Should Writers and Showrunners Be Telling Us What to Think About Their Shows?
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Should Writers and Showrunners Be Telling Us What to Think About Their Shows?

By Cindy Davis | Think Pieces | March 13, 2014 | Comments ()


What is this strange new world? Every week, the morning after Justified airs, executive producer Graham Yost dissects the episode for us—clarifying scene by scene, and even giving us alternate writers’ room scenarios to chew on. He’s not the only one; Bryan Fuller is doing the same for Hannibal, Ryan Murphy postmortems American Horror Story, and it felt like Nic Pizzolatto snuggled right up in bed with us following each True Detective hour. Maybe all this hand-holding is good publicity for their shows, but is it good for us?

Just in case you hadn’t heard, the True Detective finale aired last Sunday. After all our individual predictions and theories were either crushed or fulfilled, most of us took to the internet highways and byways to work through our interpretations vs. the actualities of what we’d seen. As I read through many reviews and the ensuing spurred discussions, I noticed something that’s becoming a common trend (I’m guilty myself)—viewers quoting writer or showrunner interviews to solidify our opinions and influence others. Pizzolatto took great care in publicly explaining what he thought we should or shouldn’t have gotten out of his series, what was or wasn’t meant for theorizing, and basically what our takeaway was intended (by him) to be. Frankly, it’s disturbing.

When a new film I’m excited for finally hits theaters, I make it a practice to avoid reading reviews so what I see and feel is my own pure reaction. While I do truly enjoy reading reviews after a film, to hear and discuss the similarities and differences between what I and others took away, I want to form my own opinion first. I don’t want to be over-informed or influenced, either by the writer’s (or director’s) thoughts on what message I should be receiving, or by a reviewer’s interpretation. Why would anyone? Back in the day of their series, Siskel and Ebert would give a brief plot description, then amusingly argue their often completely antagonistic opinions. Nowadays, reviews are just as likely to delve deeply, not only into the reviewer’s thoughts, but often something culled from the director or writer as well (let’s not even get into the increasing tendency by some reviewers to outright spoil a plot point or two). Despite my embarrassing habit of being moved to tears (wracking sobs) by everything from paintings, music and theater, I certainly wouldn’t want my reaction altered by Dali whispering in my ear what his Burning Giraffe really means. Do we not prefer to look at art with our own eyes, or would we rather be walked through a gallery by the artist so he can tell us what to think? Are we not prodded and poked enough by the rules of everyday life that we need our opinions spoon fed? The days have grown long from where we started, gathering ‘round the coffee machines and water coolers; instead we wile away our every free moment combing virtual reality in search of what to think. We use what we find on Tumblr, Twitter, message boards, whirlpooling our way down through the nine circles of commenter hell to throw down the gauntlet of a writer’s own words; we prove we are right. His opinion is our own.

Over the past decade or so, perhaps longer, the connection between artist and consumer has grown ever closer, resulting in a strange intimacy that can overwhelm either side. The instant availability of interviews and feedback—especially via Twitter—where showrunners are now engaging with viewers live as their shows air, we have a near constant back and forth communication. People like Bryan Fuller and Ryan Murphy ask leading questions about the meaning of this scene or that character’s intent, and give us complete breakdowns of each Hannibal and American Horror Story episode. The result is an endless flow of author quotes being bandied about as factual opinion. I can’t deny I’ve enjoyed getting the extra information we do, but as time goes by, I find myself less enamored with these communiques. Whatever happened to letting art speak for itself? I can’t imagine reading a book with an author explanation at the end of each chapter; how might it change my every reading experience? Isn’t part of the enjoyment for both creator and audience to receive the myriad responses, to discuss and perhaps even be inspired by them? I respect a guy like David Chase, who essentially ran the moment The Sopranos finale aired, and has kept his promise to let us interpret the ending ourselves. If we all become influenced by creator explanations, we’re removing our own thought process and essentially replacing our ideas with one “true” vision. What a boring world that will be. It’s the glory of art that it allows us to embrace our individual nature, including the ability to reason and formulate our own opinions.

