Most of my peers will tell you they find my personal taste in pop culture somewhat suspect. I tend to prefer the classics and old movies over today’s fare. I love “Veronica Mars” exponentially more than “The Wire”. And I think “Empire Strikes Back” is far and away the worst of the first trio of Star Wars movies.
That last one is unusual, I realize. This flick is easily the most lauded of the bunch while my favorite, the Ewok bonanza that is “The Return of the Jedi”, is cited as the weak link. Here is my personal beef with Empire–the in media res-ness of it all precludes me for citing it as a good singular film, because it is so reliant on New Hope and Jedi to be successful. I feel the same way about the middle Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers. It is easily my least favorite and it is mostly because I can’t fully appreciate it without seeing the film that came before it and the film that comes after it.
I hate books split in two, like the final Harry Potter films. If we can cram “Gone with the Wind” and the New Testament into a singular film, we can do the same with a young adult novel. To me, this inability to contain a singular story in a singular text means you probably should have opted to make a miniseries instead of a movie.
I realize Star Wars is a tribute to the serials of the Golden Age of cinema where the standard means to view movies was to go once a week, seeing installment after installment. I wish we had short films and serials so we don’t have to see the hoardes of bloated children’s books that can be read in eight minutes blown into two hour films. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way the movies work anymore, save for the occasional shorts before Disney and Pixar films.
So, one of my beefs with movies today is this insistence on serializing everything. I am willing to make the occasional concession for certain event pictures like LOTR or Harry Potter flicks that can manage one book in a single movie.
These days though, I feel like everything I try to watch is so serialized that, unless I am willing to fully commit from the jump to a very close reading of all the texts as a singular entity, I am not going to get a lot of enjoyment out of it.
Which brings me to “The Hobbit”. Blame ego or capitalism, but somehow Warner Brothers greenlit a project that extends a 320-page book into three films each likely running nearly three hours in length. In order to do this, helmer Peter Jackson went to the appendices and a less popular tome, The Simarillion, to add things to the films. The kinds of things only hard core Tolkien fans even bothered to read.
I took my ten-year-old nephew with me to see the first installment of “The Hobbit”, thinking it might be a good way to get him into the mythology so I can eventually introduce him to the movies or the LOTR book trilogy.
Instead, I spent almost three hours getting the death stare from the kid, as he was bored out of his mind. Hell, I was bored too. The difference was, I had a clue what was going on. My nephew went into the film blind and, as a result, he stumbled through the entire thing. There was an extended sequence where Gandalf confers with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Sarumon (Christopher Lee). All of them were characters in the LOTR trilogy and we were given some clue who they were in “The Hobbit”, but the kid didn’t really get what they were talking about at all because he hadn’t seen the other movies.
Let me reiterate that, chronologically speaking, what happens in LOTR happens after the story that transpires in “The Hobbit”. So please explain to me why it is necessary for my nephew to watch almost nine hours of plot that hasn’t even happened yet in order to understand the standalone novel for children?
This isn’t a complaint specific to “The Hobbit”. We are at a cultural point where “nerd” aesthetic prevails. "The Hobbit" is a blockbuster designed for uberfans with less than subtle winks, nods, and hat tips to the other texts in the Tolkien oeuvre and, in order to really get the intended level of enjoyment from any singular piece, you have to commit to watch everything.
A few years back, my cousins talked me into seeing “Spiderman 2” one summer. I haven’t read Spiderman comics, nor did I have any interest in seeing the original. I thought, “This is a comic book movie designed to appeal to the masses, how complicated can it be?”
Call me an idiot, but I was completely lost the entire time. I would constantly lean over and ask questions like, “Why is Spiderman’s friend out to get Spiderman?” As an audience member, the expectation was I should have done my homework before going to the movie. The only point of entry was to start at the beginning.
It is a problem we frequent;y encounter with the programs from the so-called “Golden Age of Television”. You can’t start “The Wire” five episodes in. And if you don’t closely watch all of the episodes in chronological order, you are not going to enjoy the episodes much at all.
It is to the point where I am resistant to even jump into a show like “Modern Family” midstream for fear I’ll be too behind to enjoy it. Whenever I recommend a show to friends, the first question is almost always, “I have to start from the beginning, huh?”
This is a new phenomenon. We never used to say, “Oh ‘Full House’ is great, but you really need to start from the beginning to see how Michelle develops as a character.”
“The Wire” creator David Simon even went so far as to say he disliked television recappers because it would be unfair to judge his show “Treme” only by its parts and not its whole season.
Um, David Simon, you’re cool and all, but no. I judge television by the episode, I judge movies and plays by the acts, and I judge albums by the song. If too many pieces of the puzzle suck, I’m not sticking around to put the rest of it together.
And this is where I keep running into trouble. There are several shows and texts I have a passing interest in. I don’t want to fully commit to reading all 100%, I am mostly looking for a pamphlet or a newsletter to give me an idea of how this show is going to be.
Instead, I am faced with a decision “Do I want to spend 30-40 hours effectively majoring in "Mad Men” or not?“ The shows I am so drawn to that I am willing to make a commitment like that are few and far between, yet most every "great” show on TV these days requires that level of viewership to really enjoy. But if there were a means of engaging with these shows on a more passive level that doesn’t privilege this extremely close reading to the point that casual viewership is not a possibility at all, I would be down.
I didn’t used to think “The Dick Van Dyke” show was one of the top three television programs ever created. I used to be a casual viewer who caught an episode or two on Nick at Nite in my youth and guffawed once or twice a show. As I grew older, I started taking in more of the program, watching it chronologically, and I found I enjoyed it on an entirely new level. The film and TV scholar in me saw how progressive and innovative the program was for its time, appreciated how the characters developed, and gave the show a much closer reading than before.
Now, I hold this show up as the paradigm of what great television is–something that works on the micro level of entertaining single episodes and the macro level of extending themes and developing character and story arcs along stretches of several weeks’ worth of shows. It is why I will always say shows like “Lost” and “The Wire” are good, but not great. Great shows have points of entry beyond Episode 1. Great functions on multiple levels for a wide array of viewers. Great does not make you wait ten weeks to appreciate what you are watching right now.
Like I said, there is a place for serialization in modern media. But there should be a place for shows that are incredibly well-written and not heavily serialized as well. Serialization is not a requirement to make good television. This so-called Golden Age may make you think otherwise, but there are plenty of times where dragging things out and forcing people to take in something in its entirety versus picking and choosing pieces means you are leaving people out in the cold altogether.