Readers of this blog (I trust I’m not being quixotically presumptuous by my use of the plural form) have come to expect in-depth, long-form essays here, but today I’d like to try something different: I thought I’d offer brief commentary on three unrelated pop-cultural developments that are directly relevant to articles I posted this past summer.
In my analysis of the first season of How to Get Away with Murder, I concluded by asserting that series creator Peter Nowalk left himself little choice but to reconfigure protagonist Annalise Keating’s psychological profile (yet again) on account of how carelessly he exhausted her backstory in the initial fifteen-episode run. And, boy, he did not waste any time proving me correct.
Right in the season premiere, we learned (via one of several clunky pieces of exposition) that Annalise has a “wild-child” side (who knew?), and later we saw her partying the night away under the strobe lights of a dance club—with her students, no less!
No, sorry—that doesn’t play. Here’s why: It is a complete violation of one of her core traits (and a defense mechanism, at that)—“publicly composed and guarded.”
Now, I can certainly appreciate how a character that refuses to allow herself to be emotionally vulnerable in public would need an expressional outlet, but that would be indulged privately and anonymously, not in the presence of the very professional associations for whom the protective façade is intended. Take, for instance, Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation: Ron is a man’s man—intensely private, stoic to a T—who prides himself on his disdain for sentimentality and professes (quite falsely, it turns out) his disinterest in the personal lives of his colleagues. Yet Ron secretly moonlights as an accomplished jazz saxophonist, with several albums and a fervent club following. Jazz! There is perhaps no musical genre more driven by feeling, by emotional improvisation—the very things he claims to scorn! But, he performs only under pseudonym, and at venues far from his hometown of Pawnee. Because a character that goes to such lengths to protect himself from emotional exposure isn’t going to suddenly and openly cut loose in front of those he perceives most capable of hurting him (inadvertently or otherwise). Asking us to believe that Annalise is a latent clubber is a stretch in and of itself, but that she would unveil that side of herself to her law students is utterly incompatible with the character as previously established.
But Nowalk wasn’t finished. We also discovered that—wait for it—Annalise is bisexual! Oh, boy. I won’t suggest this revelation, like the “party girl” thing, is constitutionally contradictory, but it is certainly indicative of the kitchen-sink approach the creators of Murder have taken with this increasingly preposterous series. The show’s “twists,” such as they are, are motivated purely by shock value—entirely manipulative, not remotely causal. When Frank Underwood’s bisexuality was divulged midway through the first season of House of Cards, it was more enlightening than it was shocking—as though a piece of a puzzle we couldn’t quite put our finger on up till that point had finally clicked into place. It made a certain sense, given how loyal he and his wife Claire were to one another, yet how oddly asexual their marriage often seemed.
There was no such foreshadowing on Murder. And it isn’t the bisexuality that bothers me (live and let live, I say), but rather, in this instance, the stink of desperation on it—to be edgy, to be culturally relevant. It’s a deeply misguided attempt to be “real,” even more so in light of how glossy and over-the-top this silly show otherwise is. Because once again I’ve been hearing Viola Davis on the publicity trail insisting that the aspiration for Annalise is to render her as “messy”—as real—as possible. Well, let me be the first to offer proper congratulations: She’s a conceptual mess. (And fictional characters aren’t real people—they don’t have all the layers and irreconcilable contradictions of an actual person; they are limited to five dependable traits as I’ve repeatedly demonstrated.) One can’t keep recalibrating a protagonist on the fly like Nowalk has; consider how remarkably consistent—and yet consistently surprising—Jack Bauer remained through nine seasons of 24 (the most recent of which occurred after a four-year hiatus in which the writers could have very plausibly amended his backstory to allow for a different trait or two to have developed, as Stallone did in the belated fourth Rambo film, yet chose instead to bring back the character exactly as we remembered him). It was the singular, incongruous grouping of Jack’s traits that kept him fresh year after year, through crisis after crisis; the plot twists on 24 were often shocking, but Jack’s actions and worldview remained steadfast. A writer sets behavioral parameters for his characters (through a unique and creatively fertile arrangement of traits for each one) and then tasks himself with finding new permutations of those defined behaviors through new turns of plot: Unprecedented and unforeseen challenges force creative—but characteristic—responses from Frank Underwood, Jack Bauer, Olivia Pope, and so on. That’s the fun of following the exploits of a serialized hero! What you don’t do is alter a character’s essential composition out of the blue in order to suggest new plot possibilities—that’s the cart leading the horse, otherwise known from here on out at the Murder Method.
I mean, I’m glad Davis won the Emmy—because I specifically praised the strength of her performance this past May, and the recognition is an overdue referendum on the need for greater diversity in our popular arts and entertainment—I only wish it had been for a more deserving show (and Nowalk will likely only feel more empowered now to pursue his anything-goes creative policy). I know I’d expressly said in the previous post that I wouldn’t continue watching, I was only curious to see where Nowalk would take the series—and its overwrought hero—in the second season after blowing his wad on the first go-round. Now that I know, however, I can assuredly say, “This is where I leave you.”
