Monday, December 22, 2008

Form and Function

Check out these clips, and tell me what they have in common?

Cloverfield. Blair Witch. Friday Night Lights. The Office. By my reckoning, each one has powerful similarities to GL's new production model. Admittedly, each of these shows has much higher budgets, but at the core, it is the use of digital video, intimate hand held cameras. In the case of all four clips/shows, the production model conveys a "you are there" feeling that is actually quite remarkable, and contributes to the power of the show.

For Cloverfield and Blair Witch, the limited perspective was actually used to create suspense and confusion, so that we were suffering through the un-named horror with the same lack of information as the protagonists. This made the film far more effective. The intimacy, limited perspective, shakiness all worked together to ramp up the tension.

In a strange way, The Office works the same way. The Office is all about the cringeworthy moments that emerge from people caged like rats...too closely spaced, too different, yet thrown together every day. So, again, the "you are here" feeling really works. We hide our faces when Michael Scott does something especially boorish, because he is in our faces.

Now, Friday Night Lights, which I have watched with less frequency, uses the same quality in a more traditional drama. Again, it is effective. When characters are having conversations in cars or homes, we are there with them. In the locker room, we're in the middle of disputes and conversations. And on the field, we are pacing with coaches or privy to heated exchanges. Since football is fundamentally action, and the characters are mostly the action-filled young players and the people in their lives, all that movement works to give us a feeling of verisimilitude that simply makes us feel more involved.

The production model, which I am not the first to point out, is pretty similar to what Ellen Wheeler and her team are trying to accomplish at Guiding Light. Yet, pretty widely, many viewers and critics seem to feel that the model just isn't working for GL.

Notice the common theme for each of the foregoing examples. Action, tension, suspense, nervousness. In each example case above, the production model works perfectly with the writing, almost a kind of "partner" to create the tone and atmosphere that supports the narrative goals of the piece.

Now, at GL, we have something different. We see an attempt to use the technique for very pedestrian scenes with very little tension--conversations for the most part. The scenes are not narratively filled with high emotion or unrelenting energy, so there is a mismatch between this potentially effective style and underlying story and tone.

Imagine if GL had been revamped not just in production style, but if the narrative style had been shift to more nervous, high energy, anxious, high stakes. It would have been an abrupt departure from classic GL...from classic daytime in general...but it could have worked. Indeed, with a constant level of anxiety and stress and speed and movement, the show could have been edgy and could have attracted the attention of those young viewers everyone wants.

I think a mistake that GL has made is that they are patterning themselves after a reality show...but reality can often be boring. Their production model lends itself perfectly for high-stakes adrenaline storytelling...and I think that could have attracted an audience.

It all comes back to the same point: form should follow function. If GL sought to remake itself, it should have remade its narrative structure too. Storytelling at GL seems to have taken a backseat to the production model. In this next critical year, it is time for nothing less than a wholesale reinvention of the script writing, probably with the help of a fresh eye. Imagine if some hotshot young auteur were matched with a senior consultant who knows the story bones of GL (think Nancy Curlee or even Pam Long). That could be something. If the show played a more constant state of emotional tension and intimate high stakes, with that very fresh and modern production model, I think we might actually not be able to stay away!

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