I’m always fascinated when certain concepts from movies or television break free from their sources and become part of the pop culture lexicon. This is different from popular quotes or characters. What I’m talking about are those instances where things themselves become shorthand for ideas. Examples I’ve been able to come up with:
• Mr. Mom (n.): Now-dated slang for a father lending a hand in what were stereotypically motherly tasks.
• MacGyver (v.): To rig up a needlessly complicated device or mechanism.
• Daisy Dukes (n.): Short shorts existed long before The Dukes of Hazzard, but this became a catch-all phrase.
• Gaslight (v.): To cruelly destroy someone’s memory or perception.
What’s important is that these phrases hint at their origin but aren’t dependent upon it, becoming broader in application over time. For instance, gaslighting doesn’t mean to drive one’s wife insane as part of a complicated heist, but rather, to generally manipulate someone’s perception of reality. These phrases become larger than the works that inspired them. Seinfeld wound up popularizing some, too (like “close talker”), but just as often those were catch phrases that lived and died with the show.
There have to be more than these few I’ve listed. I just need to start remembering them.
If you were a supervillain, what would be your master plan?
What I would like to do is be Therapy Man. I would like to be able to fly over cities and sprinkle dust on people. And when the dust hit them, I would turn them into sensitive, emotionally involved humans who know how to listen and validate the feelings of their loved ones.
That would probably make a big difference.
It would make a huge fucking difference. I mean, think about it: Go deep into that for a second. In 24 hours, we’d have the best planet in the universe.
Some people would say, “Oh, that doesn’t make you a villain,” but you would be to a lot of people.
It would ruin a lot of things that are making money in this country for sure. — Mark Duplass
Television is not designed to be a reflection of the real world, but it’s nevertheless capable of being one. Usually this is done on an emotional level: while the average viewer has never broken bad and cooked crystal meth in an RV, they probably know what it’s like to feel overworked and underpaid. Some series, though, strive for narrative reality as well as an emotional one, eschewing as many moments of artifice as possible in the service of creating something that looks, feels, and acts almost exactly like the world we live in. Certain family dramedies have pulled this off pretty successfully, like Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, and The Wonder Years, and they’ve worked by placing their characters in emotionally catastrophic situations and letting them slowly, painfully figure out how to survive them. That’s what life is, after all: challenges that seem insurmountable, and whose solution is never as elegant or victorious as you’d want it to be. HBO’s Togetherness is a show in this mold, and it, too, is steeped in emotional catastrophe. It’s a coming-of-age series about people in their late 30s and early 40s, for whom the dominant question is not “What do I want to be?” but “Do I want keep being who I am?” It is, in other words, a show about therapy, and it’s one of the best dramas in years.
Togetherness is co-created by the Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay1, and their frequent collaborator, Steve Zissis, who appeared in the brothers’ earlier work and co-stars here with Mark, Melanie Lynskey, and Amanda Peet. The Duplass brothers make warm, shaggy movies about characters who respond to dramatic situations in low-key, minimal ways in large part because those reactions feel the most true to life. Their films rely heavily on improvisation, but that’s never an excuse for emotional or narrative dishonesty. Rather, in each scene or set-up, you can not only understand why a character would behave a certain way, but go a step further and reason that you, too, might do the same thing in that situation. The Duplasses tend to work through different aspects of familial strife that (very loosely) track with the linear progress of their own lives: the bickering couples of Baghead, the adult relationship comedy of Cyrus, the simmering fraternal tensions of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon2 and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Togetherness, then, is in many ways their most adult work yet because it’s about everything from the strife of modern parenting to the difficulty of maintaining long-term relationships to the very real likelihood that, sooner or later, we all break down and need to get help. It’s the next step in the emotional evolution of storytellers who are focused on journeys of self-discovery.
