My favourite still-living music critic, Conrad L. Osborne, wrote these words in 1968 when talking about the famously confusing plot of the opera La Gioconda (most famous for the “Dance of the Hours”). But the words also apply to many other forms of dramatic writing, particularly television. He’s writing about the way a dramatic piece incorporates convention and formula. Every writer has to include certain things that are demanded by convention, whether it’s to keep the audience’s attention at a particular point, or create suspense leading up to an break (whether it’s an intermission in the theatre or a commercial break on TV), or simply to make sure that each major performer gets some showy moments. But the best writing manages to disguise those conventions, or at least make them seem like they’re happening naturally. In writing that falls short of that standard, we can see the formula showing. Here’s what Osborne wrote; emphasis mine:
There is most certainly an aesthetic principle at work in the selection of characters and incidents [in La Gioconda] — though an aesthetic principle which we have come to regard as foreign to serious art. It is, approximately, that the course of a work should be determined by whatever adds up to the most effective sequence of events, rather than by what is organic and necessary to the donees of character and situation. There is a great deal of this in nineteenth-century Italian opera; people show up at the most improbable places and times simply because the theatrically effective thing is to have them show up… Among the things judged essential in this sort of opera is the presence of set numbers and arias — in this case, a major aria for each of six principal singers, plus an extended ballet and several big choral episodes. This means that the elements will again be manipulated in such a way as to provide these things in appropriate proportions and spacings.
This is, it is probably needless to say, also true of works that quite seriously pretend to greatness, the difference being that in such works, the author is at great pains to disguise his “pacing” and “structure,” to make it one with the logical motives and actions of the characters.
In Gioconda, as in many earlier Italian operas, there is hardly any such pretense: now comes a mezzo aria (the tenor leaving the stage for no good purpose other than that of letting her sing it), now comes a Confrontation Duet, etc., etc.
The idea that great works cover their tracks, making it harder to know whether the conventions are at the service of the story or vice-versa, is something that is very applicable to series television, because it’s so formulaic (it has to be, because if there wasn’t a formula it would be impossible to produce 13-22 episodes a season). The great television shows don’t do without formula and sure-fire, tried-and-true devices; they can’t. What they can do is take pains to construct the story in such a way that we get the impression that the events are happening “naturally,” that this scene is here because it absolutely couldn’t be any other way, and not because convention demands it (even though convention often does, in fact, demand it). The writers make it look like the characters are driving the story beats.
Whereas on a lesser show, even a good lesser show, we understand that things are happening just because they always happen; we know that Perry Mason will make the killer break down and confess on the stand at a certain point, or that the A-Team will get locked in a warehouse and construct what they need to break out. Shows like these are not bad, but they’re rightly considered “formula” shows because any viewer can see that the formula drives the story. Shows that aspire to higher things have to trick us into thinking, at least while we watch, that the formula is secondary to the “logical motives and actions of the characters.”
One way to do this is explained, again, by Osborne, writing about two Italian operas that he considers great works of theatre (Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana), again, emphasis mine:
[They] make use of all the formal conventions… carefully breaking them at key points to give the impression that they are not controlling factors.
That’s what a first-rate TV show does too. The writers will try to put the climax at a slightly unexpected moment, or put an actor’s big scene where you might not quite expect it to be. If you analyze a good episode of highly ambitious shows, your Mad Mens or your The Wireseses, you will usually find that many of the “formal conventions” are in place. But they’re mixed up enough, and separated by enough unconventional moments, that they don’t quite look like dramatic conventions or show-offy actor bits or moments of resolution. Disguising the formula means placing the formula points in spots where they seem almost like the way things might actually happen if these people were real.
(Partly cross-posted at Something Old, Nothing New)