Justified was always a Western, right down to the cowboy hat perpetually perched atop the head of Raylan Givens’ head, the U.S. Marshal with a quick trigger finger.
Every great Western, of course, needs a man in a black hat to stand on the other end of Main Street, squinting at the high-noon sun, as our hero lunges for his six-shooter. Enter Boyd Crowder.
Balding, with the hair in his back sticking straight up, Crowder’s visage isn’t close to the Tumblr-fan-page worthy mug of Givens. He doesn’t need to be.
After a mostly disappointing Season 5, one that strangely mistook deaths for stakes and blood for momentum, Justified hones in on the central conflict between Givens and Crowder. They grew up in the same shitty town, choking down the the same shitty coal-mine dust. One ended up an outlaw; the other ended up a lawman.
Boyd Crowder could be unarmed, surrounded by big men with big guns pointed directly at his face and still be the scariest man in the room. That isn’t because Crowder’s an especially impressive in combat.
It’s because he’ll start talking.
He’ll play the I’m-just-a-simple-country-fella card, even as his effortless loquacity betrays the mendacity of that particular conceit. He’ll swirl his monologue around like a tumbler of Kentucky whiskey, before drinking deep, savoring the sound of the words, swishing them in his mouth, letting their meaning hang for a moment. And then comes the burn.
Maybe's already paid off your cronies, and with a single word, the guns pointed at him turn to point at you. Maybe he’ll sweet talk you with a deal so persuasive you can’t help but lower your sights. Maybe he’s stalling you just long enough for Givens to burst in and force you to holster your weapon.
You got a sense that his swastika tattoo wasn’t a matter of racist ideology, but a sort of hood he could slip on to attract the right type of fools. Fools are plentiful in Harlan County. Givens has shot plenty of them. But only Crowder could make them dance.
Over the years Crowder's burned though a half-dozen possible personal motivations: Greed, envy, ego, control, the love of a good woman. None of those feel like the primary driver. There's something richer at play.
Actor Walton Goggins previous defining character, Shane Vendrall on The Shield, ended in one of TV’s great tragedies. There, you got the sense he was more of a victim – a weak man corrupted by proximity to corruption.
By contrast, Crowder, even when backed into the tightest of corners, always had control. Yet, he seemed obsessed with destiny — driven by a desire to escape his inevitable, fatal end and helplessly drawn to it. It’s the same for Givens. Neither can escape Harlan. Neither can escape the other.
For six seasons, Crowder and Givens have been playing Harlan Roulette with each other. This six-shooter has six bullets, and this season one or the other will pull the trigger for a sixth time.
Empire, a FOX melodrama about the behind the scenes hip-hop Empire Entertainment label, premiered last night to killer ratings. That’s good, because along with continuing this year's trend of broadcast TV kicking prestige cable’s lily-white ass in racial diversity, Empire is brimming with potential.
That’s because it understands how to establish stakes.
Stakes are the essential fuel of drama. You can have sparks from great acting and kindling from a killer premise – but without those ongoing stakes a show burns out quickly.
But — and this is what, say, most Marvel superhero movies don’t understand — stakes aren’t about the possibility the universe might be destroyed. They aren’t about nuclear bombs or magic cubes or presidential campaigns. Stakes don’t necessarily come out the barrel of a gun or at the end of a fist.
They’re about desires and fears. What does a character really, really want really really badly? How much ambition does she have to achieve it? What does she fear will happen if she doesn’t get it?
It’s why the tension in Coach Taylor’s marriage on Friday Night Lights matters so much more than the out-of-nowhere murder in Season 2. It’s why in Parenthood, Max’s obsessive campaign to bring Skittles to the middle school vending machine feels so much higher-stakes than his mother’s half-assed mayoral campaign. It’s not that the candy selection at Cedar Knoll Middle School is objectively more important than the leadership of the entire city of Berkeley. It’s that Skittles matter so much more to Max.
Stakes come from characters, not facts.
Empire implicitly gets that. Drenched in egotism, the lighting, cinematography, constant music and every melodramatic line of dialogue drives home how much each character cares about their goals.
Halfway through the pilot, Empire Entertainment CEO Lucious Lyon, announces to his family and executive that he’s dying of ALS (despite the Ice Bucket challenge) and one of them will have to take over after his death. And so, like the princes of yore, there’s a dynastic struggle for the throne. Business and family and prestige are the same sort of stakes that powered a soap opera like Dallas. And they work just as well here.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has made the argument several times that, because of the lack of consequence for breaking social mores these days, modern realistic fiction struggles to capture the drama of, say, Anna Karenina. But Empire gets around that with its setting: In the music industry, image is still everything, and everything speaks to your image.
