Magical Realism vs. Magic - Complications Ensue
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Monday, March 26, 2007

A lot of shows, particularly on cable, have taken to violating the physical reality of a character in order to show their emotional or metaphorical reality. For example, in the Six Feet Under pilot, David Fisher screams at the top of his lungs at a wake... and then we cut back to the beginning of the conversation and we realize he didn't scream at all, he just wanted to. I've heard it referred to as "magical realism."

You can't do that when you have a fantasy show. Or rather, if you did, it would indicate actual time travel.

The bargain a fantasy show makes with the audience is, If we show you something, it really happened. Otherwise, it gets too confusing. Is that ghost an emanation of guilty conscience, or a spirit of the restless dead?

The new series Raines didn't impress me -- it's just a vehicle for Jeff Goldblum's schtick. The gimmick is that Raines talks to the victim whose murder he's trying to solve. As he learns more about the victim, he changes. I don't know how far they can go with that. Imagine how confusing it would get if Raines starts actually seeing the ghost of the victim?

(Okay, you COULD do that, and it would be kinda cool, but you'd have to explain to the audience what you're doing. Like, have Raines say, "Oh my god. You mean I'm actually talking to a ghost this time?" It would become what the whole episode is about. And as Denis explains in his comment below, it might kill the series.)

There are all sorts of ways you can effectively violate straight narrative. You can have flashbacks. You can have unreliable flashbacks. But be consistent. Pick one violation of linear narrative and stick to it. LOST couldn't have an unreliable flashback because they've established that their flashbacks are reliable. Likewise if you do have unreliable flashbacks, then you can't count on the audience relying on the truth of any one flashback.

UPDATE: Shuggie points out in the comments below that Buffy violates this rule in several famous episodes, for example "The Body" and "Normal Again." This goes to show, first of all, that Joss is a writer god and the rules do not apply to him.

More importantly, though, look how "Normal Again" >and all the similar SF episodes discussed in its Wikipedia article not only make the narrative violation the point of the whole episode, they also provide a regular narrative to make sure the audience gets it. In "Normal Again," before we start seeing Buffy in the insane asylum, being told her whole Slayer experience is just a schizophrenic hallucination, she's stabbed by a demon's tail, and we're told that the demon in question generates just this kind of hallucination. So the audience isn't confused. In the brilliant Star Trek:DS9 episode "Far Beyond the Stars", in which Avery Brooks plays not only the captain of Deep Space 9 but also a 1950's SF writer struggling against prejudice, the Captain is zapped by some alien device that gives him hallucinations.

To be really transgressive, they could have skipped the alien device and just done an episode set in the 1950's, and left the audience wondering.

I probably exaggerated when I said fantasy can't disrupt narrative. You can do most anything you like in fantasy so long as you know what you're doing.

But I think I'm right that even fantasy can't disrupt narrative inconsistently. You can have an alternative reality for real (Buffy, "The Wish") or an alternate reality in someone's head (Buffy, "Normal Again") or a daydreamed reality (Buffy, "The Body"). But you can't do them in the same episode.

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6 Comments:

You can't do that when you have a fantasy show. The bargain a fantasy show makes with the audience is, If we show you something, it really happened. Otherwise, it gets too confusing.

I can't help thinking of a few examples from my favourite show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer that got away with breaking this rule. The Body for example has several moments where Buffy fantasizes about the miraculous recovery of her mom and then 'snaps back' into reality in pretty much the same way you describe for 6FU.

In Normal Again we have two versions of a 'reality' to choose from, so quite clearly some of what they show you isn't happening. Though this is perhaps a poor example given that by ending it in the 'wrong' fictional universe Whedon upset a lot of fans, so the charge of getting too confusing is possibly fair. (Personally though I thought it was quite a cute meta-joke about suspension of disbelief.)

Then of course we have the estimable Jane Espenson's Storyteller which takes the idea of the unreliable narrator and has great fun with it. How can you not love dialogue like this from an episode that is itself designed to rehabilitate a cold-blooded killer?:

Shut up. You always do this. You make everything into a story so no one's responsible for anything because they're just following a script.

Of course I'm being a tad pedantic with the "If [they] show you something, it really happened." phrasing. You couldn't really call any of this magical realism per se so they're not really breaking the rule, just bending it a little.

Is that ghost an emanation of guilty conscience, or a spirit of the restless dead?

The genius of Buffy was that the ghost was real and a metaphor for the guilty conscience.

