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GUEST BLOG #105: Mark Bianculli Talks TV -- Or, The Son Also Criticizes
January 16, 2010  | By Mark Bianculli  | 1 comment
 
[Bianculli here -- DAVID Bianculli here, that is: I'm even more proud than usual to introduce the newest writer in our ever-expanding TV WORTH WATCHING stable: He's Mark Bianculli, my son. He grew up watching quality TV (how could he not?), was a TV critic for his college paper, and the same week I launched this website in 2007, he moved to Hollywood, hoping to write for television rather than about it. Until that happens, I've persuaded him to join us here. He's a better writer than I was at his age --and since he's only 26, he lowers our correspondents' average age the way Anderson Cooper does on 60 Minutes. Please welcome him, as he starts off by considering what makes good TV so good in the first place...]

mad-men-season4-poster-thum.jpgIt's Not the Story, It's the Storytelling

By Mark Bianculli

"So," it began, "what do you want to do out here?"

My immediate answer: "TV writer."

The unimpressed response: "Interesting. Why television?"

Maybe this wasn't going to be the smoothest job interview with a talent manager who made his living off of motion pictures. But I needed the assistant job. I thought for a moment.

"Because it's character-building."

While I got an unintentional laugh out of it, what I was actually trying to say is that unlike movies, television's unique strength is the ability to develop characters to their finest and fullest. To truly build characters.

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Now, that's not to say that movies don't deliver some of the greatest characters of all time. Of course they do. All I'm suggesting is that when you watch such amazingly drawn characters as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, or Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, or Sgt. William James in The Hurt Locker, you're only left wanting more.

When you watch Don Draper in Mad Men, however, or Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Dexter Morgan in Dexter, more is exactly what you get.

But this begs another question. Which is better? Isn't the cardinal rule of show business to always leave them wanting more? Don't TV shows eventually jump the shark and turn groundbreaking stories into tired, threadbare routines?

Well, yes and no. Some stories only need so much time to unfold, and need to go only so deep. Some things are better left unexplained or unfinished. But when you have seventy hours to explore your characters instead of two, you inherit the ability to make their relationships that much more complex, and to strike that many more chords with the emotions of your viewers. To this effect, a good movie is like a riveting short story. Good television is like a novel.

Taking this analogy a step further, consider your favorite novels. If asked why you like them so much, would it ever come down to how good the ending was, or the action-packed plot points? I'd bet that nine times out ten, it was the lyrical prose, the soulful insight, or the carefully crafted subtleties that kept you turning the pages. In other words, it's not the story that ultimately grabs you, but the storytelling.

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This is why it's no surprise that a show like AMC's Mad Men is being heralded as the next great American novel. A period piece set in a time of extravagance and social change, with themes of truth and identity and class-rising woven throughout, this show begins by introducing us to one of the most fascinating characters in years, Madison Avenue ad exec Don Draper. A slick, mysterious, philandering alpha male who drinks, smokes, and cons his way to success -- who wouldn't want to watch this guy?

But Mad Men wouldn't necessarily work as a movie. The dark secret of Don's past is revealed quickly, and it isn't all that dark. The key to this show's success lies rather in the ability to slowly (and cleverly) dig deeper and deeper into the lives of the ensemble as well as Don, and to let the drama stem from human emotion, not action.

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Writer-producer David E. Kelley's mantra on writing good characters was simple: make every character interesting enough so that you would be perfectly happy to follow them out of the room. In the case of Mad Men, literally every single character becomes more and more interesting with each minute of screen time.

By the end of season three, Joan, Peggy, Roger, Peter, and Betty are all Don Drapers in a sense, with enough intrigue and dynamism to make us eagerly follow them anywhere. In the movies, this would be impossible. No matter how fascinating the supporting characters, we would never have time to "leave the room." (Fine, maybe in Lord of the Rings).

But Don Draper and company are members of just one in a long line of stellar ensemble shows. Breaking Bad (also on AMC) approaches its story in a completely different style, turning and twisting violently at the surface over deeper themes of love, family, and virility. Here we have a lead character who, until a gradual transformation, is the anti-Don Draper.

