Fitting drums in trunks and television poetics


I was reading Michael Berube’s soon-to-be late & lamented blog this morning, and was struck by one of his frequent asides in a post about The Rolling Stones and Charlie Watts:

“the great Elvin Jones, when asked in 1982 by Modern Drummer whether he’d gone to the 18-inch bass drum for a “jazzier, poppier sound,” replying that he’d gotten an 18-inch bass drum because it fits in the trunk of his car. He’d always wanted one of those huge 28-inch Jelly Roll Morton-era bass drums, he explained, but he had to keep tying it to the top of his car, see, and it kept falling off. . . .”

I care little about drumming, and even less about jazz drumming, but this anecdote sums up one of the great conundrums and challenges of studying popular culture forms – creative choices are often motivated by distinctly non-creative reasons. The sound of a bass drum is crucial to defining a musician’s style, but the size of his trunk is rarely a question that critics stop to consider.

For the creation of highly collaborative and industrialized works like television fiction, trunks are quite oddly shaped. Some constraints are rigid but predictable – the norms of commercial American TV demand strict adherence to episode lengths, regularly-placed breaks in the story to pay the bills, quantity of episodes per year, and restrictions on potentially objectionable content. Because of these norms, creators adapt their drums to fit into these constraints as part of the basic craft, developing norms of act breaks, cliff-hangers, and page-lengths – alternative channels like HBO offer freedom from these norms, which many writers suggest is both liberating and difficult to unlearn the rules after so many years.

Sometimes trunk sizes are less predictable – on Alias, the producers had to regularly deal with pressure from ABC to make the show less complex and serialized and incorporate guest stars (especially during sweeps months). After season 2, Lena Olin reputedly wanted too much money to afford to bring her back for her spectacular turn as Irina, so the character went into exile and appeared only via typed IM conversations. Jennifer Garner’s pregnancy in season 5 literally changed the size of the trunk.

One of my favorite examples is an interviewer asking Veronica Mars producer Rob Thomas about his how he deals with the show’s secondary characters, such as the relationship between Logan and Weevil being drawn out over many episodes; Thomas replied that aside from two leads, every other actor’s contract stipulates that they appear in no more than 8 or 10 out of 13 episodes – the decision to push certain stories to the background was determined by the inability to include particular actors in given episodes.

Similarly, Battlestar Galactica opened season 3 with a 4-episode run focusing on the planet New Caprica, which were extremely expensive sets to build and maintain. The season’s eighth episode “Unfinished Business” contains a large number of flashbacks to the planet, all of which needed to be shot months ahead of schedule before the New Caprica sets were destroyed. They later found themselves in a bind when they wanted to rewrite one scene on the old sets later in post-production to fit better into how the show had developed in the interim. And the writers now know that any future flashbacks to this planet will need to be limited to indoor spaces to fit into the limited budget. Such concerns are somewhat unique to the realm of moving-image storytelling – we can be sure that Dickens never had to limit his serial storytelling due to contract disputes with his characters or budgetary limits on sets!

David Bordwell has modeled an approach of historical poetics to understand how films are made in response to the historical conditions of their making, from technological innovations to industrial constraints to artistic movements. For my own account of television narrative strategies, I am trying to understand how the current rise in complex narration has emerged out of these range of pressures and possibilities – both the large-scale shifts in technology and industry, and the micro-constraints like budgetary limits and contract disputes. And while friend & former colleague Greg Smith correctly reminds his students that given the huge amounts of money & time that go into making a film, “You can trust that if something is in a film, it’s there for a reason,” it worth considering that the reason might just be the size of the drummer’s trunk.


2 Responses to “Fitting drums in trunks and television poetics”

  1. I have never read Bérubé seriously because I find the length of his posts offputting. Can’t he get his thoughts about Charlie Watts and jazz drumming down to something I can read in under five minutes? Blogs need to be punchy. (This is little rant is really my excuse to ask, why is he quitting blogging?)

    All creative work is done under various kinds of constraint: economic, technological, cultural, etc. Conventions are also a kind of constraint, to the extent that creative people tend to follow many well-worn paths even when doing new and exciting things. TV seems like it might have tighter constraints than film in many cases, e.g., the length of segments and episodes is prescribed; series develop a style of shooting and cutting that tends not to vary much from ep to ep. What’s most interesting to me is how artists make constraints into opportunities, working within them to fashion something original and compelling. That ultimately is why the claim that TV is formulaic and repetitive doesn’t impress me.

    As for contingencies like an actor’s contract dispute or pregnancy–one thing I find interesting about these scenarios is how viewers often know about them and how this knowledge frames their experience. Soap viewers might know that a character is being sent off on a trip not because they’re writing her out of the show, but because the actress is having a baby. They might know this from reading Soap Opera Digest, which exists to disseminate just this kind of info. Having this knowledge shapes viewers’ expectations of how that character might develop in the future. This kind of discourse is useful in understanding how viewers experience media texts.

  2. 2 Chandler Harriss

    Jason is entirely correct.

    Bill Carter’s “Desperate Networks” provides us with some insight into how the industry, particularly the programming arm, often plays a role in what is delivered to the audience. For example, the product placement in “Survivor” was a requirement to convince CBS to air the program. The powers that be wanted a program with no real financial risks attached so it had to become self-sufficient. One of the few times, if not the only time, we see a CSI detective use a gun she is killed. This scene is present because according to Nichols, the CBS head (Les Moonves) did not like the actress (Chandra West) and wanted her replaced. Of course, “clip” shows are often aired to round out seasons where the programs’ stars have negotiated to perform in fewer than the allotted 22-24 episodes. Finally, I’ve often argued that the Scooby-Doo styled musical vignettes that we regularly see in contemporary programs like “CSI” and others also serve an industrial use—they are easily lengthened or shortened to help the episode meet its time constraints. Of course, in “Scooby-Doo” these scenes were likely transtextually motivated by Casey Kasem’s involvement with the program.

    In the end, it’s difficult for a single critic to become aware of all of these behind-the-scene machinations, but the recognition and incorporation of some industrial strategies and capabilities can provide readers some intriguing insights.

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