The Never Ending Story

The calculus of risk leads the producers of entertainment to assume that audiences want the same characters and stories over and over again. In a chaotic, changing, accidental world, it is, of course, comforting to believe that a constant friend, or point of reference, exists above the fray. When you watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon with your child, you may unconsciously see Bugs as a friend who has been there, unchanging in a comforting space adjoining this frightening world, for your whole life and your child's. Or perhaps at night, after an exhausting day, you like to tune into the evening's syndicated rerun of Cheers, reassured to find the same people sitting around the bar and engaged in the same misadventures.

Television took ownership of and perfected this idea in the 1950's. One of the physical rules of television drama until the 1970's was that nothing could permanently change from episode to episode. If a character found a new girlfriend, changed appearance, joined an organization, or sustained an injury, in the next episode there was no trace of any change or even any reference back to what had happened before. Each hour long episode presented the characters in a uniquely sealed bubble of reality; the characters themselves, but not anything that had happened to them, were the connection to earlier bubbles. In fact, if there was a danger of anything permanent, it had to be wholly disposed of before the final commercial, so that it could not possibly intrude on the next bubble. In the police dramas of the 1960's and early '70's, the hero saying to a girlfriend, "I love you. Will you marry me?" inevitably meant that she would die in a hail of bullets moments later.

Unlike the movies, which favor beginnings, television serials, which hope to stretch the story out for seven years, are all about middles. Nothing new can ever really begin, and if anything ends, the audience may be too shaken to continue watching. Television, especially situation comedies, is all about the domestic framework ignored by movies: the household and the people who live in it, and the life that never changes. Years ago, TV Guide attempted an April Fools' Day issue poking fun at the plots of TV sitcoms, but the satire, which involved a character on every show getting his or her finger stuck in a household appliance, was indistinguishable from the real thing. Rather than allowing characters to change from episode to episode, change occurred, if at all, season to season, representing an attempt to keep the audience interested and to revitalize sagging ratings. Thus, a series returns with a new captain, a new friend, a new comic foil, a new face or two around the bar, but not in order to indicate that anything much has really changed. In fact, the novelty serves to emphasize the consistency of the rest of the setting.

The word "situation" in "situation comedy" represents the framework that can never change. The characters can never leave Gilligan's Island or the Cheers tavern. The Nanny can never stop being one.

Steven Bochco may be credited with trying to break television out of this mold in the 1970's. With Hill Street Blues, he introduced the ever-changing story, where familiar characters might marry, divorce, sustain injuries, or even die, and where a development introduced on one episode would continue to be a factor on following episodes. This was a breath of fresh air compared to what we had before, but ultimately it represented another failure. Instead of stability without meaning, what we wound up with was constant change without meaning. In fact, the format itself was not new; it represented an attempt to replicate the soap opera in prime time, with a veneer of seriousness. (Dallas was the soap in prime time without the veneer.) Constant change itself induces boredom and even worse, hopelessness, if there is no sense of dramatic development or of closure imposed on it. Since life itself so often seems like a violent shaggy dog story, television series that portray an unending morbid swirl of events hold a distorted mirror to life, making it seem worse than it is.

Television easily runs out of stories. Falconcrest became boring long before every character had married every other character and had discovered an unknown parent, brother, sister, or child. In its last season, it resorted, remarkably, to the Mark Twain prescription for endings, and began drowning all the characters it did not know what else to do with. Worse, in order to keep the audience interested in the unchanging adventure, television must constantly raise the volume, by including incidents more violent or morbid than the general tone. This then sets a new standard and more violent or morbid incidents are inserted to wake the audience again. The hospital series St. Elsewhere was an early example of this. Think the dissolute young surgeon has been involved in every depraved adventure possible? A cocaine-crazed young woman he is making love to protrudes a razor she has been hiding on her tongue and slashes his face with a kiss. (The visual incoherence of this scene is only matched by the ending of the movie The Grifters, where Anjelica Huston accidentally cuts her son's head off by hitting him with a briefcase.) In an apparently peaceful moment on St. Elsewhere, we saw a young doctor bathing a pet bird in the sink. My wife and I called our eleven year old son, the bird enthusiast, into the room, and he arrived just in time to see the doctor's electric razor fall in and execute the bird. We never watched the show again after that.

While certain shows, such as the original Star Trek and the movies which followed, are notoriously successful at binding a group of people together forever for our reassurance and comfort, the vagaries of large ensemble casts on Bochco-style dramatic series itself influenced the story line. As actors decided to leave to pursue other opportunities, their characters were typically shot to death on Hill Street Blues, so that in one season you saw several familiar friends lying in pools of blood. This, of course, reinforces the view that the universe is violent and meaningless. Just imagine if Shakespeare had done seven sequels to Hamlet, only to have the prince killed by a falling brick. In earlier years, television had experimented with concessions to real world events, introducing a pregnancy on the Lucy show when Lucille Ball was pregnant, but casting a new actor in the role of the husband on Bewitched without any explanation. Ironically, audiences punish defections from popular shows; few if any actors who walked out partway through a hit series have succeeded in getting audiences to pay to see them in the movies. Ken Wahl killed Wiseguy by walking out, then vanished; David Caruso departed NYPD Blue and has starred in several bombs since, probably preparatory to vanishing; Shelley Long has not had a hit movie since leaving Cheers; anyone who left Hill Street Blues or L.A. Law turned up on TV again or not at all.