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Walter White (played by two-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) is a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who teams up with a former student (played by Aaron Paul) to build his family a nest egg by selling crystal meth. From the very opening shot of the pilot, we are being dared to catch up to a story that is rushing by us at a frenetic pace.

Vince Gilligan pulls out some of his classic "teaser" tricks from his days on the X-Files, and taunts viewers with hints and misdirection, ultimately delivering some of the most inventive and well-crafted TV storytelling in years. And throughout the immediate dangers and dire consequences, we slow down enough to catch beautiful dialogue and deep emotional struggles. Add its wonderful humor, and you've got a show that carefully (and impressively) hits every note a viewer could possibly want.

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Breaking Bad is indeed very different from a show like Mad Men. But the effect is the same: a web of wonderfully complex characters whose stories end up trumping the original series hook. Same goes for the The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Lost, Treme, Dexter, Damages, and countless others. All stories which, because of television, are given the time to plant proper seeds, to navigate through different perspectives. To write the novel.

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Now, I realize this argument is a generalization, and that both sides are full of exceptions. Shows like 24 and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation aren't exactly based on the novels of Proust, and there are plenty of movies (The Lives of Others comes to mind) that prove just how subtly and passionately a human drama can be told.

But one thing is certain. Television, like life, lets us truly get to know people. Slower burns make for bigger payoffs. Breakups hurt more, and victories taste sweeter. Endings and beginnings become less easily defined.

Unlike the ephemeral quality of movies -- that perfect snapshot into the most interesting moment of one's life -- TV, at its best, sticks around for the long haul. It shows us what happens after you get the girl, or better yet, after you never get the girl. It stays with us long after we've lost our loved ones, or reaches back to a time before we even met them. It tells a complete story, for better or worse. There's something courageous in that.

So three years, two jobs, and one internship later, my convictions are exactly the same as they were in that very first interview.

When asked? My answer: always, and immediately:

"TV writer."

--

Mark-Bianculli-photo.jpg

Mark Bianculli is former TV columnist for his high school and college newspapers, occasionally writing a feature or two professionally. After multiple internships on television shows and two-and-a-half years in talent management, he is still writing scripts and waiting for his chance to be a professional TV writer. And waiting... and waiting...


9 Comments

 

Eileen said:

Welcome, Mark.

Your father must be very proud as this was wonderfully written.

Mad Men is my favorite show on tv with the most complex, interesting characters. Not to say I don't love Breaking Bad, but the frantic pace often leaves me exhausted.

What I truly love about Mad Men is less is more -- a Peggy doesn't have to say a word, but her glance, look, expression speaks volumes. After a real drought this summer, I can't wait for Season 4.

I can see you are really paying your dues. As the mom of an '09 Film & Media grad I hear you loud & clear. He just finished an internship on a horror movie, and loved every second. I couldn't work from 12 noon until 6 am, but I guess that's the lure. The rationale is, "That's what I went to school for."

Hope you & your terrific writing will be on this blog frequently, and I wish you all good things in your endeavors.

Comment posted on July 16, 2010 11:45 AM


Sarah said:

Welcome, Mark.

I must say, as someone who wants to write and create for TV (I also have a couple of screenplays), I agree with everything you say. When I watch TV with my mom, that is all she cares about: if the storytelling isn't good, then why waste your time watching? So when a series gets cancelled after only 2 or 3 episodes, I find myself getting upset. I mean the network didn't even give it a chance to develop!

Mad Men is a good example. I have to admit at first I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch the series, but by the time the first season ended, I wanted more. So when the next season started, I knew had to watch these characters. Don Draper is still as mysterious as he was then.

Also you brought up my writing mentor, Mr. Kelley. Every since I saw the first episode of The Practice, I was hooked by him, and have seen every series since. I also really like Aaron Sorkin and J.J. Abrams.

In the end, I know a good story is being told (and this may sound strange) when I find myself actually caring about the characters. I guess the universal example of this would be in M*A*S*H (spoiler alert) when Colonel Blake is killed. The sadness that we see in the characters - his war family - gets me every time.

I look forward to leaving more comments on your blogs.

