Friday, March 24, 2006

Too Much

I think I know why The Unit doesn't work for me. It's because David Mamet doesn't know how to write for TV.

The Unit is the new CBS military drama that airs on Tuesday nights following NCIS. It stars Dennis Haysbert, Robert Patrick, Regina Taylor, Max Martini and Scott Foley among others. On the whole I can't fault the actors, and really I can't fault the stories as I'll explain in my next paragraph. The fact remains that the show is curiously flat and for that I think you have to go back to the writing - not the stories but the way they're put together. Mamet tries to cram too many storylines into any one episode.

Take the episode that aired on March 21. Sergeant Jonas Blane (Haysbert) has been sent to Indonesia to rescue a group of college aged missionaries who are attempting to convert the "heathens" (Indonesian Muslims) by building a church in their country. Needless to say most Indonesians aren't exactly happy about the missionaries trying to convert them from a faith that they've held for about 900 years and a radical few are willing to express that displeasure with violence, as in destroying the church and trying to kill the missionaries. Also in that episode Sergeant Mack Gerhardt (Martini) is injured during a training exercise when he's slightly shot in the arm by his team's new man, Bob Brown (Foley). As a result he puts brown through a hellish series of training exercises focussed on shooting to the point where Brown's hand is blistered. At home the relationship between Gerhardt and his wife Tiffy deteriorates further as one of their arguments turns slightly violent. Meanwhile The base commander, Colonel Ryan (Robert Patrick) is trying to get more money out of a female Senator (played by the criminally underused Lindsay Frost - okay I've been in lust for her since she was the co-star of Mancuso F.B.I. with Robert Loggia, but that doesn't mean that doesn't mean that she's not criminally underused). As part of his campaign for more money he takes the Senator to meet the wives of the men of the special forces unit, who are - effectively if not officially - under the leadership of Jonas's wife Molly Blane (Taylor). I think we should be able to see a problem here; too many stories not enough time.

Most TV dramas focus on one or at most two storylines in a week, with one of those storylines being most emphatically the B-plot. The reason is as simple as it is obvious - a TV drama doesn't have an hour to tell its story, it has an hour with commercials. Without commercials they have somewhere in the vicinity of 45 minutes. They don't have a lot of time to tell their stories and more importantly to build those stories from a beginning to the a climax and a denouement. More to the point, in order to make an episode of a show interesting to the viewer the story has to build in terms of dramatic tension. Most of the storylines in the Tuesday episode of The Unit had a great deal of potential to build dramatic tension. You could easily build an episode around Jonas's activities in Indonesia with only a limited B-Plot. The crisis around the training accident, both as it pertains to integrating Brown into the unit and the impact it has on the relationship between Mack and Tiffy (which itself is part of an ongoing story line in the show - Tiffy is having an affair with Colonel Ryan who is, if not friends with Mack then at least linked to him by experience), could definitely stand alone without a B-plot. Instead, what Mamet has chosen to do is to lump four storylines together and handle them in such a way that none manages to be on screen long enough at any one time to build a level of dramatic tension. Just as we are getting some sense of tension in the "Indonesia" story we cut away to the training accident, or the visiting Senator.

This might be acceptable or at least forgivable in a single episode but the whole thing seems to be a trend for Mamet in this show, at least from the two episodes I've seen. The episode on the 14th of March featured four plotlines: (1) the team somewhere in Africa to recover a component from a Chinese satellite and capturing a wanted terrorist suspect, (2) Brown being used by the Colonel to "handle" an FBI investigation into the rescue fo a highjacked aircraft in the Pilot episode (which I did not see), (3) the wives, led by Molly, getting together to "help" Brown's wife Kim (played by Audrey Marie Anderson) expedite finishing her moving and then having to deal with a neighbour whose husband was killed while in Iraq (4) Molly having to see the base psychiatrist after Jonas fired his pistol at a mirror in their house due to stress - she told the shrink that she fired the gun so her husband wouldn't be taken out of operations but she was looking for jobs to get Jonas out of the Army. This seems to be the direction that Mamet wants to take with this series. There are other things that don't really work with the show. There is something unconvincing about the female characters - Molly seems at time like the head "Stepford Wife" and with the exception of Kim they all seem to be intent on maintaining equilibrium and not rocking the boat, at least before each other. Tiffy's affair with the Colonel - the sort of thing that would get him tossed out of the Army if it were discovered, or at least would get a female officer kicked out and has - injects a soap opera quality into the affair. For me though the big thing is the dramatic tension, or rather the lack there of, that makes the show not work well with me

I'm not sure that David Mamet truly understands the restrictions and advantages of TV. His previous experience in the medium was directing one episode of The Shield. His experience is in writing and directing movies and plays. A one hour TV show is curiously both restricted and liberated by time, far more so that most "long form" productions like plays and movies. In a "long form" production a writer has more time to work with his characters and to develop multiple storylines. A play or a film might last two to three hours. At the same time, someone writing for a long form only has those characters for two or three hours after which they are gone. And while movies in particular offer the possibility of sequels the time that elapses between films doesn't really help to build either continuity or continuing storylines. By it's very nature as an episodic form TV allows a writer to tell a lot of stories one or two at a time, and allows the writer-producer to develop characters and ongoing stories over a period of time. But it only works if you can hold onto viewers and the way to do that is not to bore them which in turn means providing them with dramatic tension that is sustained through the course of an episode. In the end the problem with The Unit is that they are telling stories that are good but the stories are being told badly, and the blame for that falls on the writers and the producer. In other words on David Mamet.

No comments: