The Oscars' other dilemma: series TV

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Image: TaylorHerring/Flickr

By the end of Sunday's Oscars ritual, Hollywood will once more have failed to solve the central dilemmas of U.S. history: racism and non-inclusivity. They're already beating themselves up over it. ("Let the Academy Awards do what they've always done: Tell on the film industry.") What's charmant is they're convinced it's on them to resolve. Honestly, it's all about them.

At least they're aware of it, as they've long been. In the 1930s, the Marx brothers included Black actors whenever possible in films like A Day at the Races, where a musical number's set in a barn among grooms and muckers. In Duck Soup, they parodied exactly that kind of tokenism in We're Going to War. They too didn't lack awareness.

But I digress. I want to address a less apocalyptic challenge that Hollywood faces: series TV.

It's been argued that current series TV is more like novels than movies, perhaps based on its precursors: early British series such as The Forsyte Saga or Upstairs Downstairs. Like novels, they can go on a long time and explore details, subplots and relationships excluded by two-hour movies.

But this misses a core element of contemporary series (choose your favourite, mine is Justified): their open-endedness. They have a problem with conclusions. You can't meticulously plot through to the end for a simple reason: you may or may not be renewed. Novels have definitive endings or, in sophisticated cases, as Frank Kermode wrote, the "sense of an ending."

A series has a different heartbeat, arrhythmic you could say, since it doesn't know how long it'll survive. Game of Thrones is proof of this. In its first seven seasons, it was wildly discursive, all over its odd map. Then it got notice of termination and sprinted through a final season, with speed-ups and resolutions instead of the lingering and backtracking we'd grown to love.

Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin, author of the novels it's based on, is stuck in the middle of his vast work and can't seem to get on. When and if he ends, it won't be where the series did. Perhaps he won't finish, or will but in the middle, like The Iliad, which sort of starts, then kind of ends.

An endearing example of this indeterminacy is the final episode of Ray Donovan, after seven seasons. It terminated last month. Why was its ending so inconclusive? Because they didn't know if they'd be renewed. (This week they were finally cancelled.) So some characters died, or seemed to, others maybe. It was a cliffhanger without a cliff, which somehow suits the series form.

I loved it. It had the sense of the sense of an ending or not even. It was like the last episode of The Sopranos, which could've been slotted almost anywhere among its 86 predecessors. Justified, otoh, tied up neatly, even smugly. It betrayed the spirit of its meandering, ambivalent lifetime.

Something's going on here in the nature of storytelling, that essential and self-deluding human trait. It feels to me like a move back toward the oral tradition from the written. Movies, for all their visuals and sounds, are basically books on film instead of paper. Their content is locked in like classic novels.

Kermode said the oral tradition (The Iliad) was chaotic and episodic compared to the written, of necessity. The series has some of that, and even elements of response, like the oral tradition, if only in cancellation anxiety, or fandoms and their real-time reactions online even as the tale is being told.

It's possible this revolution in storytelling will be further intensified by technologies that allow the alteration of plot lines, though who knows by whom: producers? advertisers? audiences? All of them democratically and chaotically?

What has this to do with this year's Oscars? Well, what I find irritating about the nominees is their need for sharply delineated culminations, in many cases violent, as if for emphasis: THE END.

I think it's crappy that they're not diverse, so many years after the Marx brothers. But I think it's fascinating that they'll need to cope with new modes of storytelling, and haven't yet got a real sense of that challenge, much less the hang of it.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: TaylorHerring/Flickr

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