Sunday, July 2, 2017

Awolnation – "Sail" (2010)

Maybe I should cry for help
Maybe I should kill myself
Blame it on my ADD baby

I recently started watching Longmire, a neo-Western TV series that’s on Netflix.  The show just wrapped its sixth and final season.  

The writing on Longmire is God-awful – it’s almost as paint-by-numbers as the writing on Law & Order.  (It’s a mystery to me why millions of people had an unquenchable thirst for that show.) 

Like Law & Order, Longmire relies on “ripped from the headlines” plots.  For example,  the second episode of the show’s first season was about rumspringa – the Amish practice of giving teenagers a chance to experience life in the outside, “English” world before they get baptized, get married, and settle down to live traditional Amish lives.  

There’s been more than one “reality” series about Amish teenagers moving to the big city and diving headfirst into sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and a lot of  the TV-viewing booboisie seem to find rumspringa as fascinating as the Kardashians.  The fact that Longmire’s writers were desperate enough for plot ideas to fall back on a rumspringa story for the show’s second episode says a lot about said writers.

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Longmire is set in a fictional Wyoming county that is home to a Cherokee reservation.  The relationship between the white residents of the county and the Cherokees who live on the reservation is uneasy at best.

“Dog Soldier,” the fifth Longmire episode, is about a murder committed to cover up a plot to make money by taking reservation children away from their parents and placing them in foster care.

Not long before “Dog Soldier” was filmed, NPR alleged that South Dakota officials were improperly removing hundreds of Native American children from their homes in order to take advantage of a federal program designed to encourage the adoption of kids in foster care.

A scene from “Dog Soldier”
At that time, the feds were giving states about $4000 for each child who was moved out of foster care and into an adoptive home.  But if a foster child who had “special needs” was adopted, the state was paid $12,000. 

South Dakota classified all Native American kids as “special needs,” and NPR’s theory was that the state was taking native boys and girls away from their biological parents without just cause and putting them up for adoption because they wanted that extra federal money.

The Longmire writers wrote a “ripped from the headlines” script based on that NPR story, but added a murder to juice up the plot.  They also threw in some ghost-story nonsense about the legendary Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers” and added a bunch of misdirection about who the killer was.  

But good ol’ Sheriff Longmire saw through everything and identified the real villain by the end of the episode.  The denouement was as neat and tidy as those of the hour-long Westerns and crime dramas that populated network television when I was a teenager.  Longmire seemed to pull the solution to the mystery out of his cowboy hat – the other characters in the show didn’t see it coming, and neither did I.

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Traditional hour-long episodic dramas – shows like Longmire and  Gunsmoke and Perry Mason and Law & Order – are to TV series with a season-long or multi-season story arc what short stories are to novels.  All else being equal, a novel is going to be more satisfying than a short story because there’s more there there.

“Longmire” is the new “Gunsmoke
There was a need for episodic shows like Longmire when I was a teenager.  We didn’t have DVRs or online streaming services like Netflix.  If you wanted to watch a show, you had to watch it at a particular time on a particular channel.    

That made it impractical to have a show with a long story arc.  If you miss one or two episodes of a show like Homeland or The Americans, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to understand what’s going on in future episodes.  But if you miss an episode of one of those shows when it first airs, you can wait for a rerun or watch it on a streaming service.  You couldn’t do that fifty years ago – which is why every episode of an old-fashioned network drama needed to stand on its own.  

Today you can consume a TV series by binge-watching the whole thing – you’re not limited to watching one episode per week.  That’s essentially the same thing as reading a novel in one sitting, without interruption,

Of course, few of us have the time or the patience to do that.  I usually read novels during my subway rides to and from my office – roughly half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening – and while I’m eating dinner.  I often have time for longer bouts of reading on weekends or during vacations or while I’m on an airplane on a business trip, but I almost never read a novel straight through.

I usually consume a TV series by watching one episode a day.  During the week, I’ll watch an episode on my office computer while eating lunch.  On weekends, I’ll watch during a meal or just before I go to bed.

I watch most series on DVDs from my public library, which gives you three weeks to read a book but only a week to get through a TV series.  You can renew a TV series a couple of times if no one has put a hold on it, but a newer series is likely to be in high demand.  Rather than count on being able to renew my DVDs for an additional week or two, I’ll try to get through a season’s worth of those shows in a week by watching two episodes a day.

I did binge-watch the latest season of the Amazon series Bosch over one 24-hour period.  I was babysitting my grandson Jack overnight, and my daughter has an Amazon Prime subscription.  Jack  sleeps a lot, so I was able to watch ten 45-minute episodes between 200p on Saturday and 200p on Sunday.  The experience left me a little woozy, but it was a great way to watch Bosch, which has a relatively dense plot – it’s easy to get lost when you wait a day or two between installments of a series  like that.

The typical movie is twice as long as an episodic TV show.  But that’s still much shorter than a ten- or twelve-part TV series.  That’s why few movies can hold a candle to a series like Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Americans, The Affair, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Missing, or Line of Duty.  

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Ryan McGee is a TV critic who doesn’t like shows with series-long story arcs:

Calling The Sopranos a novelistic approach to the medium means praising both its new approach to television and its long-form storytelling.  But HBO has shifted its model to produce televised novels, in which chapters unfold as part and parcel of a larger whole rather than serving the individual piece itself.  Here’s the problem: a television show is not a novel.  That’s not to put one above the other.  It’s simply meant to illuminate that each piece of art has to accomplish different things.  HBO’s apparent lack of awareness of this difference has filtered into its product, and also filtered into the product of nearly every other network as well.

Critic James Poniewozik disagrees:

Every medium works best when it takes advantage of what’s distinctive about it.  TV is linear and cumulative, allowing a story to unfold over weeks, months or years.  There were good business reasons to structure TV stories that began and ended within one episode, and many of them are still best told that way, but the ability to spread a story out is part of what makes TV TV. . . .

[T]he crux of McGee’s argument [is that] “creating a layered, lengthy narrative is really f*cking hard,” and a number of shows have wasted viewers’ time trying to tell stories beyond their skill sets.   One big danger, he says, is that you end up with series that are so focused on nailing down and mapping out a long-term story . . . that they sacrifice character. . . . But that’s not an argument against serial stories; it’s an argument against bad serial stories.

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After only five episodes, I’ve decided that Longmire is fatally flawed.  Its traditional episodic nature is a big problem, as is its reliance on “ripped from the headlines” plots.  Then there Longmire’s bad writing, which exacerbates the show’s inherent structural faults.

Three strikes and you’re out, Longmire.  I’m a long-term-relationship kind of guy, and I wanted to stick it out with you for all six of your seasons.

But that ain’t happening.

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“Sail,” which was originally released in 2010, is Awolnation’s biggest hit to date.  It spent 79 weeks on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart – almost but not quite an alltime record – and has sold 5.5 million copies in the U.S. alone.

“Sail” can be heard in the fifth episode of season one of Longmire.  Why it was featured in that episode – which doesn’t feature an ADD baby – is a mystery to me.

Here’s “Sail”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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