Television

Stakes, Speed + Serialization Pt. 2 OR Why I haven’t watched last week’s GIRLS yet.

GIRLS Season II Episodes 3,4, and 5 are chillin in my DVR….

and I haven’t watched them yet.

No, it’s not because I have a life of my own. Or because there are too many other good things on TV (ok partly RIP SYBILlllll), or because I didn’t like the last episode I saw.  Right now, instead of sitting in front of this laptop which I stared at all day before I came home, I COULD be watching GIRLS, relaxin on my sofa-chaise, enjoying a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich, and basking in the glow of quips and giggles …

But it’s just…. ugh, it’s such a commitment. I can’t bring myself to emotionally tune in, cringe, appreciate the artistry, laugh and cry. It’s only 30 minutes but that’s just it, I can’t get involved and then uninvolved so quickly – it’s exhausting!

(For the record, I am not going to make a joke about white girl problems now or anywhere in this post, so shut off that piece of regurgitated internet and think critically for a sec).

Let me just say, I love GIRLS. I think it’s the best thing ever, EVER. I have even been accused by one Tube Top writer of never having any criticism for Lena Dunham, which is harsh but ya pretty much true, I love the beast she has created and inhabited. No, the reason I haven’t watched what is undoubtedly a high quality piece of television is not the fault of Ms. Dunham or anyone involved, it’s that little thing that makes other, shittier TV shows, so good: the weekly serialization standard.

When I first met the cast of GIRLS, I was lucky enough to watch it on a screener and get to see the 3 best episodes all in a row. I was obviously hooked, and I didn’t even really know what was going on with the plot since it jumped around the season. From then on, I got to watch it unfold at a fast pace – some of the episodes had already aired, and I knew what was coming, and it was just an all-around suck into the world that so gorgeously reflected my own but in a cartoonish, one-sided and unrealistically fantastic depiction of that world and the people in it (who doesn’t have a Marnie?).

I think this is true for a lot of people. GIRLS kind of sneak attacked pop culture. It came out and everyone was like oh whoah what is this? and HBO was all “o let me tell you” by playing GIRLS marathons of every episode up to this point all day all the time so you can be excited for a new one. And people continued to discover it slowly, and devour what had come up to that point, and we all were happy and free in the light of white girl problems’ liberation from an internet meme into a real and authentic life experience.

Hit the nail on the head.

The TV marathon obviously has its merits and its pitfalls. It can get you sucked into a world so intense that you forget that the Baltimore projects aren’t your problem and that your friends don’t care that you’ve just gotten to the season with all the kids in it! And you can come out of some 6 hour reverie and realize wait, Tracy Jordan is a hilarious man but aren’t those 12 30 Rock episodes all essentially about the same thing (from jokes to plot and beyond)? (OK RIP 30 Rock miss u already Tina).

Anyway, I’m not saying GIRLS is a show you can only watch in a marathon. But I’m not saying that a 7 day show cycle is the best timeframe for presenting + consuming this art, either. No, the 7 day is well suited to another type of show, a show that is I’d say about 85% entertainment and 15% art (GIRLS has a much different ratio, but we’ll get into that later), where as we’ve established before:

+ The stakes are high (think life or death) and

+ The plot gets resolved quickly (think international crisis averted 1x per episode)

Because 7 days is the perfect time to sustain this kind of momentum, and care about characters who are wholly unrealistic and pretty much only scratch the surface emotionally.

But this reminds me, Grey’s Anatomy was highly emotional and nothing ever got resolved quickly (although the stakes were VERY high hellooo MerDer’s love Izzy’s life?), but I always eagerly tuned into that show…. UNTIL Meredith died but came back to life. Then I suddenly didn’t care no mo.

I think we’re onto something here. The innovative folks at Hulu & Netflix, Cartoon Network, & more continue to aggressively change the way we consume NEW content. However, it still stands that the 7 day serialization is the standard for most every show on TV (except when they sometimes had those sitcoms that would play multiple new episodes in a week back in the 90s, which was the last time I seriously watched sitcoms) – with GIRLS certainly falling into this timing category. But maybe this cycle only suits certain shows that have the right combination of elements in terms of:

+ Emotional depth/character development

+ Highness/lowness of stakes

+ Resolution speed

+ Show length

+ Individual X Factor

The right combination of all of these elements, plus that X Factor, which is that something special that makes the show resonate with you personally for whatever reason, is what makes or breaks a serialized TV show.

For me, Covert Affairs is the perfectly 7 day serialized show. It moves fast, the stakes are incredibly high, and I care about the characters cuz of that X Factor thing: I thing Auggie is endearing and I always want Annie to kick ass cuz she’s a rad lady who depends on her high E.Q. (Emotional Quotient, yours truly prides herself on hers) for her career success which is something I aspire to plus hey she’s a muhfuckin spy.