Cindy Davis, (Twitter)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Bennetttt

    I have found myself using similar phrases to Pizzolatto but I insist it is because he happens to be singing my tune. I'm tired of looking back at the early 80's and thinking, at least they tried to make a stand alone movie that resolves itself. We could speculate that perhaps the digital VFX made character depth obsolete because more time can now be spent on dazzling visuals. Something has been lost, and I've been trying hard to pinpoint it, but Pizzolatto mentioned his thoughts and it was music. Resolving a story? Taking a story as far as it can in one shot? A whole story that doesn't drag on, until I get bored of it? Writer's giving us an ending that doesn't seems to undermine all of the questionable pointless subplots that felt so obvious as stretched material?

    Then it occurred to me, we need more Pizzolattos. I'm not suggesting the end of the twists so many enjoy, but we need an additional process of story telling that moves passed just trying to trick us. Think of it as an alternative that suggests here's where we can go moving forward. Instead of rearranging plot device engine parts, how about a new means of transportation that inspires new directions instead of catchy plot zig-zags?

    There is a reason people keep making re-makes from the past which I suspect is partly because what made those old stories great was they were intended to be one whole story. We grew fond of those characters because we'd never see them again, and everything was said in that story. I miss that. After a character dies with an era, I want something new that reminds us of the past. I miss that kind of care creators put into their creation, with the idea that this is it, this is everything this character will ever be, and everything the story has to say. Somehow that idea gives it more weight.

  • I actually like to hear the writer's take on their creation. It adds an interesting reference point for analysis, a sort of benchmark of what the intentions were rather than how it's been received.

    With that said, I prefer analyzing a text with the context of the text, not the context of the author. Yes, you can't separate, say, depression from Anne Sexton, but you can separate that Stephen King threw out the finished draft of Carrie from an analysis of Carrie. The text is no longer the author's alone once it is released to the world.

  • Nicholas Moore

    i don't think this argument can be made about every tv show, or at the very least those mentioned in the article. in certain shows the writer/creator is trying to just tell their story within a universe they have created (like breaking bad or true detective). others choose to leave out certain elements or create vague situations to allow the viewer to make their own interpretation (like lost or the ending of the sopranos). You see this in other art mediums as well; george r. r. martin is telling his story, while james joyce is creating content for interpretation (lots and lots of interpretation lol). sometimes you don't have to look that deeply into the show to understand what they are trying to say.

    I'm not saying that shows that are "telling a story" have no depth to be explored, especially for those with such a rich universe (like breaking bad or game of thrones). Still, in these cases the writer/creator is usually the one who knows what they are trying to say, and like some commenters before me pointed out, that is where any speculation should end. You can try all you want to make something else out of it, but if the writer/creator says it's one thing, it's most certainly that thing.

    On a side note, I do agree sometimes there can be an overload of information from the writer/creator, as our misguided interpretations during the course of watching the series can be fun. A breakdown after EVERY EPISODE is a little ridiculous, but that information after the season/series ends would be nice to have in order to validate our theories or at least learn more about the show we've invested so much time in.

  • Back in high school, I took a creative writing class. I was totally That Kid who hung around after school to talk to teachers, and I ended up getting into a fight with my teacher about one of the characters in a story of mine.

    I ended up getting all huffy about it and someone else told me that once you've created something and put it out there, you don't have control anymore.

    This in no way stopped me from being huffy at the time, but over the years it's managed to sink in. The artist creates, the patron experiences, none of it happens in a vacuum, and everyone comes away with something different. No one's generally wrong.

    (Except maybe the people who weren't paying attention and flat out missed something--see everyone in later seasons of Dexter who convinced themselves that Harry might have been Dexter's bio-dad despite a DNA test to the contrary in the first season. But I think we're talking about the difference between creator's vision and active viewer's interpretation, not idiots who have to be repeatedly spoon fed.)

  • Evan

    These commentaries are done first and only to serve the networks need to engage and keep viewers in between episodes. They are a tool to fight 200 other cable channels and the internet causing erosion. The networks want to drive you to their websites and create additional stickiness for the six days leading up to the next episode. They don't want you forgetting about them. And the writers who are historically second class citizens in Hollywood to directors want to be heard, become a brand and maybe - just a little - recognized in airports. And viewers get more on a show they dig. And I understand and have no problem with any of it. It's a win for everyone who wants to play.

