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Smite the Soapies

Photo: David Hiser, 1972.

A screenwriter’s prayer in the Golden Age of Television

When the God of the Israelites figured he had a story to tell, his angels pointed out just how much material he had. ‘You should write a series,’ they said. Made sense. After all, this was back in a Golden Age of longform narrative. Steles and stones were chiselled with every imaginable twist and turn in the lives of their indefatigable protagonists.

The angels were excited, reeling off dramatic highlights from the creator’s vast history that they felt simply had to be included. ‘It’ll make a great series,’ they said.

And lo, the Good Book came to pass.

But luckily for those of us who like writing that crackles, the good Lord didn’t pander to his lesser angels or ape his Golden Age peers in the lavish fulsomeness of their epics, but instead had his holy typists prepare for us only glimpses and shards of the story. Formally speaking, the  Scriptures are fragments charged with contradiction, doubt, terror, grace, humiliation, guilt – and a brutally real incompleteness that leaves space for non-ideological readers to lose captaincy of ourselves and our drive to interpret and control.

Thus we give praise to the Lord for delivering an aesthetic instability so profound that it makes us unable to look straight at even the starkest and most drastic events. Shock and awe.

God, it turns out, was not a herd animal but the greatest artist of his generation.

When his tormented plaything, Job, asks, ‘Why did I not die at birth?’, the answer doesn’t launch an all-explaining run of episodes or recurring flashbacks about Job’s childhood and his relationship with his mother. No. Even such a meddling control-freak as God had enough respect for his audience, his characters, his audience of characters, routinely to leave questions unanswered.

Hell, when his own son cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, Jesus gets no reply. We get no voiceover.

Now, there was a Golden Age.

Why tell you all this? Because thousands of years later I find myself in the same position as God. I have a story that must be told – well actually, told again but this time for the screen because prose is passé – and as I work on the adaptation the spirits around me whisper relentlessly: ‘You should write a series.’

For once more we are living in a Golden Age —  of Television. No longer the ‘idiot box’, television has been majestically reborn by cable and the internet to the extent where it has the gravitational pull to deplete cinema of serious talent.

It used to be that buying magazines that covered telly marked people out as plebs, but now the likes of the London Review of Books, Harpers, and the New Yorker ruminate on the artistry and cultural interplay of notable TV series and their writers. So with the air of aesthetes we can binge and binge and binge on sagas of meth cooks, Vikings, bikies, androids, narcs, narcos, royals, gangsters, schoolgirls, prisoners, gay kids, singing kids, hackers, clones, rich women, poor families, orphans, rednecks, athletes, ad-execs, superheroes, and more – more including lawyers, castaways, quiet cops, loud cops, wrestlers, comedians, politicians, journalists, hookers, doctors, handmaidens, zombies, carnies, cowboys, cooks, soldiers, serial killers, suicides, astronauts, vampires, and more. And more and more and more.

‘Binge on the best,’ says a current advertising slogan for streaming service Stan. Binge: to lose control of one’s appetites; to be a glutton; to hide from reality behind a mountain of consumption. Fair enough. But ‘the best’? No. Not yet. Not while we have forgotten the stark lessons of the Lord and instead let our storytelling slip back into the mould of interminable bloody soap operas.

The plain-as-day Dallas quality of Sons of Anarchy makes my argument easy –  so instead consider another piece of prestige television, Mr Robot. Originally intending to make this sometimes deliriously striking, often ultra-stylish piece of work as a feature film, Sam Esmail cut the bag open and out fell a series.

Greatness can be forged in the constraints and discipline of a feature film. Look how consistently spellbinding Cary Fukunaga’s (streamed) movie, Beasts of No Nation, was compared to his appealing but choppy series, True Detective.

Esmail, however, went with the flow and made a series. Ok. So did God. Might still be good. Unfortunately, however, Esmail became infected with the zeitgeist-virus that renders showrunners indecisive and overdetermined: imaginative to the point of mania – yet unwilling to leave anything up to the imagination.

And so Mr Robot, like so many exemplars of the so-called Golden Age of Television, slides into soap: mechanically answering almost every question it raises of character and sensibility; killing almost every mystery it evokes of mind and being.

What a waste.

Mr Robot’s folly brings up what Princeton professor of philosophy Alexander Nehamas writes in comparing the artistic worth of two painters: Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh and American kitschist Thomas Kinkade:

If the experience of beauty is already complete, no sophisticated analysis can affect it, and the aesthete’s urbane appreciation begins to look like a deceitful version of the lowbrow’s sentimental bliss.

God and I think this is just as true when, rather than contemplating beauty, we  experience a story. To be enraptured by it, we neither want nor need it to be complete – not in the more literal understanding of completeness as demonstrated by Esmail, Songs of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan, Jenji Kohan of Orange is the New Black, Ronald D. Moore of the interminable Battlestar Galactica ‘quality’ remake, David Simon in The Wire, his top-shelf long-lunch serving of cop clichés, and so many other makers of today’s gilded melodramas.

For if everything is explored and explained then the life is gone. Any lingering awe is more an appreciation of tight mechanics (or merely having ticked off yet another epic bloody soapie) than it is an enduring sense of the sublime. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell says, we encounter the sublime when our ego is overwhelmed by what we experience and our grasp on the world and its ethics are wiped out. The sublime is not what comes when we kick back for a show, tick off the puzzles as they’re solved for us, and wade through endless back-and-side stories. Instead, it comes with that terrible, exquisite thrust beyond final explanation.

What particular nature and nurturing produced the iconic Randle McMurphy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? If Milos Forman was forty years younger and looking at adapting it now, perhaps the spirits flitting about him would be whispering: ‘That’d make a great series.’ And so for season after season we’d follow in laborious depth the exploits, backstory and tangents of McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, Chief Bromden, and everybody else until it is as overdetermined and tedious as Orange is the New Black (now nudging seventy episodes).

God only knows just how forced the politics of the Chief Bromden episodes would be, let alone the frustrated ‘character development’ scenes of Nurse Ratched’s. But thankfully Ken Kesey and Forman left so much room for McMurphy – a lifeforce of both prose and screen – to be autonomous from us, and to deny us access to his secrets.

Maybe I’m just kicking against the pricks, but I reckon that when screenwriters once again realise the beauty of saying no to their audiences, you’re not getting everything, then maybe we really will live in the Golden Age of Television. In the meantime, I’ll push on with this true-crime madness-pill of a screenplay.