Togetherness starts out feeling deceptively straightforward. Its central gimmick is to create an awkward foursome by putting the main characters under one roof: Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Lynskey) live in L.A. with their two young children, and they soon enough find themselves housing Alex (Zissis), Brett’s longtime friend, and Tina (Peet), Michelle’s sister. Alex and Tina need a place to crash when their own lives bottom out: Alex, a struggling actor, is evicted from his apartment, while Tina, who runs her bounce-castle business out of Houston, opts to relocate after her latest bad break-up. But this is as close to high-concept as the show gets, and many times, it’s about what doesn’t happen. There are no nightly or weekly dinners where the new configuration of roommates share their stories or help each other out; there is no sense of them bonding to create a new kind of family; there are no high jinks. Brett and Michelle don’t go out to dinner and leave Alex and Tina to babysit with wacky results. This is, emphatically, not that kind of show. As the series’ first, eight-episode season unfolds, the characters actually find themselves living more and more apart from each other. An early group outing to the beach gives way to a night when three characters attend a movie premiere while one stays behind, and soon enough we’re down to duos, and eventually single-person stories that find each of the four main characters forced to confront their own beliefs, fears, and desires. What Togetherness is actually about, in its way, is aloneness. We choose who we want to try and spend our time and our lives with, and we choose how open we are with those people. But we cannot control their actions or emotions, and we’re in charge of no one’s happiness but our own. Even the aesthetics start to reinforce this as the series evolves: characters are less and less frequently photographed together, and if they’re talking to each other, we’ll often see one person alone in the frame while the other is on the edge of the frame or off screen completely.
The heart of the show is about breakdowns. Alex and Tina engage in a complicated series of flirtations and power struggles: she knows he likes her and flirts with him accordingly, but she also grows jealous when a friend of hers shows interest in Alex when the pair are visiting Houston, and she promptly sets about ruining his night. She encourages him to lose weight and go out for more interesting auditions, and he wants her to settle down and be with him. They’re each projecting something onto the other — Tina’s fear of being directionless, Alex’s fear of being single — and so they wind up hurting each other with unsurprising consistency. The show’s deftness at highlighting each character’s complicity in their own problems is one of the many things that makes it feel so true.
The other couple, Brett and Michelle, are also trapped in their own cycles. Their sex life is fading, their stress levels are barely in check, and they haven’t been honest with each other, or with themselves, about anything in a long time. (A trip to couples’ counseling in one episode ends in low-grade disaster, as they wind up carrying resentments from the session through the rest of their day.) The first season arc is about the way their marriage crumbles as Michelle grows closer to a local education activist, David (John Ortiz), while Brett grows increasingly disillusioned with his work as a sound editor for a crass filmmaker and finds himself drawn to Linda (Mary Steenburgen), a woman he meets while recording sounds in the park and who pleasantly, alluringly encourages him to rediscover his passions. Michelle’s first tentative steps into a different life come when she stays behind one night as the rest of the gang goes to a film premiere. She dresses in a more revealing outfit and wanders her neighborhood, idly looking for something to do but mostly enjoying the feeling of doing something different, and it’s on this night that she wanders into a meeting for a local charter school and becomes captivated by the man leading the charge. Brett, for his part, finds himself so unhappy with his job that he’s started to repress any feelings other than tooth-gritting fake cheer, and it’s Linda who encourages him to stop lying and start being honest. His sessions with her — that’s what they are, really — allow him to start thinking and speaking honestly about his life and his feelings. And here’s another instance of how Togetherness bucks convention. Brett comes home from a day hanging out with Linda and expanding his mind 3 to rejoin a party Michelle is hosting at their home to raise money for the local charter school. David is there, and Brett starts talking to him honestly, calmly, and almost peacefully about his fears. He doesn’t have a funny or angry confrontation scene with David; he doesn’t take a swing or embarrass himself; he and Michelle don’t grow closer because of it. Instead, he says exactly what’s on his mind. When he does it, you realize how rare it is, and not just in fiction, but in the real life this fiction is trying to mimic. The stunning honesty of the moment is almost too much for David to take.
Togetherness is also, ultimately, about risk. The risk of being honest enough about what you want, and about what makes you happy. It’s a show about people doing the real work of living, where you can’t do anything but take on small step at a time in what you pray is a good direction. “Togetherness,” as a concept, isn’t a safeguard from the world’s assaults, or a prison from which to escape, but simply the way we live: together, side by side, trying to figure ourselves out and not hurt the ones next to us. One of the season’s most affecting moments is when Brett’s out for a walk in the park late at night, hoping to meet up with Linda again, and he finds her. The first time they met, she was lying in a shallow trench she’d dug and simulating her own death as a way of engaging with the finite nature of life, and on this moonlit night, she’s dug another trench and asks Brett to do the same. He demurs, then rejects the idea, then mocks her for making the suggestion, then finally starts yelling at her, almost screaming, as he begins to vent everything inside him. She takes it, stoically, and waits for him to finish. Breathing heavier — looking scared, relieved, and scared of his own relief — Brett acquiesces and climbs into the hole. The metaphor here is obvious, but that’s part of the point. Brett has to figure out how to dig himself out of the situations he’s in. No one else can do it for him.
