Thursday, June 1, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters

13 Reasons Why is the rare Netflix show that feels like it might have been just as strong had it aired week-to-week rather than being dropped all at once. We've talked before about some of my dissatisfaction with the binge model, and Netflix shows like House of Cards and Jessica Jones both have fallen into habits I'd like to see less of. With House of Cards especially, the show has been prone to following the "10-hour movie" model of breaking their episodes. The show takes advantage of the belief that viewers will start watching and keep watching. Thus, there's less of a need to make individual episodes self-contained or even as distinct components of a larger whole. That would be like making sure that minutes 45 to 62 in a film should have their own identity even as they fit into the larger whole.

The result of this is that a lot of House of Cards episodes fall into a trap of continuing the action from the prior ep, and moving around plot points to get to the next ep. At its worst (season two springs to mind), each chapter feels less like a story unto itself and more like a collection of subplots. When I think about certain seasons of House of Cards, the episodes all blend together for me. There's no bending to an operational model that is designed to make week-to-week serialized stories a satisfying experience on their own.

I want to make it clear I'm not pining for a purely episodic model, where everything is reset each week. There's a middle ground between the L&O and NCIS procedurals that dodge ongoing storylines and the House of Cards series that are so tightly linked that you can't dip in for an episode here and there. I've gone on before about the lost art of the standalone episode, so I won't repeat that here, but for a while, that felt like it was going to be a casualty of streaming services. JESSICA JONES might have benefited from an ep or two less closely tied to the show's mythology in favor of a standalone case-of-the-week that could have built out that part of Jessica's world more. I get frustrated with episodes that play as a montage of subplots, with characters making a lot of moves that don't ultimately feel like there's weight behind them.

13 Reasons Why isn't an episodic series, and yes, it has a running storyline about everything that led to Hannah's suicide and all the fallout that comes from that. Structurally, it works beautifully for an episode-by-episode model that gives each chapter its own identity. Clay has been given 13 tapes Hannah recorded before she killed herself, and each tape tells a different story about a person who pushed her to it. Obviously there's a structure to the stories on the tape, so that each one leads into the next, but by design, each one HAS to tell a complete story: "This is what Jess did to Hannah, this is what Marcus did, etc." The present day has serialized elements that advance at their own pace each episode, but there are usually enough connections between the tape-of-the-day and the present storyline that a satisfying story is told in both timeframes.

You can describe episodes with shorthand like "Sheri's Tape" or "Clay's Tape," and the action of that hour is instantly memorable. Try talking about House of Cards and doing the same with "that hour where Kevin Spacey and Major Dad get ticked at each other." There can also be a greater tonal variance among the episodes because the flashbacks leap around in time. It means that something traumatic can happen in a Hannah flashback last episode, but if the next flashback is months later, there's enough of an emotional reset that this emotional agony doesn't have to feel fresh. (Hannah clearly is on a downward trajectory, though one with peaks and valleys rather than a straight slope.) Mostly, it means there's a good chunk of the episode that isn't forced to occur just minutes after the previous show's fade out.

Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, and the serialized streaming model pushes every episode to be mostly "middle." In the past, I've pointed to Buffy The Vampire Slayer season 3 as the platonic ideal of how to tell standalone stories while still advancing an uber plot. I recognize how for a number of reasons, that might not be as viable as it once was.

The 13 Reasons Why approach feels like it CAN be embraced though. It shows a series need not sacrifice greater connectivity in the name of individuality. It's episodic structure at its best - smaller stories that feed into a larger whole. It takes effort to make that work. When breaking a larger story it can be easier to treat it all like one A story and construct every beat relative to that. There's greater reward in construction more complex pieces that work on their own and fit into the larger picture at the same time.

Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

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