Sentimental Narratives

There’s been much said in recent times about the rise of 'binge-watching', a by-product of streaming and the Netflixisation of viewing habits. Lately the debate has been dominated by the inevitable backlash against the phenomenon. Damon Lindelof, never shy to express his opinions, recently came out against the habit, imploring viewers to watch his current show in the traditional manner, one episode per week, in order to savour it. While the convenience of having hit TV shows practically on tap has certainly had an impact on my own viewing habits, I do try to savour the experience by restricting myself to one episode of a series per weeknight, which technically isn't binge-watching, it's more of a happy medium. Let’s call it binge-savouring.

Curiously, I’ve found that watching shows in this compressed manner really forces me to be more objective about the overall direction of a show, to see the macro as well as the micro. For instance, I recently discovered Parks and Recreation. (I’m unfashionably late, I know. But thanks to Amazon Prime, I’m over halfway through the fourth season and increasingly of the opinion that it may be the best sitcom ever.) Season 1 was a short season - only six episodes - and was noticeably edgier than subsequent seasons and almost uncomfortable to watch with the benefit of hindsight. It seemed to capture the average American's antipathy towards government whilst naively failing to anticipate how this would soon lead to the rise of Trumpism. I experience similar discomfort rewatching pre-9/11 movies.

Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate

Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate

Season 2 onwards is a much more palatable affair, a clear product of its time - the Obama years - and it’s obvious the intention was to make the characters more tolerant and likeable. Fortunately, the quality of the writing and casting is so good that it works. At least until lately when I’ve begun to notice an unwelcome softening of the two edgiest and arguably best characters. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) are the latest in a fine tradition of diabolical double-acts, from Lord Henry & Dorian Gray to the Underwoods. You root for them because they're smart and don't suffer fools - there's vicarious thrills to be had in their aloof refusal to conform to social norms. This brought to mind other shows I’d recently ‘binge-savoured’ that also imposed a sentimental softening on ball-breaking characters: Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager and Kara Thrace in Battlestar Galactica.

Of course, American entertainment is awash with sentimentality. Indeed, it’s been said that sentimentality is a major aspect of the American temperament (that and ruthlessness - a potent mix). In contrast, the best British shows are much less likely to make this mistake. Fawlty Towers, Peep Show and The Thick of It didn't and Blackadder merely hinted at a hitherto unseen sensitive side in the final scene of the final episode but given the supreme pathos of the situation it felt pitch perfect. Unfortunately, the later episodes of The Office succumbed to mawkishness and perhaps that’s part of the reason the Americans went for it. Generally, we Brits are suspicious of sentimentality, although to be fair British shows typically have far fewer episodes than their American counterparts and this is probably significant.

Blackadder Goes Forth

Blackadder Goes Forth

Ultimately, watching shows like Star Trek and Parks and Rec has really thrown into sharp relief what may be a key disadvantage to the traditional US television format in which long seasons are broadcast weekly whilst still in their development and production stages, unlike the new model of 'dumping' shorter seasons in one go, which spawned the binge-watching culture. The old school method is a gruelling treadmill for the staff; barrels get scraped, continuity is compromised and the line between actor and character becomes blurred. For something like Parks and Rec, where the dramatic stakes are relatively low, some narrative looseness is acceptable, even advantageous. But although popular characters can certainly grow, their essential integrity mustn’t be compromised. While it may not be quite on the same scale of creative entropy as jumping the shark, a product of desperation as opposed to success, it's effectively a bit like jumping the shark by stealth.

This year sees the welcome return of two iconic TV shows. The first season of Star Trek: Discovery will consist of one block of 13 episodes with a serialised arc, rather than the typical 26 episodic format. I’ve just completed a two year stint of watching every series of Star Trek to date (bar Enterprise), comprising 24 long seasons in total, and the quality is plainly inconsistent. Granted, it’s a notoriously tough show to write for. But a major reason for its enduring success is the strength of the characters.

Now, a major character who is odd-looking and emotionally stoic is practically inviting pressure to be softened, to make him or her more ‘likeable’. Yet Spock was popular precisely because he was odd-looking and emotionally stoic. Suddenly the nerds had a hero. That wasn't the original intention, it was Captain Kirk who was the hero. At first, Spock's cold logic was used for exposition and as a dramatic device by which to illustrate the superiority of Kirk's more 'human' approach to problem solving. Gradually, over the course of the original series his character was enriched without ever being compromised - even during the campy third season - which is a credit to the integrity of the writers and the late Leonard Nimoy. By the time Star Trek reached the big screen, Spock's character arc reached its zenith when he saved the day as a result of his stoic commitment to logic in the face of certain death. The devastated reaction of his grieving friend provided all the sentiment the moment called for.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Twin Peaks, on the other hand, despite its paradigm shifting impact on television, was always watchable but only truly great when David Lynch was in the director's chair. Its second season suffered greatly in his absence after he absconded to make Wild at Heart. He did eventually return to salvage the final episode but it was too late to save the series; entropy and sentimentality had set in - Major Briggs being a particularly egregious example of character softening - the ratings declined and the show was cancelled. Thankfully, this time around, Lynch has co-written (with Mark Frost) and directed all 18 episodes, so we can likely expect a more coherent vision (or at least as coherent as Lynch can be). Although, personally, I'll probably be happy just to hang out in the red room again and luxuriate in Angelo Badalamenti's music. 

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

It's natural to be nostalgic for the TV rituals of our youth, back when we had to wait a whole week until the next episode of our favourite shows, in an endless cycle of anticipation, savouring, and dissecting. But maybe binge-watching has its advantages too. The small screen has a bigger picture now; it's more likely that sentiment is earned and great characters never lose their edge.