TV is Better than Film? nah, just different

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What’s the difference between a two-hour long coming of age film and a narratively complex multi-season coming of age television series? No matter what the subject matter, there will always be some clichéd sentimentality involved with a coming of age film; there will always be some glossed-over layer of detail or plot. For in order to present a narrative with a two-hour time limit one must discard the minutia, always so important to growing up, in favor of broader details. However, a coming of age series does not have to discard the minutia. Trying to understand the minutia, trying to sort out its causes and effects on individual characters or larger narrative arcs, can even be, as Mittell contends, one of the main attractions of narratively complex television (Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, pg 11).

Thus, my delight in the tragic completeness of Sayra’s story in Sin Nombre (2009, dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga) cannot compare to my interest in Cassie’s story, as introduced in Skins Season 1, Episode 2. Having just seen the episode – any of Skins – for the first time, I am left with myriad questions about Cassie and her relationship with food, the clinic, her parents and sibling, the group of kids she woke up with the morning after the party. The end of the episode didn’t even bring much closure to these questions. Just as Cassie is surrounded by food she doesn’t eat – but that everyone wants her to – the answers to these questions are held tantalizingly concealed within the next episode… and the next and the next. Whereas the beauty of Sayra’s story comes from its closed form, from the fact that any question left open-ended must now be imagined outside the boundaries of very film that birthed it – the beauty of Cassie’s story comes from its open form, its intent to continue.

I was completely absorbed in Sayra’s story and the almost physical narrative pull of Sin Nombre. But after two hours, the film was done. The story was over. I think that it is a basic human reaction – what kid doesn’t say this? – to ask what’s next, to want to know what happens after the story is over. What does “happily ever after” really mean, after all? Narratively complex television is gaining such success as a mass art form because it creates a what next, the story can keep going. And in that continuation we rediscover the minutia we thought we’d lost in the film, maybe even lost  in the novel.

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