I love video role-playing games (RPGs). I’m not good at them by any stretch of the imagination. As with most genres of videogames, I’m almost spectacularly terrible at them. When the creators of walkthroughs conceived of ways to help those less fortunate worm their way through vast landscapes in search of loot, love, and increasingly powerful weapons, they had someone like me in mind. But I doggedly play them anyways, because of the lure of leveling up. Taking a character that wields the equivalent of a stick and leading him/her through a path that leads to me wielding the equivalent of a bazooka is incredibly satisfying.
That’s obviously an incredibly reductive way to look at a vast, varied genre of gaming. But I bring all of this up as a way to try and describe what it feels like to write television criticism over the course of the past seven years. I brought this up in the initial edition of my new podcast, “Not Just TV, McGee,” but it’s well worth bringing up again in written form. It’s not that I think I know wield the intellectual equivalent of a bazooka when analyzing the latest episode of “Sons of Anarchy.” But I do think I’ve refined my approach over those seven years in a way that has both advanced my technique (not unimportant, though far from tantamount) and my tastes (something far more ephemeral yet probably more vital).
The ways that I level up in RPGs varies, depending on the game itself. I adapt to the environment and try to play the game based on my skill and the level of fun I am having in a certain discipline. I’ve played “Final Fantasy” games in which I just grind every character up as to make battles a relatively stress-free endeavor. But in the “Fallout” series, I spend almost all the points I accrue into making my character so smooth of tongue that fighting is almost never necessary. There’s no one way to do it, which is part of the appeal of RPGs. But it’s also the appeal of criticism, since all you really need to perform it is the courage of your convictions. But to have convictions, you have to know what actually appeals to you as a core set of criteria upon which to analyze a particular show.
Having a one-size-fits-all approach works about as well in RPGs as television criticism. (I’ll assume the word “television” is redundant here, but I don’t want to speak for other types of pop culture analysis here.) David Simon, creator of “The Wire”, once noted that shows teach you how to watch them. In other words, bringing a set of predetermined biases to a show may be inevitable, but they will often get in the way of accessing the show itself. That’s not to say you can’t come equipped with a certain vocabulary for how other shows have succeeded or failed, but the truly unique shows will find a way to confound these existing tropes and leave the critic at a loss. How the critic finds his or her way back onto solid ground determines the content and success of that critical response.
All of this is a long set-up to get at the heart of what’s bothered me about both television and television criticism for a little while now. It’s not a major problem, and it’s not a type of unfixable threat that threatens to undo either institution. I started down the road on this topic a few months ago, when I wrote a think piece for The A.V. Club which called for a return of the individual episode as the primary building block for any season or series of television. The piece never meant to suggest that long-form storytelling is futile. Far from it. But the piece did suggest that in looking at the long game over the short game, television shows started overreaching in response to the critical praise heaped upon shows that didn’t hit the reset button at the end of every episode. Every writer started to think they had a “Lost” in them, without a clear understanding of what “having a ‘Lost’ in them” actually meant.
For some, that meant having a large, sprawling story with a large cast of characters that unfurled slowly while approaching a singular endpoint. Again: that’s a good model for a show, provided you could actually pull it off. But the odds are both staggeringly small and miss the point of what television at its best does. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff has asserted on several occasions, people only think they are watching television for the story. They are, in his estimation, watching television for the characters. I think he’s right. Many would argue they are one in the same. But they are only the same if character choices create story. They are not the same if the story dictates character decisions.
Creating a model by which character choices determine story isn’t any easier than mapping out a 5-year narrative bible and then filling it with characters that can play upon the predetermined stage. In fact, it’s far more difficult to do the former rather than the latter, since the writers risk the messiness of life spilling onto the small screen in 10-, 13-, or 22-episode installments on a yearly basis. I name “Parks and Recreation” and “Breaking Bad” in that A.V. Club article as shows that manage to do this, but even the fifth season of “Breaking Bad” has stumbled someone in making the character decisions seem like they are in the driver’s seat. Alan Sepinwall’s take this week on a key moment in “Say My Name” echoed my own thoughts while watching that episode. While the episode was still strong, trying to puzzle out why one key character allowed another to help him took me out of what should have been a riveting final act.