Comment posted on July 16, 2010 6:03 PM


Mac said:

The passing of Harvey Pekar has shaded everything I experience these days. But what Harvey did for comic books and what makes great TV have some parallels. Look at a comic as a storyboard for a TV series. If it wasn't so expensive and time consuming,a frequent episode of Spiderman on TV (monthly or in a limited series bunch like cable shows) would be much better than the 3-5 year wait for movies. And Pekar's work would work on TV and show a true reality show. Jean Shepherd's monologues would have made lots of "A Christmas Story" moments (remember,the movie pretty much failed first time out didn't take on cult status until after televised showings). The original "Prisoner," as AMC found out the hard way, could only work as episodes on TV. Cosby took his stand up routines,fitted them in a different medium and made history. Seinfeld took a different story,but it was basically his stand up, added a little Jack Benny and lives on forever in syndication. Ray Romano pulled on both of these coattails and ran for almost a decade. And these shows pretty much do excellent DVD business because it is exactly like reading a book when we have the time and desire to pick up and read another chapter. Dickens did this with just words decades ago, sending out chapters in serialized form and still finds new eyes today. It's not just the story before you now,but the anticipation of what happens next time that keeps you coming back.

Comment posted on July 17, 2010 7:41 AM


Sally W said:

Mark - welcome to TWW!

Great post! I agree that the big difference between movies and tv is the opportunity of development of characters and that tv is very much like a novel - this unraveling of plot and character and weird moments or slow times or excitement.

With tv, I like having the time to feel affection or connection with the shows that speak to me or shows that themselves seem to care about their characters and what happens to them. Kind of why I like J.J. Abrams' work - "Alias" and later "Fringe" might have the strangest plots, but I want to spend the hour with Secret Agent Sydney dealing with the latest emotional and professional turmoil or see if Mad Scientist Walter can move past the madness - things that movies don't quite work or work at it differently.

Good luck with finding the job of your dreams and keep on writing!

Comment posted on July 17, 2010 1:00 PM


Tausif Khan said:

I think that entertainment executives are trying to make television and movies the same thing. Television executives want more stand-alone episodes with conclusions at the end of each episode ad movie executives want sequels to draw audiences back to their favorite tent pole movies.

The big question I have is why do movie critics and television critics separate themselves? Are they both not analyzing visual media?

Comment posted on July 17, 2010 4:54 PM


Pat said:

Welcome! Mark.

Great Blog! Very Well Written!

Mad Men is like a great story you don't want to end. I love that every character is interwoven, and the casting is a perfect fit. The writing is polished, and keeps me looking forward to the next show.

Keep writing, and waiting. . .

Until then, hope to see a lot more from you on TWW.

Comment posted on July 18, 2010 11:12 AM


Pam C said:

Mark- Well done!

It is apparent that you have a passion for your craft and the skill to accomplish your mission. Just wait, that random door will open soon and you will march right in and kick some...well, let's just say I can't wait to see how you develop the characters you have created. Our house these days is into "The Big Bang Theory" - especially and unexpectedly my husband. I think we know the characters well enough now to put them on our Christmas list, which is a perfect example, for me, of your characterization of "wanting to follow them," or even identifying them as someone we KNOW. Keep the faith - you are a rising star.

Comment posted on July 19, 2010 8:57 PM


Mark Bianculli said:

Hey Everyone!

Thanks so much for the kind words and the encouragement!

I suppose it was a pretty safe article to write, considering that everyone reading this blog already agrees that television is exceptional.

But I'm glad you all share my passion for TV, and I loved hearing your thoughts.

Thanks again for wishing me well in my endeavors. (And Eileen, tell your son that he will definitely get his dream if he sticks with it).

Can't wait to write more for TVWW.

Take care,
Mark

Comment posted on July 22, 2010 3:57 PM


Janine V. said:

Hey Mark,
Great article on the emmys! I agree Jimmy Fallon did an excellent job hosting. Keep up the good work I enjoy reading all your articles. Your passion shows through in everything you write. Talk to you soon! Your proud future sister-in-law Janine.

Comment posted on August 31, 2010 11:56 AM
 
 
 
 
 
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Hey Mark, Just wanted to say it's clear that the acorn didn't fall far from the oak. And given how wonderful a writer I think your Papa is, that is a HUGE compliment. Drop me a line so we can get better acquainted, ok? With great respect, MJW
Mar 5, 2014   |  Reply
 
 
 
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