The Real Origin of Serialized TV

Vox apparently doesn’t read much and doesn’t even watch much TV.  I say this because of this completely erroneous article claiming that TV started serialization in movies.  This is of course not true as good serialization has a storied past in the printed word.  Not even that, they don’t even mention the TV precursors to the current serialization trend.

The irony is that the header image for the article is from Captain America, a character from the ultimate serialization format: the comic book.  Now comic books have their roots in an even older serial format having spawned from the pulp genre where stories were usually split up among successive issues of periodical devoted to fiction.  In fact this is how a lot of classic Victorian literature was published as well.  It was a concession to printing costs, which were relatively high, and a way to keep customers hooked.

However, in earlier serials it was usually a matter of taking an existing story and just chopping it up.  That is why I think comic books are a better analogue to modern TV.  In both media you have indefinite length of air time or comic books you are trying to fill with stories about the same characters.  The parallels run deeper as both comics and TV were almost exclusively episodic for most of their history, only recently have they become heavily serialized (by which I mean a longer story arc is broken up among multiple issues/episodes).

For comic books, this change was wrought in the early 80s with the extreme popularity of Chris Claremont’s X-Men run.  There are of course earlier well-regarded story arcs, but stuff like Days of Future Past is etched in nearly ever comic readers mind.  It’s hard to overstate how popular X-Men was at one point.  A comic book is lucky if it sells a 100,000 copies now, but X-Men was pulling numbers in the millions in the 80s and that caused a profound shift in what kinds of stories were deemed likely to succeed.  The other major event was the release of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns which had broad mainstream and critical success.  For a moment it looked like comics, or graphic novels for the snobbish, might stand among “serious” literature.  Of course stories those good are rare and the rush to put out “grim and gritty” stories caused a glut of mediocre imitators and a backlash.  Nevertheless, a push toward more mature, complex storytelling and the proven success of serialized storytelling completely changed the face of comic books.  Today, one-and-done storytelling is exceedingly rare in comic books and charges of “decompression,” extending a story longer than it needed to be, are common among fans.

Now the roots of TV serialization are longer than Vox pretends as well.  I would trace it back to Star Trek and Twin Peaks, but I don’t claim an intimate knowledge of TV history.  This of course ignores the many serial soap operas.  However, considering how long soaps have been on the air, it can’t really be the case that they drove stronger serialization in TV. Star Trek: The Next Generation features to me an inchoate serialization.  Many multi-episode stories rank among the best of the show’s seven seasons, including The Best of Both Worlds which really elevated what was possible in the format.  The two episodes split between seasons were almost like watching a movie, even if the ending was slightly disappointing.  Ironically, its movies trying to be like TV now.  It also featured the Borg, an existential threat that cropped up in many memorable episodes.  Later seasons dealt with a Cardassian war as an omnipresent theme as well.  Yes, it was still largely episodic, but it always had the backdrop of these larger menaces adding flavor.  Deep Space Nine would take this even further with its multi-season Dominion storyline.  Also it is important to highlight that TNG was very popular at the time and TV follows the money.  What I find interesting is that almost assuredly the writers of TNG read comic books and TNG followed hot on the heels of the revolution going on comic books.

The other big early serial was Twin Peaks.  While it had its soap opera tendencies, it was an extremely popular serialized crime drama.  Suddenly we had multiple examples of a genre other than soap operas doing very well with serialization.

Finally, Vox completely ignores the many fantasy and science fiction series that would classify as serials.  Stuff like Harry Dresden which spans over 10 books, most of it with a continuing storyline, certainly qualifies as a serial.  Vox is like the people claiming Interstellar was an ambitious science fiction production when it is in fact a regurgitation of many science fiction plots and would look dated among literature from 30 years ago.  These pronouncements reveal an ignorance of the long history of their respective genres and formats.


I Like All Four of My Walls, Thank You Very Much

Writing about House of Cards had me realize how much I hate all the fourth wall breaking that is the latest trend in television.  I blame The Office for starting this vile fad and I can only hope it fades away soon.

The Office gets points for A) being first and B) making it a legitimate part of the show with the pretense of making a documentary.  I guess Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries were first, but I guarantee that The Office is far more influential.  Of course, The Office committed the far worse sin of staying on television far after it stopped being remotely funny or interesting.