And the industry is dying. The empire of Lucious is in its twilight years. As the family fights for control, they’re fighting over dwindling scraps. To that add deep veins of anger running through their relationships. And to that add the context of racism, greed, violence, desire, and homophobia.
Empire’s not perfect. The final scene ends with a murder of a barely established character, exactly the duller sort of stakes the show’s avoided elsewhere. The flashbacks are didactic, sometimes painfully cheesy.
But as flawed as the flashbacks are, they pound home character ambition – and not just for corporate power, but for love, acceptance, revenge, and all those classic dramatic elements. Empire’s success will depend on whether it can stoke the fire of those ambitions, and keep tossing fresh stakes on the flames.
Zombie apocalypse roadtrip Z Nation, the first TV series based out of Spokane, finishes up its first 13-episode season this Friday with probably more of the horror, gore and cheesy dialogue it has served up all fall. Throughout the show, the Inland Northwest has stood in for the entire country as a colorful group of survivors has traveled from New York across the midwest toward a laboratory in California.
While the show has secured a second season already, it seemed like a good time to take a look at how the Spokane area has been used to represent the U.S. Most of us at the Inlander got together to watch the pilot episode back in September, but few have followed along with the series.
But I have. Born and raised in Spokane, my favorite part has been keeping a sharp eye for local landmarks and chuckling at the absurdity of some of the settings. So for those who missed out, here’s a selection of Northwest sightings in Season One.
Nothing obvious pops up in Episode 1, so fleeing quickly to …
EPISODE 2: Fracking Zombies
As the crew of zombie survivors flees New York, a wide establishing shot depicts the massive Tappan Zee Bridge in Tarrytown, but quickly shifts to up-close footage of survivors smashing through a group of zombies on the blue Riverfront Park bridge. The group eventually stops after jamming the truck’s wheel wells with body parts.
EPISODE 3: Philly Feast
Spokane really gets to shine in the third episode, in which the city stands in for Philadelphia and even includes multiple deaths by Liberty Bell. The survivors spend most of the show cruising back and forth down First Avenue, passing the Otis Hotel, KHQ and ducking into nearby Railroad Alley.
See photos from the filming, which shutdown traffic several days and repeatedly trapped one of our writers in her apartment. Characters also patrol down Riverside Avenue and encounter a hungry horde of zombies in what seems to be the alley behind Scratch.
Spokane seems to fall off the radar for several episodes, but maybe I just missed a few. Skip to ...
EPISODE 8: Zunami
As the characters cross country, a “zunami” or zombie tsunami, traps them in a small Nebraska town. They spend much of the day holed up in a mortuary, but as they emerge dozens of the dead can be seen walking downtown Sprague, a rural grain town about 45 minutes west of Spokane. It's a tiny town I know well because my grandparents lived there and I used to buy penny candy at Kathy’s Family Foods, long before the zombies took over the place.
EPISODE 10: Going Nuclear
For one of my favorite replacements, the Spokane Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility gets recast as a nuclear reactor site that has turned zombies radioactive. The bulbous treatment domes tower over characters in hazmat suits and the river even gets to make an appearance.
Downtown Medical Lake also makes a brief appearance during a walk-and-talk about the dangers of nuclear undead.
Surely, I have missed a few recognizable locations. Several unique historic buildings pop up and a few scenes feature some of the region's distinctive basalt rock. You can catch up with full episodes here. Feel free to let us know about other Spokane locations if you’ve been able to pick them out.
Here’s a quick preview of Friday’s finale, titled “Doctor of the Dead,” which apparently takes us back to the Otis Hotel. It alludes to an explanation for the outbreak, but who knows what’s in store? Either way, I’ll be looking for more familiar places in Season Two.
And here's some of those places mapped.
