’t include the 10th. That’s not a mistake. I couldn’t go any further in the show, which seems silly given that I made it that far in the show’s run. It would be like slogging away at a bathroom remodel, and giving up just before putting on the faucet to the sink. But there you have it. But I’m less interested in trying to extrapolate the series finale as a statement of quality over an unseen 10th season than trying to ask this question: Did “Smallville” need 10 seasons to tell its story?

There’s a difference in not wishing a host of people working on a semi-successful television show the chance to make money doing it for as long as possible and wishing that a serialized story got the proper length in which to tell it. Not for a minute do I want to insinuate that I have an issue with Tom Welling and company making coin off the franchise as long as it’s fiscally possible. But I’m not sure that anyone can make a compelling case on a story level that ten years worth of episodes actually did the character of Clark Kent any favors.

In a recent podcast, Mo Ryan and I answered some reader questions about the viability of jumping into a certain series during its second season, forgoing the first in favor of getting to the perceived superior product in the latter. During our back and forth on this, Mo and I hit upon an idea that I’m sure isn’t original but nevertheless may turn into a feature over the summer: “The Essentials.” What The Essentials will do is posit that while watching every episode of everything a show has to offer is ideal, it’s not always practical. So “The Essentials” would boil down a show, particularly one of a long run, into a list of can’t miss episodes.

I bring this up because I think, in my heart of hearts, that had “Smallville” produced approximately half the number of episodes it did to end up in the same place, it would have been a far better show. I further think that a three-season story would have produced one of my favorite shows of the past decade. Instead, each season would flow the same: killer opening episode, geologically slow building of the season’s mythology, a few standout eps that employed a unique take on the DC universe, and then a finale that usually blew the resolution to the central conflict but managed to set up a whopper of a cliffhanger to leave fans gasping for more.

Cutting out the fat of those seasons would have cut down on the number of hours that The WB/CW could produce in a season, for sure. And from a business model, what I’m proposing is obviously impractical. That I would have enjoyed a “Smallville” that was a seasonal series of 2-hour television events doesn’t mean there was a snowball’s chance of that ever working. But taking Clark Kent on a 200+-episode journey over the course of ta decade to finally stop moping and finally start kicking ass didn’t exactly work, either.

clark.jpgI’ve been thinking a lot about the way in which certain shows have both an advantage and disadvantage of having a large part of its audience familiar with the ways in which its story is supposed to go. You hear all the time about people now begging their friends to stick with a show like “Fringe,” under the instructions, “It gets better later on.” That’s a statement produced in the context of collective hindsight. Writing today, having the benefit of history, I can chime in on that chorus and say that yes, indeedy, “Fringe” starts off at the pace of schizophrenic continental drift before locking into something stronger down the line. Plenty of other shows can have similar claims made in their favor, as well.

Here’s the difference between those shows and “Smallville”: audiences already have a preconceived, fairly certain notion of where the story will end up. The story of boy to Superman was built into the show’s DNA from Day One. This made each subsequence season of the show after the initial few ones not that layered elements onto that story but simply served to delay the inevitable. It ended up doing a disservice to the characters involved because arbitrary obstacles had to be placed into everyone’s way at every stage: Clark Kent couldn’t turn into Superman, Lex Luthor could never figure our Clark’s secret, and the women in Clark’s life could never know his Kryptonian origins. All of those stories would for a while, but over ten years, it just worked against these iconic figures.

I think “Game of Thrones” is suffering from a similar problem right now as well, although let me make the initial caveat here to those already bug-eyed by the comparison: I am only comparing the two in terms of its audiences’ expectations surrounding the unfolding narrative onscreen versus the unfolding narrative of the source material. When I wrote my initial review of the first episodes of that series, there were many cries defending “Game of Thrones,” but they defended the BOOK, not the TELEVISION SHOW. (Which, you know, they hadn’t seen yet.) I would speak of Character X in a less-than-flattering way in their eyes not because my evaluation of what happened onscreen was false, but because it didn’t contain knowledge about that character that is only revealed in the fourth book.

To which I say: So what?

game-of-thrones-5.jpgThat’s not to say that those criticisms are wrong per say, in that I am sure that these characters develop down the line beyond what they currently are on the HBO show at present. But it does create a wide chasm in the viewing experience between those that are watching knowing the source material and those watching it with new eyes. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching “Smallville” and not understanding where Clark Kent is supposed to end up. But it’s quite difficult for me to watch “Game of Thrones” and have a clear sense of where, say, Tyrion will land down the line. But in any case, what happens in the books is irrelevant: I’m not reading the books. I’m watching the television series. The former does not equate to the latter. And conflating the two does a disservice to both.

