This is an overly long blog post about storytelling, television, and the role narrative plays in our lives. At some point, it branches off and becomes about The Vampire Diaries. Since I come to this blog when I have something to say, something too long for a facebook status but too urgent for fiction, I can’t always control where these things end up. They are what they are. I think that, if you at all watch or like television, you might be interested in what I’m saying here.
OKAY: When we think about storytelling, lots of things come to mind–characters, plot, conflict, resolution. I heard something interesting the other day, though I can’t remember where, which was talking about contemporary television serving a similar purpose to the novel–It’s rich, continuous story lines fulfill our cravings for world immersion, escapism, and human drama. I think this is interesting, though for me, reading a novel is MUCH different than watching TV, and it’s nothing really about the experience of being attached to characters, as our pull toward TV is something more than that, something else entirely.
Part of the allure (and tragedy) of reading a novel, is that you can feel the end coming, based on the number of pages you’ve gone through, how heavy or light the stack of pages beyond the bookmark, and depending on the quality of the writing, this can be a sad or joyous affair and then a bitter farewell. This is nothing like the experience of watching television. While, with the television episode, there is a “ticking-clock aspect” (we can use the passing of time to sort of gauge how close to the end we are–thirty minutes: Joy! Eight minutes: Sadness!), it is really the ongoing nature of the television series that I’m talking about here. It is naturally attractive. Like life, its expiration date is unknown, and so as far as we’re concerned, it could go on and on forever. The cancellation of a TV series can often be met with great dismay. Outrage! Confusion! Tears! This is not something we encounter when reading a novel, which has a finite purpose and an even more finite end.
The novel series is a different animal; however, even Harry Potter had to see his final pages. J.K. Rowling is just one woman, and the act of writing a novel is mighty. That she wrote seven of them is mind-blowing, and it took a very long time. Writers get tired. Novels take a long time to write. Like with the film franchise, there are waiting periods of months, years, sometimes decades. To me, the experience of finishing a great novel or novel series is, many times, more gratifying than finishing a television series, because I feel powerful, accomplished. I made it to the end of something that took a very long time to craft and now here it is, ending in place. I can hold it in my hand. With TV, where a show must end is often decided by non-creative suits who deal from on high, more to do with accounting than character arcs. TV show endings are rarely satisfying. Most of the time, they’re rushed off or sad. Who saw this coming? Even the creators have a hard time letting go. Look at Joss with his Buffy comic, and devoted fans who’ll haunt message boards for days, searching out the perfect feat of fan fiction, unauthorized writing that serves as a continuation of an otherwise discontinued plot. Half the appeal of TV is about its unpredictable, though inevitable end, and then when it’s over, there’s always that fear for “unfinished business.” Who’s still upset that we never got to see Luke and Lorelai get married? That so little goes resolved in the life of Veronica Mars, to say goodbye so soon seems criminal? As I said before: Like life. What can you do?
Joan Didion, one of my favorite writers, has often written about the importance of narrative to our daily lives, how we need it, how we tell stories to cope with life’s various curve balls and atrocities. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, she says. There’s nothing more true. And so finding characters we can attach ourselves to helps us do that. We want stories, and we want connection. We want to feel sympathy and, women especially, are innately empathic creatures who need to like, practice these things, to emote, to express these desires, because otherwise it’s a repressed existence. I talk about women now and all the time because I am one. I’m an expert woman. Especially in terms of how many women watch TV.
Women watch more TV than men. Okay, that’s anecdotal evidence, but it must be true. How can it not be? I think specifically about the importance of the love story, of the love triangle, of the “will-they-won’t-they?” on TV and how these conceits are candylicious for women. How we crave it, talk about it, flood our facebook walls and statuses with speculation on WHEN WILL THEY KISS? WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN? I THINK SHE IS IN LOVE WITH HIM. I DON’T KNOW, BUT HE CERTAINLY LOVES HER.
Women are immediate creatures. Unlike men, women feel AT ONCE. Our emotions are always urgent. They cannot wait, and so naturally, we want stories that fulfill us now, and TV does that. Soap operas–primetime, daytime, whatever the setting: in space, in high school, in the landscape of vampires–these are the things that reflect our desires to feel, to let go, to bask shamelessly in our emotions, because we own them. They’re ours, and they’re alive and always working and rooting around in there, scarring our hearts, and they need to be let out once in a while!
