I’ve been watching more cable television shows lately, to the point where I now watch them almost exclusively over network fare (call me an elitist, but really, watch anything on AMC and see how easy it is going back to FOX). My latest such acquisition is Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy, which had been reccommended to me as gritty and high-octane family drama.
It’s not bad. The performances are usually commendable, especially those of Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal. The writing is decent (sometimes less so, but usually enjoyable). The themes of secrecy, familial conflict, and the somber realization that one’s way of life has become anachronistic, are handled well. And yet, while watching it and other television shows lately, I’ve found myself falling mentally asleep: consuming them more than engaging them, watching passively rather than becoming invested in the stories. Is this a symptom of binge watching half a season in a few days? A result of growing cynicism of all TV drama that isn’t Breaking Bad? Or something else entirely?
All of these may be factors– but the real answer, I believe, is that they employ a very conventional cinematic language. This had been true of SOA since the beginning, but it didn’t hit me until I realized, watching late one night, that I could accurately predict the commercial breaks and even scene breaks of the episode. The shots consisted of establishing, medium, and reverse. The editing was clean and non-descript, following the cinematography. It was entirely constructed of the Hollywood patterns we’ve all been accustomed to since childhood. It was all the same; why would I not be able to predict it?
It doesn’t just mean “better” production value, and it doesn’t just mean “different” either. It’s tough: try too hard to define a unique language for your film without reasons to back it up, and you’ll end up with a style that speaks louder than the story it’s meant to support– or worse, conflicts with it. Don’t try hard enough, and the result will look and feel like every other film that came out this year. But as much of a risk the process may be, it’s better than the alternative.
Originality may be the most critical component in avoiding what the real problem of conventionality is– it fosters predictability. It’s cinematic predictability that lulls me to figurative sleep, and while not a conscious aspect of viewing for most people, I think is a major factor in separating a good film or TV show from a great one. Breaking Bad may have a twisty plot, but it’s supported by an equally novel and compelling shooting and editing style. The Sopranos may be a dense, naturalist view of family life and organized crime, but its non-commitance to act structures, or even episodic arcs, makes it stand out and exceed the constraints of its medium. These are things that keep me on my toes while watching, things that keep me literaly, and figuratively awake.
I’ll admit that this is not a universal truth. Again– perhaps most notably in comedies and documentaries– too strong or too unconventional a cinematic style can end up shifting emphasis away from the content. Obviously not desirable. But in most film and television, to most effectively exploit the medium, language must be hand in hand with story; otherwise, the most serialized TV will effectively be a procedural in the unaffected minds of your audience.