Thursday, May 20, 2004

T.V. And Story Telling

(This post completely spoils the series finale of Angel)

Well, it's the end of an an era for these guys. But while they are talking about the end of their church, I'm going to talk about TV!

As a cultural medium, TV doesn't get much respect. It's the boob tube, the idiot box. I tend to think otherwise: I think TV is an incredible medium for both non-fiction (think journalism) and story telling. It's all in how the program is handled. Certainly TV has its fair share of stupid content; but really, how many books on the shelves at Chapters are worth reading?

I think fiction on TV is always best in an hour long serial. This allows the writers maybe 16 hours of screentime a year (not counting commercials) to tell a story.

It tends to be science-fiction/fantasy series that do the most to take advantage of all that screentime. Consider Babylon 5; an epic story that filled some 75 hours of screen time. The character and plot development possible in those 75 hours just isn't present in a 2.5 hour movie. Enemies became friends, friends became enemies. Cowards became heroes, murderous fools became religious leaders.

I want producers to take advantage of this more often. With so much screentime, so many amazing characters and stories can be told. Emotional weight be slowly built up over the years, slowly, carefully, and the viewer can enjoy an amazing payoff when the story concludes.

A fine example of a long buildup paying off: the series finale of Angel that aired last night. A series cut down in its prime but still given enough warning that the story could be concluded, the series ended in an unflinchingly courageous finale.

The thematic backbone of the last five years of Angel's run was summarized in the penultimate episdoe: evil exists not to be defeated, but to be faught. And the finale stayed true to that perfectly. Extraordinary sacrifices were made, and they gave evil a vicious kick to the nether regions. But evil wasn't vanquished or exiled, and the good guys didn't win. All they did was fight, and fight hard.

The final scene sees the four surviving members of the group in a dark alley, with the rain pouring down relentlessly. One is mortally wounded and soon to die. They stand quietly talking, and then the camera pans to their left. There is a huge demon army marching towards them, complete with dragon and a good dozen cave-troll like creatures.

Spike asks their leader Angel, "Anything in the way of a plan?" and Angel replies "I kind of want to slay the dragon." Angel picks up his sword, and calmly says "Let's go to work." The four heroes walk towards the army... and thus ends the series. They didn't win, they didn't vanquish evil, but they sure fought it. I wonder if a 2.5 hour film could have created a final scene with such resonance? I doubt it.

Let's hope there are more people like Joss Whedon and Michael Strazynski out there who will take advantage of all that screen time. The budgets might be lower and the glory not as great, but there are still amazing stories to be told.

So farewell to Angel. Like any good ending, it left me with fulfilled sense of meloncholy. It was a great ride while it lasted and I'll be able to watch it in re-runs, just like I can rent a movie again or pick up a book a dozen times, but I'll never be able to experience it again for the first time.

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