    In the case of TD - in my opinion what Nick shared was fine - it was just missing a frame -- when you bring actors into your vision - you do it so they can so they understand their characters and same with a director who's needs are visual reference points but you reel them back in to the show you are actually doing. Kurt Sutter did Hamlet on motorcycles and if an actor started delivering lines in a Shakespearean way - he would pull them back and say - Hamlet is just a road map - we're not actually doing Hamlet.

    Audiences do not get to engage in a discussion or a process. It's a one way valve. They will take you at your word. He tossed out information about his creative influences but didn't frame it as "but do not take literally. The shows title is True Crime and in this genre there is no magic. It's hard boiled reality. The Yellow King is just a view of the world - nihilism." I GUARANTEE you he was asked by actors, studio execs, director - is this magic? And they were told "no". This is all real. No magic so don't play it x-files. We're gonna use LSD to make some magic but its still just LSD and not real. You guys are not Mulder and Scully. It's all grounded in the real world. But we did not get that half of it.

    Really -- the show is simple if you are armed with this information in advance.

  • mzbitca

    This is all just more of the mainstreaming of fandoms. Back in the day you had to scour the internet or listen to the DVD commentary to find it. Now, every show has a fandom and it's all part of the marketing plan now that it's moved past the forums and fan fic into trending hashtags and recaps. What once was a private relationship is now public. I think a piece of the issue is, as always the nerds vs the cool kids. Nerds love the extra life their shows take on. The cool kids are controlling their image. Are you producing art because you love it and what it does or are you producing art because you love it and you think you're the smartest kid in the room

  • mairimba

    Why does everyone want to have their own interpretation of someone else's story? I think most show runners/writers do a great job telling their stories, but people want to KNOW MORE than the person who CREATED IT so they come up with their own theories and conclusions and then are disappointed when they're told they were wrong.

  • I've found there's a difference in Bryan Fuller's approach compared to Nic Pizzolatto's. Fuller always seems to be in dialogue, much like a good director's commentary, talking about some of his own ideas as well as the process of getting his vision onto the screen. Pizzolatto always seemed to be out there trying to define the viewing experience for the audience, telling us what the show is "actually about" and that kind of stuff.

    I can see some people not wanting the influence of either, but to me Pizzolatto really screwed himself over because everything he said about True Detective told us to expect something much more meaningful and complex than the generic and thematically conservative show we ended up watching.

    Of course, a lot of the disappointment came from what the earlier episodes were actually setting up, but maybe if Pizzolatto wasn't so constantly impressed with his own genius he'd have said "guys, calm down, I'm not trying to break the genre, I'm just telling the regular detective/serial killer story in a fun way," we might've been more prepared for what we got. Instead, Pizzolatto encouraged the kind of over reading by constantly implying that his show was really deep and that he wasn't interested in the genre and bullshit like that.

    The truth is, Pizzolatto's disinterest in the genre turned out to be the problem, because if his deep ideas didn't play out as he hoped, at least he could've fallen back on the genre exercise. Instead, the show focused on those other, deeper things at the expense of the genre, and when those were revealed to be hollow, the whole thing fell apart. Pizzolatto was too dense to understand this, and he showed it by trying to frame the audiences expectations towards getting something more profound and ambitious than a good procedural.

    Ugh. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I am that so much talent and so many great individual elements were put into something so ultimately vapid. Meanwhile, greater shows like Top of the Lake, The Fall and Hannibal have to fight to get any attention at all.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I tend to agree with you I think. But I'm tired so I won't be getting fired up this morning. Cheers.

  • Three_nineteen

    Artists have been explaining the meaning of their work forever. Authors go on book tours, read excerpts from their work and discuss them with the audience. Painters/sculptors are on hand at exhibitions to discuss particular pieces with critics and potential buyers. Actors and directors attend panels after showings at film festivals to talk about their movies. You used to have to seek out such insights, but now they are right there on the internet for anyone to see.

    The beauty of this is the discussions are there if you want to read them, and if you don't, don't. The problem with this is people take the discussions and use them to undermine other viewers' opinion of the work: if I say "I don't like the way Nic Pizzolatto ended True Detective", the response is "Well Nic said he meant to do that, so you missed the point, you are not allowed to dislike it, your opinion is wrong, you are an idiot, STFU".

    By the way, I would like to refute your statement that Bryan Fuller is asking leading questions and telling his viewers what to think in his Hannibal discussions, but you gave no examples for discussion.