Breaking the Fourth Wall is much more of a television trope than a movie one and it mostly infects comedies.  How I Met Your Mother uses it occasionally for a quick joke and I recall it happening in Fresh Prince of Bel Air as well and 30 Rock used it too.  It works better for comedies because it is usually allows a character to point out the absurdity of the situation.  But that is also the problem with breaking the fourth wall.  It feels like you are trying to explain the joke or clue me into the dramatic undercurrents (when used outside of comedy) which I find patronizing and belittling.  As everyone knows if you have to explain your joke it isn’t funny and you probably didn’t do it right.  This failing is most easily observed in House of Cards where all subtlety is drained from the show because Frank Underwood will always turn to you and reveal all.

Now I am writing about this topic because it seems far more prevalent than I recall ever before.  Arrested Development uses it all the time and is almost never funny; just like that entire show.  I wonder if that last sentence will draw clicks to my blog from rabid AD fans.  Parks and Rec basically rips off The Office in every way from its mockumentary setup, awkward comedy and focus on workplace relationships.  Sadly it seems to take its cues from later seasons of The Office when it comes to quality.

The worst offender must be Modern Family which again takes the mockumentary approach, but only when it wants the characters to talk directly to the audience.  The rest of the show is filmed like your typical sitcom.  They have essentially abused the mockumentary device  simply for the ability to break the fourth wall.  I liked the first two seasons of Modern Family, but it has always been clear that this show had not one iota of originality.  And no, a gay couple that is stereotypically gay and also the worst parents in a sitcom ever is not original or edgy.  Cam and Mitchell reek of tokenism and they have always been the least rewarding part of the show.

So are there any worthwhile examples of breaking the fourth wall consistently?  I would say Better of Ted, but in this case Ted is fulfilling more of a narrator role.  Admittedly, the line between narrator and breaking the fourth wall is narrow and I am not often a fan of narrators (show not tell as your elementary school teacher would say).  However, this show was awesome and Ted as narrator was mostly to fast forward the story to get to the next joke.

A quick search on the internet reveals many other shows with fourth wall breaking and I appear to not be the only one noticing its rise in popularity.  As long as it sticks to comedies I think we will be OK; we really don’t want another House of Cards.

House of Cards… It’s a House of Cards

By which I mean it looks so slick dressed in its post-Watergate jadedness about politics but in the end it has no substance and a strong wheeze can blow it apart.

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood does an excellent job, but that is a given for Spacey.  It helps that he has by far the best character in the show.  The other standout in my mind is Corey Stoll as Peter Russo the coke head Congressman that later tries to put himself on the straight and narrow.

Everyone else is adequate, with the exception of the actress, Kate Mara, playing Zoe Barnes.  Part of it is not her fault.  Zoe is an awful character falling prey to that most insidious of sexist tropes: the ostensibly powerful female who is in fact nothing of the sort.  See Wheel of Time for many examples.  We are, I think, supposed to see Zoe as incredibly ambitious and, after an argument with the male editor of her paper, not willing to let a man dictate the rules of the game to her.

Unfortunately, this is all undone the minute she lets Frank Underwood sleep with her so that he can then use her to manipulate media coverage.  She is both literally and figuratively a prostitute and Underwood is her john.

The problem is that Mara plays her character with dead eyes and flat expressions.  Maybe the character is supposed to already be super jaded or at least pretending to be; God knows the writers want everyone else to be.  Even when she finally lays out the nature of their relationship to Frank she does it with very little heat.  Yet there are other scenes that suggest Zoe was supposed to be much more naive.  Ready for the filth of DC she would still be surprised by the depths of its depravity, but none of that is developed on.

The other major female character is Frank’s wife, Claire.  She is a cold hearted woman that for some reason runs a charitable organization that does something I think.  It never made sense.  Here is another in the cadre of “too cool for school” characters that is not even bothered by the infidelity of her husband.  That is until she does.