And yet, their superhero shows, Arrow and The Flash, are so much better than those on other networks, like Gotham and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Some of this is because both come mostly free of baggage for the average viewer. Most people vaguely aware of comic books are familiar with The Flash (he’s that speedy dude, right?), but he hasn’t been a pervasive part of the pop cultural world the way Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men have been pounded into our psyche. Green Arrow is even more obscure, though he’s had roles on Smallville and animated shows like Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
This alleviates the terrible burden of expectations. Arrow (Wednesdays, 8 pm) takes place in Starling City and The Flash (Tuesdays, 8 pm) in Central City, not in Gotham or Metropolis. We don’t have to constantly question why Superman and Batman aren’t constantly part of plot lines, or why Iron Man and Thor aren’t constantly showing up to save them. Viewers don’t have to compare Grant Gustin’s performance as Barry Allen to, say, the performance of Val Kilmer, Adam West and Christian Bale.
In fact, The Flash had the freedom to somewhat reinvent the Flash origin story. (Particle Accelerators were hard to come by back in 1956. A lightning bolt and chemical spill had to suffice.)
But there’s a deeper lesson in these two shows, that very much can be credited to the CW. At its core, they’re CW shows, with all their beautiful people, love triangles, fancy clothes, nice cars and plot twists. The DNA of shows like Gossip Girl, in other words, has been spliced with the superhero's ethos.
CW has taken genres it already does well and dressed it up in superhero tights. A superhero show can’t just be about superpowers, just like Friday Night Lights would have failed if it were only about football. Superhero fights can barely sustain a three-hour movie, much less a TV season with a lower budget.
So on Arrow, Oliver Queen disguises himself as a rich, entitled douche to better keep his heroism secret. But this, of course, allows Arrow to spin out rich, entitled subplots that are interesting enough on their own. Arrow draws a lot on Count of Monte Cristo, essentially the original Batman story.
The Flash is show that, ironically, captures the light-hearted Marvel movie tone far better than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It has a Peter Parker sense of "Gee whiz!" and fun that Gotham never tries for and S.H.I.E.L.D struggles to balance with genuine stakes. Allen is young and gung-ho: The CW knows all about writing young and gung-ho.
A good test for any superhero show: Would this be an interesting show without any superpowers or action scenes? Is there anything of substance behind the mask? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is barely interesting with superpower action scenes. But you could take the Flashiness out of The Flash and have a decent twenty-something drama, or extract the Green Arrow from Arrow and have a decent one-percenter soap opera. Lengthy side plots in Arrow have nothing to do with the Green Arrow, but plenty to do with the drama between Oliver Queen and his friends.
In a way, it’s no surprise the CW manages this challenge. After all, the CW is the heir to the WB, the network that launched Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Joss Whedon show that deftly grafted high school drama and angst onto supernatural battles. Buffy’s worried about slaying vampires, yes, but she’s also worried about prom and graduation. (Partly, to be fair, because prom is besieged by demon dogs and the graduation speaker turns into a giant snake.)
Smallville ran a full 10 seasons, partly by withholding a lot of the superhero mythos (flight, for example) for a very long time. But it also strapped it all on a backbone of teen drama, which surely helped. Soapy plot twists are far cheaper than flashy special effects.
That doesn’t mean that every superhero show needs to be a teen drama. If Gotham was truly able to turn into a more subtle corrupt-cop show, in the style of The Chicago Code, it could be sustainable. For now, however, it has cops standing around essentially saying “Man, we are so crazy corrupt, ain’t we?” Corruption is subtle and pervasive. It’s about culture, and Gotham struggles to do anything subtle.
ABC’s No Ordinary Family tried to turn family drama into its superhero show, but its family dynamics were so dull and pedestrian it didn’t matter. Give the folks on Parenthood superpowers (Max already has superhuman tenacity on Skittles-related matters) on the other hand, and that would be interesting. And is there any doubt that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be better if it were run by Shonda Rhimes? (Rhimes is maybe the one show-runner who could write a version of Wonder Woman I’d watch.)
All of this, of course, is to say the secret to having a good superhero TV show is to have a good TV show, then just add superheroes. Even Batman can’t save leaden dialogue or dull characters.
How To Get Away With Murder, despite nearly every character acting the sneering villains the college comedy slackers would humble with a crazy prank, is shaping up to be one of the most enjoyable new shows. It’s got that shamelessly dramatic dialogue, monologues and plot-twists of the best guilty pleasures.
But almost immediately, it has a big flaw stuck into the very structure of the show: It gives us brief “flash-forwards” into a scene where the characters appear to be hurriedly covering up a murder.
The flash-forward gimmick is hardly a new one.
