Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hope Lies on Television #2 - Teleconventional Breakdown

Following on from the first column, in which I discussed the ways in which television shows try to maintain a certain stylistic consistency between different directors, I wanted to offer the flipside to that discussion with an examination of how TV shows will challenge their own established formal conventions, i.e., disgarding their usual look or style in favour of a radical departure.

The main reason I wanted to write this column was to discuss Community, which I think has been one of the funniest, smartest and sweetest sitcoms of the last couple of years, and if Parks & Recreation (which I will try to find a reason to write about soon, hopefully) weren't having such a spectacular third season I'd say that it was the best comedy on television right now. As it is, it has to settle for number 2, which is still pretty good. Anyway, what sets Community apart for me, and I hope that this comes across in the article, is the way in which it manages to constantly push boundaries and redefines itself in terms of what kind of stories it can tell whilst also remaining true to its established characters and reality. It's a delicate balancing act that not manner shows manage, but Community consistently does.

Likewise, the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling, which I discuss in some depth, managed to push the show far beyond what it would normally do without losing sight of the central conflicts that the show was built around, even going so far as to use the exuberance and heightened emotions of the musical form to have the characters not only say but sing lines of dialogue that they would otherwise not say, or would not say without it seeming forced. The reveal at the end - that Buffy was in heaven and was wrenched from it by her friends - is one of the most hauntingly beautiful moments in the history of the show and it's one that could not have been done in a normal episode. It's such a melodramatic idea that it could only be voiced in a situation as melodramatic as a musical.

I had wanted to write about The Body, too, which is one of my favourite Buffy episodes, even if it reduces me to a blubbering wreck every time I watch it. Again, it tackles ideas and themes that the show might struggle to handle successfully in a normal episode, but in this instance the show went entirely in the opposite direction by stripping its style down to one that was incredibly minimalistic, using handheld cameras, no music and rawer, more realistic performances to create the sense of grief and confusion that the characters experience in the wake of a shocking and unexpected death. Unfortunately, the column was already quite long and even though I think that The Body gets my point across just as well as Once More With Feeling, the musical is ultimately flashier and the emotions are much broader, so they are easier to use as examples.

Hope Lies on Television #2 - Teleconventional Breakdown