I don’t know about you, but I watch most of my TV alone. It would be a travesty to have to sit next to my boyfriend while watching the latest episode of The Vampire Diaries. I’ll clutch my face with joy at the sight Damon and Elena’s first true kiss, and I’ll relish in the dire masculinity of Alaric’s nasty alter ego facing off against Stefan’s blood lusty torture tactics. Okay, yummy. But I can’t do these things and TRULY enjoy them in the company of someone else. It’s a lonely thing, watching my TV shows. How I love to talk about it afterward! Exchange theories, emote and complain and hope and wish out loud (see above). But DURING, that’s something else. It’s some sort of emotional catharsis. And I want to be able to cry at the end of every episode of Fringe if I want to, and I don’t want anyone telling me that’s weird or petting me on the head and commenting on how creaturely and sweet I am! (Fringe Sidenote: Olivia and Peter together again is one of the grandest of all reunions on a J.J. Abrams show, including Lost, and there are a great many–shows and reunions–though the irony and Lincoln’s sadness blow me away as he, who loves Olivia, and who Olivia could have loved once, but in a different universe, must cope with his own growing meaninglessness in the face of her waning memory…and who wouldn’t cry over that? All against the background of a stellar science fiction. Abrams! Such the pastichey romantic.)
I know this is supposed to somehow be about happiness, so I’m getting there. Now. I just had to contextualize with this bit about the importance of narrative. I swear it will matter.
Anyway, this whole thing got started a long time ago, but it’s been brought to the forefront lately with my recent champion marathon of CW’s The Vampire Diaries. This show is still ongoing, in the final episodes of its third season and sure to be renewed. Now, I’ve been addicted before (Lost, Buffy, Angel, The O.C.) but never have I been so, like, in love. My initial reaction to TVD was pleasant surprise–Nina Dobrev was not nearly as “expected” as I thought she’d be–neither the blond-haired-blue-eyed heroine I’ve come to expect from a neo-WB drama, nor a Joey Potter (brainy brunette) or an all-out Bella Swan (damsel). Plus the show is just full of characters. Humans, vampires, witches, werewolves. This was a relief, a welcome break from one of my other CW favorites, Supernatural, which, despite all of its emotional and plot-centered creativity, can get very dead-endy as a two-man show (especially when, each season, a new supporting character gets the–sometimes literal–axe). Most of all, I was impressed by the show’s rare and talented writers, who, unlike the teams for so many WB/CW shows of yore, use speed to their advantage, exercise restraint and economy with some of the show’s more languorous and gothic aspects, and manage to, as my friend Meg put it once, “Get shit done.” These writers don’t wait around. They go! There are three-episode arcs in TVD that, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural, would have spanned entire seasons. There’s no waiting, hoping for things to get better. There’s only characters and speed. This show is just full of action, full of doing. Every episode features multiple new decisions and directions, and these episodes are paced well and constantly unveiling new and important information. All of these things make the show just so attractive and so addictive!
Now, for the rub.
Marathoning a show like TVD, one thing has become clear to me, clearer than others–these characters live terrible lives. Terrible, sad, f#cked up lives that keep getting worse and worse with each episode. Every character on the show has seen at least one family member die. People get turned into vampires, werewolves, worse. Constant, unshakable threat hangs over every turn, and if, at any moment, relief seems even remotely possible, a new and worse threat rises up to squash it. It is not so much a wonder to me that these characters are still living, for they’re very good at protecting each other and saving each others lives, but I do worry about how they’re still standing. How Elena can bear to roll out of bed every morning, having seen not just the deaths of her adoptive parents, but her biological parents as well, shocks me, and while at first, I thought her to be an overly moral, too-serious girl who plods heavily through life, pointing fingers and shaming those around her, I’ve grown to really admire and respect her gumption, her resilience, how she’s able not just to pull herself back together, but to protect and maintain a relationship with her younger brother, who’s seen the same loss she has, and in some ways, more.