How To Get Away With Murder’s device is an almost exact ripoff of one of the worst parts of another legal thriller, Damages. That show parceled out the narrative in the present with brief glimpses of the future — horrible things happening to an ambitious legal mind due to her involvement with a take-no-prisoners female mentor. (How To Get Away With Murder distinguishes itself by giving us glimpses of horrible things happening to multiple ambitious legal minds due to their involvement with a take-no-prisoners female mentor.)
It’s a device that’s been used in shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and How I Met Your Mother. And it hurt every one of them.
Heck, there was even a television show called FlashForward that made this the entire premise – that everyone on earth sees a vision of themselves from the future — and it buckled and collapsed under the strain almost instantly.
The temptation for a writer to put a flash-forward in a pilot is understandable. It’s a promise: This is how crazy things will get. It’s supposed to be like your friend saying, "Hey, stick with it, the show gets really good around episode 22."
But flash-forwards ultimately are more like skeevy payday loan operations: They borrow interesting narrative from the future to spend in the present. And the interest rates are downright predatory.
To expand on that: One of the most enjoyable parts of watching TV is asking two fundamental questions: 1) What is happening now? 2) What will happen next? Yet a flashforward spoils the answer to #2 and makes the answer to #1 feel irrelevant. Both questions are replaced with “How does the story get from A to B?” (Or A to Z.) That’s not a mystery or an adventure. That’s a MapQuest printout.
A flashback is problematic because it kills narrative momentum by taking us out of the present. Why would I care about what happened six months ago? I want to know what’s happening now. But flash-forwards turn almost the entire show into one giant flashback. It cheapens what’s happening in the present by showing us the consequences.
Sometimes those flash-forwards are lies: They use unreliable narration, deceptive editing or trick camera angles to pretend something will happen when it won’t. But that breaks the trust between viewer and show, which greatly harms future seasons.
How I Met Your Mother had to bend over backwards to try to fulfill the many promises the show had made about the future and still surprise the audience. The result had the fans angry and revolting.
Other times, the flash-forwards are the exact truth, creating expectations difficult to fulfill: The reveal of Lost’s flash-forwards made for an iconic moment, for example, but the story struggled to fill in the gaps in a logical, satisfying way.
Mind you: A flash-forward can work brilliantly in long-form non-fiction journalism. Even novels, to a certain extent, can benefit from this sort of structure.
But a serialized TV drama is not a novel or long-form non-fiction. It is a serialized TV drama – and one of its biggest strengths should be its agility. The story is a living, breathing thing that can veer off in wonderfully surprising directions. A plotline that’s not working can be excised, a character can be killed off, a more interesting thread can be pulled. Most of the time, it’s not the vision of one mind, it’s a room of writers. Epiphany can strike and transform a show at any time.
Actors quit. Actors die. Ratings fall. Writers change their minds.
In some cases, a flash-forward can work within a single episode. A Breaking Bad episode opens with the serial image of bullet shells on the hood of a car, bouncing as hydraulics send the car up-and-down. It’s a tease more than a spoiler. It’s a poetic image that hooks and intrigues.
But Breaking Bad stumbled when it tried to create season-long flash-forwards. It famously began its 5th season with a bearded Walter White opening up his trunk to reveal a massive machine gun. At the time the writers had no idea what it would be used for.
The result was the worst of both worlds: The constraints of a perfectly planned show and the lack of foresight of an improvised one. Partly as a consequence, the finale to one of TV’s best shows of all time was, ultimately, disappointing.
How To Get Away With Murder doesn’t aspire to Breaking Bad’s greatness. But it wants to be surprising, fun and fast-paced – and flash-forwards make every one of those goals more difficult.
The show was created by Spokane film studio North by Northwest, in partnership with the Washington Farmers and Ranchers. The latter is an organization that helps promote the locally owned farmers in our state.
A new "food journey" is chronicled in each episode, beginning at a Washington farm where an ingredient or product is grown, and following the goods as they travel to a local restaurant to be prepared. Spokane restaurants Sante, Luna and the Steam Plant are among those to be featured in season two.
During the preview, the Magic Lantern is serving light hors d'oeuvres and drinks, because what's the point of watching a food show without snacks?
Northwest Cable News airs Washington Grown on Sundays at noon and 8:30 pm beginning this week. Episodes can also be streamed online the following Monday after its original airing at wagrown.com. Also on the site, find recipes for many of the featured ingredients and restaurants on the show. Several caught our eye — including Dick's fries and Sweet Frostings' cupcakes.
