Sunday, October 27, 2013

Justified and Suspension of Disbelief in Television

One peculiar strength of literature and film is its ability to provoke suspension of disbelief. While reading (or watching), you can exit the reality of your daily life and enter the reality of the book or film. In theory TV has the same ability, but the fact is that I rarely suspend disbelief while watching TV.

Lots of things can intervene to ruin the illusion, thus keeping the viewer in this world--the use of obviously fake sets (see, for example, "New York" in Castle), the casting of overly attractive (and thus not terribly believable) actors as ordinary people, the prevalence of poor acting, hokey dialogue, wink-at-the-audience moments, and so forth. It isn't that these things are unique to TV, or that they (or their analogues) don't exist elsewhere, but just that they are prevalent in TV--almost to the point of ubiquity.

"New York City"
Problems of narration pose another set of hurdles to the suspension of disbelief. Advertizing breaks are one egregious issue in American network TV, but it isn't only that corporate marketing pitches wrench you out of your fantasy world--after all, ads are defeatable via Netflix, DVD or other viewing options. Rather, it's the structuring of episodes to fit these artificial breaks in the action, where a 45-minute drama has four or five moments where it has to present something compelling enough to keep you from changing the channel. Other issues are specific to the narrative format of the show in question, where on the one hand you have the mundane, static predictability of episodic programming, and on the other the tendency of serialized TV to value melodramatic cliffhangers over tangible character development. Again, these are not foreign to literature and film--far from it. But there are a lot of books and a lot of films that aren't like this at all. TV, more than any other narrative medium, thrives on this kind of cheapness.

The HBO Model

Premium cable outlet HBO did not invent good television drama, but it has arguably done more to promote the idea that TV can be "serious" than anyone else, and that it is not necessary to sacrifice "entertainment value" in order to do so. The push started with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under--concurrently running dramas organized around typical Hollywood conceits: a show about a mob boss with mental health issues and another about a quirky family that runs a funeral home. Both shows evinced narrative flaws over the long-term, perhaps because their producers never expected them to be as popular as they became. They were nevertheless revolutionary, in the sense that they were not really about these conceits, but instead used them as springboards to tell rather literary stories about how relatable characters try--and often fail--to navigate the challenges, pitfalls and circumstances of everyday life.

The Wire, which has been called the best television drama ever produced, constitutes the high point of the "HBO Model." What began as a character-driven police procedural eventually grew into something more--a sustained, powerful critique of the "War on Drugs" and an extended commentary on the decline of the American inner-city. But at its core, The Wire's success hinges upon the fact that it humanizes all its characters and presents them as flawed individuals trying to make good choices while constrained by oppressive social conditions. Like real human beings, they often make poor choices and then struggle to come to grips with the consequences. The world is so thoroughly convincing that, during each 60-minute episode of The Wire, I was completely mesmerized, enveloped in the tragic world of the West Baltimore's drug war.

The HBO Model has since spread to multiple US cable networks where it has mutated, from Showtime's cheeseball variant to AMC's approximation-with-ads. But very few programs have managed to achieve The Wire's or even The Sopranos' narrative success. That very much includes HBO's more recent dramas, which often seem to value "watercooler moments" over the character-based sophistication of the last decade's marquee fare. It is as if it no longer suffices for a narrative to produce such moments organically. Rather, they must be imposed. Watercooler moments have become an expectation, a defining feature of HBO Model drama. Unfortunately, when not produced organically by the narrative, watercooler moments come off as cheap, sensationalistic and affected.

Justified: The Rare Gem

Now, I haven't watched Breaking Bad, but I have it on good authority that it bucks this trend and even approaches The Wire in narrative quality. So before you pillory me for complaining about the low-quality of even high-brow television drama when there's stuff like Breaking Bad that I (admittedly) haven't seen yet, keep in mind that I'm making a general argument, not a comprehensive one. Plus I'm not even really here to complain about how bad television is. Rather, I'd like to talk about the first show in years that has me suspending disbelief like The Wire--FX's Justified.

This is the third FX drama I've watched. First came The Shield. Though some have absurdly compared it to Shakespeare, The Shield is more reminiscent of Oz, HBO's pre-Sopranos jailsploitation melodrama--a grimy show that isn't so much "good" as "difficult to stop watching." Like heroin, I guess. Or meth. Let's go with that, since the act of watching either show inevitably makes you feel ugly from the inside.

The second FX show I tried was the The Americans, a tense drama about KGB agents posing as ordinary suburbanites in 1980s Washington D.C. Though only one season in, The Americans is already a considerable step up from The Shield, and is on balance a pretty damned good show. But as adventurous and thrilling as it is, it's difficult to look past the conceit long enough to think of its characters as real people living real lives. I like the show, but I never stop thinking of it as a show.

At some point, I started noticing the ads for Justified that played during commercial breaks. They had a really Shield-y feel to them, though, and since I remained scarred by that earlier experience, it just seemed like it was going to be The Shield all over again. So I ignored the several friends telling me that, as a sociologically-interested crime fiction buff, I was nuts to skip out on Justified.

Enter four long-haul flights on an airline whose on-demand entertainment system magically included all of Justified: Season 4. I decided to give it a try. First episode? Not bad. Kind of fun. Good enough to keep me going. Second episode? Better. Easy to pick up without prior knowledge of the characters, but hinting at considerable depth. Building towards something. Third episode? Totally hooked. By the end of the last flight, I'd completed the season, and promptly started watching from the beginning.   

Justified shares a lot of conceits with The Wire. It's about a cop-who-doesn't-play-by-the-rules, a familiar trope of police procedurals. But whereas Jimmy McNulty ignores the chain of command and generally does things the wrong way in ruthless pursuit of a case, Raylan Givens is just sort of too lazy to do things by the book. In both cases, though, the "cowboy cop" thing is really just a front. Deep down these are deeply unhappy people.

The Harlan County, Kentucky setting is also nearly as well-realized as The Wire's West Baltimore. Whereas The Wire parsed America's urban blight, Justified does the same for its rural blight, though both share a preoccupation with the peculiar role drugs, guns, incarceration and the rest of the "War on Drugs" plays in sustaining and reproducing inequality. There's also a neat, thought-provoking subtext of the corrosive, enduring effects of foreign wars on the impoverished communities that disproportionately contribute to America's volunteer military. So yeah, it's smart and socially conscious too.

This isn't to pretend that Justified is the second coming of The Wire--it's not quite on that level. But it is a clever, well-written and character-based drama that does all the things good drama should do, and none of the things bad TV drama tends to do. Plus it's got great narrative structure. Some stories are told within a single episode, while others resolve in a few--others still take a full season to come to a head.

And it's funny. Not in the way a sitcom is funny--there are few laugh-out-loud moments--but rather in the way everyday people are funny. You laugh with them sometimes, but more often you laugh later, when you think about them and their quirks. Raylan, Boyd, Ava, and the rest all feel like real people. Walton Goggins' Boyd Crowder--the slow-talking, cheeky and long-winded villain of the show--is one of the best and most dynamic bad guys I've ever seen on television. Nearly any scene with Boyd--or fellow villain Wynn Duffy (played by Jere Burns from 1980s network sitcom Dear John)--is pure gold.

...and the best part? For 45-minutes, I forget that it's TV.