I do feel that sometimes, one of the television series’s greatest faults as a medium is its rush to drama, to plot. A show like TVD especially, which moves at such speed, will rarely afford itself small, inessential moments with its characters, moments in which the world stands still, and the writing attends to, not setting up the next fun thing or putting some new turn into motion, but, instead, the here and now. These things are, of course, because TV is a ratings game, and unless you write for a show on HBO, Showtime, or even a cable network like AMC, you’ve got much less creative control than you’d like, and you’re yoked to certain standards, expectations, with your content and your return. This is what will keep a show like TVD from becoming art, where a show like Mad Men has all the art in the world–this ability to linger, to stay, to wait around in a moment. This “lingering” should not be confused with “stalling.” Supernatural, for example–its writers are masters of the stalling technique–as they struggle to figure out what happens next, they’re good at spinning their wheels, entertaining, though nothing new develops. There’s no movement–not forward, not anywhere. “To linger” in a scene or a moment or a feeling does not mean to stop moving. It means to move in a new direction. Rather than go forward, go deeper. Explore a moment, an interaction, a relationship as it exists beneath the surface. A show like Mad Men operates MOSTLY beneath the surface. Its plot relies on the inner stories of its characters and situations. A show like NCIS is the exact opposite, in that it only goes one way–forward–because there IS nothing beneath the surface. A show like TVD does a little of both. It is always moving forward, very rarely lingers, but its characters do have inner stories, and they do have remote agendas. The writers are very good at, say, developing a plot point while also furthering a character’s agenda–Damon and Elena go on a road trip to find information they need to solve a problem, but this road trip also serves as a way for them to explore their feelings for each other outside the gaze of Damon’s brother and Elena’s ex-boyfriend Stefan. You can see the dual purposes here. One is for plot, and the other is for character. This is part of the master economy used by the writers of TVD. Nothing goes to waste. Everything is important. This is usually a good thing, but sometimes, I just want a moment of inessential beauty or joy–something that stands alone.
In this week’s episode, “Heart of Darkness,” there was actually a moment of lingering that I was not expecting, and that I really hold dear. While on a road trip to pick up Elena’s brother from Denver, Damon, Elena, and Elena’s brother Jeremy must stay in a hotel room while in hiding from one of the Original vampires (evil). When he thinks Elena is asleep, Damon gets up to have a drink alone, just sort of sits at the table in the dark and pours a glass of whiskey. Elena, however, is awake. She watches him. There are no words, and for a while, it’s just her observing Damon and his perceived solitude, from where she lies in bed–all of Damon’s despair, his complication, on display in the scene. Then, when he notices she is awake, he goes to lie down with her, and the two hold hands. Again, no words. Only action, lingering in the moment. Subtlety. This is a very strong moment, and I do hope that its arrival means there will be more of these moments. For it is very nice to just be with Damon and Elena for a little while, and not to have to fear for them or wait for something to happen. To just be with them. Because we like them, and we have hope for them.
Now. Happiness. I’ve mentioned the magnitude of loss that Elena, our heroine, has experienced in the course of her young life. She’s just seventeen. The writers have done a wonderful job of building her character, forcing her to become more independent, self-sufficient as more dangers arise. She is not a passive character. She jogs and punches punching bags and does what she can to protect herself. She stands up for what she believes in. Even though she is merely a human and, further, a girl, she is in control, and that makes her sympathetic.
SO: I would like for her to experience some happiness. For one moment, one day, one episode of nothing but happiness. Elena on the beach somewhere, holding Damon’s hand, with the light turning purple and the water calm. This is something that, for example, the Buffy writers, could and would do–allow their characters small moments to themselves, small moments of contentment. Snow in Southern California, ballads in the park, jokes in the cafeteria, uninterrupted nights of bliss or sex or movie marathons, the simple pleasures of prom and boys and girls and friendship–the characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are allowed their happiness. Their lives suck–just as bad as Elena’s life sucks–but it’s not so doom and gloom all the time, not so constantly getting worse. There is good with the bad, and sometimes things even get better! That’s part of why the story rings so true and why Buffy is timeless and remains so very popular to this day.
Because we cannot know the value of a character’s sadness if we don’t know what it means for them to be happy. Understanding happiness is the only way to truly appreciate despair. It’s a game of relativity, in life and in stories.
So over and over again, I have called for some happiness in The Vampire Diaries. For the world to slow down, for Elena to just choose love rather than worry about it all the time. It’s easy to watch a show and only appreciate it for its slick and speedy plot, for the heady atmosphere, twists and turns and ups and downs. It’s easy to be entertained. But it’s something else to be attached, to love a piece of writing for its characters, to root for characters. We get emotionally involved and then we cannot help but notice how sad and complicated these lives really are, and we love them, so we want happiness for them. If I could write an episode of The Vampire Diaries (which I’ve thought to do more than once), I’d write a stand-alone, stand-still episode, in which the characters just experience some simplicity and some happiness. We give them everything they want, even just for a day. Because then, when, in the next episode, all of that happiness is wrecked and taken away from them, it hurts a whole lot more. The emptiness is that much heavier and more apparent.
Anyway, that’s my sh1t for today. I just wanted to rant about how much I need some happiness for the characters of The Vampire Diaries, and it turned into this whole big thing. This was a long one, but if you made it to the end, sweet. Here’s a picture of what it looks like when Elena Gilbert is happy.
Peace, love, and bloodsucking happiness,