You Can't Always Get What You Want
A Limited Series
Just this week, millions of us tuned into for the finale of HBO’s Big Little Lies, billed as a “limited” series, which I’m finding to be HBO code for “a mini-series that could be renewed for a second season but should be considered as a contained storyline.” This show, and the “limited series” format as a whole, is a rare find in today’s TV landscape because of this exact finite nature. What was satisfying about the finale of Big Little Lies was that it ended. While the voices in my living room and on Twitter all cried for a season 2, lamented the loss of the show’s characters in their lives, I felt great about it. I had indulged in this show like an excellent dinner—the kind when you’re not full but just very content.
Big Little Lies benefited from source material that was finite, and respected for being finite. This singular 500 page novel was adapted to a seven episode mini-series that, although I have not read the book itself, felt complete and true to source. The adaptation of books to films today runs from lengthy Harry Potter books condensed to 2-hour films that inherently chop up storylines to the multi-season Game of Thrones in which the source material isn’t even complete yet the show continues to be produced. What we experience more and more today in the binge-economy of television is the latter, series upon series of shows and film franchises too that go on with or without an end in sight. Books inspire shows that inspire authors to finally finish books. Superheroes are reborn again and again through the use of new actors a la James Bond. Books inspire films that inspire spin-off books that inspire movies that inspire interactive websites that inspire plays that inspire a not-book screenplay (Sorry to say, I’m looking again at you Harry Potter). By setting aside the value of a true ending, we have created a desire for the cliffhanger that is so strong that we have lost any reverence for the denouement.
We thirst for mystery; we resist endings.
A Limited Viewpoint
The unfinished stories of Hollywood have even snuck into our own everyday storytelling on social media. Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories and, even now (insert collective sigh here), Facebook Stories all invite you to treat the moments of your past 24 hours as a “story.” What I often see, and am guilty of creating myself, is yet another unfinished story. Using the camera on our phones, we offer a quick glimpse, a window into our life for the fleeting moment we happened to choose to document. Not only do these stories disappear in 24 hours, but they quite literally go nowhere. Very rarely do we offer concrete storyline more than we offer mystery. Why is Greg on a hike today? Where is he drinking coffee this afternoon? Who is with him at that show? And dare I wonder, what happens next? All that is offered are characters and places—mere exposition.
This is a symptom of the “feed” of social media to which we have all grown accustomed. But, what I wonder is if we aren’t subconsciously proliferating the same cliffhanger nature that Hollywood serves to us on a platter every night on demand. The common complaint is that we only share what’s good in our lives on social media, and rarely the bad. I wonder if we often only share mystery, and rarely a whole story. Perhaps this isn’t on us, though, and is more a nature of the medium itself. Social media is meant to be digested briefly. 140 characters can’t tell much of a story.
So, between a 7-season epic, a 7-second Instagram story or a 7-episode limited series where does good story telling live these days?
A Limited Lent
When I look at my own faith tradition, I see the value of storytelling in the Lenten Gospels. Weeks three, four and five during Lent are surprisingly episodic. It is during these three weeks as Catholics, that we stand for a particularly long time as the Gospels unfold like a TV show. I remember as a kid being way more interested in these readings because they had a clear beginning, middle and end, instead of starting “in media res” like other Gospels during the year. These Lenten readings in particular come from the Gospel of John and focus on the miracles of Jesus Christ involving three characters: the “woman at the well,” the “man born blind,” and “Lazarus.” (Poor Lazarus, the first two got alliteration.) Characters enter and exit in the same episode like suspects in a murder show. Instead of “crime of the week” drama, we get “miracle of the week” drama.
What sets the Gospel narratives apart from serialized television and “story-based” social media, however, is the finite knowledge of knowing where we are going. We have 6 “episodes” in Lent with a big season finale at Easter. The miracles build on one another, contributing to Jesus’ following in Galilee, Samaria and Judah, as he makes his way to Jerusalem. It is here that He will face the ultimate judgment of his peers, with his miracles seen as heresy, and be convicted to His death. There is mystery in how these miracles are performed and even in why he enters Jerusalem and accepts “the cup” that he know will be His end. But there is promise in the finality of this story, that he will not just die, but rise. For Christians, it is this resurrection promise that is the fuel of their particular faith tradition.
From the perspective of readings over two thousand years later, we look at this narrative with the peace of knowing what will happen, while still grappling with the mystery that, even to this day, perplexes scholars and theologians. We know the story, but we learn something new with each reading. This is what makes excellent storytelling: not the carrot on the stick that drags us into the next episode or chapter, but the sweet retelling of the story that unearths even more for us to wonder. There is detail and complexity that is as enriching as returning to the well for more water or, for some, to the Mass for more life.
A Limited Choice
The balance between a quality mystery and a satisfying ending is necessary to tell a good story. Similarly, it is faith and reason that comprise a religion with depth. The quality of an ending to a show like Big Little Lies is that instead of talking about what we think might happen next, there is room for a deeper reflection on what we saw unfold. The New York Times aptly prompts us to consider how we judge the characters on screen as much as they judge one another. It is here in the rarely satisfying post-finale world that we move beyond the juicy discussion of a show’s shock value, and make way for analysis and even reflection.
If all you’re seeking is entertainment to pass the time, then pick up that remote and you’ll find it awaiting on all of the channels before you. Excellent film, excellent television, and, as we’ve seen through millennia, excellent storytelling, each prompts us to open our mind, view something from a different perspective and reflect. The choice is your’s.
As a student of film, clearly I revel in a surprisingly well-composed TV show. While I love a little mindless entertainment now and again, a more “limited” show always prompts deeper discussion. As a Catholic, I look to the Lenten Gospels of Lent less for the entertainment value I loved as a kid, but for the hope that they point toward in Jesus’ death and resurrection. While this season of Lent is a challenge in all of its sacrifice for my faith tradition, I am renewed when I remind myself that it is limited, and look to what is promised in the ending ahead. It is the combined mystery and promise of the limited that draws me forward and gives me faith.
To those who want a season 2 of Big Little Lies, or a cliffhanger at the end of every episode on TV, consider the beauty of the limited, and, to quote the closing song of Big Little Lies, remember that "you can't always get what you want... you get what you need."
- Are there any stories in your life that are still unpacked, that haven’t been given reflection? It could be a TV shows or book, or maybe a conversation with a friend. Take five minutes simply to ponder this.
- As we begin the season of Spring and leave winter behind, has anything come to an end in your life recently that perhaps went unnoticed as the season drew to a close? Consider these natural beginnings and endings in nature.
- And consider... where are you heading? Each day presents an infinite number of possibilities. Are there any finite steps you can take to get to your Jerusalem? Your goal?