Why Game Of Thrones May Not Be Great "Television"
Remember when you could just tune into an episode of a television show you loved and not have to worry about being “up to date”. The days of episodic television are just about done. Every other show now is serializing, either wholly with single season or series long stories, or partially with longer arcs playing out alongside more self-contained episodes. With modes of viewing shifting as people “binge” on whole seasons of shows over single weekends I often wonder if we are swinging the pendulum from one extreme to another.
The third season of Game Of Thrones recently concluded and presents itself as a perfect case study in whether this form of extreme serialization can be successful. Structurally it's essentially a soap opera and before you get all up in arms over my seemingly reductive comparison you should understand what exactly a soap opera is. The key characteristic of a soap opera is that of an ongoing narrative with no ultimate end point. I'm not one to quote Wikipedia to prove a point but check this pretty startling definition out:
Soap opera storylines run concurrently, intersect and lead into further developments. An individual episode of a soap opera will generally switch between several different concurrent narrative threads that may at times interconnect and affect one another or may run entirely independent of each other. Each episode may feature some of the show's current storylines but not always all of them... Soap operas rarely bring all the current storylines to a conclusion at the same time. When one storyline ends there are several other story threads at differing stages of development. Soap opera episodes typically end on some sort of cliffhanger, and the Season Finale ends in the same way, only to be resolved when the show returns for the start of a new yearly broadcast.
That's pretty much Game of Thrones in a nutshell but there is a significant distinction between this series and soaps that result in fundamentaly differentl degrees of audience satisfaction. Soap operas rely on volume. They usually screen daily or at the very least weekly on a very continuous basis. The recurring cycles that circle a soap narrative become familiar and many viewers liken it to spending time with old friends. We don't look for a resolute end point because a soap is like life, melodrama without beginning or end. Game Of Thrones on the other hand offers us up 10 episodes every 12 months. That's 10 hours of story per year. On top of that we get an increasingly fragmented narrative that is telling dozens of different stories simultaneously with scores of characters.
Jason Mittell published a fascinating piece last year that decided to quantify the scenic rhythms of Game of Thrones. He took the last episode of season two as a random case study and calculated that the episode had as little as 16 scenes per hour which were negotiating 12 separate storylines. Only 3 storylines were given more than one scene. The first episode of Season 3 had a similar ratio of scenes per hour and scenes per storyline.
The result of this type of interminably incremental storytelling is that many episodes pass by with very little actually narrative progression. At some point we must ask where the value of a television series lies when individual episodic satisfaction is so rare? I like many people was awestruck by the events of Episode 9 in Season 3. Of course, the episodes before and after returned to the same old same and I began to wonder why I even watch this series in the first place. I'm constantly waiting for something to happen while a dozen storylines meander about, moving in frustratingly slow directions only rarely punctuated by something “crazy” that everyone loses their shit over.
Let's take fan favorite Jon Snow's narrative from season three (admittedly the season is only based on half a novel but still, this is all you get of Snow for the year): He hooks up with the Wildings north of the wall, meets their leader and starts hiking south with them. He then gets busy with one of the Wilding girls, climbs over the wall, gets to Westeros before having a fight with them and running off. The girl tracks him down and shoots him. That's the entire season. That narrative is spread over eight of the episodes.
What about Jaime Lannister's narrative: He hikes for a bit with Brienne, before fighting her and getting captured by some other group who are nasty and want to rape Brienne. Jaime steps in and stops them but has his hand chopped off. The bad guys decide to send Jaime back to King's Landing but he refuses to go without Brienne after they have a little moment. There's a bit of back and forth before he ends up taking Brienne with him and returning to Kings Landing. That's eight episodes again.
Don't even get me started on Theon's six-episode, torture porn arc. Yep he had a tough time.
Many have called this a more novelistic form of storytelling and to me that is far from a compliment. Television is television, film is film, and novels are novels. All are different storytelling mediums with their own benefits and drawbacks. Comparing a TV show to a novel only serves to reinforce television as an inferior narrative medium as if it needed to take elements from a supposed higher art to attain credibility.
The new Netflix strategy of releasing entire seasons in one dump is another game-changing issue that has its own set of problems (fragmenting the cultural conversation for one). Matt Zoller Seitz recently wrote an interesting piece questioning whether we can even term some of these new shows as "television" but for the moment let's push that aside and just consider television as a broadcast medium. A medium where you follow a narrative over the course of multiple weeks as it unfolds in small increments. Unlike a novel which you read at your own pace, television demands pauses between episodes which then demand each episode have some kind of structural satisfaction in and of itself. Serialized narratives like Breaking Bad and Justified manage to cleverly straddle that balance between episodic satisfaction and greater narrative arcs coalescing. This is television as a medium working at its finest. Doing things that no other medium can do and creating a unique temproal experience that spans months. There is a very large difference between a 10hr movie and a 10hr television season. For one, you don't watch an hour of that movie every week for ten weeks.
The great flaw in Jane Campion's recently "television" piece Top Of The Lake was that it felt less like a mini-series and more like a 6 hour film split into pieces. As a six or seven week television experience it was a failure, stopping and starting at odd points, but as a 6 hour film to be watched in a more compressed space of time it was probably more successful.
Game Of Thrones rarely works on a week to week level frequently deferring satisfaction to a later date, promising a conflict that may arrive sometime down the line. The novel as source material demands this type of pacing but then again, how frustrating would it be to read Martin's novels at the same pace you watch the television series? Imagine only getting one hour per week to read 50 pages then being forced to wait before moving on? This is not television at its finest. It's television at its most frustrating.
As a colleague once told me, Game Of Thrones is going to be a great series once they've done eight seasons and you can watch it in a compressed space of time. And he's right, in the end Game Of Thrones may be a great and iconoclastic watch but is it a great television series or merely a successful, long, movie adaptation of a great series of books?