Saturday, October 11, 2014

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #5: DRAMA SERIES STRUCTURE



Book 'em Dano. No, Dano here? Alright, the rest of you, take your notebooks out, there are eight million drama series in television landscape, and we're gonna go over all of them. I'm kidding, that's from "Naked City", which was one of the first TV shows, to be adapted from a movie. It's also a classic procedural drama series.

Now, before we move onto structure, apparently a lot of people, have found it difficult understanding, what exactly a drama series is. I know, the Academy has run amuck with this, and has got to start getting a great hold on a better definition or two or three, and people seem to think that many shows nowadays lie somewhere in the middle between comedy and drama, but that's not how we're describing drama series here. Now, if you remember last class, we talked about how 99% of sitcoms essentially can be described as either workplace or family sitcoms? Okay, and then I talked about two words that describe most drama series, what were they? Who wrote it down? It was continuous, or serialized, drama series, which means, the focus is on a continuous storyline, sorta like a soap opera, or the other was procedural drama series. Okay, now I talked about this, but I didn't quite specify the other aspects of a drama series. Now, what I didn't properly is define the characteristics of a drama series, compared to a comedy. So we're gonna do that, 'cause apparently this is confusing because, while comedy could be all-encompassing, like action-comedy, or sci-fi comedy, even in television, there's a few like "Futurama" or something, or "Spaced" which combine genres with comedy, sitcoms are still, based around that idea of workplace or family, in some manner, often in both manners. Dramas are all over the map.

For instance, this is how this came up, I asked a trivia question on FB about which Drama Series finale episode, was the highest rated, anybody gotta a quick guess? No, no, no- If you don't know, don't guess, 'cause you'll never get it unless you actually looked it up; it's "Magnum, P.I." the answer btw. And somebody yelled up, "That's not a drama series, that's an action series". Um, no, it's a drama series, yes it has some action in it and that action, is the base of it's drama, so drama series. BTW, about 100 people, after seeing that question, guessed "M*A*S*H", which isn't a drama series. It's a sitcom. I know, it's the one that pushed the line, and many episodes are dramatic, it's a dramedy, but here's the thing, comedy and sitcoms in particular, are a very particular structure, and it's not about making you laugh. It really isn't, It's the following of the tone and structures of comedy, as well as the taking a comedic approach to the material that makes it a comedy. If I told you a story about anti-semitism, and loansharking, and a runaway daughter, and love and a threaten of violent death, from a petrified old man who's slowly going crazy as he loses everything and everyone around him and is looking for revenge, and literally out for a pound of flesh, you wouldn't think, comedy. And if you saw the version of "The Merchant of Venice" with Pacino as Shylock, you really might not think comedy, 'cause they a different inflection on the material, but the actual play, it's a comedy. That's the real difference, so this is why "M*A*S*H" and a few other shows are comedies and not actually drama, no matter what the Academy let's them call themselves that. Now, back to "Magnum, P.I.", it's an hour long, which most dramas are, not all, but, it's also not skewing towards the comedy, it's taking it's material in a dramatic manner, although there's some comedy involved, and most importantly, it's a procedural, as opposed to the other kind, serialized or continuous drama series. It fits easily into procedural. In most episodes, Magnum, a private investigator has a new case he's investigating on, and by the end of most episodes, there's a conclusion to the case. It's a very traditional procedural. Even then, frankly, it wasn't particularly new. It also had long-term storylines as well, they were told, more at the corners of the screen however. Is Higgins the mysterious millionaire or whatever, and many shows, from the beginning of television, have a little bit of both. Lawyer shows, like "L.A. Law" or "The Practice" or "The Good Wife", they're great examples of doing both, a long-term storyline but essentially, most episodes, are procedurals. One or two cases they're going to court over, and struggling to win, and then there's other stories along the edges of the screen, about how the cases effect them, or not, or their own personal lives, outside the courtroom. They do both, but episode structure-wise, most episodes, procedural. Even "Dexter" essentially, each episode, he'd investigate somebody, tries to capture the guy then, usually he kills the guy when he finds the culprit. Reveal the murder at the end, kill the murderer at the end, not that much difference. Then, other shit would happen occasionally, through him often as a subset of his behavior during the procedural part. He got married, had a kid, etc. etc., kinda lost some of the procedural focus, although not really though, 'cause it still essentially was investigate, find then kill, just spread out over a season and not an episode, but good dramas do a little of both. Think, "The Fugitive", probably the earliest, or most famous of the early ones that do this; it seems like a serialized drama, with a continuous ongoing storyline, but look closely at it, most of the episodes, involve Dr. Richard Kimble, hiding from Police of course, investigating his wife's killer if he can, but he's usually in a new town or a new situation to hide, effect change in some way, and then leave. There's a formula to most of the episodes, a structure. First commercial, cold open, shocking event, second commercial, new revelation one event, third commercial then, Dr. House finally thinks he's right, but then talks to someone, and realizes he's wrong, and it's a new diagnosis, etc. etc.  Procedural dramas. "Star Trek" is a procedural drama. Each week, the cast and crew come across something new, then they investigate and deal with the something new, whether it Klingons or Tribbles, and then they solve the problem, and then, they're onto a new problem next week. Drama is conflict, that's what the real definition of drama is, but it's watching a show, and things constantly happening that makes the audience go, "Oh fuck!", instead, "Hahaha, uh-oh." That's your difference between drama and comedy, and all of the dramas series, they follow this formulas, and that's a good thing, 'cause when they drop the formula, and do something, slightly off, usually you remember it. The one case Perry Mason lost for instance. "Bonanza", not just a western, it's a drama series. "The X-Files", not a sci-fi show, drama series, they're both procedurals too. "The Twilight Zone", anthology shows are by definition procedurals, there's nothing else there except what happens that episode or nowadays, that season, "Dallas", now we're into, serialized shows. Even those shows have the same dramatic beats, per se, it's gets a little tricky when we start thinking of cable drama series, which don't need those, something interesting happen at this commercial here, points, but still, you'll notice the tonal pattern episode by episode if you study enough of them, but the real difference, the focus isn't a rigid pattern of actions like a procedural, it's focus is the long-form narrative story of the characters. These are the "Previously on..." shows. Those ones that begin with "Previously on..." and show a few clips usually, 'cause most everything, is connected, and their character arc that go over episodes, and it's as much a focus or the primary focus of the show, these characters and what they're doing. 

