A film essayist I very much admire, Rod Heath, tweeted this recently after he had finished watching DEADWOOD. While satisfied and entertained, he felt the need to communicate a deeper frustration with the state of television:
It would take a long time to explain that reaction (might indeed be worth an essay), but some of it can be boiled down to: these shows mistake being busy for being complex, and mannerism for style.
— Roderick Heath (@Roderick_Heath) March 13, 2019
“These shows mistake being busy for complex, and mannerism for style.”
None of this was meant to cast a shadow over the critical and viewer success of DEADWOOD, merely that the laudits surrounding it and many other shows often mistake complicated for complex. It’s been a personal gripe of mine for years.
To elaborate on this, I’ll take two shows that I’ve watched over the years, one already over and one still running. Both shows received, or are receiving, excellent reviews and I personally enjoy both very much. None of this is about me hating or even disliking either of these shows. When I dislike a show, I usually bail somewhere in the first season. That was never the case with these two. I chose them specifically because while I do find them captivating and full of potential, I am, as Rod says, cumulatively disappointed by the busyness of both, a busyness that almost insures that their potential is only spottily realized in between hailstorms of battering complications. But I also chose them because they stand in contrast to each other in how they incorporate the busyness into the story.
The first show has already run its course. MAD MEN ran from 2007 to 2015 and concerned the story of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who in reality was Dick Whitman, a nobody from a seedy background who took a dead lieutenant’s name in combat and conned his way to the top of the advertising world. The story, encompassing a beginning, middle, and end, could be presented as three acts. In Act One, we discover Don is a fraud and he desperately tries to hide this from everyone. In Act Two, he is discovered by a coworker or two, and his wife, and must reevaluate his identity, indeed, his very existence as his personal life crumbles. In Act Three he deals head on with his past and uses this reflection as a jumping off point to a new understanding of himself, as well as a new understanding of the younger generation and how he can con them into becoming soulless consumers.
The problem that MAD MEN encountered was the same problem encountered by virtually every tv show that ever makes it past the pilot: No one knows when it’s going to end. It could be a hit, a bomb, or a network placeholder that gains steam late and stays on another ten years. As such, MAD MEN, again, like most shows, has a one season first act and a one season third act, both surrounding a second act that runs as long as the show is profitable and the lead actors agree to keep resigning their contracts. In this case, that was five seasons. And stretching out a second act five times longer than the surrounding acts is almost always a spectacular way to become aimless, and needlessly complicated, until someone decides to just end the damn thing.
The result for many fans, including this one, was five seasons of watching Don Draper run in place while wondering where any of this was going to land or if, indeed, it ever was. To keep Don running in place until someone decides to remove the breathing tube, the show necessarily focuses on the side characters. Admittedly, if there is a strength and advantage to aimlessly drifting through a second act, this it it. The strength is that the side characters allow for multiple story lines that can expand the viewer’s understanding of the lead character’s environment but only to a certain degree. For instance, we don’t need separate movies for every supporting character in CITIZEN KANE to understand Charles Foster Kane, or separate movies for every character in THE GODFATHER saga to understand Michael Corleone. Yes, showing a bit of them helps but too much side story risks losing sight of the main character.
And for five seasons, MAD MEN lost sight of Don Draper.
There was a mild pleasure in learning practically everything one could hope to know about every other character in the show but, in the end, it didn’t add up to much for Don. In fact, it’s arguable that, by his very nature of keeping people at bay, it literally added up to nothing. But it did keep things going for five seasons. It wasn’t complex, as it didn’t really intertwine with Don’s existential motivations, it was just complicated. And it was complicated with a purpose: Keep everything going until we can figure this out.
None of this impacted the show’s success or critical praise. And it was a very good show so receiving praise wasn’t exactly unexpected but the quality of the praise seemed to exceed the actual merits of the show, or at least, it seemed to willfully ignore all that running in place.
Not every show runs in place for an extended second act. Sometimes, they start complicating everything right from the start. In an effort to avoid second act syndrome, they decide beginnings, middles, and ends are out the window from the get go and turn the show into a series of twists and reveals instead. All of this takes us to the second show of this piece, WESTWORLD.
If ever a show could be described as a live-action puzzle, it’s WESTWORLD. It almost feels odd to outline the story as it feels more like an adventure game with user options than a story but here goes: Taking its very loose inspiration from the Michael Crichton 1973 movie of the same name, WESTWORLD involves a resort where people pay a lot of money to pretend they’re in the old west shooting, drinking, and screwing until their reservation is up. The focus of the “story” is legion: There’s the creator (Anthony Hopkins), his assistant (Jeffrey Wright), multiple game designers and staffers (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Simon Quarterman, Luke Hemsworth, Shannon Woodward), corporate managers (Tessa Thompson), key guests (Ed Harris, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes) , and several robot hosts (Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, James Mardson, Zahn McClarnon) who all share roughly equal story development time as the robot hosts move towards true sentience and the designers move towards understanding their creations have taken on a life of their own.
