So I wrote this long “dissertation” after a friend shared an article about Gotham (the TV show) on Facebook and he said, “This trash isn’t cancelled yet?”
And while I’m not a fan of Gotham either, I knew why shows like this exist and persist. They’re called “middling storytelling” and there’s a huge market for them.
Here’s the rant:
I think we need to first start with a bit of the history of television.
There’s pre-HBO original programming and post-HBO.
Prior to Oz, Sopranos and The Wire hitting the airwaves, for the most part, the majority of television can be considered “middling storytelling”.
Sure there were a few gems here and there. But if you wanted “higher level” literary, well-written, gritty stories that hit you in the face, you went to the damn movies. People looked down on TV, as they should.
But in the late-90s, when HBO told David Chase, David Simon and David Milch to, go do whatever the fuck you want…. they did. They told stories without restraint. TV that, for the first time in TV’s history, could actually compete with the level of storytelling that movies were allowed to do, but TV was never allowed to.
TV programming on network television however could NEVER do that. Not even on “prime time”… because they were three big corporations that had a “reputation” to maintain. TV is a “family event”, therefore it had to be family friendly.
So that’s point one.
The second point is in HOW we watch TV now as opposed to previously. Prior to PVRs, DVRs, DVD box sets and Netflix… you had to wait until the program’s time slot and sit there through the commercials. If you got interrupted by a phone call, drop by or whatever else, you missed that part. That’s it.
So if you recall how TV programming used to be… right after the commercial break there would always be a bit of “summary”…. and in fact, TV programming had A LOT of “reminders” of what was going on and generally bad expository dialogue.
This allowed people who were just channel surfing (because that’s how people used to watch TV) to jump into the middle of an episode and “catch up” and get hooked.
Now compare that to the shows from the post-HBO era. 13-episode runs from HBO, AMC, Showtime, Netflix, FX, etc.
These cable shows were essentially 10-13 hour movies that didn’t waste time or spoon-feed you narrative points or character motivations. You missed something, you missed it. AH! But we’re watching them on DVDs, Netflix and whatever now. So we can always rewind… or even look stuff on the Internet.
Network television has NOT changed their business model. They are still looking to attract casual viewers in the middle of an episode and have a simple enough story to attract them.
That’s the second point.
The third point is…
For the most part, while cable television is awesome and is breaking new ground in storytelling STILL 16 years after The Sopranos first aired… NETWORK IS STILL WHERE THE REAL MONEY IS.
Game of Thrones gets 6.88 million viewers? Well, back in network’s prime, they were getting 105 million on MASH’s finale. Cheers, 84 million. Seinfeld, 76.
And while “media fragmentation” and blah blah blah has shattered those numbers due to the sheer volume of options we have now… Lost still got 13 million, Two and a Half Men got 13.5, The Mentalist 10.
Game of Thrones doesn’t *touch* what Network can do. They sell more ad space and make more money by sheer numbers.
The thing most of us don’t get… (and by us, I’m assuming you’re a geek reading this) is that we are a minority. People who have above average intelligence and consume stories with a certain obsessiveness and passion.
But for the majority of television viewers (who are NOT geeks)… TV is still just another “form of entertainment”. People flip it on, surf around, and if something is good, they’ll watch it.
Frankly, it’s not that important. It’s “just a show”. It’s OK if they miss a few episodes. Because in a 22 episode season, most of them are filler episodes anyway and they are singular “whodunnits” or “monster of the week” or “murder of the week”.
The market for “middling stories” is simply BIGGER.
Most people on this planet don’t treat stories (fiction, TV, film, comics, whatever) with the same reverence that geeks do and while geek culture is in vogue and all that nowadays… we are still a minority by sheer numbers.
NOW — the counter argument is that, there is NOTHING wrong with that.
There really isn’t.
Oftentimes, middling stories that are just good guilty pleasures. I look back at when I was completely in love with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Dragonlance series.
They are extremely cheesy. I am embarrassed to say I loved them. I tried to reread Dragonlance in my twenties and couldn’t get past the first chapter.
They filled my teenage void with SOMETHING. A form of entertainment.
It’s not TERRIBLE storytelling. If you watch Gotham, the story is there. It has character and plot. There are some “cool x-factors” like plot twists, cool devices, interesting mechanisms.
It’s just that sometimes (or a lot of the times) the dialogue is unbelievable or stiff, the characters act funny and a lot of the times they push plot to move plot forward and not because someone with agency drove it.
I had this problem with Agents of SHIELD as well and gave up on it.
That’s why I call it “middling”. It’s not “unwatchable” if you have low enough standards and you just need something to entertain you and take your mind off work for an hour or so. It’s non-committal entertainment.
Let me ask you this…
How many times have you said, “I need to watch [HIGHLY PRAISED SHOW] but I just can’t commit to it right now.”
I know I’ve said it of Sons of Anarchy, House of Card S3, Homeland S2+, etc. etc.
Good storytelling demands work on your part, the viewer. Just like good literary fiction or really well-written, intelligent genre fiction.
Middling storytelling, on the other hand, is there to FILL A VOID… if you’re not the super busy type of person. If you’re a nine-to-five guy with no ambitions (aka side projects like that book you’re working on, or side business, or side whatever)… It keeps you entertained and allows you to escape in a easy, noncommittal way.
The BEST EXAMPLES of this HUGE market of middling storytelling is the recent Kindle explosion.