She strikes up an affair with an old flame and then feels guilty about cheating on her philandering husband.  Even worse, when she shows a bit of backbone and confronts Francis about how he has arrogated her career for his own ambitions she eventually backs down.  Some of this is Frank being a Mary Sue (which I will touch on later), but most of it is Claire being far weaker than she pretends to be.  She does stab Frank in the back one time and when Franks finds out about it (“I want to know who lied to me!”) is the best part of the show.

Anyway enough about the characters, what about the plot?  Well the series opens with absolutely transparent and awful character building moments like Frank killing a lame dog.  Similarly, Frank spouts off cringe-inducing lines like “I love my wife like a shark loves blood.”  We can be thankful that the blunt writing starts to recede.  Unfortunately, we still have to suffer from Frank breaking the fourth wall to tell us the subtext of the situation.  I would say the audience is smart enough to not need his handholding, but then there exist people that actually praise this show.

However, the worst part of the beginning of the show is the invincibility of Frank.  He maneuvers everyone to his will with unerring accuracy and he has no opponent even trying to match wits with him.   The theme of the show seems to be that Congress is a dirty nasty place except for the naive dimwits that are Frank’s colleagues.  It makes the first few episodes really boring.

Then comes the Teacher’s Union arc which breathes some life into the show.  Suddenly things aren’t under his control and he has opposition that occasionally surprise him.  Strangely Frank is up against a friend, but not even he seems aware of Francis’ propensity for underhanded tactics.  I personally like my clever manipulator types to be known as a tricky customer and still get people to do what they want.  It’s how I operate after all.  I just find it hard to believe that Underwood has been on the Hill for so long and yet everyone still treats what he says and does at face value.  This seems ludicrous in Congress even if you have no reason to distrust Frank.

Then we move onto the final arc which is mostly engaging because of the Peter Russo character.  Russo is a fuck up and Frank convinces him to put himself back on the straight and narrow.  He does and runs for governor and he actually cares about doing some good now.  It’s a very well done character arc.  Of course, the audience knows that Frank has some reason for doing all of this.  Unfortunately, it again makes no sense.  See, they want Russo to fall from grace again so that the Vice President will step in to run for governor and then Frank can become Vice President.

If this seems far-fetched you are not alone.  First, they entice Russo to the dark side again with a pretty face and some booze.  It was far too easy for a man that had tried so hard to be sober for so long.  Then the chain of events that would lead to a Vice President stepping down and Frank being picked as a replacement is highly unlikely.  The worst of it is that it makes no sense.  Frank felt snubbed for Secretary of State so he enacts a grand plan to become the Vice President of the guy that snubbed him?  Not even taking into account that if he could devise a way to be the VP why even bother with SoS?

Now barring his way to VP is a rich white guy.  He wants Frank to do him a favor before he recommends him as VP.  This favor?  Manipulate the exchange rate with China.  There are like a million plausible things a rich white guy would want from a VP and they chose one that makes no sense.  First off, it’s not even clear how he would make money from this.  Secondly, the VP has no control over monetary affairs.  He should be blackmailing Ben Bernanke.  Third, that still wouldn’t help him unless he could convince old Ben to buy and sell Chinese currency in huge amounts and hope that the Chinese don’t offset it with their own purchases.  Of course, the purpose of this move is blatantly clear and Ben would probably face hearings about removing him from office.  It’s a terrible idea and one wonders how this guy became rich with such shitty ideas.

So that’s where it ends except for a dull plot where Zoe almost finds out about Frank’s dirt deeds.  And by almost, I mean she has nada.  Just more Zoe fail in an entire show filled with Zoe fail.  Nothing good has ever come from people named Zoe.  First I had to put up with Zooey Deschanel (she can’t even get her own first name spelled correctly) and now Zoe.  We should just round up all the Zoes and variations thereof and force them to watch 500 Days of Summer for the rest of eternity.

The ending is as anticlimactic as the rest of the show with Frank promised the VP and none very wise about his murderous efforts to get it.  I really love political shows, but this was not a good one.  This could have been set in a large corporation for all that it really used DC as anything more than a backdrop.  It’s too bad because the production values on this show are extremely high and everything is slickly done and competently acted.  Netflix proved to me they have the chops, but not the writing and neither Hemlock Grove nor Orange is the New Black are doing anything to erase that impression.