On Plot and Irrelevance in Longform TV Drama

The essential point in the lengthening of finite tv drama – that is, box sets that are unlike soap operas because they are actually supposed to finish – is that there’s far more room for everything.  At least, there logically should be.  In practice, however, this is not generally the case.

So, for example, in Pretty Little Liars, there is a central problem or question: who (or what) is “A” ?

Everything else in the series happens by way of relationship to “A”.  Everybody and everything in the programe ends up as a mere cipher relating to that question.  Now, if you’ve read anything I’ve written, you’ll know that I have deep and well-reasoned suspicions of those who look at the world as essentially complex.  But this is because the perspective of essential complexity is a logical trap that leads to oversimplification.  ‘Complexity’ is turned into both method and finding, irrespective of what the evidence shows to be consistent with other possible hypotheses about the question under examination.  Thus the idea of complexity in this sense, is actually monomaniacal, and a lie.

Because it’s not trapped in that logical lie (there’s always a solution or resolution that lies outside the investigative method) tv box sets are less stupid than most contemporary academic history, but only in the absence of denial.  It’s a shame that it has to be so stupid though, because irrelevance –  deliberately stepping outside the plot per se and stepping into the broader fictive universe it is constructing and is constructed by – produces the best moments of tv drama.  And also because (outside incompetent filming or tasteless breaching of the fourth wall) it is impossible for anything to be truly irrelevant.

So in The Sopranos, dream sequences and entire episodes within Tony’s brain are explorations of the subconcious that later return to the therapy room that forms one of the two central components of the subject matter (plot) of the series: the pysche and the mob.  These two components fuse into one eventually, as Jennifer Melfi refuses to treat Tony, in recognition that therapy has become just another tool in his murderous enterprise.  His failure to continue with the paranoid behaviours that caused his need for therapy is, then, what actually gets him killed at the close.

In The Wire irrelevance works dramatically effectively – providing the only moment that is repeatedly attested as evidence of the artistic greatness of the series: the chess game.  Personally, I don’t know if it’s a good series, because police procedurals bore me rigid.  But I know most generalist references to the series are to that single scene, which relates indirectly (if at all) to police methods or to the economy of drug dealing in the American projects.

There may be a wider point to be made here about the construction of good drama.  Perhaps irrelevance provides a useful and under-utilised way of pacing a narrative.  But I’m not here right now to sell you any such argument – if you want to turn irrelevance into relevance I’m sure you’re clever enough to do it for yourself.  Rather, I’m solely saying that longform tv drama without onscreen irrelevance is boring, and then more boring, and then boring in exactly the same way all over again for ever and ever.  Even the shortest mystery is not merely a maths problem, and a television series of over twenty hours should never be solely a plot.