Friday, December 29, 2006

The Year Of David "Dead Weight" Birney

Denis McGrath watches the first season of St. Elsewhere. While it still mostly holds up for him (as it does for me), he notes some stuff that seems alien to us now, like the broader, more theatrical acting. He also notes that even though St. Elsewhere was the fastest-paced drama show of its time, thanks largely to the innovations of producer-director Mark Tinker (son of MTM founder Grant Tinker -- that's one helluva talented family), it still has a lot of slow spots compared to today's shows:

But the stories, again, sometimes drag. I found myself wondering, simultaneously, what could we do with that extra seven minutes today, and marveling on how, even in a quality show like this -- how little the audience was trusted to put two and two together.

I sometimes think that there's a connection between the longer running times and the slower pacing. By the '80s, movies had adjusted their editing styles for greater speed and economy; instead of showing a guy getting out of the car, knocking at the door, and going in, you just cut directly from him getting out of the car to him entering the house. That wasn't happening on TV, for the most part. And while part of it is that they didn't trust the audience, another part of it was that shows couldn't always afford to chop out footage: whereas shows today always ran long, it was quite common in those days for shows to run short. In the first season of The Rockford Files, according to James Garner, the writers always included a car chase so they could deal with the problems of filling 50 minutes of screen time: if the show was running very short, they'd make the car chase very long; if it was only a little short, they'd keep the car chase at a more reasonable length. Other hour-long shows dealt with the length problem by having closing credit sequences of varying lengths, so they could fill the slot by playing the theme song for two minutes.

Today's shows always have tons of "deleted scenes" that fall into the DVD extras bin because there's not enough time to put them in the show. This wasn't so much a problem when the show is 48-50 minutes; the problem is how to create enough material when you have a limited amount of shooting time. And part of the way they dealt with that, I think, was not to end scenes too early or start them too late -- because if you chop a scene down to its essentials, you may have a tighter scene but you've also got a 42-minute show. (Once Moonlighting started to get unusually fast-paced -- not only in dialogue delivery but in some of the editing, with the directors and editors doing without any exterior establishing shots -- they ran into exactly that problem, coming in with 40-43 minute shows; that's why they did those teasers with the stars breaking character, because the shows were coming in at what would nowadays be standard length for an hour-long.)

While I deplore the short running times of today, a lot of it is mostly on principle; I just don't like the sheer greed involved in cutting the entertainment down to the bare minimum so networks can show 20 minutes of commercials. But principles aside, I have to say that in many ways the current 40-42 minute lengths are better for a drama episode than the old 48-50 minute lengths; at least, it's better to have an episode that's a bit too tight than one that's too padded-out. On the other hand, part of what's killing the half-hour comedy is that 20-21 minutes is basically an awful length for an episode, at least if you're trying to tell a story with any kind of point to it. And when the lengths of drama shows are cut down again -- as I fully expect they will be -- they may also reach the point where the advantages of tight storytelling are swamped by the drawbacks of having no time to tell a story.

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