Focusing on one character alone, say Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who is one of the robotic hosts, would most likely lead to second act syndrome as her character stood frozen in place for a relentless parade of aimless seasons while the writers tried to come up with an adequate climax. This, as discussed above, wouldn’t be ideal for storytelling but it would at least anchor the show to a more dramatic and emotional narrative. Instead, the focus is shared between multiple human and host characters, and there’s a real advantage to eschewing a central character focus, an advantage of which WESTWORLD’s creators are all too aware. That is, the lack of a central lead story allows the show to have self contained seasons. There is no point where anything feels like a second or third act. Let’s look at the show’s first season.
At the start, we see Dolores go about her rote ruminations and actions that have been written into her code as a programmed host. She wakes up, greets her father (another host), goes to paint, heads into town, meets up with an old friend (yet another host), then gets assaulted by a human guest while her friend gets killed. Next morning, she wakes up, and everything starts over.
As we watch her actions, we also observe her being interviewed by a designer (Jeffrey Wright) about who she is, where she is, and, to an extent, what she is. We learn many things from this but above all, we learn that the hosts never hurt anyone or anything unless they are absolutely programmed to do so. Without direct intervention by a designer, they wouldn’t even hurt a fly. Literally. We see flies a number of times in that first episode, flies that walk across the face of a host, even across a host’s eyeball, without the host even taking notice. Until the last shot, when a fly lights on Dolores’ face and she smacks it dead. That simple act is as impactful as any pilot episode conclusion in recent memory, because the show has taken such care, in the very first episode(!), to communicate to the viewer the lack of free will among hosts, that it feels earth shattering. If you can make the act of a character swatting a fly dead that momentous, you’re doing something right.
As the first season progresses, and we learn about the creator, the designers, and the hosts’ growing self-awareness, we wind our way to a climax in which the hosts interrupt a corporate celebration with violence against their creator. They go from squashing a fly to full murderous rebellion. They are now sentient individuals, writing their own story.
At this point, the show could have ended.
We have reached a conclusion of sorts because the show’s creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, have given us a beginning, middle, and end, in the first season alone. They repeated that feat in the second season. The second season continued the story of the first but also felt completely self contained and, again, when it ended and the hosts had fled to both another realm of existence as well as off the resort island, it felt like an adequate end to the series. That is to say, with each season, Nolan and Joy, make sure all three acts are covered in a way that leaves open room for a new season but also so contains its own puzzle solution as to leave the viewer fully satisfied that everything has been wrapped up.
But, for a moment, let’s go back to that first episode. That first episode could, in and of itself, be a self-contained story. It could be a movie that ends with Dolores smacking that fly, letting us know things are about to change. Each episode works like that. It’s not just the seasons that are self-contained, it’s practically each episode. Despite that, it is not reminiscent of the self-contained styles of most procedural dramas or sci-fi shows like STAR TREK. Each episode does lead to the next and a cumulative story throughout the season builds. And yet, none of it feels complex as much as it feels complicated, designed like a game for viewers who enjoy a puzzle.
Of the two shows discussed here, WESTWORLD is the least concerned with emotional resonance and yet the most successful, by far, in what it achieves. While other shows complicate in the hopes of persuading the viewer of complexity, WESTWORLD throws off the pretense and openly admits it’s all about the complications. Their stated goal could easily be “We will make each season a puzzle, with a solution at the end, that will allow us to keep this game going for as long as you’re willing to play.”
So what does all of this add up to? Well, that’s the problem. It all adds up to nothing very much. Both shows entertain but rarely resonate . The side stories and separate character arcs lead to a lot of busyness but not to a lot of depth. But maybe the problem is that serialized storytelling isn’t supposed to resonate. Maybe the problem isn’t with the shows at all but with the reactions to these shows that cast them as great narratives when we should be praising them for being great entertainments that harken back to the serializations of the thirties where each week a new short ran at the local theater and ended with a cliffhanger. There’s nothing wrong with that, and WESTWORLD, at least, seems to get it. And lately, it seems like others have been getting it too.
In the last few years, more Limited Series have been created than ever before. Series where they actually do know how long the show will run before they even start. HBO’s VICE PRINCIPALS was a two season show that was planned out as a two season show by Danny McBride from the start. As such, there was no running in place. Netflix’s RUSSIAN DOLL went the same route but even more efficiently. It had one season, and told the story from beginning to end in a mere eight episodes. Unsurprisingly, it was one of the highest praised shows of the last decade and a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that it knew where it was going from the get-go. Natasha Lyonne’s character, who finds herself constantly dying and waking back up at the same party to start over, didn’t use this as a first season, only to have her wander around trying to figure it out for the next seven years until the audience dwindled and they finally pull the plug.
Television is still adjusting to the newfound plethora of outlets at its disposal and all the new rules for watching, sharing, binging, and analyzing. But hopefully, that learning will lead to more single season, two season, or three season shows and a lot fewer treadmill shows that exhaust the viewer long before the characters even work up a sweat.