Tuesday, January 25, 2011

To Savor and Suffer

I've suddenly been spending more time with other people than usual, and I find myself once again in marathon mode. Between the first half of the anime series My-HiME, which Alex discussed yesterday, and the first season of the entertainingly off-kilter "Johnny Quest for adults" cartoon series Venture Bros., I've been doing an awful lot of blazing through television shows recently.

Almost all of my exposure to anime has been in marathon settings--at college, I might get together once or twice a week to watch anime with friends, so we couldn't afford to watch a single episode at a time. Yet, I'm perfectly content to watch a single episode of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, so animation doesn't require marathoning in my book.

I was watching through four or five episodes at a clip of Stargate: Atlantis with a friend for a while (and we'll need to resume that once we're done with My-HiME, buddy), but I don't feel compelled to marathon all live-action or sci-fi. This'll become relevant in a moment.

For quite a while now, I've been gradually working my way through the last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: The Animated Series, often in back-to-back triple features--a regular Neapolitan evening that samples each of the three series. I'm eager to finish TAS so that I can write a post about it, but I've been savoring the final episodes of TNG, my favorite show on television. DS9, however, has been an entertainment mystery.

I like the show. Percentage-wise, I've seen less of DS9 than any other Star Trek series, so I'm interested to see where things go from here. All signs indicate that I should want to watch more, yet I'm usually a smidge reluctant to sit down and watch an episode. Why? After all this animated marathoning, I've determined that it's because I'm sitting down to watch an episode. Just one. I need more.

In thinking about the TV and films I like to marathon--and those I prefer to watch in bite-sized installments--I've come to the conclusion that I'm impatient when it comes to story development. I have trouble sticking with most novels and television shows because it takes so long to tell a single story or complete one story arc. If I marathon a plot-heavy series, I get to the payoff in hours instead of days or weeks. I don't demand instant gratification, but I need more than just one big payoff at the end to not get terribly antsy along the way.

When I say "payoffs," I'm referring to the satisfaction of vicarious accomplishment, that the characters have achieved something worth celebrating. Stargate: SG-1 is a great example of how a show can have a series of smaller payoffs while simultaneously building toward one big one. Nearly every episode is a self-contained adventure with a conclusion that brings some amount of satisfaction for a job well done, a crisis averted, or whatever it is the heroes are going after.

Yet, there's more to it--there are greater story arcs that need to be resolved, and episodes here and there progress the plot toward a larger satisfaction of bringing a particular chapter or situation to a close. Even then, there's the One Big Plotline that's ever-present in the background, and all the self-contained victories and failures build toward the conclusion you've waited almost ten seasons to see.

Little payoffs in every episode. Larger payoffs every several episodes. A huge payoff at the end. (Or so you hope, anyhow.) With Stargate, I can be just as content to watch one episode or a dozen. Not so with Deep Space Nine, apparently.

The basic framework of the One Big Plotline is already in place, and a number of midsized plotlines have already begun to develop, or at least have been hinted at. There's the anticipation at the start of each new episode that the main plot will kick in, but it always ends up that there's a smaller plotline being pursued or important character development that's setting up for something to come. Two and a half seasons of prelude so far, and the tension is getting to me.

Yes, there are lesser payoffs here and there, but DS9 is not about larger-than-life heroes and death-defying intergalactic escapades. It's about real (fictional) people living in a precariously located powder keg of a space station. There are some days when you just come home and go to bed. There are some days when seemingly nothing good came out of anything you did. There are some days where even the victories feel like losses. If you want a payoff on a show like DS9, one episode isn't going to cut it. You need to see where the story takes you.

Perhaps it's time to start marathoning Deep Space Nine, at least until that main plot kicks in and takes off. Funny that Venture Bros. is teaching me how to better enjoy Star Trek...

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