4/12/10

The Art of the Slow Burn

John Locke holds up the two opposing colors of...Image via Wikipedia
I did a post a while back comparing LOST and Stargate Universe. One of the things they have in common is something that has become very popular in modern TV dramas: the slow burn. The slow burn is the process by which an episodic program can bring you through a huge over-arching plot-line by first examining the characters in several, seemingly unrelated mini-stories. It describes how the plot moves along like a spark on a wick to the final BOOM at the end. A show like 24 has a shorter slow burn that explodes at the end of each season. Stargate Universe seems to have a longer slow burn than 24, but the longest slow burn belongs to LOST.

The slow burn can sometimes seem like a grueling process. It takes a skilled writer to introduce just the right amount of character drama and balance it successfully with a mystery or objective that has to carry on through to the end of the show. Waiting in between episodes for the end of this broad, sweeping objective can be taxing, but in the end, the slow burn is deeply rewarding. Because not only have you reached a satisfying conclusion, but you've also gotten to know, love and appreciate all the many characters that made the ending possible. Why is this such a successful story-telling device? Because that's how it works in real life.

In real life, problems are not solved in 45 to 50 minutes. In real life, we're brought along for the ride whether we like it or not. We don't know the answers to all of life's problems, but we proceed anyway. New mysteries keep us interested in life and right when we think we've figured out the point of it all, something else crops up to challenge our conclusions. We'll never know what's really going on until we reach the end, and all the clues and hints we find and misunderstand along the way will suddenly make sense when seen through the scope of the grand scheme.

The slow burn is a process of waiting, observing, relating and learning. Casual TV watchers oppose the slow burn, asking for an easy story with each episode that they can just turn off their brain and watch. But those who really appreciate story telling at its greatest have a high tolerance for what might otherwise be considered slow, boring episodes. These episodes mimic life. Life isn't all explosions and excitement. There are boring days. Days when nothing seems to be happening and nothing is going right and nothing is going wrong. But what happens during these days? We learn about the characters that make up the story of our lives. We interact with friends and family and get to know, appreciate and understand what they really mean to us. In the end, these slow, boring episodes of our lives are the oven that bakes the cake. These days facilitate a greater appreciation for the bombshell, epic drama that's to come.

Because who cares about what's going on on the Island if you couldn't care less about the people it's affecting? Who cares about how to steer the Destiny if you couldn't care less about the people on board? Who cares about life if you couldn't care less about people? Life is a waiting game, and all the moments you think are being wasted are really just facilitation of the pieces being put into place. People are being prepared, elements are being situated, and in the end, it will all make sense. We'll find a new Jacob, we'll steer the ship back to earth, we'll beat the terrorists, we'll find our life's purpose, and we'll appreciate it more because of the slow burn.