By Blogger Shuggie, at 1:15 PM  

This has nothing to do with this blog but... I just... need... I don't know... something. I'm having withdrawal pains from not being able to write. It sounds a little crazy, at least it does to non-writers, but I thought I'd ask for some advice. I was recently diagnosed with tendinitis in both hands, wrists and elbows. This has been going on for 6 months, but I finally found a doctor that could tell me what it is instead of what it isn't. This after 5 doctors. He also says it's work related so I'm in a kind of worker's comp hell -- I mean limbo. I work everyday only to come home early because I can't type anymore. As you can imagine it makes it very difficult to sit down at a computer and write. I've tried voice recognition software but it doesn't work or I don't have to patience to make it work, either way I'm still stuck without writing. It's strange to say but it's killing me. I'm not feeling to well about what I'm going through and they way I typically deal with these things is through writing, getting my feelings out. Any suggestions? BTW, I shouldn't even be writing this much.

By Blogger chell-shock, at 1:50 PM  

In the last season of Felicity JJ Abrams and co. did something that I thought was interesting but not many people seemed to go for. At the very end of the season, and the series, they had Felicity time travel to the beginning of the year (season) to change the decisions she had previously made and felt were the wrong ones.

The way it was handled was very matter of fact...no time machines or anything, as she literally was transported into the person she was--there weren't two of her...and as it went along it went from being a fun and unique experience for her to being somewhat of a serious psychological matter--redoing a life that you've already lived, knowing the consequences of everyone's actions, and not being able to talk about it lest you seem crazy--it actually made her question whether or not she was losing her mind.

I realize that the episodes were written to fulfill a show order to the WB after they had decided to extend the show to a full season order, when they had already filmed a series end based on a short season. But, I liked the idea of throwing caution to the wind and taking a series based entirely in reality (with the exception of a brilliant Twilight Zone homage episode) and stepping outside the paradigm. It's not often that you find yourself having a WTF? moment in a show you feel you know very well. It's refreshing, and I wish more shows would do something like that.

By Blogger Your gracious host, at 2:10 PM  

Lost showrunners have referred to the recent Desmond-centric episode as a "game changer" (or maybe something upcoming is a "game changer" -- they seem to throw that phrase around quite a bit).

Desmond is, instead of a traditional "reliable" flashback, apparently thrown back in time from the hatch "implosion" and relives what happened to him several years prior with full knowledge of what's going to happen up to the point of the explosion. By the end of the show, he ends up "traveling" back to the present of the episode, with apparently the ability to see future events as well.

I think this is a great technique if used sparingly. As you said, Lost has chosen to go with reliable flashbacks, so that this one episode has the impact that it does. It calls into question the nature of all the flashbacks before it and all the ones after as well.

By Blogger Peter, at 6:40 PM  

I just can't say I agree with your police work, Marge, when it comes to Raines at least.

I think the very thing you say you think would be cool in Raines would actually kill the series.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. We have two talks to ghosts procedurals right now -- Medium and Ghost Whisperer. Raines takes that conceit and grafts the Monk - defective detective trope on top of it. And to boot -- It's Jeff Goldblum, who you see as an eccentric anyway.

Whether or not you see the device as effective, the device of Raines "constructing" the people and then changing the views of them as he learns more IS the show - it's the device that makes the show different. Just like in Six Feet Under, where the dead bodies talking were never about the people, but about the characters' own issues reflected back through the "device" of these people, Raines' "victims" are view into his own head as well as his process.

Implicit in that is that there are no ghosts. There's no heebie jeebie at work. Raines is just an eccentric on the borderline who has taken insight a step too far -- but it works for him.

The moment he sees a real ghost? Jump the shark moment. You've broken the compact with the audience that says, "on this show he doesn't see ghosts...all of this is happening in his head, and he knows it."

By Blogger DMc, at 7:27 PM  

Dig this post.

I'd like to see more of your take on the audience "contract" of varying genres.

I couldn't agree more with the too much "style" in a fantasy show.

The biggest problem fantasy has going against it is getting people to believe. To bite down on that hook that these people really are traveling through space or fighting dinosaurs or whatever. Talking to dead people.

It seems the more elements that become mainstream pop culture, the more writers, execs, people in charge of shows forget that at the very foundation the viewer needs to believe the premise.

Of course he can talk to dead people. Halie Joel Osmont did it in that M. Night movie ...

That's not really enough "realism" to root a show to the point you take a second leap.

Buffy is probably the notable exception in that it draws from its cultish comic book background. If it has hot high school chicks beating up monsters than the episode has satisfied the shows expectation. Thus it gets some leeway. And even then it is pretty consistent with only having one major leap per episode.

By Blogger James, at 8:47 PM  

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