Friday, October 9, 2009

Should Television Drama Pay Attention to Narrative Theory?

Reading Mike Hale's "'FlashForward' Watch" post this morning to the ArtsBeat Blog on the Web site for The New York Times gave me an appreciation for the extent of my love-hate relationship with this new television series. As a rule I do not read these "morning after" posts, since both my wife and I almost always use our VTR for time-shifting. However, since last night's viewing used the VTR only because we were a bit late in starting, I decided to see what Hale had to say. Ultimately, however, what interested me the most was the first (and only at the time of my reading) comment submitted:

I like the idea of the show, but i can’t quite figure out how far along in time the show has moved since the blackout 2 weeks ago. It seems like a very short period of time (perhaps a week or less?) but the data that they looked at about crow populations (which that kind of data is not monitored by anyone so that is inconceivable anyway, but i digress) had data through December 2009 on it… So i am confused.

— Jonathan

As far as I am concerned, Jonathan has no reason to apologize for his confusion. There is nothing wrong with expecting the reader/viewer to play an active role in grasping the unfolding of a story; but this should not be taken as an excuse to remove all responsibility from the storyteller. Mortimer Adler used to write about "active reading" as an imagined conversation between the reader and the author of the book being read. A serial format encourages such conversations and expands their scope from the solitary setting of the armchair to such social settings as the breakfast table and the water cooler. Admittedly, the author is not present "in the flesh" at such conversations; but those conversations tend to assume the author's presence "in spirit." Thus, if Jonathan is confused, I am less interested in grilling Jonathan than I am in wondering whether or not, in this particular case, the authors know what they are doing.

Let me try to make my point through another series that differs from FlashForward in just about every possible way, except for the host network. That series is Castle. For all its fluff and banter, the high point for me in Castle came in the first season when we got to see the similarity between the diagram the cops were constructing while working a case and the diagram that Castle had drawn for the plot of his latest novel. As an author Castle understood that stories do not really work very well without a well-conceived structure for support. When Beckett (whom I keep wanting to call "Sam") sees one of his diagrams, she quickly grasps that his approach to structuring the elements of his narrative is not that different from her approach to structuring evidence in order to hypothesize the explanatory narrative behind a criminal act. Most television stories are so formulaic that everyone knows the structure without having to work out the diagram explicitly. (Most Castle episodes are good examples.) Watching FlashForward I have the uneasy feeling that its creators are making things up as they go along, which would make Jonathan's confusion perfectly understandable. Much as I would like to see how the plot develops, its unfolding is beginning to irritate me. If it descends any further into what is emerging as irresponsible storytelling, I am likely to bail on the whole affair.

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