Storytelling and American Horror Story

american-horror-story-coven-2Why are novels so often around 300 pages?

Why are fantasy series so often trilogies?

Why are TV shows so often 20 episodes to a season?

Do stories inherently fit into this structure? Obviously not. These common structures are rarely ever driven by story. They are driven by outside factors, the story twisted and contorted to fit into these semi-arbitrary boxes. Dickens wrote his stories knowing they would be serialized in chapbooks. Novel lengths have always been restrained by the physical size of the printed book; over one thousand pages and the book falls apart and if a book is too large it may be too expensive for readers. Thus, long fantasy epics are broken into trilogies.

Television has imposed the same artificial story structure on its creators. The season length is driven by advertising revenue streams and promotional schedules.  More importantly, television also has a unique structure that has demanded a story never actually ends. Most shows tell a story for a season, 20 or so episodes over 8 months, and then find some way to continue that story the following season. And then the season after that, and that, and then ratings or creative ideas or actor contracts make the creators introduce some conclusion to the story, if that is even possible.

This works great for some types of story telling. Procedurals like Law and Order work well since they are not telling a long form story. But those longer stories with a defined beginning and end have always had to twist their stories into the format of the medium.

But the times they are a changing. Technology has the ability to free creators from these artificial restraints. Book length means less in the e-book age and yearly TV schedules are less important with NetFlix, YouTube and on-demand viewing.

This is a huge boon for the horror genre, specifically classic horror stories. Horror tropes have been used in successful teen shows like The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and long running shows like Supernatural or shorter lived shows like Twin Peaks.

The short run of Twin Peaks is indicative of the historic problem of the TV schedule on a story.  David Lynch asked us to follow him in finding out “Who killed Laura Palmer?”  Terrific story telling followed. It was weird and creepy. It was filled with amazingly unique personalities. It was full of the supernatural and the mundane.

But the story was about “Who killed Laura Palmer?”  Once that story was told, one we knew the answer to that question, Twin Peaks was not sure where to go. They were a television show and every season assumes a following season. There was no appetite for investing in a series that would automatically go off the air in only 1 or 2 seasons, killing any chance at syndication, the holy grail of television.

So Twin Peaks continued on. It puttered about and then eventually came a movie. It was at one time the most exciting show on television, but it had petered out. But this was caused not by David Lynch, but the structure of television itself. The show should have ended after the original story of Laura Palmer was told. That was the story. It was fascinating and didn’t need more.

This brings me to American Horror Story and why I am so excited about this admittedly over the top show. Each season is a single story. This singular, contained story structure allows them enormous freedom. Do you want to kill off the most popular character on the show? Sure, why not. She can come back the next season as an entirely different character. Want to chop off a characters legs? No prob.  Who are the bag guys and who are the good guys? American Horror Story keeps us guessing because each season we are following new characters played by the same stable of actors.

This structure is perfect for the horror genre. Everyone should be in danger in a classic horror story. Horror, or at least a certain type of horror, does not work if you know they will never kill off a popular character. It is impossible for Supernatural to kill off, at least permanently, either Sam or Dean. True Blood cannot kill off Sookie. They are the stars. The shows dies without them. But when telling a singular story, with a defined ending, and then allowing those actors to come back the following season for a new story (which pulls fans in), American Horror Story is free to do whatever they want.

This upcoming season we have the third installment, American Horror Story: Coven. The first season was the classic haunted house and the second about a twisted insane asylum. Now we get witches. I love witches. The Salem Witch trials have always been a deep pool for horror to draw from. It is also wonderfully american, much like the southern gothic of Faulkner or the New England terrors of Stephen King. And we get Jessica Lang, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. We get Salem styled witches and southern Voodoo. We get great actors from previous seasons like Lily Rabe and Denis O’Hare. It does not matter whether their characters were killed off during Asylum or Murder House (the first two seasons). And we have no idea who might live and who might die. We don’t know who is good and who is bad.

All we know is that over 13 episodes we will get a singular story with a concrete ending and everyone and everything else is up for grabs.

Matt Yslesias on What Makes Star Trek Great

Matt Yglesias at Slate has a nice review of the various iterations of Star Trek and why the seminal science fiction franchise is better as a television show than a movie.

In the second episode of the seventh season of the fourth Star Trek television series, Icheb, an alien teenage civilian who’s been living aboard a Federation vessel for several months after having been rescued from both the Borg and abusive parents, issues a plaintive cry: “Isn’t that what people on this ship do? They help each other?

It’s an unremarkable episode in one of the worse iterations of the franchise, but the need for an isolated and impressionable young man to offer his assessment of the situation brought a certain clarity to the whole project. The Star Trek oeuvre is immense. Five television series adding up to many hundreds of episodes plus 11 films (so far) and untold novels, comics, and other licensed material. Even restricting myself to TV and movies, it’s an awful lot of material to process. But angsty teen Icheb hit the nail on the head there, plaintively begging Captain Katherine Janeway and the ship’s holographic doctor to let him undergo a dangerous medical procedure that just might save the life of another ex-Borg on the ship who has served as his mentor. They let him go forward, because he’s right: People on the Federation StarshipVoyagerdo try to help each other, as did the people on the various other vessels named Enterprise and even the staff of the Deep Space Nine station.

Starfleet officers help people. And God bless them for it. 

The entire article is well worth reading.

When you take a look at how the different television shows were able to explore so many different questions about humanity and existence and being and morality and justice and all the other unknowables that encompass the great questions of life it is pretty clear that Star Trek deserves a place back on the small screen.

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