The Duplasses also wrote and directed every episode, with the exception of the sixth, “Ghost in Chains,” which was directed by Nicole Holofcener.↩
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon was shot in 2008 but not released until 2012.↩
He drinks some hallucinogenic tea that wreaks some serious havoc with his reality.↩
Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies are destined to be the least like his other works because corporate interests prevent him from killing any of the main characters. Every Whedon creation is high on the body count among the central cast: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (along with its big-screen follow-up, Serenity) never shied away from making the kinds of changes that most other series would consider too drastic. Whedon’s work is, largely, about how people learn to cope with tragedy, and how they come to understand that the only thing they can control in a traumatic situation is their own reaction. However, he’s not able to make such sweeping changes within the Marvel universe, since the direction of the property is ultimately out of his hands. The first Avengers film wound up killing a supporting player only for that actor and character to be revived on the television spinoff Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a year later. Whedon’s Avengers films, then, are bound to be the least connected to his other works simply because they’re forbidden from exploring the emotional territory that Whedon’s come to value most. Financially, they’re his biggest marks on the entertainment world, but narratively, they’re his least personal.
Ensemble television comedies can never serve every member of the ensemble equally. There’s always going to be a central character, and a few vital supporting characters, and then those members of the group whose presence is important to the narrative but whose purpose is mostly to redirect attention to the stars. They’re there to set up jokes and situations, but they’re almost never the direct focus of any story lines. And even when they do come into play, they’re usually pushed aside fairly soon so the action can once again focus on the core characters. What this means, though, is that those tertiary members of the ensemble have to be completely dependable. They don’t get catch phrases or become breakout hits; they don’t get to save the day, or win in the end, or change the course of the story. They have to fully inhabit their character and role, as committed to one line as the star is to every scene. They have to be engaging enough to warrant your attention and generous enough to cede the floor to bigger stories. And they have to be funny, too. This is incredibly hard to pull off, and the best supporting player in modern sitcom history is Jim O’Heir, the beleaguered Jerry from Parks and Recreation.
Jerry is the butt of a thousand jokes. He’s a hard worker who’s consistently underutilized and overlooked by his colleagues; he’s a nervous public speaker; he’s prone to making mistakes on even menial tasks; he’s simple, shy, well-meaning, and wildly codependent. He’s so deferential that it turns out his name isn’t even Jerry, but Garry — the misnomer came about when his old boss accidentally called him “Jerry” on his first day, and Jerry didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings by correcting him, so he just allowed himself to be called Jerry for decades. Jerry’s an amateur painter, a loving husband and father, and generally pleasant even when he’s being mocked at the office. He’s comic relief on a sitcom, someone just there to add jokes. Only a few stories have involved Jerry directly, and they’re usually about how his colleagues are going to accomplish their own goals while he just putters along. In “Jerry’s Painting,” he paints an image of a centaur to hang in City Hall that’s subconsciously modeled on his boss, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), but the episode’s plot is primarily about Leslie’s desire to use the painting as a way to make herself feel more confident and assertive in her own life. She gets embroiled in a minor scandal over the painting’s nudity and promptly makes the battle all about her; when Jerry protests, “It’s my painting,” she cuts him off. Or there’s “Park Safety,” in which Jerry reports being mugged in the park before copping to the fact that he actually fell and hurt himself while reaching for a burrito he’d dropped in a creek. The episode is mostly about his coworkers attempting to be kinder to him and then, in the end, returning to the habit of ribbing him so they can restore balance to the office.
This is a thankless comic role. It needs someone to show up, be pathetic but likable, and remain engaging no matter what’s going on around him. And actor Jim O’Heir knocks it out of the park every time. The show is built around Poehler’s character, and other performers have enjoyed breakout success as their characters become pop culture heroes: Nick Offerman’s bearded landsman Ron Swanson, Aziz Ansari’s swaggering Tom Haverford, Chris Pratt’s lovable goofball Andy Dwyer, Ben Schwartz’s cartoonish Jean-Ralphio, Aubrey Plaza’s dour but generous April Ludgate. They’re all designed to pop in some way, so it’s no surprise they have. And those performers are all wonderful. But O’Heir is doing fantastic, hilarious, detailed supporting work in a way that’s always funny but never flashy, and that’s often harder, and certainly less acknowledged.
