Monday Morning Critic: What ‘Mockingjay’ Has To Do With the Future of Television
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: what the cinematic version of ‘The Hunger Games’ has to do with the future of television.
‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’ is currently number one at the box office right now, but it’s not without controversy. As ScreenCrush’s own Matt Singer pointed out a few days ago, the splitting up of franchise films has led to financial success but often creative disaster for those franchises. Splitting up the novel ‘Mockingjay’ only makes sense from a fiscal perspective: Why make people only buy one ticket/DVD when they can pay for two? And since fans of these franchises almost inevitably line up despite grumbling about the double dipping, there’s no reason studios will stop doing this anytime soon. The possibility of “Star Wars: Episode 9: Chapter 3: Verse 4” isn’t as far-fetched as we would like.
What does any of this have to do with television? Well, it’s interesting to see how film franchises are taking a page of the worst tendencies in serialized television in order to maximize profits. To be fair, let’s state this obvious caveat right up front: Television is not film is not television. Both have unique strengths and weaknesses, and while I obviously have more of an affinity for the small-screen than the big screen, that doesn’t mean that I think it’s inherently better. Still, it’s interesting to see a problem once uniquely belonging to TV suddenly so widespread in film: namely, the tendency for franchises to stall off their inevitable endings far past their logical expiration date.
Now, to be sure, there’s a difference between making someone pay for multiple films of ‘Mockingjay’ versus several seasons of a show like ‘Dexter.’ But those differences are fairly cosmetic when you look under the hood. Networks like Showtime rely on subscription models in order to pay for its programming, and it’s in their interest to maintain a subscription base that primarily signs up for a show like ‘Dexter’ for as long as possible. That meant taking a once interesting, vital show and draining it (and the audience) of all vitality over the course of nearly a decade. Yes, ‘Dexter’ fans grumbled on message boards and comments sections, but they still watched until the last, lumberjack-fueled moments.
The downside of the golden age of television is that few shows are in total control over their lifespan, yet audiences unfairly expect the program to “stick the landing” as part of the unspoken contract of watching said program. And that’s just unfair. Shows with a five-year plan might get cut short due to low-ratings, and small shows with small goals get turned into unlikely behemoths that need to create content far past their initial visions. Throw in the fact that even the best-laid plans are at the mercy of the television machine, and you get a vast majority of shows simply making it up as they go along forced to undergo the scrutiny of an audience that is now trained to expect complete narratives from a medium that systematically rejects such tidiness.
But if it’s unfair for audiences to assume that programs will progress on a linear, logical pattern in which all t’s are crossed and all i’s are dotted, it’s equally unfair for programs to artificially stretch out story in the interest of simply staying on the air as long as possible. The best shows tell incremental stories that build upon one another. A great example is ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer,’ a show that told season-long stories that built over the course of seven seasons. Did all those season-long stories work? No. But it was a lot better than building up a confrontation between Buffy and The Master over the course of seven years. Shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire,’ two programs largely considered to be among the best of their kind in the last 25 years, only seem to tell one large story through the rosy eyes of retrospect. In reality, those programs told small stories in rigorous fashion that emotionally and thematically pinged off one another over the course of multiple seasons. Interlocking those small stories, rather than trying to weave one large one, is how those shows achieved the illusion of cohesion.
When I say “the illusion of cohesion,” I don’t mean that as a negative. I meant that the very nature of television and the way it’s produced inherently resists any attempts to tell a single plot. As I’ve mentioned many times (both here and elsewhere), there’s a difference between plot (what happens) and story (what that plot actually means). When showrunners brag about having multiple seasons planned out, what they usually mean is that they have a ‘Mockingjay – Part 1’ approach in mind: They know the big moments placed at great distance from one another, and have little sense of how to entertain or excite audiences between those moments. Look at shows like ‘Flash Forward’ or ‘The Event,’ programs that learned all of the wrong lessons from ‘LOST.’ That show didn’t tell a six-season story: It told wonderful character-based stories that emphasized episodes over seasons and people over plot points.
Moreover, audiences have never been savvier about when entertainments are pulling their chains. The most casual of consumer has more knowledge of how the sausage is made than at any point in history. They know the moves that movies, TV shows, and albums make, and the intersection of public relations, profit margins, and actual artistry. That makes audiences smarter, but also more cynical. As Singer points out in his article, few blame Marvel for stretching its cinematic vision across multiple films since each film more or less stands alone as a complete piece of entertainment. (Well, maybe not ‘Iron Man 2,’ but that’s another argument for another day.) The teaser culture that Singer alludes to means there will always be those who enjoy their entertainment to asymptotically approach the endpoint, but that number is growing fewer and fewer. The box office receipts for ‘Mockingjay – Part 1’ and ‘Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 1’ are the lowest for each of those respective franchises, but they are hardly enough to dissuade studios from greenlighting “Pitch Perfect 3: Verse 2” if people just can’t get aca-enough of Anna Kendrick in the upcoming sequel.
As “the golden age of television” settles into “the age of too much good television,” the types of delay techniques that have long propped up shows that have tested but not ultimately broken audiences’ patience will start to backfire. After telling a complete and utterly thrilling season-long story last year, the third season of ‘Arrow’ is currently a rudderless mess, one seemingly running in place rather than heading in a particular direction. I loved that show last season, and now I can barely make heads or tails of what I’m supposed to actually care about. Recapturing the lightning in a bottle that was the Deathstroke arc is obviously easier said than done, but it’s also not the only way for shows to tell stories. The idea that any show worth its salt needs a long-term plot in order to hook audiences is the biggest mistake most shows make. Few, if any, are truly watching television shows for a plot payoff. It might seem that way, even for those watching, but that’s not what’s going on. Rather, audiences develop relationships with characters, and want to see them act in relatable (if not necessarily likable) ways. Even those consciously hanging on, for instance, just to find out whodunit on a show like ‘The Affair’ (another Showtime program that seems destined to linger far too long) ultimately experience a hollow relationship with a show.
More time with Oliver Queen or Katniss Everdeen is only worth it if that extra time is devoted to these characters actually doing something. When entertainments arbitrarily extend the lengths of films and television shows, they aren’t actually creating more opportunities to bond with these characters. They are in fact creating more opportunities for audiences to lose that once potent connection. Sure, film and TV studios might be keeping eyeballs, but they are losing hearts. That’s a fine plan in the short term, but absolutely lethal in the long-term. Soon, the bubble on these stalling techniques will burst, and the films and shows that reward audiences over the short-term are the ones that will thrive.