Tonight, How To Get Away With Murder launches, along with new seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. The same woman, arguably one of the most powerful showrunners on television, has her hands in all three: Shonda Rhimes.
Last week, that Rhimes got a lot of unanticipated press when New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley began her column on Rhimes with a line, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'” She continued to talk about how, in her show, Rhimes rises above that stereotype, reinvents and reclaims it.
Numerous critics, viewers and even Rhimes herself cried foul, concentrating on how the column was racially insensitive.
In other words, a show like Key and Peele channels and subverts racial stereotypes every week, and there would be nothing wrong about pointing that out (including the stereotype of the Angry Black Man.)
But here, Stanley got Rhimes completely wrong. Anger and race isn’t what makes her interesting. No, she’s interesting for the way she deals with the entire range of emotions with characters of all races, genders and sexual orientations.
That Stanley honed in on single stereotype that did not represent the the thrust of her work – that’s what was racially offensive.
Yes, Rhimes' shows sometimes thrive on anger. But that’s just one color in her palette that she uses to paint bright, vivid, sometimes absurd and surreal TV shows.
I often refer to them as "Strong Woman Crying" shows, but that isn't meant to be an insult. In many shows, Strong Woman is a synonym for Dull Woman. She understands that men and women can be strong and competent, but also weak, brittle, ill-tempered and foolish. And that is where drama often comes from. At times it drags the show down, makes it repetitive and exhausting. Other times, it invigorates the show, injects it with an unhinged kind of energy.
It’s been a long time since I’ve watched Grey’s Anatomy (appropriately timed trivia fact: Katherine Heigl’s Izzie Stevens character was a graduate of the University of Washington school of medicine.) But from what I remember of Grey’s, it was infused with the same sort of wonderful over-the-top style as Scandal.
Yes, they all have lots of plot twists and life-or-death moments, but that’s not what invigorates them. It’s this overpowering sense of momentum and emotion and desire that sends characters hurtling in wild directions.
It’s melodrama, yes. It’s soap opera, yes. But neither of those things are bad things when they’re executed skillfully. And if nothing else, Rhimes knows what she’s doing.
Stylistically, she’s maybe the closest match to West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, with her tendency to have characters deliver hyper-articulate barnburner speeches at the drop of a hat. But where the passion in Sorkin’s comes through wonkery – a Great Man standing before a podium and firing off rat-a-tat-tat statistics and studies to decimate his doofus of an opponent – Rhimes' monologues are almost entirely about emotional desire. They’re the equivalent of an “I Want” song from a musical: One character stands before the other, and the words just come spilling out with rhythms and beats and crescendos.
These are the sorts of monologues that we fantasize about delivering to the people we care about most, telling them why we love them or telling them why we hate them. It’s a pep talk, telling them that the whole world is counting on them. It’s the tell-off speech, telling them they screwed up royally and it will cost them every single thing they’ve ever wanted. It's ultimatum as music. These are the climactic epic monologues that most movies get one of. Rhimes throws them out in nearly every single episode.
(Life lesson: In my experience, Rhimes-style Choose Me monologues are sadly not nearly as effective in romantic relationships as in real life.)
And it’s here that actors like Jeff Perry get a chance to show us some of TV’s best acting. It’s here where politically infused shows like 24 and House of Cards could take a lesson. Political drama isn’t about talking points. It’s about the motivations and desire behind it all.
A show like The Good Wife does a much better job at portraying actual adult relationships, where things like duty and family actually matter, where the right choice often means repressing all those emotions. But, like musicals, like poetry, the unrealism in Scandal is there to speak to a deeper reality, to how feelings really feel, stripped away from all that sense and rationality.
So, no, her characters don’t act like adults. But neither do our hearts and minds and guts. She captures that uncivilized adolescent id inside us all. We humans are whiny. We humans are angry. We’re overcome with desire and depression and anxiety and burning passion and self-destruction, though we manage to make the right choices in the end. Most of us. Usually.
Rhimes’ characters mostly don’t. Even a character like Olivia Pope, a paragon of intellect and competence, can’t stop her desires from sabotaging her life in every way.
That isn’t exclusively a female thing, by the way. Practically every character in Scandal follows his or her heart, and other body parts, into stupid, stupid places. But that’s the beauty of it. That’s the fun, and insight, of visiting that what-if world of unrealistic plot twists and unrealistic speeches.