O’Heir has to walk a fine line: he has to act simple but not moronic, kind but not ignorant, self-possessed but not proud, cooperative but not dynamic, dedicated but not robotic. In other words, he has to present himself as the possible subject for mockery but still walk and talk and act like a real person. One of the show’s many strengths has been its ability to create a world that feels populated by real characters, and O’Heir’s work as Jerry is no different. You never doubt that he’s really a lifelong civil servant, unironically excited about notarizing things and willing to do whatever the team needs done. Jerry isn’t even smug or entitled about being married to a beautiful woman (played by Christie Brinkley), even in the series finale, as his life becomes increasingly wonderful. Rather, he’s genuinely loving and happy.
That’s what it really is: the idea of being genuine. Parks is shot as a mockumentary that lets its characters make jokes directly to the viewer in the form of talking-head interviews or sly glances right at the camera. But Jerry never does this. When he does talk to the camera, it’s simply and honestly, like the time he talked about how he’s looking forward to relaxing with “a stack of mystery novels” after retirement, or his discourse about how his annual hunting trip is his one opportunity for guy time, or his poignant defense of his pointillism after his coworkers made fun of it. Jerry is never, ever too cool for the room, and that’s thanks to O’Heir’s total commitment and comic skill. He is the game day player, the long-ball hitter, the constant presence, the consummate pro; the one who has the guts to look foolish. He might not have been the star of the show, but it’s impossible to imagine the show without him.
Most of these are (unsurprisingly) film-related, though there are some that dig into books or television. With limited exceptions, these are features, interviews, or essays, not film reviews. (I also cheated and included some videos.) And of course, this is just a list of things I happened to read and enjoy this year, and not a remotely comprehensive account of every great thing that was produced in the past 12 months.
I wrote a piece last year about the end of the “Thanksgiving episode” era of TV, which peaked, as did audience share, in the 1990s. Still, I return at this time of year to some comforting classics. “Shibboleth,” from the second (and best) season of The West Wing, is always one of those. It’s alternately funny, sweet, and just the right amount of earnest.
The fifth season of The Wire gets short shrift not because it’s bad (which it isn’t; it’s pretty good, and in places great), but because that’s the year that David Simon’s cynicism about the inevitability of systemic corruption and ignorance expands to implicate us, the viewers. The season’s focus on media hype and the glorification of certain narratives is as timely as ever — and is timely material to revisit in the wake of the murder in Ferguson — but it’s also hard to take because it puts us on the hook for the things we don’t see. For the first four seasons, we watch a sweeping narrative unfold and feel a subconscious pride in the fact that we’re having the experience. But in the show’s final year, Simon says: no matter what you think you know, you know less. You miss so many things. You miss what matters, and you sweat what doesn’t. It’s not untrue, but it’s understandably a harder pill to choke down than, e.g., the game is the game. To fully engage with the show’s final season is to accept our own role in the institutional quagmire of the drug war, the faltering economy, and the ruined castle of education. We want to remember the more gruesome but comparatively less accusatory stories about corner boys. We can tell ourselves we aren’t them. Come the final season, it’s no wonder we want to look away.
The third season of New Girl, which aired from fall 2013 to spring 2014, was a muddy and unpleasant experience in a lot of ways, not least because the union of Nick and Jess morphed from opposites-attract romantic-comedy to self-destructive loathing. Speaking to HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, New Girl creator and showrunner Liz Meriwether offered this take on the season:
“It’s tricky having a couple on a show. It really limits what you can do with them as characters. It felt like we had to see them together in every episode, and that limited Nick from going off on his own and having stories. We put them together too much. They were in every story together, and there was fatigue of the two of them together.”
This is the biggest and most dangerous lie that some storytellers believe: that a couple’s story exists only in the way they came together, not what kept them together. Part of the mistake is probably logistical. Watching a couple meet, date, and fall in love provides a natural arc for writers and viewers, so it’s easy to keep going back to that well. The truth about life as a couple (married or not) is that there’s no more arc. It’s instead about commitment and exploration, about going through your life with someone and learning what that give and take means on a daily basis. It’s richer and deeper, but also harder to shoehorn into a sarcastic 22-minute weekly slot that also has to support several other characters.
