Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Art of the Slow Story

In becoming one of the many subscribers to Netflix, I finally got around to watching Freeks and Geeks. For those who don't know Freeks and Geeks was an NBC show back in 1999 about high school kids in 1980. It was produced by Judd Apatow and stars many, many people before they were house hold names including James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen.

The show is a beloved cult classic amongst the United Kingdoms of Nerdom and has been recommended to me by more people they I can remember. I had watched Undeclared, a kind of pseudo sequel in spirit (also by Apatow) and really enjoyed it, but for whatever reason took my time in finally checking out Freeks and Geeks.

I'm glad I did. The show is well written, had great characters, outstanding acting, and amazing music and above all retains a nostalgic sweetness about it that it makes it comforting to watch. Another peciluar thing about the show, and the impetus for this article is one of its stylistic choices. While the show is essentially a sitcom, it's an hour long as opposed to the half hour standard. Some may argue the show is actually trying to be a teen drama, but the style and writing of the show is much closer to the feel and tropes associated with the sit-com genre.

Some may think that a longer show would make it slow and boreing. After all if you watch a modern sit-com there's a punch line every twenty seconds out of fear that the audiance will get bored and turn their attention elsewhere. That's the conventional wisdom these days, grab your viewer and never let go. If you let them turn away for even a second they'll abandon you forever. I've talked before about how ridiculas I think this is, and I think Freeks and Geeks shows a good example as to why.

Unlike other sit-coms of today the show doesn't pressure it self to be constantly funny. Some of the most hilarious moments are throw away lines at the end of a scene or seemingly random choices by the actors. The dialog remains snappy and quick without taking on the rush, caffeinated tempo that every actor seems to have these days.

It goes beyond merely comedy and dialog though. The longer episode length gives the time to see through an actual episode arc. In most sitcoms things happen so quickly and are resolved so rapidly they rarely feel to have any weight. We see a problem introduced in the first five minutes of a normal sit-com, watch it get resolved in the next ten and then have a five minute resolution. We see so little of the problem's impact that it's hard for it to matter to us as the viewer.

Lastly, it's a matter of character. By having a full hour for the comedy the writers and directors are able to have shots of the characters standing in the hall or sitting around a table. It gives a realism and weight to their lives while giving the actors a chance to show the more subtle workings of their character dynamics. Franco's character showing affection for his girlfriend, or Rogen's awkward aloofness as the one on the outside of the group's circle.

We see full arcs not only of Lindsey (played by the beautiful Linda Cardellini) and her friends but also of her younger brother Sam and his friends in addition to their parents, teachers and others in their lives. All of these peaces come together to create the feeling of a world that is far more real and alive than the simulated realities of today's sitcoms. I think it's one of the reasons this show has remained so loved by so many. By spending an hour with these characters each episode we really got a chance to know them and their struggles, even if the show only did go for one season.

My point is that you don't have to always be in such a rush. You can show your characters standing around to build character and show their dynamics. You can linger in a shot to show the characters awkwardly standing around. Yes, your audience may flee for the entertainment hills off their phones or computers. But they also might stick around and fall in love with your characters because you took the time to show them who they are and why they should care.