Three shows I’ve come to enjoy in the past few years–Vikings, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black–are all in their third season this year. And so far, all three of them have proven to be disappointments. I’m only a few episodes into each, but the fact that I’m writing this blog post instead of sitting glued to my screen should tell you something about how I feel about them.
I feel a bit embarrassed even writing about television shows. Shouldn’t I be writing about books? Well, I suppose I should, but the exciting stuff in storytelling is not happening for me on the printed page these days. That’s a whole other topic I’m not going to touch right now. I am no longer the bookish purist I was twenty years ago. I’m interested in what’s new and exciting, whatever that happens to be. There is, or was, some really excellent storytelling going on in all three of these shows. I’m a sucker for a great story. And I’m merciless when I feel I’ve been duped.
All three shows are falling flat for me this year. The reason in each case is the same: not enough conflict. This is the same reason for which stories have been failing ever since the time of Aristotle, so there’s nothing new here. The only thing that’s different is that it seems there are fewer and fewer people who are capable of realizing this crucial fact. That’s a separate problem–when it comes to visual storytelling, as in the publishing world these days, the MBAs are running the asylum. Real art has less and less of a chance every year, because the real artists–the writers, editors, and publishers with strong artistic backgrounds, deeply-rooted critical abilities, and other fine sensitivities who helped shape our literary culture over the last few centuries–are being shunted to the side in favor of hard-nosed business types.
These are the people who don’t know enough to realize when a story has run its course. They don’t care a whit about that. They really just want to squeeze every dollar out of it that they can.
In each of these three cases, the show was interesting because it featured a sympathetic character in an impossible situation, striving towards a huge goal. (By “sympathetic”, I don’t mean likeable. I mean we can feel what this person is feeling. I wrote at some length about the meaning of the word sympathy in my e-book, Writing for First-Time Novelists, which you can download for free.)
In House of Cards, it’s Francis Underwood’s ambition for ultimate power that hooked me. What wouldn’t he do? Very little. The same is mostly true of Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings. In Orange is the New Black, Piper Chapman is an upper-middle-class woman from New York, a type of person I’ve met hundreds of, who suddenly finds herself in a women’s prison for a youthful indiscretion committed a decade earlier, and who must somehow find a way to survive.
All three of these shows were gripping at the beginning. I couldn’t stop watching them. I ignored my wife and children. I stopped writing. I was hooked.
But not any more. The reason is that the conflict has largely been removed, because they’ve all gotten what they wanted. Francis Underwood is the president. Ragnar Lothbrok is the earl. Piper Chapman has prison figured out, and is really just one more con. The thing that made these shows so interesting has been replaced by a lower-level intrigue that only diehard fans of the characters themselves will appreciate.
“But the characters!” true believers will screech. “I love the characters! They’re so interesting!”
Yes. They are interesting. But interesting characters are not enough to keep a story moving forward. They never have been, and they never will be. They need to be engaged in conflict. We can’t just see them existing in their little ecosystem, like goldfish swimming around and around in their bowl. That’s when it stops being about art and starts being about entertainment. And I can only be entertained by a goldfish for so long.
Personally, I am not particularly interested in what happens once a person has become entrenched in the corridors of power. Nor am I really interested in the very gritty details of life in a women’s prison, as creepily amazing as they are. It’s just a soap opera at that point. There may be pathos and drama, but it’s all manufactured for the sake of my entertainment. Pretty goldfish, swimming in ever-more-complicated circles. That’s all it is.
Writers of books like me have long been worried that more exciting media like movies and TV will replace them. For the most part, they have. The situation has only become worse now that people don’t even have to leave their homes to see great movies or shows. Sometimes they don’t even have to pay for them. How can you compete with that?
It’s not easy. But there is one way old-fashioned writers like myself still can compete, and that is simply by continuing to hone our mastery of the storytelling craft. I don’t attempt to spin my novels out for season after season, after all. Their endings are just as important as their beginnings and middles.
This may be one more fundamental difference between screenwriting and literary fiction–we don’t try to stave off the inevitable as long as possible, hoping for funding for another season. Maybe it’s better to have had funding and lost it than never to have been funded at all. In fact, I’m sure it is. But the writers of these shows need to recognize what’s going on here and do something about it, or they’re going to be looking for new funding sooner than they realize.