The Cost of Narrative

In 2004, HBO aired a series called Deadwood, a Western-style show by creator David Milch. Milch’s vision of Deadwood trafficked in all the traditional tropes of the Wild West, but applied contemporary sensibilities to its numerous subplots, making for a compelling narrative.

At the time, HBO was well on its way to transforming into a premium programming channel with the help of shows like The Sopranos, David Chase’s crime masterpiece about family, money, and trust. The Sopranos changed the way American audiences viewed television, leveraging long-form narratives in ways that echoed prior network shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue 1 yet reflected contemporary social dilemmas viewers could relate to.

As a result, The Sopranos won numerous Emmy and Peabody awards, combining razor-sharp writing with excellent casting and direction. Deadwood, gritty, dusty, followed in those same footsteps, redefining the Western and capturing award after award.

Then, after three seasons, it ended2.

Brian Boone, writing for Looper, offers a litany of reasons for Deadwood’s cancellation: expense, lower viewership numbers, corporate infighting, managerial chaos.

The unseen bruise, purple and malformed, is trust in the HBO brand. Premium narratives require conjunct faith: if you’re going to be dignified in your storytelling, if you’re going to maintain intricate plot structures and characterization (such as The Wire 3), viewers need assurances the show is going to breathe until its story is finished. After all, audiences are committing the time of their lives — the only real currency in the world — to these stories.

1 NYPD Blue was also created by David Milch and garnered much acclaim for its gritty portrayal of the life of New York City police officers, both professionally and privately.

2 Not terribly surprising, shows end all the time. The challenge with Deadwood stems from its then popularity, launching the careers of Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane. One could make numerous parallels with shows such as Arrested Development, a postmodernist comedy about a dysfunctional family in real estate, or even Firefly, a space Western about being on the wrong side of a war.

3 I’d argue that The Wire still remains the most elegantly crafted crime narrative on modern American television with a very close second going to Breaking Bad. It seems important to note that capitalism yields an unseemly hitchhiker called ‘brand’. Brand influence conflates truth with elements of fiction. Sadly, consumers are mostly untrained in filtering brand truthiness.

One Week In…

“One Week In…” with the Fujinon 16mm f/1.4 lens

One week into self-isolation due to the coronavirus, COVID-19, and I’m working on learning my new Fujifilm lenses — the immaculate 16mm f/1.4 and the 55–200mm variable telescopic lens.

Fujinon 55–200mm lens

Before the great work-from-home experiment began, I also recorded sample interview footage from my X-T3 with a colleague.

It was an amazingly educational experience for our first effort. Here are a few of the pieces of this we learned:

  • always clean the computer screen before you shoot
  • verify your leading lines are properly situated
  • make certain your light sources are properly adjusted
  • while I love the variable 18–55m Fujinon lens for video, I would rather have used either a 23mm or a 35mm lens so I could exploit a better bokeh (the plant should have been blurred). One of those will be the next lens I purchase
  • I would like to have an inexpensive reflector for better facial lighting
  • since this was a test, I didn’t ask Michael to sit up properly and professionally rather than his relaxed manner. Relaxed is fine, but there are better ways we could have engaged the audience, I think; again, just a test
  • the Aperture lav mic we used worked wonderfully and was fairly easy to correct the waveform, though I would normally hide it beneath his dress shirt
  • I think more depth in the shot is necessary, so maybe books (or at least their bindings illustrating the titles in the foreground — again, the bokeh would help in that instance)
  • I managed to simulate 2 camera shots: one medium and one close-up, even though I only had one camera by recording in 4K and then extending the image in post-production. Next time, I’ll set up my iPhone with a V-Log profile and record from a second location (not ideal for color correction, but I’m on a budget)
  • I learned a tremendous amount of information about post-production that I did not know

And finally, I took some time recently to work a bit with my Zhiyun Crane Plus gimbal while my fiance’s son was playing Minecraft on her iPad. This also presented the opportunity to fiddle about with the warp correction tool in Adobe Premiere Pro.

As I eclipse 51 years on this little blue pearl of a planet, it’s increasingly clear that all things are art — we just need to modify the lens through which we view everything to better understand that.