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The SALLY FORTH Dude Analyzes Television


 
Via http://justtv.wordpress.com/ Jason Mittell, the pathetic milquetoast husband from Sally Forth (yes, it’s still being published) had a pretty decent take on how television has changed:
It’s not a completely accurate take, I think. Because while Milquetoast’s description of older TV is accurate — it was reset-button, no-consequences TV, where no episode had an effect on what happened in any other episode — I don’t agree with the description of it as TV for people who wanted to watch, rather than remember. The old aesthetic of totally self-contained television (which still exists, of course, especially with the animated comedies like Simpsons and Family Guy) produced shows that were just as memorable as serialized shows. The difference has to do with what we remembered.
If a show has self-contained episodes and each episode follows more or less the same formula, then it’s difficult to remember individual stories. What we remember instead are moments. We recall individual scenes, lines and catchphrases often without reference to the episodes they’re from, and without necessarily recalling what led up to those moments. Of course they wouldn’t have been as memorable if there hadn’t been a story leading up to them, but once the story has allowed the scene/line to make its impact, it can often fade from the memory.

Via Jason Mittell, the milquetoast husband from Sally Forth (yes, it’s still being published) had a pretty decent take on how television has changed in the last 10+ years:
Sally_Forth

It’s not a completely accurate take, I think. Because while Milquetoast’s description of older TV is accurate — it was reset-button, no-consequences TV, where no episode had an effect on what happened in any other episode — I don’t agree with the description of it as TV for people who wanted to watch, rather than remember. The old aesthetic of totally self-contained television (which still exists, of course, especially with the animated comedies like Simpsons and Family Guy) produced shows that were just as memorable as serialized shows. The difference has to do with what we remembered.

If a show has self-contained episodes and each episode follows more or less the same formula, then it’s difficult to remember individual stories. What we remember instead are moments. We recall individual scenes, lines and catchphrases often without reference to the episodes they’re from, and without necessarily recalling what led up to those moments. Of course they wouldn’t have been as memorable if there hadn’t been a story leading up to them, but once the story has allowed the scene/line to make its impact, it can often fade from the memory.  The example I like to bring up is Star Trek. I don’t know about you, but many of the lines and scenes that stick in my head from the original Star Trek are there without reference to the actual plot of the episode; there are lines I remember to this day without knowing what the story was. Sitcoms are famous for making their biggest impact with scenes that are like little self-contained comedy sketches; they derive their comic effectiveness from the minutes leading up to them, but what people remember thereafter is just the big scene itself. (Robin’s music video on How I Met Your Mother and Sheldon hugging Penny on The Big Bang Theory are two examples of scenes that are more famous than the stories that enabled them.) This is also true of totally self-contained works like movies; almost any important movie has certain scenes or images that stand out in the memory, and some filmmakers have said that audiences remember scenes, not plots.

Now, serials want us to remember individual scenes and lines too.  But they also want us to remember storylines. They want this because we’re supposed to care about what happens next, meaning we need to remember what happened before. Instead of just talking about something that happened last night, they leave us talking about what might happened next or where the characters are, emotionally and in terms of the plot, at a specific point in the season. That doesn’t mean that these shows don’t have great scenes and lines (Vic’s big confession speech on The Shield is just one of many examples), but that the most memorable things about them are not always related to specific scenes. To use another example from the past, everybody was talking about “Who Shot J.R.?” But the scene where J.R. was shot was not a particularly great scene; it was, in fact, a scene that could be and had been done on many other soaps (dude gets shot by unseen assailant, falls down). Lost, at least to me, is a show that is more notable for its plot twists and surprises than for individual self-contained set-pieces, and that’s not a criticism. In a serial, the plot twist is sometimes more important than the scene where the twist is revealed; we may remember the story more than we do the scene, just as on The Simpsons we often remember scenes without reference to the story.

Part of my own ambiguous attitude to serials is that I think they can sometimes privilege plot mechanics over the creation of individual moments, the sort of things that make films and TV shows live for us (movies, again, frequently survive based on moments and scenes as opposed to plot). There has to be a balance, of course, but there are some shows like Heroes and Chuck that (to me, and this is purely personal taste) are too busy with plot twists to deliver the action set-pieces and arresting individual ideas that their subject matter seems to call for. But that’s not to say that a show should be judged on how many scenes we can remember after the plot has been forgotten. Just that that is one of the ways we can remember a television episode or even a whole series: moments, character quirks, chases, stunts, jokes, and, of course, the scene where Kirk causes a computer to self-destruct. Which episode was that again?


 
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The SALLY FORTH Dude Analyzes Television

  1. I agree, Jaime – the importance of memorable moments is crucial in both serialized and episode series. But one key difference is that on serialized shows, we know that the characters remember those moments as well. On a classic show like I Love Lucy, does Lucy remember doing the Vitameategimin ad? Does Mary Richards remember laughing at Chuckles's funeral? Whereas we know that George remembers winning The Contest…

    (FYI, the comic was emailed to me by a friend in reaction to my essay on serialized memory, in case you or your readers are interested.)

  2. Mentioning Chuck and Heroes in the same breath? Chuck is an incredibly well put together show that makes for the most entertaining hour of my week, and I think it consistently delivers great action (it has some of the best chases and fight scenes I've seen recently on television). Heroes on the other hand is a train wreck of a show where the action is terrible and the writing is worse. I generally agree with your tv-related opinions, but I have to say I think Chuck deserves a lot more credit.

  3. Another great example of a current show where the "I remember the scene, but not the episode" rule applies is Law & Order. After seeing umpteen thousand episodes of the show, it's often about halfway through an episode that I suddenly remember seeing it before, not because the plot was memorable, but because of some scene or guest star that I suddenly remember. Even then, I might only barely remember what happens with the rest of the show.

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