Now, despite my reservations about those first six episodes, I still liked them enough to keep going. I want to find out what happens to these characters, and so help my God, I’ll throw a dragon egg at anyone that spoils me on what is coming down the line in the show. (You know, besides “winter”. I think that’s a given.) But I reject the notion that pre-obtained knowledge of the story gives them an “upper hand” as it were when watching a single episode in present day. Having a glance that means one thing to a veteran of the series and one thing to a newbie is fine: that gives a multitude of experience that is inherent in every quality program. But the show has the responsibility to actually give both sides something to take away from each hour, and I’m not sure the show’s quite done that yet.

In short: I don’t want to hear about how stuff will pay off in Season 3, before Season 3 has even aired (or even filmed). If you want to tell me that about a show like “The Wire,” that’s fine: we can go to actual episodes that have already been produced. It’s still an argument that’s based on personal opinion rather than absolute truth, but the experience of watching those episodes has already been achieved. Those that watch “Games of Thrones” simply to see a particular event happen down the line are akin to those that watched “Smallville” for ten years to see Clark don the cape: they ignored the present for the promise of the future.

Again, that’s not some crime. But ignoring the here and now forgoes the pleasure of watching a single episode tell a coherent, contained story. That story may fit into a larger picture, but to ignore the episode’s responsibility to produce something entertaining/enlightening on a weekly basis means that episodes suddenly turn into chapters of a book, or issues in a comic book series. Neither of those things are bad ways for narrative to progress, but both of those things are specific to the medium in which they are told. Television has “episodes” as its unit of measurement, a unit that comes with its own flaws but also contains a multitude of assets that no other genre has. Conflating an “episode” with a “chapter” or an “issue” is death for any that seek to adapt any source material from the written word, either in novel or comic form.

The worry for “Smallville” is now over, having completed its too-long journey at the place we all knew it would. That it arrived there is a great achievement. That it took ten years to get there deflated those that wanted Clark to arrive that slower than a speeding bullet but also faster than a turtle in a 10K. “Thrones” still has plenty of time left in its own small-screen journey. The challenge for it will be not in reproducing the books upon which they are based, but to adapt (in every sense of the word) the spirit of those novels in order to create hours of television that stand alone as entertainment, and ultimately create seasons of televisions that stand as separate but equally beloved pieces of pop culture.

9 Comments

  1. aamadis
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    “having completed its too-long journey at the place we all knew it would”

    Did you see the finale? I would argue that it never actually completed it’s journey. Two words. No. Suit.

  2. Bunk
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    “ignore the episode’s responsibility to produce something entertaining/enlightening on a weekly basis”

    I disagree with this perceived responsibility. If Game of Thrones wishes to use its episodes as chapters of a book, that’s a perfectly valid storytelling model. At the end of the season, or at the end of the show, we can decide whether it was a good show. Right now, we can’t. The Wire is the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had with a show because its scope is enormous. It’s the only show I’ve ever seen where it didn’t a) get cancelled before getting to end on its own terms or b) get bogged down in filler before it concluded. I think conceiving of TV series as though they WERE novels is the path to satisfying television.

    Now, of course we don’t know whether Game of Thrones will be that good at this point. And frankly, when there’s a book out there that is well-respected already, I’m inclined to just read that rather than watch the show. But we must move away from this notion that each episode must have a beginning/middle/end of its own for the show in question to be “good.” That is part of an antiquated storytelling model, one where you get 10 seasons of a show that should have used 3.

  3. tag
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    I know I’m not allowed to criticise your take on Game of Thrones until I’ve seen all 6 episodes that you have, but your specific criticism leveled against the episodes as being chapters of a book rather than episodes of a TV show seems rather silly. By this metric it is obvious that CSI is a better show than The Wire. CSI turns in better self-contained hours of television. Similarly, House tops Deadwood.

    I feel both of those are obviously false, and as someone whe generally prefers reading to watching TV, I’m glad when TV takes steps to make it more structurally similar to books.

    Game of Thrones as a TV show doesn’t work for you. That is fine. You are entitled to this opinion. Battlestar Galactica never really worked for me. You really don’t need try so hard to justify why Game of Thrones isn’t something that rings your bell. Nor do you need to defend yourself against critical backlash.

    I would be glad to see you continue to cover Game of Thrones, but prefer you offer new analysis and criticisms than spending your time justifying old ones.

