The Beautiful Ugliness of HBO: A Conference Breakout

I don’t wanna just survive. It says in these movie writing books that every character […]

Will McDavid / 9.13.12

I don’t wanna just survive. It says in these movie writing books that every character has an arc. Understand? … Everybody starts out somewheres. And they do something, something gets done to them and it changes their life. That’s called an arc. Where’s my arc? 

-Christopher Moltisanti, The Sopranos

HBO’s wild success in premium television belies an underlying sophistication in everything from writing, to editing, to photography. Perhaps the network’s most striking accomplishment is how down-to-earth its characters and plotting tend to be, while still retaining their series’ impressively novelistic scale. HBO seems to understand how deep the human obsession with “arced” narratives of easily discernible progress goes, how strongly it colors our relationship with media and culture. Think in terms of movies for a moment: We see arcs of temptation and justice (Goodfellas, Double Indemnity, and any other crime/mob movie), arcs of progress and victory (Lord of the Rings, pretty much all rom-coms), and occasionally arcs of meaninglessness or envelopment by a larger world (There Will Be Blood, Gangs of NY respectively). Although  sitcoms, to a degree, compensate for the absence of everyday, mundane life in television and movies, the marriage of epic story and rejection of conventional character arcs finds an especially interesting expression in HBO TV.

What’s the upshot here? For starters, we get to watch characters we can actually relate to in stories that still take us beyond our everyday realities in a way that sitcoms often fail to do. As good a story as Godfather is, who can relate to the boss in it? One reason Robert Duvall’s character was so well-loved is that he was, in some way, the most human character in the entire movie. Sopranos, on the other hand, begins with the most powerful two characters in jail and with cancer, respectively. It opens with the main character, Tony, in therapy – talk about down-to-earth!

And then there’s Girls, which starts with a lost twenty-something in New York getting cut off by her parents and having a series of unfulfilling romantic hopes and sexual encounters that thousands of young singles can relate to. Game of Thrones subverts the entire Lord of the Rings-dominated fantasy genre with its startlingly low view of human nature. Its hero, played by Sean Bean, is a mostly good guy whose self-righteous streak constantly keeps him from any position of real power. The Wire blurs good and evil in its characters as well as a show ever has, and the recent Newsroom’s emotional core consists of stilted or failed romance, lonely cigarettes, and a heroic, alcoholic head of cable broadcasting.

So these character arcs never play out the way we hope they will, there’s no unqualified “good guys” (think LOTR’s Aragorn or 24’s Jack Bauer) to root for, and….wait. Doesn’t this all sound like a marketing disaster? They surely have the violence, sex, and other marketing draws down…but where are the characters we want to pull for? Isn’t it all a little pessimistic?

Of course it is, and yet this surface pessimism is the very secret to the network’s commercial success. In some sense, we want to identify with these characters because they speak to us as people. How and why they do will be the focus of the breakout in two and a half weeks. We’ll be focusing on The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and maybe some Girls or The Wire for good measure.

Here’s the audio recording from the session.

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