Fear the Walking Dead and Heroes Reborn—both follow-ups to popular postnarrative television series—got off to something of a rocky creative start. Each could certainly be the subject of its own analysis in that capacity, but let me see if I can shed light on one common problem as it relates to postnarrativity in particular.
As we discussed this past June, the latest permutation of postnarrative storytelling are these sprawling ensemble series that have no real beginning and certainly no end—they exist in a state of presentist perpetuity only. They aren’t about value extraction (i.e., a moral to the story) so much as pattern recognition (trying to figure out what is going on, what connects with what, at any given moment); they are not about creating resolutions but rather keeping the adventure alive for as long as—and with as many plot threads going—as possible. They are only about enjoying the world of the fiction in the moment; they are not building to a cathartic conclusion like a classically structured hero’s journey.
So, in forcing myself to ascertain why—and how—Fear and Reborn came up short creatively (although, let’s face it: the original Heroes fell apart after its first season and never again found its footing, so this revival doesn’t exactly stand on the shoulders of a pop-cultural giant as 24: Live Another Day and the forthcoming X-Files event series do), I came to recognize something about postnarrativity that is perhaps a step in the direction of eventual codification of the form: Even though we’re asked to follow many characters across several (often tangentially) related adventures, we’re always brought into the world of the fiction through the eyes of one character with whom we identify. Consider: The Walking Dead (Rick Grimes); Game of Thrones (Ned Stark); Lost (Jack Shephard); The Sopranos (Tony Soprano); Once Upon a Time (Emma Swan); Orphan Black (Sarah Manning); the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Tony Stark). Only once we were rooting for those protagonists did we begin to meet—and follow the stories of—other characters in their worlds. Where FTWD and Heroes Reborn have failed is they tried throw too much at us, too soon, without properly establishing empathy for an “anchor” character—an audience surrogate. Both shows thought that by pitching umpteen plots/characters at us right off the bat, we’d be swept up into the story so quickly we wouldn’t have time to breathe—but that’s exactly the problem: We weren’t given sufficient opportunity to get our bearing in their expansive worlds before all hell broke loose. Take note, purveyors of the postnarrative: Intimacy is the doorway into world-building.
Related observation: If you stuck around after the season finale of Fear to watch the roundtable discussion on Talking Dead, you may have noticed how much time was spent considering, “Who’s the Rick of Fear? Who’s the Shane?” That’s what we mean when we talk about how postnarrativity is all about pattern recognition—connecting dots and finding analogs between the parallel plotlines is the whole point of the exercise (Do you think so-and-so are Jon Snow’s real parents? Who do you suspect fed the walkers those rats outside the prison fence? What do the numbers on the hatch mean?), rather than concluding an episode or a season or even a series with any kind of moral or fulfilled objective. It’s the difference between Gilligan’s Island (where the goal was to get off the island) versus Lost (which was only about figuring out the enigma du jour); it’s the difference between Law & Order (which was about relying upon public institutions, such as the police and the courts, to restore a disrupted social value—justice) versus CSI (which was strictly about using science and technology to match this carpet fiber to that sneaker, etc.; that a killer was arrested as a result was entirely incidental). Since the initial study on postnarrativity was published, I have had many conversations, both online and off, on the subject, and have done a lot more thinking about it in the intervening months. The premium on pattern recognition, as I hope I’ve better illustrated here, is one of the key differences between the classic Aristotelian story arc and the postnarrative form.
Lastly, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Twilight (which I recently took to task for its disregard for formal Buddy Love narrative conventions), author Stephenie Meyer has just released a companion novel entitled Life and Death, which “reimagines” (per the book jacket below) the story of the first novel with virtually all of the gender roles reversed.
Look, here’s the thing: Telling stories is about making choices. Details aren’t arbitrary. Names, places, genders, seasons—all of those elements have meaning; all of them inform the experience of the narrative in ways conscious and subconscious. The presence or absence of a Y chromosome does impact one’s perspective on and response to a given matter. So, when you swap the sexes of your leads in a love story while the plot itself remains reportedly unchanged—and, to be perfectly fair, I have not read this new book—what you’re essentially saying is, “Oh, yeah—this would’ve been the same story had I substituted this for that, or that for some other thing.” You devalue the story—and the artistry that went into its creation—by exposing its architectural design as nothing more than a series of whimsical choices ungoverned by causality or characterization. I’ve been critical of the storytelling in Twilight—as have others—and I suspect Life and Death will only further illuminate its shortcomings. (Lousy, generic title, too.) I very much doubt Meyer has done herself—or the legacy of her creation—any favors with this slapdash tie-in.
Has anyone had a chance to watch Fear the Walking Dead (I finished out the season), Heroes Reborn (bailed after the first horrendous episode), or the new season of How to Get Away with Murder? Have any of you perhaps read Life and Death? I’d love hear your thoughts: Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have a different take altogether? I’m curious to get other reactions on any or all of the above…