This week’s newsletter is written by script reader / editor, DANNY MORAN. Danny is a freelance script editor and reader with over 7 years of experience. He’s worked for the BFI, Neal Street Films, The Fyz Facility amongst many others. He was also a shadow script editor on 4screenwriting 2020. He liked Succession before it was popular (or so he says!).
How TV Drama Can Adapt When Reality Becomes Stranger Than Fiction.
At the risk of sounding like a narration for an Adam Curtis documentary, reality has become a little unstuck of late. The past few years have been a succession of completely mad world events that previously nobody thought could happen. Our collective understanding of what is and isn’t possible has fundamentally changed and keeps on changing. This poses a challenge for the modern dramatist – how do you reflect a reality that is constantly shifting and that nobody really understands?
Far too much TV drama has failed to address, and in many cases actively ignored, this challenge. If there has been a defining trend around storytelling in the past decade, it’s nostalgia. Faced with an unknowable present, it feels like collectively we have retreated to familiar stories and characters. My personal theory as to why a show like The Crown is so successful is that there’s something soothing about watching the 20th century because we know we survived it. Even shows set in the present day seem like reheated versions of old stories. In 2007 The Killing was a fresh and exciting thriller, now, a decade plus later, I’ve watched enough shows about divorcees investigating the murders of young women to last me a lifetime.
This is not to say that every show needs to be a forensic examination of the ”now.” TV is a broad church and part of its remit is to provide comfort, but I do think it’s telling that the dramas that have genuinely engaged with the present have distinguished themselves as the best shows of the past few years, and the different approaches they’ve used indicate where the medium can – and perhaps must – go to stay relevant.
Exploring genre conventions
Donald Trump was the US President, Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister, and we’re currently in the middle (or beginning or end) of a global pandemic. If reality was a genre it wouldn’t be traditional drama, it would be science-fiction/horror/comedy. Thus, it isn’t surprising that many of the shows that have resonated with audiences over the last few years have had genre elements (Years and Years, Undone, The Good Place). The heightened worlds they depict not only feel closer to current events, but more importantly they allow the writers to explore ideas which are somewhat abstract. For example, a feature of modern life is a sense of deja vu; we see society go round in circles constantly, making the same mistakes because we cannot reconcile with the trauma of the past. A traditional drama can’t convey this but Russian Doll, through its premise, can literalise it. In it, the protagonist literally relives the same day again and again until she can reconcile with the trauma she endured as a child.
Being tonally ambitious
Succession is probably the most acclaimed current drama, but conceptually it couldn’t be more tired. There have been shows about wealthy elites hating each other since the birth of TV and there are about 10 airing right now. What distinguishes Succession from shows like Billions or Dynasty and what makes it feel so vital is that, through its use of comedy, it articulates how ridiculous its subject matter is. It’s self-evidently mad that billionaires exist but the other shows don’t seem to be in on the joke. So many dramas make the mistake of thinking that “funny” and “serious” are opposites and that the only way to tackle a subject matter seriously is with a degree of reverence. This approach not only leads to stories that are tonally flat but is at odds with the fundamental absurdity of modern life.
Traditional drama formats are inherently comfortable. A format is a contract between the show and the viewer which tells you what can and can’t happen. Even a show like Line of Duty, whose primary purpose is to grip and shock its audience, does so within the clear parameters of a genre. However, since Twin Peaks, there has also been a steady exploration of how far you can push the TV drama format. The Sopranos did entire episodes which were dream sequences, Fargo aired a black and white episode that was a long homage to The Wizard of Oz, and Atlanta has successfully fused the sensibilities of an anthology show with a continuing drama. And it feels like this trend for formal experimentation reached a new high point in the superlative I May Destroy You. If you’re anything like me your experience of watching that series might have been something like this:
2 episodes in:
“Ah I see what this will be: a Rashomon-style drama that follows all the different characters on the night the protagonist was attacked. Very good, I am enjoying this.”
4 episodes in:
“Ah I see what this is now, this is in fact an anthology series which examines different forms of assault and the grey areas that they can sometimes occupy. Very good, I understand this now.”
6 episodes in:
“Ok we’ve flashbacked to them as children, half the characters set up in the pilot have just vanished from the series. I have no idea what’s going on but this is the most compelling thing I’ve watched in years and I might throw up I’m so tense.”
“What the hell is this thing???”
I May Destroy You managed to capture the unsettling, unmoored nature of contemporary life by refusing to ever settle into a recognisable format. It was the rare show where the cliche “it feels like anything could happen” was actually true. It took so many risks that contradict the received wisdom about how narratives are supposed to be constructed and they all paid off. More so than any show it recognised that the old ways of doing things are not fit for purpose. It’s a brave new world and we have to tell stories that reflect that, but we also have to re-examine how we tell those stories.
Either that or we just watch The Mandalorian until the world ends. On its current trajectory it can’t be more than 6 months.’
Thank you so much Danny for those brilliantly perceptive and inspiring thoughts!
The next newsletter will be on Friday October 29th,
October 15th 2021