This is another long rant… but I’ll just send you to the BEST article I’ve read on it.
Read that and continue here:
See, the funny thing about storytelling in the FICTION world is…
Compared to TV, it’s been INVERTED.
For the most part, they have NEVER catered to the “mass audience” (and in this case, I mean the “voracious reader” market mentioned in the article above).
I mean, sure, you had the “Big Six” (Koontz, King, Steele, Patterson, Clancy and Grisham)… but even they together couldn’t produce a new book every week for the voracious reader.
But look at what the Kindle market did.
They produce MIDDLING FICTION. Just “good enough” to entertain you for a few hours and let you escape in a noncommittal way.
I’ve read these Kindle books. They are “good enough”. They’re not amazing, or won’t change your life, but they do the job they need to do. Create a protagonist that you care about “just enough” and then throw them through enough of a plot “just enough” and bada-boom, bada-bing, you had a few good hours of fun.
Before the Kindle market, you had long-ass fantasy novels, romance and pulp mysteries and thrillers. And they tried to churn these out as quick as they could… but it was still a risky business proposition. Publishing books and getting sales is a tad harder than just throwing something on a network television channel where you had three choices (ABC, CBS, NBC).
But now— with Kindle… you could spend $0.99 to $3.99 and get your kicks.
I’m not for or against “middling storytelling”. It has its place and hell, it feeds TONS of families up here in Vancouver. Arrow and Flash are shot here and half our film people work on it.
And on the fiction side, the sheer amount of authors who now make a FULL TIME living writing “middling stories” is incomprehensible.
I say, kudos to them.
I have friends and associates who have made 6 -7 figures doing this. That’s awesome. But would I willingly pick up one of their books and read it? Probably not. I’m simply NOT the market.
And that’s the point of my rant here. There is a HUGE market for middling storytelling and that’s just the way it is.
Things aren’t going to “get better”… but both markets will always exist and you have the freedom to choose what to consume. Does it suck that the coolest fictional DC city is getting ruined by “middling storytelling”? Yeah, it does. But seriously, go find something else to watch/read/consume.
Another form of this “void” that lets middling storytelling get away with middling storytelling is genre/license. Think about all the crappy fantasy, sci-fi or superhero fiction/comics you’ve read just because you want a particular setting, character or world.
I read practically every single Dragonlance novel, spin-off and cross-over that was available at my library growing up. It was a world I wanted to be in. Therefore if a new novel put out by a no-name author but set in the Weiss and Hickman world came out — I read it.
There were eight Spiderman titles at one. I heard most of them sucked. But if you needed your Spiderman fix, you got your fix.
This is also similar to what I’m doing with MtG’s Uncharted Realms. I find the dialogue horrific, some of the character actions extremely cheesy and unrealistic and the plot just good enough. But that’s the keyword there again. “Good enough”. I can’t get MtG fiction or stories anywhere else except from WoTC, and WoTC is unwilling to pay good authors, nor have a standard of writing that’s beyond “good enough”. And frankly, that’s not their business model. They just need it to be “good enough” to add color and richness to their game.
Second P.S. Tangent:
One last point, I promise, it’s the last… but I can talk about stories and storytelling and the business of storytelling all day if you asked me to…
Going back to the point on how people just was good fun escapist entertainment that’s just good enough. Think about that for a moment. These middling stories never have anything that’s super drastic, gritty or emotionally dark about them. At the end of the day, they are good clean fun stories.
I’m not saying you don’t care about these character. I cried when Buffy’s mom died. I wallowed long after the series finale of Angel.
BUT — there’s a certain amount of “distance” in middling storytelling. It’s fantasy. You don’t think you’ll ever meet dragons or shoot aliens in space, but it’s fun to.
But with highfalutin “literary storytelling”, that distance is much, much shorter. When you watch The Wire, there’s still a distance, sure, because you don’t, nor would you ever move to Baltimore, Maryland.
But the way in which these characters move in their plot-lines… they are very “close to home”. It’s real. You know it happens every day on the streets of Baltimore. You know that black lives ARE being affected. You know that political corruption is REAL. And it’s all very DEADLY SERIOUS. And they deal with emotional and relationship problems that is almost unbearable to watch because it’s a level of pain and grit and darkness that’s frankly, depressing in a “real way” that middling storytelling never deals with.
So — when you say, “I want to watch [HIGHLY PRAISE SHOW] but I just can’t commit to it”…
It’s not just time. It’s not just thinking time. It’s not just mental effort. It’s ALSO a tremendous emotional drain to dive into these worlds. These characters show a real psychology. They feel real to us in a way that makes us UNCOMFORTABLE.
In middling storytelling, the characters are archetypes for the most part. If they feel “real” to us, it’s because we project on to them.
And this comes back to what I define as middling storytelling: It’s fun, casual, noncommittal, good, clean, simple escapist entertainment. The stories aren’t all up to snuff, it’s not super dark or serious, and they get away with a lot because they have a great license and it’s just “good enough” for that particular market that hungers for it.
August 25, 2015
What the heck is “Garage Fiction”?
Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Dogwood Daniels & Jinn Zhong) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week based on a “creative prompt”. We post our work on Mondays at each of our respective websites and dissect them together on Fridays via podcast. We also end up chatting about the craft of writing, the creative process, storytelling and other related tangents.
Like our stuff? Really? Then why aren’t you on our damn mailing list?