Rethinking Heroes and Mea Culpas
I’m down in Cambridge for a few days, attending a double-decker of conferences. First up, Futures of Entertainment 2, a two-day meetings of the minds between media industry folks and scholars, and then Unboxing TV, a set of meetings among a small number of television scholars exploring the future of both the medium and the academic field. I’ll try to post some thoughts along the way here.
As an appetizer to the conferences, I attended an event tonight at MIT featuring Jesse Alexander and Mark Warshaw, two producers at Heroes. As my last post and the excellent conversation that followed in the comments attests, I’ve not been terribly impressed with Heroes this season, and have a general ambivalence to some aspects of the show as a whole. My blogging might make it seem like I really hate the show, but I’ll claim rhetorical excess for effect (yes, I have suffered no black eye goop). Instead, I’d say that Heroes frustrates me like no other show, because has the potential to be great quite often, and thus its failings seem even more irritating than a consistently mediocre show.
After hearing Jesse & Mark’s discussion, and a lengthy personal conversation with Jesse, I feel much more comfortable with the mea culpa that Tim Kring delivered to Entertainment Weekly – Jesse reiterated many of the same points, admitting the show’s mistakes this season. But Jesse’s explanations were more clear, pointing not to the writers just flying blind into walls, but really trying to figure out the best way to ramp up a new storyline and mistakenly following last year’s slow-burn model of character introduction and flashbacking for backstory, without providing the underlying narrative motivation. He made it clear that the show purposely tries to deliver at a range of different levels, from the hardcore mythology geek to the casual fan hooked into one character or storyline, and admits that the range of storytelling tones is designed to widen their fan base, not cater to any one type of fan. So they view me hating Suresh’s voiceovers as an acceptable cost, as there are other elements aimed at me, and there are those out there who find Suresh appealing.
But more impressive for me was the confidence with which they spoke about the creative process, which seemed very much aimed at experimentation while still rooted in genre norms, using a more improvisatory and ‘jam band’ style of writing than typical on serialized programs. They write the show collaboratively, breaking multiple episodes in the writers’ room and then individual writers or teams drafting one storyline or character arc across episodes. Then one writer or team will be in charge of stitching together each episode, incorporating arcs from other writers. The commitment to transmedia storytelling runs throughout the entire creative team, leading to an unprecedented cooperation & coordinated vision across media platforms, much more successfully than other innovators like Lost and The Office. A great example was the excellent episode “Five Years Gone,” which spun into an alternate future designed in part to enable a more action-oriented Heroes videogame currently in development.
Some other interesting tidbits: The online content (which I don’t follow, but Mark said there are over 10,000 pages of Heroes content on NBC.com!) can often foreshadow & preview upcoming stories to build anticipation, or deepen backstories or fill-in gaps, all possible because the creative processes are intertwined, not ancillary. The global success of the show is definitely intertwined with the globalized storyworld, with the now-shelved Heroes: Origins designed to highlight even more international characters. And getting Kristen Bell created good buzz in the popular press (People, EW), which seems quite influential to TV executives!
All in all, a great start to my conference going. And while I’m not ready to praise season 2 of Heroes fully, I can say that my confidence and faith in the creators has been increased, which is crucial to enjoying long-form serialized storytelling.
Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Narrative, Television, TV Industry, TV Shows | 9 Comments
Tags: conferences, Heroes, MIT-FOE2