by John Holbo on September 17, 2007

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?

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09.17.07 at 11:24 am



Scott Eric Kaufman 09.17.07 at 1:48 am

Christ, John, that’s brilliant … except for the fact that the last four episodes of Lost‘s third season were damn compelling, inasmuch as they made it appear that all the wandering and wavering had been intentional. In narrative terms, that’s forgivable — think Gravity’s Rainbow — but I doubt we’ll find an equivalent in foreign policy. I’m just not convinced the boys in charge have the chops of seasoned screenwriters.


John Holbo 09.17.07 at 1:52 am

I haven’t watched season three yet. For that matter, I wouldn’t mind a bit if the surge turned out to work, after all. I would be most grateful, and wouldn’t even mind a bit of retroactive fudging to make it appear that all the wandering and wavering was intentional all along.


thag 09.17.07 at 2:29 am

If I thought that this series of excellent observations would make our national attitude towards war *less* like our attitude towards entertainment, I would be very glad.

Hell, why be pessimistic? I’ll put it in the indicative mood:
I hope that this series of excellent observations will help to make our national attitude towards war less like our attitude towards entertainment.


Toadmonster 09.17.07 at 3:00 am

Why is a bundle of seasons 1-3 of The Wire more expensive than buying them separately?


John Holbo 09.17.07 at 3:13 am

Because of irrational pricing, toadmonster. Some items go on sale, but not everything gets adjusted accordingly. It’s rather fascinating. (I spend far too much time watching these things.)

Example: why is “Doctor Who” always so expensive. Shouldn’t an episode of “Buffy” and an episode of “Star Trek” and an episode of “Doctor Who” cost about the same, on average, given that they are likely to be approximately equivalent items, selling to approximately the same market? But they don’t cost approximately the same. “Doctor Who” usually costs about 5-10 times as much, per episode.

Obviously you want X (price) x Y (units sold) to equal the largest possible Z. Which is consistent with having a very large X and a small Y, or a very large Y and a small X, or somewhere in between. Like that old Calvin & Hobbes where he is trying to sell lemonade for $20 a cup. In general terms, it is obvious why you would tend to go for the low price, many units option (because if you try to sell $20 lemonade, someone will undercut you.) But in DVD sales, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Prices are wildly variable, with many marketers clearly going for the lemonade model.

But I’ve sort of changed the subject.

It seems to me a compelling consideration that, were TV run along the lines of US foreign policy, we’d be gearing up for the exciting, cliffhanger season finale of season 32 of Space: 1999, right about now.


alphie 09.17.07 at 3:35 am

Why does the Iraq war need a story arc?

“Lost” may need one but “Gilligan’s Island” didn’t.


Reality Man 09.17.07 at 4:38 am

Dean on Supernatural is rather funny. It has a lot more tongue-in-cheek humor than most shows of its type.


Adam Roberts 09.17.07 at 7:54 am

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.)

I don’t think so; though Tolliver clearly took over Swearingen’s more psychotic and violent qualities, leaving us free to empathise more with Al’s caring side. But I’d say the sympathy starts when he has his stroke and lies on the floor of his room for a day.


soru 09.17.07 at 9:52 am

Example: why is “Doctor Who” always so expensive.

That one I know – to prevent UK customers ordering from the US at US pricing.


ferd 09.17.07 at 12:42 pm

Winston Smith’s comrades didn’t need a story arc. They enjoyed what they were fed, plotwise. Or else. Enjoyed it.

In a completely ruthless hand, the sword is way mightier than the pen. “What pen?” “That’s not a pen, it’s a Slim Jim, and now you’ll eat it.”


Mikey in Plano 09.17.07 at 1:07 pm

Supernatural is awesome, and has lots of humor in it. There’s a fair number of X-Files alums in various capacities, especially Kim Manners. Has a similar feel to it. Lots of classic rock. Like X-Files, it has both “mythic” and stand-alone episodes (or as my ex-roomie said of X-Files, “shows that don’t explain anything and shows that don’t make any sense”).


Rich B. 09.17.07 at 2:35 pm

While I completely agree with the truth or the “irrational pricing” model John discusses in #5, I am having difficulty coming up with a reasonable explanation of the equally irrational, but not identically-caused discrepencies between the “new” and “used” pricing.

Dr. Who, the Complete First Season (2005) is currently selling for $65.99 (“FREE with Super Saver Shipping”) on Amazon for 585 minutes of content.

Star Trek, the First Season (1966) is currently selling for $67.49 (“FREE with Super Saver Shipping”) for 1461 minutes of content.

Fine, Dr. Who almost 3X as expensive — for whatever reason.

But now, look as the “Used and New” option:

Dr. Who: 41 Used and New gives you Used — Like New for $64.99 (+ $2.98 shipping) = More than New

Star Trek: 82 Used and New gives you Used — Like New for $32.99 + ($2.98 shipping) = above half price.

I can imagine a rationale that props up the cost of new Dr. Who vidoes above the profit-maximizing price, but what explains the re-sellers keeping THEIR prices artificially high (above “New”)?


Sebastian Holsclaw 09.17.07 at 8:11 pm

“I can imagine a rationale that props up the cost of new Dr. Who vidoes above the profit-maximizing price, but what explains the re-sellers keeping THEIR prices artificially high (above “New”)?”

Small print runs?


John Holbo 09.17.07 at 11:05 pm

Often the used price is higher than the new when the new price has recently fallen and the used market has not yet corrected.

The British market point is interesting. I think it may make sense for “Doctor Who” to be somewhat overpriced, in that the market for it is somewhat more limited than that for, say, “Buffy”. There is a good chance that if “Buffy” drops below $20 per season then a whole bunch of casual enjoyers of the show will go for it. Whereas, in the case of the good Doctor, it’s pretty much just the hard-core nerds. You can’t really sell a LOT of this stuff to the American public, even if you drop your price, so you better milk your fanatic fan base for what it’s worth. Maybe the same goes for Star Trek.

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