Monday, March 30, 2009

Battlestar Galactica vs The Sopranos

Mostly a discussion of plot arcs, spoilers abound.

Finally finished up BSG and was a little bit surprised to see them exhibiting the same plot arc pattern as The Sopranos for their ending. They picked up the story from the first season, killed off all the loose threads that were unrelated, and punched in the original ending they would've made if the show hadn't dragged out. The mixed response that the ending has been generating can mostly be attributed to the fact that the series had seemingly moved away from its original themes of technophobia. This is pretty much the exact same thing The Sopranos did.

The average TV show typically starts off very coherent and with a definitive narrative going on. They get to the end of the season fully prepared for the entire show to end or continue, find out if they're getting their contract renewed, then they start writing again. The consequence of this pattern is that drama necessitates consequences and that means killing off main characters. You get your contract renewed and suddenly you've got to accept that a lot of the people who helped drive your plot have been killed off.

The seams of this work can be seen in The Sopranos at about Season 3 after Paulie is killed. The uncertainty and drama he created was now gone and they had to fill the void. So the show introduced new characters like the hitman from Italy or the Catholic Priest. The basic plot arc of the show, that Tony is a sociopath who will kill anyone for the sake of the business who also has mother issues, is constantly played out with these people. The final season is just an exercise in repeating these themes, instead of Paulie it's Christopher etc. The point being that when you continually drag out a show's length well beyond what the original plot arc can sustain, writers typically repeat themselves by introducing new characters and playing out the drama all over again.

BSG, by the nature of its own story, had to be careful with adding characters out of the blue. It doesn't really make sense for a total stranger to just suddenly appear for these people after all. The show's greatest moments in Season 2 (the best overall in my opinion) and parts of 3 come from their incorporation of secondary characters into the story. Galen's wife, the one with awful bangs, goes from being that random peppy engineering girl to having a full blown story. The president's assistant, who was technically a replacement for the original actor, gets the same treatment. The show was impressive because instead of just recycling narrative and adding characters it actually had to progress, it had to evolve and move into new themes.

Which is ultimately what shoots the ending in the foot. The themes of technophobia, not relying on technology, and mistrusting the machines were all but abandoned by the show by Season 3. The Cylon society was no longer alien to us, we understood most everything about it by Season 3. The machines themselves had proven that like people, some are good and some are bad. The hybrid plot arc had blissfully been dropped and political themes were once again addressed in the 2/3 of Season 4.

And yet the last few episodes are a long parade of ideas and staples from the first season. That guy from Quantum Leap explains that he will hate humanity forever no matter what, demonized and unsympathetic in a way the show has not presented a Cylon in ages. Boomer proceeds to do every manner of awful thing before her tiny moment of redemption. Baltar and Caprica are once again seeing versions of themselves. Hell, Tigh is back with his wife.

The Cylon baby plot arc is killed off. Tigh and Caprica's relationship is killed off. Lucy Lawless is nowhere to be found. Kara and Lee are back to their sexual tension now that Sam is taking a permanent bubble bath. The President's cancer is back. They even had Dee kill herself to tidy those elements. The show is so intent to wrap up loose ends and get back on message that it doesn't seem to realize that the message changed a while ago.

I don't think the ending was atrocious or stupid and I still heartily recommend the show to anyone whose curious. But after years of following the show's exploits I think one of the things people enjoyed was that it maintained its narrative integrity in ways that something like The Sopranos didn't manage. Even the third season, which used flashbacks to explain character relationships a little too often, at least used the same characters to repeat their motifs. It was just a shame to see them reign all that back in for the sake of a video montage of Japanese Dancing robots. "There's too much confusion / I can't get no relief" may have been taken a little too literally in the final season of BSG.

Still got nothing on The Wire or Cowboy Bebop though.


Sean Beanland said...

It's Tigh, not Tye. :-)

I haven't see The Sopranos, but I always enjoyed the fact that BSG was still playing out the consequence of actions that occurred in the first season. Even if it was just a reference, it always felt like they made sure that most of the plot threads didn't just disappear. It wasn't perfect, and some things strained credulity (such as no real consequences for Tigh's tyrannical bent in the beginning of season 2), but overall it's one of the most consistence shows I've ever seen in terms of plot threads playing out over the years

L.B. Jeffries said...

Fixed :P

Jonathan Mills said...

I'm not sure I'm arguing against the contention that The Sopranos lacked narrative integrity, but one thing the show did well was in breaking free of many of the restrictions of seasons as arcs. During Season Six, in particular, I remember being really taken with the way that arcs overlapped. You have Tony's dream arc, the recovery arc, and those episodes along with the season premiere have a collective beginning, middle, and end. I also think that it is one of the few shoes to successfully tell episodic and serial stories, something that most contemporary popular television shows have abandoned. Christopher's path of self-destruction integrates well with Tony's shifting attitudes about utilitarian violence. I think that Christopher's overall arc on the show has enough internal consistency that the writers aren't shoehorning Tony's stories into his own; there's true interaction.

Although I think The Sopranos' multi-level arcs in some ways move it beyond television in a genre sense, one of the things that makes The Wire such an incredible show is the way it could use the conventions of serial television to its advantage. The cliche of the season finale is that everything changes, but somehow everything gets reset back to normal by the time that the next season's premiere is over. Season Two of the Wire achieved that in an almost absurd way, and yet it seemed completely plausible in the context of the show's procedures. It's also a much more pure serial, probably even more so than Lost. Watching The Wire regularly was like buying monthly comic books; you could follow the general story, but to really understand it you were better off waiting for the trade paperback.

Man, I miss those shows. I only watched one or two BSG episodes so I really missed out on the unfolding narrative you're describing, and I don't think I would have the same perspective if I caught up with DVD box sets.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Hmmm...The Wire is the best to me for pretty much the same reasons you describe.

I didn't mean to sound like I thought The Sopranos was bad, I guess I encouraged that with the versus title but they both have their merits. To me, there was a slump in the show for Seasons 3 to 5 followed by 6, which got back on message and delivered it well.

Each of these shows does something interesting with the way it preserves the story for such a long period of time. BSG used its backstory and supporting cast, the Sopranos relied on subplots and focusing on new characters.

Bebop, for my money, gets credit for having a 24 episode story and sticking to it.

NelsonStJames said...

Three years later, and I still have to agree Cowboy Bebop holds up the best as having a story to tell and sticking to it.

Between Sopranos and BSG I have to give it to the Sopranos for at least staying true to its roots from start to finish. BSG, for two seasons at least, was the best show on television, and in spite of itself also was the best SF show on television. Problem was BSG was ashamed of it's SF roots, while Sopranos was not ashamed of its mob/gangster roots. Both shows transcends the stereotypes of their genre, but Sopranos did it while never letting us forget that we were ultimately watching a mob series. BSG's creators constantly harped on the fact that they didn't want SF cliches, they wanted to tell stories about people, and then proceeded to incorporate a whole wheelbarrow load of soap opera cliches into the mix. Characters started acting out of character, and intelligent characters started to act like high school children.

The Wire. Just watched Season one, and I can't find much fault in it.