Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Slow Burn: Getting out of Expositionland (with IMDB feedback)

If a YouTube clip is like a nosh, a half hour comedy is like a desert or fast food meal, and a drama is like a meal, a serialized drama is like going to eat at a fine restaurant (of course, this whole analogy rests on whether you truly believe that a $16 hamburger + tax and tip can top the divine flame-broiled goodness of Burger King which I don’t*).  The rewards are greater but the costs are high and by costs, I'm referring to a currency measured in your attention span. I’m sure there will be some disagreement here and there’s certainly a spectrum here, but I’d argue there’s little that’s inherently interesting about the first episode or two of a serialized drama.

By and large, the greatest rewards of watching a serialized drama are investing in the characters and their stories and in the first couple episodes when you don’t know the characters, it’s hard to grab onto some hook. Even shows I really grew to enjoy like "Orange is the New Black", "House of Cards", and "The Bridge" felt like expositionland drudgery in the first couple episodes.
Part of this effect is due to a shortened attention span on my part. There's no doubt in my mind that YouTube and instant access to entertainment options have gradually made me more stupid over the years. This is part of why it can be rewarding if I ever make it through the boring zone: The feeling of intellectual accomplishment.

Knowing this in advance, it's always best to stick with a drama for two or three epsiodes and bear with the exposition knowing that a boring first or second episode is not indicative of however many episodes later. After all, shows like "The Strain" or "Under the Dome" have strong pilots (one might argue that these shows have outlandish enough premises that a strong curiosity of how it will translate into film is enough to keep one glued through exposition) but (at least, in my opinion) lost their way soon afterwards.

On the other hand, a show like "Dollhouse" beat the expositional blues by making a conscious decision to frame the first five episodes into self-contained procedurals before getting deeper into the mythology.

I posted some thoughts on IMDB and was surprised to find a lot of people were with me:

User bwgood77:
"I kind of know what you mean. Part of it depends on how many shows I am watching. If I am watching like 15 shows, it is pretty tough to get into a brand new one at first. If I am only watching a few, I don't mind it as much, however, this summer I decided to let the shows get almost done before starting them so I can blaze through the first three quarters of them quickly and get really vested"

User MagnificentDesolation:
"I completely understand this. I have actually found myself sighing and begrudgingly starting something I was "looking forward to" like a chore or something to be endured. It's ridiculous and I don't think it even reflects on the project so much as it does on the near-burden of our new serialized drama trend. Not remotely "new", but you know what I mean?...........It feels like there is so much density to programming now, you know it can't be a light pop in but a real commitment. It engenders near dread if you're not quite up for it. The structure also allows the show to permit itself a slow build, it no longer feels the need to grab and hold you from episode one, you will be 'rewarded' by waiting. That can lead to a bit of a trudge, particularly if the promise never pays off.............If I sound as if I am against serialized drama, I'm not. I love it. But I have seen a change in myself as a show sits, unwatched, episodes piling as I struggle to start it."

User Asylumer:
"In my experience, when it comes to established soaps and serialized dramas, there needs to be SOMETHING beforehand that lures you to the show. In other words, there needs to be a specific character/actor/storyline/etc. that catches your attention and compels you to watch for that alone -- despite not knowing anything else about the show, or what's going on......I've tried to start watching already established or long running shows just for the hell of it, and it almost never works...it's like reading a complicated library book. There needs to be one special draw that is your reason for initially tuning in, then as time goes on you start to get into the other characters and stories."

User lbab9:
"I found this trend of episodes looking more like a piece of a gigantic movie than a proper episode of television quite annoying (I'm looking at you Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire). What happened to telling a good story in one hour?! I wish shows would try to be more like Buffy, Justified or The Good Wife in terms of structure. Tell a good story each episode while slowly building the seasonal arc. It sounds simple, yet some showrunners don't seem to understand it or execute it properly."

User Blue_Leaf:
"I had a tough time getting interested in Fargo, a series I was really looking forward to watching. After the third episode I stopped watching and then last week I finished the remaining episodes and LOVED IT! I think Fargo is definitely one of those shows that is more enjoyable as a "binge-watch".

User IndigoFlame:
"I love hour long dramas but most of what I watch hooks you from the beginning. There's a mystery or it's timeline is turned around. Stop watching broadcast series if the procedural set up doesn't suit you.....Too often people talk about cable drama being better because it has more violence and nudity. The best part of cable is they aren't constrained by the format of broadcast networks. They are edited for non commercial broadcast (even AMC & FX like channels use the seamless editing methods) and don't repeat dialog or explain the meaning of sight gags and props; they expect the audience to keep up....Your attention span isn't lessened, your ability to process information has increased. There's content out there for you but not on the networks."

*This blog is not sponsored by Burger King, but that's not saying I'm opposed to a Burger King sponsorship either

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