July 19, 2004

The HBO extra-long sequence.

HBO seems to have hit upon the device of the disproportionately long sequence within one episode of an hour-long show that we've come to expect will be made up of medium length scenes. One of the reasons it's been so fun to watch "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" over the years is that you never worry about getting bored because you know that within minutes, whatever heavy thing might be happening, the scene will soon end, often cut off abruptly with a clever move to a new situation and a different set of characters. "The Sopranos" broke the usual rhythm with Tony's twenty minute dream in the 11th episode of this past season. "Six Feet Under" did the same thing last night with the twenty minute kidnapping scene. Like the Tony's dream episode of "The Sopranos," last night's "Six Feet Under" has unleashed a torrent of complaints. The Television Without Pity forum discussion of the episode has nearly 300 posts already, many of them using the predictable phrase "jumped the shark." (Follow my Sopranos link above, which takes you to the point in the recap where the dream sequence begins, and you'll see the quick poll on the question: "Has this show officially jumped the shark?")

The extra-long sequence is an interesting device, but it can't be used very often or we'll be starting in too early thinking, oh no, is this going to be one of those endless sequences. Part of the effect is that you have the feeling the scene must end soon, bringing you relief, and you are oppressed when it doesn't. There needs to be a reason for putting the viewer through that grueling experience. Judging from the Television Without Pity forum, most viewers just felt abused. One comment is repeated over and over: Why didn't David escape? He had so many opportunities. The writers, I presume, trusted the viewers to know and care about David enough that they would work at understanding the reasons he did what he did, but many viewers thought the writers had just inserted an endless sequence of gratuitous violence! Partly, these viewers may have trusted their expectation that the scene would end and, when it didn't, instead of trying to understand why the writers had decided to deviate so momentously from the show's norm, they simply resorted to the outrage that takes the form of the accusation that the show has "jumped the shark."

I think the resort to the overlong sequence challenges us to understand why we are being shaken out of our normal assumptions. In fact, at the beginning of the episode, when we saw David and Keith parting, I was thinking, I'm so tired of David and Keith and their little effort to achieve a stable homelife. Keith is an especially bland character. Even though they do have him blow up every once in a while and do something violent, his basic function on the show is to offer David peace, love, and understanding, so we can then watch and see if David will be able to accept that offer. David's story began as one of self-loathing, which he's been abandoning over the years of episodes, but watching David relinquish his self-loathing over and over has become boring. One gets the point! The kidnapping scene gave us a chance to see something different and complicated about David. He was not just a perplexingly passive victim. He was actively seeking a dangerous adventure when he picked up the man who tortured him for the rest of the episode. I think we have so absorbed the idea that (in real life) it's wrong to blame the victim that we resist making the judgments about David that would allow us to understand the story the writers devised. Thus viewers passed up all the opportunities to gain interesting insights into David and instead experienced the prolonged sequence as unfairly tormenting the viewers who have come to care for him as a person. They think: Oh, why can't David just be happy with Keith?

But the scenes of David just being happy with Keith are completely tedious. This is a difficulty of a long-running drama: the characters must keep failing to solve their problems, even as we grow to love them and want the best for them. The character development that takes place has to drag them more deeply into their problems for the show to continue. The extra-long sequence was intended to convey the depth of the problem with David, without which we don't have a show.

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