Television shows that rely on story rather than character pay off that story much in the way that most of us pay off our mortgages. Think of each episode like a monthly payment. Most mortgages work by constantly adjusting the balance paid off to the principal and the interest each month. Right now, in the nascent stages of our mortgage, I’m paying off a fantastically high percentage in interest versus a tiny amount in principal. (Not that I’m bitter. Cough.) TV shows in their nascent stages have maximum interest as well, as least as far as the audience is concerned. The possibilities are limitless. Why did all those survivors from Oceanic 815 survive? How is a cancer-ridden chemistry teacher going to turn into a super villian? These questions are delicious because there’s infinite room to answer. The shows haven’t started paying any principal yet.
But with each episode in a story-first show, the balance shifts, just as the balance shifts in the mortgage. The interest dwindles in both cases. And while that’s fantastic in terms of owning a home, it’s less wonderful when applied to a television show. Why? Because the once limitless possibilities start to narrow. Theories get discarded or debunked. New questions color the old ones. Contradictions that inevitably arise start to muddle the slowly revealed picture. And, ultimately, whether viewers like it or not, the story only ends one way. It’s the author’s right to end the story any way one likes. And it’s somewhat silly for viewers to mad at a program that ends in a way that clashes with one’s own preferred idea of an ending. But when a program puts story above character, then the dissonance actually matters. Putting story above character turns a television show into a scavenger hunt.
But putting character above story? That doesn’t negate the importance of how a show chooses to end its run, but it does put less emphasis on those final few acts. It becomes less about sticking the landing and more about staying true to a characters hopes, dreams, foibles, and fuck-ups. Note I didn’t say “staying consistent” just now. I say “staying true”. That still allows for peaks, valleys, and even hypocrisy within a character’s journey so long as they ultimately feel organically true to that particular fictional character. Why “Lost” still works for me is that I saw it, by the end, as a show in which the characters’ reactions to the sci-fi craziness around them ultimately dominated the show’s storytelling. It took me a long, long time to come to that conclusion. For years, I tried to play the ARGs, decipher the hieroglyphics, and invent entire histories for characters that were only mentioned in passing. I tried to solve “Lost”. And in doing so, I ceased to enjoy “Lost”. Only when I refocused on the character journeys did I truly go back (seewhatIdidthere???) to the show. What some might see as a downside to writing online for so long (having previously held beliefs available for all to read long after you have abandoned those tenets) is actually just a natural extension of the way our opinions all (hopefully) evolve over time. It’s not about shedding one skin to grow other so much as constantly identify, incorporate, and adapt.
This isn’t some screed about how that transformation was correct. There’s no singular way for anyone to enjoy a particular television show, never mind television as a whole. But I found it instructive to work my way through “Lost” and “level up”, so to speak, from someone who blindly worshiped at the alter of multi-season mythology to someone who really wanted to see one well-crafted episode of television after another. Sure, those episodes stacked atop each other would offer something in the realm of “continuity”. But it’s continuity that comes from a series of organic choices that inform action. Yes, talking about “organic choices” in scripted programming is ironic. Ten thousand spoons, etc. But in the moment, while watching these shows, they sure as shit feel organic. And that’s the ultimate key for me. Leaving aside all the analysis I have to do after the fact, what I really want in any episode of television is to forget I’m watching the result of hundreds of people’s blood, sweat, and tears to provide me entertainment. I thought I wanted to learn what the smoke monster was. Instead, I just wanted to see two characters get a cup of coffee. Go figure.
This leveling up process didn’t make me a better critic, except inasmuch as it helped identify what I found pleasurable about the medium. Identifying that helped clarify my thoughts on a variety of shows. Each of those shows is different from the other, and I do my best to take each on their own merits. I may not always succeed, but the baseline is established heading into each episode. Each critic, to some extent, does this all the time. How consciously one does this often informs the quality of one’s criticism.
So what are the solutions? I’ll deal with that in a future post, which will point to one show in particular as a model for future programming. For now, I’m curious about your thoughts on story, character, and the balance that works best for you.