  4. Matt
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Bunk, I disagree that the notion that TV episodes should have a beginning, middle, and an end is obsolete. I love serialized dramas, but I think the best serialized dramas are the ones that can craft a great hour of television and position that hour within a season-long, or multi-season narrative. I think that individual episodes of television do need to tell a story within that episode. That does not mean that the story has to be fully resolved or should not resurface down the line. On the contrary, what happens within each hour should be important to what comes later. Great serialized shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica were telling grand stories that took many seasons to tell, yet each episode still told some kind of story that played out over the hour.

    James VanDerWerff argued on his podcast that what HBO seems to be doing nowadays is producing 12 hour movies that they have to break up into individual episodes because of the demands of the television format, and Game of Thrones definitely seems to fit that bill. Because it is essentially telling one story arbitrarily split into 10 parts, I think Season 1 of GOT will play much, much better when watched on DVD over a few days rather than in hour-long increments over the course of 10 weeks.

    I also think that Game of Thrones is suffering from trying to service too many characters too quickly in its run. The first book focused very heavily on the Starks, while also introducing Tyrion and Daenerys. Characters like Jaime, Cersei, King Robert, etc. were very peripheral and would not become fully fleshed out until later books. It’s perfectly fine to treat a character as a minor character in one season and then give him a more prominent role in later seasons. This can work especially well if a character starts off as a villain, but then later the show can get you to sympathize with his point of view (like Ben on Lost or the cylons on BSG). However, when a show tries to service too many characters too quickly, it can end up doing justice to none.

  5. Bunk
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the response, Matt. I can’t really comment on how Game of Thrones is doing because I haven’t seen it yet. I am familiar with Lost and Battlestar, but I would hesitate to call either one a great serialized show. They actually have very similar trajectories; both shows had wonderful early seasons but eventually became bogged down with cliffhangers and mythology that had been invented as the writers went along. Watching those two shows was like watching best friends die slowly of a terminal illness.

    I’m not saying that a good TV show MUST unfold like a 12-hour movie, I’m just saying that it is a perfectly valid approach. And so far the only show I’ve seen that, though not my favorite show ever, was technically perfect in the delivery of its narrative, is The Wire, which happens to be deliver those 12-hour movies you’re talking about. But, if you look at it from a different perspective, The Wire is one story broken up into 5 episodes, each of which builds on the previous. I think THAT characteristic should be the goal of television, however long its “episodes” end up being.

  6. tag
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Bunk:
    “Watching those two shows was like watching best friends die slowly of a terminal illness.”

    That is a wonderfully vivid metaphor. I think the terminal illness needs to be something preventable like morbid obesity. A little planning and hard work, and both Lost and Battlestar could have been so much better.

    All of Lost and Battlestar’s flaws were in serialization. They were unable to follow through on many plot threads. Compare that to a show like Babylon 5 A show with flaws, but none of them in serialization. Every thread was resolved, every question answered.

  7. Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Tag: I’m not saying episodes have to have to have a beginning, middle, and end at the EXPENSE of larger storytelling. Rather, they have to have it IN ADDITION TO larger storytelling. That’s why “Deadwood” is better than “House” in this respect.

    Having episodes be _akin_ to chapters of a book is fine. BUt they can’t be EXACTLY like chapters. That’s all. Chapter 4 of a book is different from Episode 4 of a show. They have to accomplish different things within their respective mediums. It’s not a knock on either one: it fact, I’d say differentiating them is respectful to both.

  8. tag
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Ryan, Your point is taken, but I have three questions.
    1) Do you think GOT’s episodes are more serialized and less episodic than episodes of Damages?
    2) It seems like there were episodes akin to what GOT has offered that were episodes 9, 10, or 11 of the season of The Wire or Deadwood or The Sopranos. Do you feel like those shows had earned episodes without an A plot?
    3) If GOT were a miniseries would you have the same episodic requirements? If so, how does it compare to something like “The Pacific”

    Also, if you are interested each episode of the TV show GOT covers about 10 or so chapters from the book. So I don’t feel like the episodes are exactly like chapters in a book, but I understand where you were coming from in your compairson.

  9. sanalayla
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to drop in and say that I completely agree with your take on the Smallville finale. I might have enjoyed it slightly more than you did because I always enjoyed the Clark/Lois relationship on the show and I thought the finale handled the wedding/vows fairly well (then that went to hell in a hand basket when they ended the series without those two getting married). As I always tell my friend, I’ve never seen a show work harder to undo it’s own character development than “Smallville” does. (Or, rather, DID.)

    Haven’t watched “Game of Thrones”, so I can’t comment on that. But I will say that I respect your thoughts that the source material shouldn’t matter. It should stand well on its own. That was a problem “Smallville” ALWAYS had. They would expect fans to fill in the blanks from the comics and never felt that they needed to have high quality on their own merit.