Jumping The Arc

I’m not one to ignore the advice of Public Enemy but I believe the hype. American television is as good as it’s ever been. Full of rich and varied programmes that are as emotionally compelling as they are artfully composed, flush with writers, directors and producers who recognise and understand the craft of good television (many of them the same) and boasting a success rate that easily surpasses American cinema. It’s only because I feel this way that I’m willing to tolerate the abominations of storytelling that even the finest shows on the air serve up on a weekly basis. The people behind American TV have a right to be complacent, and with complacency comes bad habits. A plague of lazy short-cuts and downright sloppiness has spread exponentially through US TV writing and several worrying tendencies have emerged. Here’s a run-down of some of the worst inclinations and their hosts:

Flashbacks/Flashforwards:

I’ve seen the future…and it is confusing!

As far as I’m concerned, if you need to use a flashback or a flashforward at any point in your screenplay you’ve not written the scenes in the present well enough. There are exceptions-like biographies-but the TV shows I’m talking about don’t fall into any of those categories. Great new series like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead regularly go back and forth on their timelines, and increasingly wield these digressions as banners for the programme. Going back in time serves to fill in story gaps, underlining how badly communicated previous episodes were and alerting viewers to missed opportunities. Looking ahead creates an enigma then made comprehensible by the subsequent action, betraying a (usually undue) lack of faith in the material of the episodes to sustain interest in their own rights. Moreover, these displacements in time interrupt the forward momentum that these shows thrive upon to compel further viewing.

Cast Montages:

There’s only one way this can end…with a montage.

Ever wondered what all the characters in a show are doing at a given time? Me neither. Yet still the most common device for bringing a programme’s ensemble cast together within a single scene is a montage sketching each character’s activities at a time of day (typically morning or night). While this technique usually reveals something essential and often surprising about one or two of the characters, others are left to make up the numbers as they can’t all be doing something profound at exactly the same moment. Most shows manage to keep this tendency to a single scene at the beginning or end of an episode but series like Sons of Anarchy now feature multiple cast montages scattered randomly throughout each instalment, the only means of keeping track of the show’s surplus of sub-plots. There must be subtler, more sustainable ways of getting everybody in one place.

Song Overlays:

Coldplay: ruining American TV since 2002.

Nothing dates faster than music. Despite this truism, American TV shows continue to overlay scenes with contemporary songs that will likely only be considered respectable in the moment they’re first transmitted. Remember when The Shield ended its first season with a musical montage using Coldplay’s ‘Spider Webs’. That was in 2002 when the band still had cache and fed into the alternative style the show was cultivating. Now that Coldplay embody corporate bland, the sequence looks and sounds like middlebrow advertising. Series continue to make the same mistakes by selecting the latest hipster warbles rather than looking for the transcendent instrumentals that will preserve them throughout history. The choices tend to reflect the producers’ record collection rather than being linked to character or place. The Walking Dead would like us to believe that a teenage girl from a remote Atlanta farm has committed Tom Waits B-sides to memory.

Showrunners Writing:

‘Mr Darabont…step away from the script!’

While I’m grateful for all they do to put a programme on the air and keep it in good shape, I wish showrunners would keep their hands off the teleplay. They seem to have a knack for writing the weakest and most mechanical episodes and the ones most concerned with the image of the show not the art of television. Without the might of Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont behind it, The Walking Dead may never have reached TV screens but the couple of episodes he wrote that headed up the series seemed incapable of articulating how the show would progress as a long-form narrative (rather than a 2-hour zombie movie) which is essential to establish in the pilot stages of a series. As soon as the writing responsibilities passed to serial TV veterans Glen Mazzara and Charles H. Eglee, the ongoing vision for the programme became evident.

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