I hope that clears up, the procedural versus serialized show, and the drama series vs. comedy series debates; that second part, really shouldn't have been a debate, but oh well. Alright, now, episode structure of a drama series, and again, eh, cable dramas can break from this a little more easily especially premium cable like HBO and Showtime, channels, they're not burdened with commercials, so they have a free reign to stray more often, but essentially, eh, well, since I brought it up, let's take "House, M.D." as an example, a typical "House," starts with somebody we don't know, getting sick, unexpectedly. This is the cold open, every show has a version of this. The previously on... can be the cold open sometimes, sitcoms, open cold, like "Mad About You" had great cold opens for instance, usually before the opening credits and theme son, even with dramas, they've actually been opening before the theme, probably since "Dragnet," maybe earlier. Now usually, this case, the major plot/problem of the episode that needs to get resolved, is the main plot, now while most comedy series, usually have one, subplot an episodes, dramas probably have two, maybe three per episode on average; it you're a serialized show, it could be as many as five or six sometimes, like "Big Love", or "Dexter", often had way too many subplots going at once, during some of their more chaotic seasons and episodes, but usually there's two. Now, "House" is a good example, there's usually two major ones per episode, like one involving, his subordinates trying to help him solve the patient's case, sometimes arguing with each other, with House himself, doing the procedures they decide on, etc. Then, there's often a second subplot, that's more comical in nature. This usually in "House" involves Dr. House pissing off one of his bosses, or equals, and undermining them at every turn, while they try to get back at him somehow, or House tries to get back at them for underminding him. Think of like, the great disaster things that would happen in like "The Sopranos", like Paulie Walnuts and Christopher stuck in the cold forever or something like that, this is really classic Shakespearean structure, the foibles of the lower class in some way undermine the seriousness of the upper class, or the more relevant main plotline. With "House", usually by the first commercial, they've tried to resolve the main problem, and it doesn't work, and usually, this causes a bigger problem, and that goes to the 2nd commercial, while the other subplots also evolve. This is usually repeated one more time to make the main problem even worst, and then, inevitably, somehow the problem becomes resolved at the end, with the other subplots, either fluttering away, or sometimes, they might also be perpetuated to continue and inevitably become a later main plot. It's really not, that different than all the other writing structures, beginning, middle, end, and whatnot. Even in serialized dramas though, this format holds up. Think, eh, hmm, let's find a recent...- oh, "Breaking Bad", let's take the "Dead Freight" episode, that's a good example. A very serialized series, but in this episode, there's a main plot, involving Walter White, robbing a train. They find out about the train, they then plan the heist, and Walt uses his science knowledge and the skills he has, to steal the methylamine from the train, without anybody realizing it. Now, it does get resolved, this train robbert, which is the main focus, there are a couple subplots involved too, but the only real big difference is that, as an episode, it's one part, telling one side of a major whole story. So while, there's a resolution to the main story, of the episode, it simultaneously, sets up another problem, that has to be dealt with later, and we expect it to be discussed or mentioned in the next episodes somehow, sometimes it'll be the plot. You don't have to make it, entirely obvious or even set it up well, or at all, sometimes, but the main distinction with a serialized series is that the resolution, inevitably leads into the next episode, in some way, setting up the conceit of the long-form narrative of the series. The fact that this episode occurred inherently impacts the actions/results etc. of the next episodes, and so on and so forth continuously. That's a serialized series, and in this instance, a serialized drama.

HOMEWORK: And after last week's everybody having so much trouble, I'm a little reluctant, but here we go. Take a drama series, favorite of yours, you should know, by now, whether it's a procedural or a serialized drama, and I want you to single out a few favorite episodes, and look them up, rewatch, be careful, 'cause you might remember certain parts of the episode much more clearly than you would, the reason you recall it being a great episode, ("18th and Potomac" for instance of "The West Wing", I can barely remember anything that happens before the last 90 seconds of that episode) and we're gonna analyze these, what kind of show, procedural, or serialize, but we're doing it, with the episode, how are these episodes structured? Is this a typical episode structure for the series? If not, what makes it atypical? You know, break it down, really identify the parts of the episode, the structure, etc. And we are gonna do, the reverse game, take a series, and consider how it'd be, if it switch from a predominantly serialized show to a procedural or vice-versa, but do this exercise, in particular, with your favorite episodes you're picking. Consider how they would change. How much? How little? In what ways...? Could the episode work doing that? Could the show work doing that?

Okay folks, who loves ya baby? Well, not me, if I did, I would've let you out earlier. Alright, take care everyone, and don't hit the moose that's walking around outside.

In case you guys missed an earlier class:
CLASS #1
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/08/tv-viewing-101-class-1-syllabus-intro.html

CLASS #2
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/08/tv-viewing-101-class-2-sitcoms.html

CLASS #3
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/09/tv-viewing-101-class-3-sitcom-structure.html

CLASS #4
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/09/tv-viewing-101-class-4-sitcom-wrap-up.html




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