However, GIRLS is obviously a better show, and speaks to me personally in a real way, and is hilarious! But i still haven’t watched the newest episodes, nor do I feel particularly compelled to do so, for the reason that its ratio of emotion : stakes : resolution : show length : X Factor is off for the 7 day cycle.

In a highly scientific exercise, let’s compare a few examples:

T.V. Show Emotion/Character Depth (or lack thereof) (out of 10, 10 being the highest) The Stakes (out of 10, 10 being the highest) Resolution  Speed (out of 10, 10 being the fastest) X Factor (Out of 10, 10 being the highest) Show Length
GIRLS 10 2 (I’ll get to that in a minute) 5 10 (duh) 30 minutes
Covert Affairs 3 9 9 3 45 minutes (ish)
Grey’s Anatomy 8 8 3 5 45 minutes (ish)
Friends 7 2 (usually utter silliness) 8 10 (emotional attachment, #sorrynotsorry) 22 minutes (ish)

See, isn’t it all perfectly clear now!

Juuuust kidding.

Here’s what it means:

Although Friends, Grey’s Anatomy, and Covert Affairs are all wildly different, they all have a combination of speed and stakes going for them that makes them compelling. But GIRLS is a horse of a different color, and though I’d say the best show on this list (Friends is amazing but it’s not artistic social commentary like GIRLS is), its combination of these elements make it distinctly un-suited for the balancing act between stakes and resolution that a 7-day show cycle requires to be continually compelling.

1) Emotional/Character Depth: This is the main point of this show. It’s an ensemble, like Friends, but it is all about exposing all the vast inconsistencies in relationships, overanalyzing feelings, and then overanalyzing those feelings, and getting drawn into the interior lives of these ladies (and the boys of GIRLS). It is brilliant, but it is a COMMITMENT.

2) The Stakes: The stakes of GIRLS is a catch 22. For these characters, the stakes are incredibly high: will I fulfill my ambitions as a writer, can I be with a boyfriend who’s safe, can I lose my virginity with dignity? The stakes are as high to these individuals as they are to my friends and me and the everyday problems we confront; that is to say, all consuming. However, precisely because these worries are realistically all consuming and also on display on a TV show, these high stakes are self-aware in their essence, and so are immediately not high stakes. Everyday stakes are high drama to an individual, but that the individuals are so self-centered (in a realistic way), that portraying these stakes and dilemmas as high drama is tongue in cheek to say the least. And the ability to laugh at this… that’s another reason GIRLS rocks.

3) Resolution Speed: Also, you guessed it, impossibly slow. Let’s take Jessa: we still don’t know why she got married. Sure, it’s because she’s impulsive, she’s a free spirit. But you know there’s going to be a blow up. You know the shit’s gonna hit the fan. And they’re not even hinting at it yet, from her perspective at least … they’re just going to let it unfold inch by inch. Or will it? We don’t know. On most shows, we know something’s going to get resolved within a certain amount of time. Often, in GIRLS, we don’t even know what it is that’s going to get resolved until Adam’s screaming about your self-centered inability to really care about someone in a back alley in Bushwick.

4) Timing: GIRLS is a half hour show. But there are no commercials. And it’s jam packed. Let’s not confuse this with the stakes + speed: a lot happens in every episode, but it’s sort of like…. a lot of nothing except character development. Really, really entertaining character development. Even the relationship plotlines are a vehicle for character development. But, I digress. It’s a short amount of time with a lot of content. And it’s 30 minutes of active not passive consuming. I don’t think it could be any longer than 30 minutes, but it’s not as short and light as a 30 minute non-HBO sitcom, either.  I don’t know, the timing makes me emotionally confused, it’s like a Tornado of awesome and then it’s over.

…. And then I have to wait a whole week to willingly walk back into the Tornado. And I forget how good it is, and remember that I’m about to consume a piece of art, but not about the drama of Hannah’s world, or even how hilarious it all is.

In short (in long), the 7 day serialization cycle does not work for GIRLS. In order for a show to successfully capture at least this viewer’s attention from week to week, it needs to have a certain combination of stakes, speed, and emotional connection. In network television’s vocabulary, these formulae translate to the shows that sell best: Medical Drama, Crime Procedural, and Multi-Camera Sitcom. But GIRLS evades these categories and presents itself as something new. Something where the stakes/speed do not play a significant role, and sensitive consideration of a human’s relational and personal inconsistencies is in fact that show’s bedrock.

In an era where certain networks (and consumers!) allow television to develop as “art” the way we call movies “art,” we have to also reconsider the way we present programming to consumers. And indeed celebrate the coming of age of another medium in which to examine the the human soul…. awkward sex scenes, poo/pee jokes, and whimsically misguided adventures of our 20 somethings included.

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One thought on “Stakes, Speed + Serialization Pt. 2 OR Why I haven’t watched last week’s GIRLS yet.

  1. Pingback: Lists as News and the WGA’s Top 101 TV Shows of All Time | Tube Top Television

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