Wednesday, September 25, 2013

something is different

How I Met Your Mother just began its final season this week. While some have complained about the implication that the show will once again revisit Ted and Robin and their potential as a couple, even as the entire season takes place during the weekend of her wedding to Barney, Donna Bowman at A.V. Club, has a great take on not only why it makes sense for the show to return to this before the end but also how this fits with storytelling in general:

This show started with Ted and Robin. It’s not going to reach its titular moment, much less its final season endgame, without returning to Ted and Robin. Not only do I not mind this fact, but I’m happy to see it. Ted’s search for true love has become especially poignant this year. Robin’s engagement and impending marriage have raised for him an unavoidable question: Was she here all along? … This story, like all good stories, isn’t about getting to the ending. Good stories are about the hero becoming the person that the ending can happen to.

I especially like that last line—it’s like this is a bit of Phil Connors voiceover—because it is entirely true and also potentially, well, damaging to storytelling. It’s true because, yes, a character-driven story will inevitably have to tie its ending into its main character(s). Groundhog Day for example—I’ve argued that Phil is not driven by his love for Rita, nor is his release necessarily driven by the romantic comedy angle of him finally being with her. But, we all accept the ending because, as Bowman suggests, Phil Connors has become someone that this ending can happen to. He’s worthy of Rita’s attention (even if she might not be worth it), and worthy of the admiration of the townspeople. And, even if we didn’t particularly like him at the start of the film, we the audience have come to love him and we can accept his release. As Ryan Gilbey puts it, “It’s hard to scoff, even if you think you should. If ever a film (and a hero) had earned its payoff through sheer concentrated donkeywork, it is this one.”

But, it’s also not the best way to think of telling a story if you are the storyteller. Bowman uses the phrase in reviewing a story she isn’t creating. If she were creating the story, I would say, having created many stories and many more characters, that working the way she implies—having an ending in mind and working the character toward it—is bad storytelling if you’re too strict about it. It stunts character growth (which is arguably one of the problems with the character of Ted in How I Met Your Mother) and manipulates a story to maybe go in directions that are not organic to what’s come before.

Oddly enough, that’s one of the things I especially like about Rubin’s original script for Groundhog Day. Though I’ve openly complained about his structure being a bit too rambling, that rambling demonstrates that he was not trying to manipulate Phil into an ending. Phil’s journey in the film is neatly structured, with the adolescent phase, the pursuit and depression middle, then the good deeds phase. Rubin’s original has a lot more ups and downs. Too many for a good film, unfortunately, but it’s certainly more honest. In reality, if Phil Connors were really trapped as long as it’s implied in original, or if he was even trapped for, say, ten years, there would be attempts at good deeds long before he had really grown into being someone who would do good for good’s sake. I mean, you think Phil wouldn’t consider this was all some divine test and try to do good just to manipulate his way out? A TV series, like How I Met Your Mother for the given example, has more time on its hands, and the episodic structure allows for more rambling, more attempts at growth that backslide into old habits. A film that’s barely more than an hour and a half just doesn’t have the space for that.

Instead, Phil’s saving lives and changing tires is basically a montage as shorthand for growth. Well, we’ve seen him deal with the Old Man already, so we know he’s learning to care about other people. But, still, the sequence that demonstrates all that Phil has learned, is basically a montage and a party. Gilbey times the last February 2nd at “12 minutes and 12 seconds, the longest single day in terms of screen time.” But, there is so much to cover in those 12 minutes that it still seems rushed, at least going into the party, where the manic energy gives way to something else as we, like Rita, are presented with the people Phil has helped and are effectively asked to weigh Phil’s actions, to weigh Phil’s personal growth. Rita sees it all as one day’s worth of change, so it’s worth $339.88. For us, we’ve already paid our $4 or so (the average ticket price in 1993 was apparently $4.14). Of course, there were a lot of us watching Groundhog Day so Phil’s growth was worth far more to us, collectively, than it was to Rita. Probably because we knew how much time and effort he’d really put into it.

(Which makes absolutely no sense, considering we paid for our tickets before we saw the film, but I don’t get paid to make sense.)

Imagining now Groundhog Day as a TV series instead of a film, I realize it would inevitably take itself too seriously and try to explain things… It’s only been 7 years since Day Break was on the air, and I can’t recall just how specifically they explained the time loop, but I know they had to add a lot of external elements to the main character’s situation, because that show was grounded in the realities of television and stuck not on a story about personal growth but a more plot-driven adventure.

If any producers—and any network—were willing to commit to a series that is ultimately about personal growth and the regular exploration of philosophical notions, then maybe Groundhog Day could work as a series. But, really, we don’t need it. The film is perfect enough as it is. And, with the scholarship around it—including this very blog—it’s clearly already got the depth even if it didn’t take a lot of time.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to watch purely episodic television series until I notice, or hallucinate, the personal growth within.

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