Infinite Canvas

Late in season 9 of the United States version of The Office, there is a scene where Oscar Martinez, a gay accountant, comforts Angela Martin, another accountant, who is sobbing in his car over the ruins of her love life. On its own, with minimal setup, it would be a moving scene, but coming as it does after nearly a decade of storytelling, it has a depth that can only come from layers and layers of backstory. Oscar and Angela have been bouncing off each other for years, sometimes as friends, more often as enemies, and the accumulated weight of that past gives the scene in Oscar’s car an oomph that would be impossible to attain otherwise.

To be clear (for those who haven’t seen the show), Oscar and Angela aren’t the main characters of the series. By the end, I think you could make a decent argument that they’re solidly secondary characters, but they spend a lot of the earlier run of the show closer to tertiary land. In another medium, being a character like that would make a scene like the one in Oscar’s car hard to pull off. We might be told that these characters have a long and fraught backstory, but we wouldn’t get the chance to see it; it would be less real to us as viewers, and it would carry less emotional weight. Television lets characters like this have hefty, fleshed-out storylines because there’s so much narrative space to play in.

I’m too lazy to go back thru the Netflix listings and tally up the precise length of every episode, but calculating the run time as tho each of the 201 episodes in the total run lasted only 22 minutes (once you cut out commercials) gives a total time of nearly 74 hours. That’s a lot of time to tell a story in. Movies that clock in at three hours often feel bloated, and the longest operas in the repertoire barely pass six when you include the intermission(s). Even if you count the entire Ring Cycle as one marathon 18-hour-long opera (or Bühnenfestspiel or whatever), it’s still less than a third as long as the total run time for The Office. Obviously, people don’t sit down and watch the entire run of The Office in one go, but still, the point stands: In terms of total accumulated storytelling time, TV makes everything else look like peanuts*.

I am hella jealous of this. More than pretty well anything, I am attracted to characters in fiction. I sometimes find it hard to get into plot-heavy works whose characters are flat and lifeless, but I’ll happily engross myself in a work with minimal plot that nevertheless has characters who are vivid and real and rich and spend the whole time just having so many feelings. (Don’t get me wrong, plot is also great! It’s just not always what draws me into a thing.) And TV offers the space to really dig in and explore the lives of everyone involved in the central story. If I’m writing a two-hour musical, I don’t have room to dwell on the ups and downs of the tertiary characters’s lives (if it’s a small show, there might not even be any tertiary characters on stage), but if I have even a one-season show, that’s a narrative space I have more freedom to explore.

And, of course, plots can be nice too. I’m about halfway thru season 1 of Jane the Virgin right now, and for all the humorous excesses, it has one of the most intricately constructed plots I’ve ever encountered. Sometimes for fun I try to imagine how I would adapt whatever I’m watching as a standalone musical, and this show has me utterly defeated after ten episodes. The interlocking coincidences and schemes within schemes are so deftly interwoven that trying to cut away any of them leaves the rest uninteresting at best and unintelligible at worst. As a musical, it would be a disaster, but as a television show, it’s amazing

This is not to say that I think all stories need several days of continuous narration to be told adequately. Some stories fit perfectly in a much smaller window, and nothing is worse than a half-hour’s worth of story stretched beyond what it will bear. For all my love of quality television, I don’t want it to be the only medium available. Still, so many of the stories I want to tell feel like the kind that need the space to breath and unfold in a leisurely way that television affords. And it frustrates me that I may never be able to tell some of them as a result.

To be fair, I would probably not do too well in a typical television writing environment. Between tight deadlines, a lack of singing, and the likely insistence from executives that at least some of the main characters be straight men, my frustrations would probably outweigh my happiness, but I still have this half-formed dream. Someday I’d really like to work in a long-term, serialized environment, whether that’s an adventurous show on a flexible network or a YouTube series or something on a platform we’ve yet to invent. It’s not something I’ve actively pursued — I tend to be pretty pragmatic about which artistic projects I take on, and the effort-to-likelihood-of-success ratio for this one has never really looked good enough to throw my energies behind so far in my life — but it’s something I’m always keeping a corner of an eye out for.

I guess for now, that’s just something I’m putting out into the world. A wish, a nudge, a gentle suggestion utterly devoid of concrete plans. It would be cool to be involved in something like this. Even if this is scrunched behind several dozen other assorted pots and pans on the furthest burner back, it’s still on the stove. Maybe someday I’ll be able to bring it to the front.

*Well, maybe not novels, necessarily. But novels feel like a much less comparable mode of telling stories; they’re still great, but they’re much less similar to TV/movies/operas/musicals/etc than those all are to each other.