Sunday, September 24, 2006

 Blue Sky Thinking 

Cindy and I went on a hike today to Crosier Mountain. The trail is in the Roosevelt National Forest not far from Estes Park, and is about 7 miles round trip. With the fall color beginning to kick in, and with a cold blustery storm system having just blown through a couple days before, conditions were ideal for a beautiful day in the Ponderosa Pine between 7 and 9 thousand feet elevation.

From the summit rock outcrops, we had fantastic views of the Front Range and the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, including Longs Peak. There'd been snow this past week above about 11,000 feet, although it began melting in the midday sun. Mount Evans was also visible, and was particularly wintry-looking. Visibility was great also in the direction of the plains, and we could see Fort Collins, Loveland, and Greeley quite clearly, and even some of the limestone buttes out on the Pawnee Grasslands, 50+ miles distant. And very far away to the south, we even saw Pikes Peak. All in all, the region we call the Front Range was looking mighty fine today.

On the hike back, we started talking, of all things, about TeeVee. That would seem like such a prosaic topic amidst all the aforementioned beauty and awe-inspiring vistas. But I brought it up as we traversed a part of the trail that passed through a particularly dull portion of Ponderosa Pine saplings, all about 15-20 years old, and very uniformly and densely distributed so that you could see nothing but these young, vulnerable trees. This section was about three-quarters of a mile long, and appeared to have been either heavily burned two decades ago, or clear-cut. Either way, it had turned into a rather depressing monoculture of trees, although based on the pileup of needles on the forest floor, it probably won't be long before this area goes up in another firestorm.

Anyway, back to TeeVee. We're huge fans of Lost, and we've just begun watching Season 2 on DVD via Netflix. We began talking about the intricacies of the show, and tried to make sense out of the myriad of clues, hints, motifs, and suggestions that make for a typical Lost episode. (Don't worry, no spoilers here.)

After a while the conversation got a little more "meta", and began discussing our concerns about how the show might end, and what has concerned us in the past when watching heavily arc-driven TV shows. For example, we were rather disappointed with the way Alias ended in its fifth year, after it's first two seasons were so much fun and so well-written. Given that Lost and Alias have the same creator, it's reasonable to wonder if Lost will also run out of gas before long. And can it stay engaging and taut to the end?

Back in the late 90s we became fans of the arc-driven sci-fi show Babylon 5. "B5" as we called it was something of a breakthrough show in that it was really the first sci-fi show besides Star Trek to find an audience, and it did so by portraying a universe riven with intrigue and not as idealistic as the Gene Roddenberry-inspired one. Instead of stand-alone episodes, a real story arc permeated the show, and in fact creator James Straczynski planned out the entire show from the beginning, knowing that after 5 years the show would end. Although the show had lower-grade production values and got bounced around a bit among networks, it did lay the groundwork for a new attitude toward TV series', one that allowed for more story depth and the possibility that important characters may actually (gasp!) die.

However, it doesn't take long to think of why network execs would be resistant to this kind of creative freedom. Heavy story arcs discourage new viewers, who require time and annoying exposition every episode to get them up to speed. Also, stories that have an end mean that there's a definite limit to what a studio can make moneywise off its initial investment in production and marketing. A show that runs 7, 8, or 10 years (think MASH, ER or Seinfeld) gets a lot of mileage out of the effort put into creating it, whereas a studio that has to keep inventing new material year after year finds itself struggling to establish any presence on the air. But a show that runs so many years can often only do so if the stories being told always guarantee a return to "normalcy" at the end of each show, to ensure that new viewers keep coming aboard and are not intimidated by not knowing some complicated backstory.

So what has saved the day for artistic expression in TV, and has allowed for more arc-driven series? Three letters - D V D. When you can continue to snag viewers on DVD even after a show ends, you still make money. This way, the writer/creator gets to tell more of the story they want, and the studio now has a new revenue stream from the buzz that said story generates - everyone's happy. 10 years ago, before the advent of TV on DVD, shows like B5 had an uphill climb to convince any major network that their story was worth telling. Now, complex story arcs are fairly common - if a viewer really wants to get on board 2 or 3 seasons into a series, no problem - just buy or rent the DVDs from the first season, and you'll get caught up in no time.

But really, we don't watch much TV. Honest.

tags: , , ,

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?