This also starts to feel like a cheat for viewers, especially after it’s been made clear (through the individual text and the storytelling tradition) that Jess and Nick are going to wind up together at some point. Putting them together and pulling them apart just because you don’t know what to do with them as characters starts to make the show feel like a game, and one we’ll eventually get tired of playing. As Meriwether said later in that interview: “For me, the heart of the show has always been Nick and Jess, and it will always be Nick and Jess, and I don’t think this is the end for them.” We know.
I wrote several months ago about why it’s important for TV to keep telling stories about actual couples, so rather than rewrite it, I’ll just reprint it here:
The end of How I Met Your Mother brings with it many things: no more flash-forwards or teases, no more narrative fake-outs, no more episodes designed to play out the string. But the biggest hole it leaves in primetime television comedy doesn’t have to do with any of the show’s official major stories about Ted Mosby and his long-suffering search for love. Rather, it’s the departure of Marshall and Lily we’ll come to feel most sharply in the coming months and years. Played by Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan, they were something most viewers never get to see in a TV comedy: a realistic, committed couple who were together for the long haul.
Most TV comedies relegate serious relationships to supporting characters. Friends, notably, had Monica and Chandler, who got together at the end of the fourth season, married at the end of the seventh, and finished the series by adopting kids. On How I Met Your Mother, Marshall and Lily followed a similar pattern: they began the series as longtime partners, got engaged, and briefly separated before getting married and starting a family. They worked through a number of issues — financial problems, job insecurities, deaths in the family — but were always together. The plot was created to test them and bring them closer together, not drive them apart. Yet this is something that the lead characters on sitcoms almost never experience. While Monica and Chandler worked to grow as a couple, season- and series-long stories dealt with Ross and Rachel’s tumultuous relationship and ultimate reconciliation (in the series finale, no less). How I Met Your Mother was, for all its colorful storytelling, primarily about Ted’s search for love and fulfillment and his desire to create his own version of what he saw in Marshall and Lily. Sitcoms might let the lead character stay in a relationship for a little while (Ted did, and even got close to marriage), but these relationships always end in favor of keeping the lead single a little longer. The arrival of the true love, the one person tailor made for the lead character, is put off until the end. It’s viewed as a series-ending button on a long story, a clear-cut “The End” as a show fades out. Ross and Rachel went back and forth a million times and knew everything about each other, but they weren’t allowed to actually be together until Friends was down to its last commercial break. This is understandable, but it’s also unnecessary.
It’s understandable because the search for love, or the “will-they-won’t-they” tension between two leads, is a clear story that’s easy for viewers to understand and even easier for studios and networks to sell to audiences. This is a story about a guy looking for love; over here’s a story about two coworkers who secretly like each other. There’s room for individual details in the story even as the writers lay down a definite template and don’t deviate from it that much. Two people meet and develop feelings for each other, they overcome a very specific obstacle (being apart), and then they get together. Sitcoms like to repeat this on small levels for throwaway relationships and big levels for the “real” ones, but the moment where the two leads come together, or where the guy finally gets the girl, is seen as the end of the line. That’s where the energy is focused. That’s the goal.
What makes that unnecessary is that there are hundreds and thousands of stories to be told about couples in love who fight and work and grow together, who sacrifice for each other, who try to figure out what it means to be in a good relationship, and who do everything they can to make their relationship work. It’s not as if these stories are unheard of in sitcoms, either; they’re just on the periphery. Marshall and Lily dealt with debt issues, fertility questions, career worries, and the dim unease that comes with getting just a little bit older and wondering if this is what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. Monica and Chandler grew together and informed each other’s characters: he learned how to grow up, she learned how to be more giving. Happy Endings had Brad and Jane as the married part of their ensemble. Parks and Recreation did a little song and dance with April and Andy, but to the show’s credit, it soon enough skipped the formalities and just let them get married. Yet most comedies are afraid or unwilling to make those stories the primary ones. The American version of The Office drew its energy from the repression Jim and Pam put themselves through for years; once they finally got together, the series didn’t quite know what to do next, so it faffed around for a few years and drove artificial wedges between Jim and Pam as a way to recapture some of the show’s former glory.