  • Blake Shrapnel

    I think this is all a backlash against post-modernism. After 30 plus years of death-of-the-author, we can't be sure about anything, nothing is true but everything is permitted but here's a giant metal labia sculpture bullshit, We've collectively shouted JUST TELL US WHAT THE DAMN THING MEANS.

    Not that I'm bitter.

  • zeke_the_pig

    That elicited a headache-inducing laugh from me. You owe me an aspirin.

  • Blake Shrapnel

    Put it on my tab.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Uncle Julien, who was an academic and exists only in his ivory tower, once said about the DVD commentary for Remains of the Day: "but what if what they think their movie is about is wrong?" It was pretentious, but it was true. That's the beauty of art. Ultimately, if a work stands the test of time, the creator's intentions may become tied up with it, but what the viewer/reader/listener brings to it can give the work new levels of meaning. It's wonderful to think that an artist strove to create one thing and inadvertantly created something else entirely. It depends on our willingness to accept the artist's view as the totality of opinion. Francis Ford Coppola can tell us the reason, for example, for all those oranges in The Godfather movies. The that they were a simple and cheap set decoration does not diminish the fact that they took on greater relevance than he intended.

    I love this stuff.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    If you what you want the audience to "get" isn't on the screen, then you failed in some way. If you're creating mysteries on screen, then I think it's better that you don't give a definitive answer, and let the mystery live its life.

    That being said, it's fine to discuss things, and what wasn't included. I've been a writer, a director (opening tonight, eeks!) and a performer, and audience members are often going to ask about those things in a new work or a new interpretation. But I try to let it be a two-way street - what is the audience telling me they got out of it? what did I not get across? what did I unintentionally put out there?

  • JJ

    It's hardly "disturbing" considering you're actively seeking out and scouring the internet for these opinions which do already exist for other mediums (DVD commentaries, author interviews, memoirs, etc).But you're talking as if these views become absolute truth and stops you from having an opinion on the message as you interpret it and not actually looking at what people gain. Having listened to all the Breaking Bad Insider podcasts through its final run, there are many things that I would've missed and thus got more out of those episodes than I would have with random and rampant speculation.

  • Paddington

    The views of the creators are the truth. If David Chase said Tony was shot dead, all interpretations now become incorrect. And given how much backlash a creator can get from unhappy fans, Damon Lindelof was driven off twitter due to people constantly bitching about the Lost finale, it is in the interest of the creative voices to take more ownership over what their art means. If people could chill out maybe this wouldn't be necessary but now that people have access they can't be left to their own devices.

  • Monica

    "The views of the creators are the truth."

    Have you ever seen The Room?

  • zeke_the_pig

    Therein lies the most sublime truth of all. Incidentally, good as True Detective is, The Room is a far more effective Lovecraftian exploration of a vast, uncaring universe than True Detective could ever hope to be.

  • JJ

    No, the views of the creators are what they're trying to convey with their art or their stories. If David Chase said that his vision/intention was that Tony Soprano was shot dead, you could still debate interpretations about whether that holds true to the story he's told so far (a la the mind-shittingly horrible finale of Dexter).

  • Paddington

    Their view is the story. Who are you to debate the people who create the thing the meaning of the thing? That's arrogant.

  • JJ

    Because, as any writer or author will tell you, sometimes the story becomes more and/or different than your view of it.

  • Mrs. Julien

    No, that's art.

  • I don't want to live in a world where I can only see what the creator intended. Heck, even when I write anything, I love hearing others' interpretations of what I wrote. There is beauty in what others see.

  • JJ

    Which is exactly why it's okay that these showrunners and creators are putting out their visions and explanations. Because we don't live in that world now. These aren't interpretation edicts by the showrunners.

  • The blame doesn't lie entirely on one side. It's that people are taking on the creators' opinions as their own.

  • Paddington

    And I believe a gracious artist allows that to happen but if I had untold number of dicks that couldn't get over an episode of television because it didn't please them sufficiently I might be inclined to take more ownership over how it is viewed/what it means.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    No. Unless Tony was conclusively shot dead on screen, then Tony is not shot dead, regardless of what Chase says.

  • Paddington

    But he is. For all and intents and purposes, Chase is the God of the world he created so however he interpreted it is the actual meaning. You can dislike it and have ample reason to disagree but you don't get to validate your interpretation as somehow being equal to theirs, it isn't.