Twin Peaks failed because it promised an ending but could never deliver one. "Who killed Laura Palmer?" was the premise, but the series' creator sensed that once they told us, we would lose interest. Therefore, they made an attempt to divert us with different stories of contrasting strangeness, but the audience, sensing it had been duped, tuned out. The X Files represents an attempt to adjust this formula for success: the solution promised-- a "unified field theory" explaining all the strange stories on the show--is far more vague, and the audience doesn't really care if it is ever delivered or not, and is not likely to believe it or even understand it if it is. However, here again the very promise of an ending kills the narrative: because there is something that cannot be explained now, that supposedly will be explained later, agents Fox and Mulder are always losing the battle even while winning the skirmish. The alien assassin kills all the mysterious twins and escapes. The prescient man who can predict everyone's fate kills himself. In order not to violate the conventions of its universe, or to reveal endings too soon, the X Files, albeit with self-deprecating humor, again shows us a morbid, rather hopeless world.

All of the incarnations of Star Trek struggle with the same problem, though set in a more optimistic--even "goody goody"-- universe. The twin Star Trek memes are the triumph of diversity and technology. The diversity aids narrative, as it does on any other type of show, but the technology always threatens to kill the story. Every time the show introduces a godlike technology, a deus ex machina, future shows must explain why the same technology cannot be used to solve recurring problems. The transporter beam could end almost any conflict, hostage situation, and the like, by removing people from dangerous proximity to one another, so, over the years, a wide variety of particles and types of interference have been invented to explain why it cannot be used. There can't be any stories based on shortages, because the replicator can make anything needed. On the second Star Trek series, the Next Generation, an early episode revealed that people can be restored from death, so, for a few episodes after that, when anyone was killed the doctor would comment that the body was too badly damaged for revival. Then the show simply stopped referring to the possibility. The fact that a discovery on one episode had any reality on a later one represents Star Trek's compromise with narrative: not a Hill Street Blues style river of events, it nevertheless feels responsible to hold on to, and continue accounting for, some changes in its world, while others are disregarded (the ability to detect cloaked ships has been rediscovered and forgotten several times.) There is no better example of the way that technology simultaneously drives and impedes narrative on Star Trek than the show's continuing love affair with the transporter buffer. A series of unrelated episodes dealt with people lost and found (like Scotty from the original series, found eighty years later) in the transporter buffer. But, after establishing that any dead person could probably be re-created from the transporter "trace" using the replicator, the series forgot about this discovery, for without death, there cannot be danger or dramatic tension.

All of the Star Trek series also exhibited a problem common to half hour situation comedies and other dramatic series which do not flaunt a Hill Street Blues type commitment to constant change: no relationship can be resolved; we have lots of middles and no endings. People who are attracted to each other, like Commander Riker and Counsellor Troi or Captain Picard and Dr. Krusher on Next Generation, can never end up together. These personnages exchanged soulful glances for seven years without taking any action; the final episode, which projected the characters forward into old age and showed some of them ending up together, was then revealed to be an "alternate universe" that might not come to pass. Numerous half hour sitcoms have been built around a similar premise of two highly attracted people in close proximity, typically in a very contrived situation (one is the other's unlikely housekeeper, butler, nanny, etc.), taking years to recognize and act on their feelings about each other; once they do, the story is over, the contrived relationship ends, and the show has no place to go. The Cheers variation on this theme was to allow Sam and Rebecca to come together after several years; but with very little pay off, so that the show soon separated them again. These kinds of shows rely on titillation, not fulfillment, to keep the audience tuning in.

These twin dilemmas, boring stability and boring instability, can be cured with a simple prescription: an ending. To paraphrase McLuhan, the medium is the tedium. Critics who loved Twin Peaks at the outset and deserted it a year later, commonly recognized that it should have been a mini-series. Television could offer a better alternative to the movies if it tried to capture the middle ground, rather than going to the other extreme. Movies present the two hour exception to life; television attempts the seven year unchanging slice of life. Television would benefit us by attempting more finite four, six or eight hour stories which present character development and resolutions more complex than movies can attempt. Most novels of any literary pretension actually contain eight hours or so of incident which must be over-simplified to two to make a movie. Lonesome Dove was an excellent example: the eight hour series, faithful to the book, gave us a dramatic experience that a movie or a series could not have captured. Although the story contained its share of violent accidents, like the spear that ends Deets' life, it set them in a morally and dramatically satisfying and cathartic framework. Just as many works of literature have a punchline--Hemingway's "Isn't it pretty to think so" leaps to mind--Lonesome Dove was completely tied up, summarized and resolved in the last scene, where a reporter tells Captain Call, "I hear you're a man of vision." Call mentally reviews the story we have just spent eight hours watching-- the grand, inexplicable gesture of driving cattle to Montana, born more out of the desire to do something, anything than any need to go to Montana, and the deaths of so many friends that resulted--and replies, "Yes, a hell of a vision." And Lonesome Dove is buttoned up. But, in an alternate universe, without doubt, the same statement is made--"I hear you're a man of vision"--and some other Captain Call replies, "Yes, television". And some producer, inspired by these mystical words, rushes out to base a TV series and two more miniseries on Lonesome Dove (even though the original cast, displaying a rare integrity and loyalty to the work, refuses to be involved.) Oops--that's this universe.