Here are some follow-up thoughts to my long story arc TV post. Let me step back and take in the bigger picture. Seasonality. It’s pretty weird that it makes sense to try to deduce what is going on in a war from long-term seasonal trends. This is one way in which TV and foreign policy differ. In the TV case it is perfectly fine – good, even – to indulge in long arc story-telling. Things don’t always have to make a bit of damn sense, episode by episode, so long as there there is a satisfying up and down, up and down, in the long term. But foreign policy seems different.
Likewise, regarding what we might call ‘the slow switcheroo’. Matthew Yglesias wrote, a few days ago:
Back in the day, as you’ll recall, the reason we couldn’t leave Iraq was that if we did, the (Sunni) insurgents would overthrow the (Shiite) government. These days, though, the reason we can’t leave Iraq is that (government-backed) Shiite militias will kill Sunni civilians. Does anyone recall when this switch happened? Any guess as to how long before our new wonderful Anbar policy causes the worry to switch back?
You see. It’s different than the plain old surprise, or ‘twist’ ending. More incremental. Example: can you remember exactly when Spike became a ‘good guy’? When did Cordelia cease to be an annoying airhead snob? When she went from being rich to being poor? Maybe. But it’s not clear. In Deadwood, in which episode did you sympathize with Al Swearingen for the first time? (Maybe when Cy Tolliver came to town, and Al felt sorry for himself.) Think about how your attitude toward the various characters in The Sopranos shifted over time. Now: can you put your finger on exactly what induced the shift? Often not. Good novels do this, of course. But until recently, there wasn’t a lot of TV that managed to pull it off. On the other hand, in foreign policy, it seems less desirable. In season 4 of a popular show, we admire the narrative subtlety. Shifting sands of strategy and alliance. In season 4 of an unpopular war? Not so much.
One point of contrast. While it is easy for a good series to be cancelled prematurely, it is hard for a bad war to be cancelled, even due to low ratings. All you need is a small but dedicated fan-base. You keep it running season after season, even if production costs are quite high. TV and wars are just plain different that way.
Last but not least, there is what we might call the “Lost” factor. Regarding a TV show, it is very charming to learn: what, you had no plan at all? You just thought it would be a good idea to dump a bunch of people down in this hostile environment, at enormous expense, in terms of production costs, and watch what happens? You had no strategy for resolving the conflict? Because then people can say to each other, around the watercooler: I admit it. I was in favor of Lost. For the first two years, in fact. But that was just because I trusted that someone in a position of authority – the writers, the directors, the producers, someone – had some idea what all the numbers meant. I supported those people being on the island, season after season, because I trusted there was a reason they were there. And I figured someone had a plan to get them off, in the end.
It would be kind of sweet – endearing – if, every Sunday morning, a bunch of Very Serious Critics argued that the writers need to be given ‘six more months’ to make sense of the story. ‘Either we’ll see some reasons for them being on the island in the next few months, or it’s time to change narrative strategy.’ If George F. Will himself finally came around to writing stern columns about “a series still seeking a story”. It would be great fun if new and much-heralded script-writers were periodically brought on the project with much fanfare, announcing a ‘surge’ of coherence – starting with the characters. And if critics were then to object that making sense of the characters is useless if you cannot make sense of the island as a whole. And making sense of the characters may, in certain ways, make it harder – not easier – to make sense of the fact of their presence on the island. Script-writers who left the project could pen defensive op-eds, explaining that, absent an overall narrative line, they were forced to make the scripting decisions that, effectively, boxed in their successors even more severely. Congress could hold hearing. There could be indignant exchanges, with the producers withholding key plot-developments, citing ‘spoiler’ privilege. The show could just run on and on and on and on, for seasons. At a certain point, like a joke that you just keep telling, it would get funny again. The sheer absurdity of having a story that makes no sense, that you just keep adding to, and adding to. Building on. People might say the production costs are ‘a small price to pay’ for such a thing. They might be right.
But somehow foreign policy seems different. The good news is that, finally, season sets for The Wire [amazon] – have been marked down a third. Including the not-yet-released 4th season. That’s a good deal. It used to be you always had to pay full price for The Wire. Also, there’s some kinda Emmy Awards sale, if you want to check it out. I was thinking of picking up Supernatural. But I’m not really into the horror stuff. I’ll bet it isn’t funny, is it? Not like Buffy? Just some sort of Kolchak: the Night Stalker update. Am I right?