  • L.O.V.E.

    Let me paint you a picture. to you and anyone with vision it will look exactly like Billy Bob Thornton. I, the painter, will tell you it is not Billy Bob Thornton. it is clearly Salma Hayek. you will not be allowed to debate this or tell me I am wrong.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Hee hee. I like yours. My analogy for painting is that a painter says - the paint just off the canvas is black. But, no it isn't, because there isn't any paint off the canvas. There's either another painting, or there's nothing that matters.

  • Paddington

    I'll say you suck and not argue anymore

  • L.O.V.E.

    How can I suck though? You are only saying I suck because I intended to paint Salma and it came out looking like BBT. But by all measurements people will say I have painted a brilliant portrait of Billy Bob Thornton. My technique will have been exceptional. I will have used a new style never before seen. BBT will want to buy it for a million dollars.

    Its just that what I intended and what people see are 2 different things.

  • Paddington

    I stand by my previous post.

  • L.O.V.E.

    Then you agree with my position and concede you were wrong. For I have either created a masterpiece BBT or an awful Salma Hayek, but if you say that I as the painter suck even though by all other measures I created a masterpiece then its either because you are wrong in the first instance or I the author of the portrait was wrong in the second instance and thus proving the actual point of this exercise which is that the author (The "God" as it were) is not infallible.

    Look Ma!! I wons me an internet argument. Yeehaw!

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Except (in this hypothetical situation) Tony's death *isn't* in the world he created. Discussion of things that aren't on the screen (or page) is interesting, but it's not part of the world (unless you're in some sort of multiplatform scenario).

    I don't come from a comic book background, so I don't have the fluidity of world that comes from that. I remember reading Dragonlance books and being absolutely crushed that one of my favorite characters died. Because that meant he was dead. He was dead and there wasn't anything that could change it. But if I read an interview with the authors where they said, "yeah, after that battle, Sturm died" but it wasn't actually in the story? No. Because there's the possibility they could change their minds. Because they didn't believe it enough to put it in the world. Because if you leave something ambiguous to the viewer of your painting, or the reader of the book, or the watcher of your film, then yes, the receptor of that art is indeed owner of an interpretation that is valid.

  • zeke_the_pig

    I completely agree with you, Cindy. And I say this as a hardcore pop culture fiend with an avaricious appetite for More Insight, More Interviews, More Set Photos.

    There are cool benefits to this whole 'internet' thing and how it relates to our consumption of culture, but to my mind the overbearing ever-presence of The Creator is not one of them. Frankly I find it suffocating, and I do my best to avoid it.

    What's interesting to me is that this does raise a whole other point about art, and specifically whether it can escape the clutches of its creator. I've always thought of art as an exchange between creator and audience: yes, the creator has given it life and set it loose upon the world, but the work has to be experienced for it to exist, for it to live. The audience, in experiencing the work, gives a bit of itself to it, and through this pulsating exchange, repeated a million times over, the work takes on a life of its own and flies the nest.

    Art isn't a static thing to be looked at from a distance; it's a glistening, amorphous process that needs to be lived, and every emotion that arises as a result of this process - which could well be the creator's frustration at the audience's 'misunderstandings' - is just as essential a part of it as all the others.

    But then again I'm brain-blindingly hungover thanks to Mrs Julien so that may have been incoherent babble.

  • Uriah_Creep

    You write really, really well for a pig, Zeke.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Thanks. I use a ghostwriter though. She's a skunk.

  • Uriah_Creep

    Some of my best friends are skunks. Mind you, they've been fixed.

  • zeke_the_pig

    And, on a sidenote, is it just me or is Pizzolatto staring into my soul in that header pic up there?

  • Uriah_Creep

    Indeed, and our Matthew looks certifiably disturbed. In fact, minutes after that photo was snapped, he fed one insolent reporter into Pizzoatto's open maw.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Ain't nothing wrong with skunks. They're good people.

  • Mrs. Julien

    [victory lap]

  • L.O.V.E.

    I am reminded of a story Eddie Vedder told about "Alive". It was intended as a real downer of a song (about incest and wanting to die) but at concerts people were singing the chorus and treating it as an uplifting message. at some point he came around to accepting and validating the uplifting interpretation (of being a survivor).

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