Vague ramblings

Memo to fans: let the storyteller tell it

Posted in Fiction by Ian Cundell on 25 May, 2010

The past week has seen the conclusion of two popular (probably influential, arguably seminal) TV series, the BBC’s Life on Mars/ Ashes to Ashes and ABC’s Lost.

Both series dealt with strikingly similar themes (I’ll put them under the broad heading of “letting go”) and both have, in their respective runs, exhibited many of the strengths and weakness of the TV cultures in which they were created. For me, the end of Ashes to Asheswas, mostly, a model of taut economy in the handling of emotion, while Lost slightly slapped the emotion on with a trowel, but both were satisfying conclusions to their shows – well, for all but a certain type of fan.

A trundle around fans sites shows this type of fan: the type who think they own the show. Beware, sweeping generalisations to follow: This group is made up largely of those who want the mysteries solved, who want to know, for example, where Lost Island’s light came from, exactly who Nelson is at The Railway Inn and so on. People who declared that the writers “failed” in not explaining everything. In short, the people who know slightly less than jack shit about the nature and purpose of storytelling.

In even shorter: the wailing fanboys.

Sorry, is that a bit blunt? If you are going to be so damned obsessed with puzzle solving that you miss, say, the skill with which the full emotional implications of Kate’s “I’ve missed you so much” was delayed until the final reveal, then bluntness is what you deserve. Pay attention in future. And if you are going to ignore minutes on end of screen time because it doesn’t fit your “failure” narrative, it is no-one’s fault but your own if you get mocked (OK, I admit it – browsing fan forums is a guilty pleasure).

It’s not that there aren’t top quality ‘formula’ shows – US television excels at them, from police procedurals, to teen angsts dramas, to sitcoms. But such shows rarely indicate a sense of direction, driven more by the need to come up with something “new” rather than work to a conclusion. Stories like Lost and Ashes to Ashes are not that type of story (it is telling that Lost only really gained narrative focus and shook off the vague “shaggy dog story” feel after it was given a clear end date  – funny that).

So don’t presume that you own the story: If it is bad writing that is one thing, but if it doesn’t fit the formula, that is because it is not a formula story and if you thought it was then you weren’t paying attention. If the story turns out not to be the one you thought it was, then don’t tell the writers they let you down and are idiots. Not until you have given it a crack yourself, and found out if anybody gives a damn how the MacGuffin Machine works.

Because it is bad enough that writers of real talent have to struggle in an expensive and risky medium, in the face of cautious outlets; it is much worse when they have to do it to a wailing chorus making noise in gross disproportion to its insight.

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