There was no reason for How I Met Your Mother to minimize and prolong the appearance of Ted’s future love and the mother of his children. Things aren’t over when you meet someone; that’s when they’re just starting. Yes, the lead-up is exciting and thrilling in its own ways, but there are so many stories and moments that come after that. Learning to be with each other. Discovering who you are with another person. Wondering what to do with your lives together. Making major decisions about where and how to live. Having the same discussion about dinner and your in-laws a million times. Meeting a new group of friends through your partner and figuring out how to blend them with yours. It would’ve been fascinating and rewarding to include more stories like this on a major network comedy simply because they tend to get overlooked for what we convince ourselves are more dramatic options: falling in love, getting married, or dealing with death.
This isn’t anything new, either. Most TV comedies have stayed away from the romantic dramedy of two committed lead characters, and when they do present a committed central couple, they usually pivot into family stories pretty quickly. Bewitched and I Love Lucy only went one season before giving children to the main characters. Two high-profile sitcoms managed to focus on the relationship between the leads in recent years — Mad About You and The King of Queens — and though they took wildly different approaches to storytelling, they share something rare: a core belief in the union of their main characters. The plots are about their lives together after getting married but before having kids, when they’re learning how to navigate adult life as a couple. It’s a narratively rich area that comedies tend to avoid, maybe because creators are under the impression that there’s less comedy (or just too much drama) in a story about a relationship. But they also likely avoid such stories because relationship comedies offer no clear resolution, no signposts to mark your progress, the way a story about one person trying to get with another lays out a beginning, middle, and end. There’s no clear next step when you’re together. You just work at it and keep going. I can understand why that might make some creators nervous — “these two people love each other and do stuff” is probably harder to pitch than a gimmick-laden rom-com in reverse like How I Met Your Mother — but I’d love to see a writer or network take a chance on something built on a young relationship. There are so many stories to tell there. It’d be a shame to let them go untold.
When FXX broadcast a marathon of the entire run of The Simpsons to date, they cropped the remastered images, slicing off the top and bottom of the original image to fit into wider HDTV sets. The Simpsons, like many shows of its era, was originally broadcast in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is what TV images looked like for decades. HDTV sets display a ratio of 1.78:1 (often referred to as 16:9, or 16×9), which is obviously wider. To show an older TV image on an HDTV set, you have two options:
1.) Center the image and put black bars on the sides (a practice known as pillarboxing), or
2.) Crop or stretch the image to fit the wider display.
The first option is always preferable. The goal isn’t to fill up your display with an image, but to view the image as it was originally intended using the best of our abilities. Before HDTVs, this meant opting for widescreen editions of VHS tapes or DVDs, which used letterboxing to insert black bars above and below the image to preserve a wide picture on a more narrow display. Many movies today will still be letterboxed on an HDTV, but because the display is already a good deal wider than old 1.33 TV sets, the bars are smaller and less noticeable.
That’s just for modern features, though. For older features and TV series, which were often created and distributed in a 1.33 ratio (or 1.37, aka Academy ratio), watching them on an HDTV and seeing a true representation of the work means having black boxes on the sides of the image. It’s the same principle as letterboxing; the bars are just in a different place.
Filmmakers and TV creators weren’t oblivious to the shape of the screens that would show their work. They composed and photographed images specifically in a 1.33 ratio. And this is where it gets important: a filmed image isn’t just a delivery device for plot, but a visual representation of the emotions of the characters and viewers interacting in the film space. Close-ups, tight shots, the interplay of camera positions. These aren’t haphazard, randomly chosen things. They’re all done with a purpose. And when you chop or distort the image, you twist and damage the intended emotions of the scene.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released on DVD, some fans wondered why it wasn’t being presented in widescreen, especially as HDTVs began to gain footing in the market. Series creator Joss Whedon had this to say about it:
The fabulous episodes of BUFFY (and that one crappy one, sorry about that, seemed really cool when we wrote it…) were not shot in a widescreen format. They were shot in the TV 4 by 3 ratio. Now I’m a letterbox fanatic…. I want to see the whole screen, as framed by the director. The BUFFY’s I (and others) shot were framed for traditional TVs. Adding space to the sides simply for the sake of trying to look more cinematic would betray the very exact mise-en-scene I was trying to create. I am a purist, and this is the purest way to watch BUFFY. I have resisted the effort to letterbox BUFFY from the start and always will, because that is not the show we shot. This is.
