Love letter to David Simon

Television as it should be

We decided a few weeks back that it was time to introduce the children to The Wire, which is also referred to in our household as The Best Show Ever Made For Television.  (There will be no arguments on this point.  If you have seen it and disagree, we might not be able to be friends.  I’m just saying.)

The Wire is easily the most complex television show ever produced, a sprawling novel of a series with hundreds of named characters, meandering subplots woven into other subplots subsumed into larger themes, orchestrated with virtuoso dialogue and brilliant direction.  If you haven’t seen it, hit yourself in the forehead and go out and buy the series.[youtube=]

It’s the direction and editing that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.  When I’m not writing novels I’ve been known to be a screenwriter (and a reformed playwright) and thus am an aficionado of good dialogue, but what I’m really learning from David Simon is how good directing and editing can work with good dialogue to create something That Much Better.

Just kill me

Look, if you must, at any episode of 24.  Count the number of times exposition is delivered.  You will find that of the 44 minutes of show time roughly 72 minutes of it is devoted to expository dialogue.  It’s very difficult to not feel insulted, actually.  I imagine the show bible reads something like this:

Jack Bauer doesn't think you're funny

  1. Previouslies, in which everything that happened last week is excerpted;
  2. Opening scene, in which characters frame their current circumstance by describing in awkward dialogue exactly what happened to get them to this point, even though we just saw this in the previouslies;
  3. Brief action (1 minute or less);
  4. Meeting among CTU personnel to discuss what just happened, and what’s going to happen next;
  5. Subplot, in which characters discuss the pertinent events that have already transpired in this subplot, even though we just saw this in the previouslies;
  6. Jack Bauer rapes a suspect or something;
  7. Meeting, in which Jack’s actions are discussed;
  8. Commercial to sell the car Jack was just driving.

And so on.  The takeaway from this is, A: television producers think you are stupid; B: the writers have nothing to put into the mouths of these characters except plot information which means; C: the characters are barely two dimensional.

My show got canceled? How did I not see that coming?

And this is not just something you see in 24. We were excited for the show Flashforward because it looked like a neat concept, but we were beaten over the head with exposition–flashbacks (irony!) to remembered sequences that we’d have to be mentally unbalanced to have forgotten–so much it made the show simply impossible to watch.  And this seems to be true for most complicated serialized dramas nowadays.

Hello, Major Exposition!

The Wire is a hundred times more complicated than 24 or Flashforward or Lost or anything else you can name, yet on the show exposition–visual or aural–is delivered once, naturally, and then the scene is over.  No lingering on the point to make sure you’ve gotten it.  Boom, cut, move on to the next scene.

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Aside: when I say “naturally” what I mean is that there are no moments that are self-evidently there only to deliver expository information.  Think of every single conversation between characters on CSI.  Two trained crime scene investigators shouldn’t need to discuss what a particular chemical trace discovery means, yet one will say to the other, “so this means…”  It’s all for the audience.

*   *   *

Treme and the art of the edit

This is especially evident in Simon’s current series, Treme, about New Orleans after Katrina.  There is no large, overarching plot: just scenes from the lives of a dozen characters in different parts of the city, with the only unifying factor being the city and the music of the city.  It should be, in other words, incredibly boring.

(A show created a couple of years ago called Six Degrees tried something similar in New York City, and it was incredibly boring.)

Treme isn’t boring, though; it’s incredibly watchable.   Why?  There’s the writing, sure, which is breathtakingly good.  But good writing isn’t always enough.

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Aside: the best pure writing not involving David Simon, for television, may have been Aaron Sorkin‘s three seasons of The West Wing.  His solution to having people sitting around all day and discussing policy–which would have been dull no matter how sparkling the dialogue–was to have the characters walking constantly.  it became a joke unto itself–the pedeconference–but it worked; by making the characters active while in the process of discussing at great speed some moderately complicated ideas, Sorkin created the illusion of action where there was none.

*   *   *

Look at the way Treme is edited.  Compared to regular television shows, scenes are cut one or two beats early (again: get the exposition, get out) which gives one a sense of falling forward while watching.  The events transpiring are little things, but the editing keeps you anxious, on your toes, engaged because there is no point to relax and anticipate what’s going to happen next.

It is not merely the writing or the plotting or even the music or visuals that keeps it interesting, it’s the pacing of the show itself.  And that pacing comes from direction and scene editing.

So when you get a chance

I assume you’re already on Amazon checking out prices for the complete boxed set of The Wire, but pop over to HBO when you can and take a look at Treme, at least long enough to see what I mean.  Editing is an under-appreciated art, and here is a fine example of how important good editing can be.

And when a screenwriter is telling you that, you know there must be something to it.

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