It has nothing to do with being angry. It has nothing to do with being black. It has everything to do with knowing what it’s like, in our most heightened, insane moments, to be human.
There was a time when Sons of Anarchy, the gritty biker gang drama, flirted with greatness.
But today, with its 7th and final season premiering next Tuesday, that greatness is a distant memory. Instead, the most enjoyable thing lately about Sons of Anarchy is unpacking its succession of flaws: The dry exposition. The boring lead. The lackluster action scenes. The tendency to change the status quo far, far too late. Everything having to do with Ireland.
But lately, there’s been another problem, one once practically unheard of on television: Even at 42 minutes, Sons of Anarchy could be a slog. And yet, it often insisted on stretching that slog out even further. Nearly every single episode is supersized, running far beyond the typical TV drama running time.
Two of the 13 episodes in Season 5 were an hour long, and an additional three stretched 46 minutes or longer. In Season 6, the problem was even worse: The shortest episode was 52 minutes, and nine of them topped an hour. That meant more time for dreary musical montages, more check-ins with every tertiary character, more repetitive conversations where characters state their motivations and frustrations outright.
The supersized TV episode used to be a rare phenomenon, a gift for fans saved for series finales or holiday specials. But lately, networks like FX have given their show-runners far more free reign to experiment. And in the same way word counts no longer apply to the infinite expanses of the internet, Netflix has given writers opportunity to bust through length restrictions at their whims.
But just because an article can be 10,000 words doesn’t mean it should be. Remember the hour-long episodes of The Office, bloated and dull? Or the interminable early episodes of the Netflix-season of Arrested Development?
Or consider BBC’s Sherlock’s, where the extra-long episodes are just an excuse to meander down fitfully amusing rabbit trails or stage zany slapstick scenes with bouncy music.
Sherlock suffers two ways: It’s too short and it’s too long. Each season has a scant three episodes, but each of them last 90 minutes a piece. A typical procedural mystery shows often struggle to fill 42 minutes with interesting twists and character insights. And Sherlock Holmes basically invented the typical procedural mystery show.
Sherlock is not exactly CSI: Baker Street, but the extra length doesn't improve the show. Instead, it just contributes to lumpy, unevenly constructed episodes.
Sherlock frames one episode’s mystery nearly entirely through a boorish wedding toast given by Sherlock Holmes to dear Watson. The central conceit is that of course Sherlock would hijack a toast to make it about him. Then, in an attempt at sentimentality, Sherlock explains it is precisely the fact that Watson tolerates someone like Sherlock as a friend that makes Watson a wonderful human being.
Except, the sheer length of the episode drags the toast, and the story it frames, out to a length where Sherlock goes from lovably socially awkward to downright sociopathic at his best friend's wedding.
Granted, 90 minutes is positively sleek by movie standards. Yet television typically has different demands for its narrative structure than a movie. TV’s domain, particularly serialized TV like Sons of Anarchy, is the long, fat middle of stories.
TV writers have trained for the three-act half-hour sitcom and the five-or-four-act drama – give them more minutes and that structure may suddenly not apply. Supersizing an episode is like asking an 800-meter track star to take up the steeplechase: You expect them to occasionally stumble and get winded. It doesn’t mean they can’t do a fine job. But it’s not their specialty.
The secret, I think, to pulling off a longer episode, is not necessarily through a higher quantity of scenes or an increase in subplots, but through longer, more focused scenes. Many shows flit back and forth between characters, through two minute or three minute check-ins. But often the best moments are when the shows allow themselves to truly slow down, to savor the moment. Witness one of my favorite scenes of Game of Thrones this year, where Oberyn Martell, who hates the Lannister family like few others, promises to risk his life to defend Tyrion Lannister. It’s a moment that could easily have been shorter or faster-paced or told through flashbacks, but it resists that urge, focuses on the quiet and the character.
Supersized episodes, theoretically, could be used for more of these scenes. (Game of Thrones certainly benefits whenever it focuses.) Shows could use their extra running time to go deeper instead of broader or more redundant. In Treatment, the innovative HBO drama set almost entirely in therapy sessions, thrives with the slightly longer episode lengths. And that drama typically only consisted of one 30-minute scene per episode, with only two people talking.
The trick is having the interesting characters, motivations, and stories to fill those longer scenes. The fact that Sons of Anarchy often doesn’t have those – well, that’s a bigger problem entirely.
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