The latest show to receive the HD remastering treatment is HBO’s The Wire, and it looks like it will unfortunately be cropped to fit HDTV sets, too. This is, of course, an affront to the creators of the original image, who knew what they were doing when they photographed one of the greatest TV series ever made. From a 2007 piece about the show:
The Wire for each of its five seasons has been produced in good old fashioned 4 x 3 standard definition. DP Dave Insley recalled, “The reason the show has stayed 4×3 is because David Simon thinks that 4×3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie. The show’s never been HD, even 4×3 HD and that (SD) is how it is on the DVDs. There is no 16×9 version anywhere.” As a viewer with an HD set I will point out that like much of SD television that makes its way to HD channels, it appears that HBO utilizes state-of-the-art line doubling technology. It may still be standard definition, but line doubled it looks considerably better on a high definition set than it would on a standard definition set.
Insley explained, “When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion — David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs — and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4×3. The DPs pretty much defined the look to be what it is now. And it’s been consistent for the past two seasons.”
Watching a TV show or a movie isn’t just downloading the plot into your brain. If it were, you could get the same emotional and aesthetic experience by reading episode summaries on Wikipedia. The visuals, including the framing, are crucial to an understanding of the work. All the pieces matter.
I’ve been rewatching selected episodes of the third and fourth seasons of The West Wing recently. The show’s two strongest creative voices — Aaron Sorkin, creator and head writer, and Thomas Schlamme, executive producer and regular director — started discussing an exit strategy at the beginning of the third season, so you can almost see the air running out of the tires as the fourth season draws to a close. Sorkin, perhaps as an act of sheer will or spite, also set in motion a number of plots at the close of the fourth season that did as much as possible to knock the series off its track: the vice president resigned because of a sex scandal, the president’s youngest daughter was kidnapped, and the president temporarily renounced his office to focus on the manhunt and allowed the Republican Speaker of the House to assume the presidency. It was a giant mess of story, and it did as much as anything to set a new tone for the show: instead of creating drama by having smart people be outsmarted, the show had smart people make dumb decisions. They were in jams, but less interesting or engaging ones.
But one of the biggest changes to take root in the fourth season was the show’s new visual vocabulary. The series had started life with a warm look: buttery lights and rich reds ran throughout the West Wing, and camera placement and movement had emphasized action and relationships. The infamous walk-and-talks stood out the most, but the show’s look in its early years was smartly guided, and cinematography was always at the service of story. A random example: in one episode, Sam Seaborn is tasked with meeting with an unbalanced man who believes the government is hiding evidence of alien life at Fort Knox. Sam walks into the conference room, and we cut to a shot down the table, but no one’s there. Except someone actually is: the man is sitting at the end of the table, his face obscured by a lamp. He has to lean over for Sam to see him. It’s a visual joke that relies on space and image, but it also underscores the dynamic in the room: this guy is so timid that he’s invisible even when you’re looking at him.
In the show’s fourth year, though, as director Christopher Misiano helmed more episodes and Sorkin and Schlamme were getting closer to exit, the look and feel began to change. (Schlamme, who directed five episodes in the first season and four each in the second and third, only directed a single episode in the fourth season.) Lighting was often harsh and overhead, with bright pools in the middle of inky backgrounds. Performances that had been delivered at a normal speaking volume began instead, for some reason, to be fervently whispered. The show began to give off a bruised, unwelcoming vibe. Camera work suffered, too. The big trend of the year was to simply point the camera at a corner of the action — say, the edge of a door frame — and let the actors walk around it. Instead of following Donna into Josh’s office by cutting from the bullpen to the office interior, the camera pans to watch her walk into Josh’s office and stays pointed at Josh. He’s seated at his desk as Donna stands in front of him, sometimes walking in front of the camera. It feels like it’s meant to mimic voyeurism — as if you were actually standing there and had watched her walk into the office before deciding to hide outside and try to listen — but there’s no rhyme or reason here. It’s a new and grating attempt at “style” that doesn’t feel at home in a show that’s been building a visual language for three-plus years by this point. So many moments in the fourth season are staged like this: camera composing an ugly frame as the principles are mostly heard off screen.
Most pieces that talk about the show’s break between its first four seasons (the ones with Sorkin and Schlamme) and its last three (the ones without them) focus on the narrative and writing, and those are important. Sorkin’s wit and rhythms are hard to replicate without sounding robotic or mocking. But just as important was the way the show started to look grim and locked-down, the opposite of the look it had spent so long cultivating. It’s almost hard not to feel like the new look was a reflection of the show’s uncertainty about itself as its key storytellers made for the exit. It started to look forced and ordinary, when the show’s true essence was anything but.