FROM RIO LIANG: “Novels, say hi to your estranged cousin, the teleplay”

The older I get, the less boundaried I become in terms of what I find to be artistically enriching and/or narratively satisfying.  There was a time when, “blessed” with the gazillion channels from the ether that I used to have at my disposal, I shunned television shows as guilty pleasures.  But no longer!  Perhaps it’s increasingly lowering standards on my part or the heightening of quality in television storytelling, but now I am willing to reintroduce those former black sheeps of writing into the family (Novels, say hi to your estranged cousin, the teleplay).

With that said, I tend to view most everything with a writing rubric; television shows particularly used to frustrate me because I would apply expectations I would have with novels and short stories onto them.  Episodes that seemed to meander from the season’s or the series’s story arc would irk me, and when a particular storyline’s resolution did not seem match or equal the weight of the length of time it took for it to resolve, I would demand back the half-hours I had invested into the show.  I remember this one show called Avonlea, which I used to watch religiously in my youth, and how it lost focus mid-way through its entire run.  I cried during the series finale primarily because it had seemed like such a waste, the five or so years, that I had spent following the uneven show (part of it too was remorse at how bad writers had hijacked such a sentimental staple of my youth).

I had another guilty pleasure in Ally McBeal. Yes, Calista Flockhart grew very annoying (though I do think she deserved an Emmy for her tour-de-force performance in one of my most favorite Ally episodes, “Sideshow”), but the hook for me had always been David E. Kelley’s writing.  I still think of him to this day as a Shakespeare of our time.  Bawdy, witty, genius.  But I soon learned how inconsistency comes with the territory.  Characters fleshed out from the first few seasons disappeared without any notice in subsequent seasons, never to be acknowledged again (try pulling that off in novels).  Of course, the parallel in real life was that the actors playing those characters had been laid off or quit unexpectedly.  Naive teenager that I was, I learned then just how little planning goes into a show’s story arc running through its entirety.  Of course, it’s impossible to plan in advance when you never know your show’s or the show’s actors’ life spans (the cancellation is something novelists and short story writers should be grateful not to have impinging in their world; you can still continue writing your novel regardless of any external forces).  But this contributed even more to my then disdain of television shows.

But no longer!  Again, with age, I am convinced, comes the ability to condition oneself into measured antipathy or to become more laissez-faire when it comes to standards (art is never absolute and so filled with contradictions that to attribute such preciousness to it seems almost ridiculous after a while).  I’ve learned not just to shed snobbery toward the form, but I’ve also learned to throw away the old rubrics and just take in each individual television show episode as they are.  Case in point:  I have never watched ER religiously till this past season, but I’ve grown to love its better sides and look away when a lusterless episode comes along.  (“ER” is a different creature in that I view it largely as a soap opera, and its problem isn’t so much inconsistency I think, but rather the inane in-betweens; in order to get to the explosive episodes, you’ll get some clunkers comprised of transitional details leading to those explosions–and transitions are inherently not all that interesting).  I’ll see after the final episode just how cohesive this season has been, but till then I’m just cherishing the individuality of each good episode.  Some of my favorite episodes this season:

“The Book of Abby” – Abby Lockhart leaves the ER in a subtly emotional way.  She doesn’t die, her storyline doesn’t end in an explosion, she merely just walks away.  And I admire the narrative decision to go that route.

“Heal Thyself” – Dr. Bannfield becomes fleshed out when we learn more about her past, which is told very movingly in flashbacks.  But the kicker for me in this episode is just how wonderfully the writer(s) had woven in Dr. Greene’s and the old ER crew’s cameos into this episode.  Returning characters have been done before in very cliche ways, but this was just so refreshingly done.

“Dream Runner” –

I hated this when I first saw it because I thought it was too derivative, merely paying homage to Donnie Darko (the play on time and the geeky use of the song “Mad World”).  But after rewatching it, I discovered little planted details here and there that I realized I had foregone on my first view (leading me to initially dismiss it).

In any case, my point is that I think sometimes it’s okay to view individual episodes, regardless of how badly they relate to the rest of the season’s episodes or the entire series as a whole, as stand-alones.  I used to think this is somewhat akin to looking for the good chapters in an otherwise bad book, but wake-up call:  This is the realm of television!  New game, new rules.  Get rid of the old rubric!


1 Comment

  1. A wonderful riff on alternative and inspirational sources of narrative! I never consciously thought of deconstructing a single episode. I can barely remember the names of each episode from my favorite shows, but your musings have definitely nudged me to pay more careful attention, and seriously consider TV watching as “Research” (hurrah for guilty pleasures!). One episode from an all time gem, Alias, gleams in my mind. “Page 47” revolves around a dinner party at Sloane’s house in honor of his wife, Emily, whose terminally sick. This dinner scene is CLASSIC, as all dinner scenes should be. Rife with tension and heightened suspense, due to the careful scaffolding of each character’s back story: Sydney as double-agent working her surrogate mother, Emily, so she can steal away from dinner to nick a Rambaldi artifact for the CIA; Will’s secret civilian mission to save Sydney from SD6 and Sloane (he has no idea, at this point in the season, what he’s getting into; not to mention the explosive histories between Sydney and her father, Jack and Sloane’s friendship vs. Jack as double-agent who hates Sloane, his boss, and, of course, the teaser tension between Sydney & Will. The writing for this episode and this particular scene is pure genius, and I’m enthralled every time I see it and consider the painstaking groundwork it took to create such a richly tenuous scene. In this case, its arcs a plenty! Your post has insisted that I take time out to pop in my DVD collection, pop open a bottle of bubbly, and jot careful notes while enjoying a deliciously wonderful guilty pleasure.

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