Cinematic Episodes: The Secrets of Barslet
Cinematic Episodes is another cross-medium post wherein the link between cinema and another medium is explored. I have written about adaptations, films in books, characters in comics and other arts hitting the big screen. However, I recently have started to consider some of the technical, and in some ways, narrative similarities film and television have always shared and are starting to share.
One of the recent changes to the landscape of television here in the US is that in the gradual shift from the immovable regimented season structure there has also come a redefining of what a season is. Sure, if you follow entertainment outlets you’ll note that the major networks have recently concluded seasons and have announced what has survived to return in the fall and what pilots will be picked up. There is still that traditional structure, however, there is a greater flexibility to it all now than there ever was. There are shows, mostly of the non-scripted variety that start up in the summer; other’s are slated as mid-season replacements. Whereas during the first Golden Age of television seasons would run in excess of 35 episodes; even the now more common 22-episode season is not necessarily the norm.
The flexible nature of the length of a season or even a series, as opposed to the old mini-series mold, allows for more cinematic storytelling. In some ways this is a trend that has been adopted by US networks, both premium and not, from foreign TV Markets. And, yes, clearly there is a financial incentive to making smaller commitments, but there is also an artistically liberating aspect to this all as well.
One of the best examples of the narrative benefits of a limited TV run can be seen on the Dutch-produced The Secrets of Barslet. This was a show that aired 2012 and was comprised of merely seven episodes. However, for the story being told that was precisely as long as it needed to go. One of the things people can hold against television is that the brass ring is renewal even at the cost of the quality of the product on screen. This and many other foreign series never run into that issue because there is an emphasis, it would seem, on engaging an audience for the run of a show and trying to bring them back for another, as opposed to trying to “squat” on their devotion even as the product they used to love descends into tedium.
The Secrets of Barslet is a story that unfolds over the course of seven episodes. Each episode tells the story from the perspective of one of the central characters in the tale. As each perspective is taken into account blanks are filled in and previously unexplained or misunderstood mysteries are brought into sharper focus.
There are inevitably through the course of this series incidents that are examined from various angles, both figuratively and literally. Such that the program develops its own shorthand to quickly re-include previously seen scenes so that their place in chronology and the impact to that particular character is instantly made clear.
This structure of seven episodes of roundabout an hour of content is not unlike what Bela Tarr did with Satantango, in strictly structural terms only. In that film the structure is not unlike the steps of a tango such that the story will backslide chronologically when dealing with a new character. Here there are backslides, multiple dovetails and then each episode (for the most part) pushes things forward. So that the number is similar, as well as the character-based approach to the narrative. In terms of the aesthetics of the frame and the edit there are obvious differences.
Oddly enough, Tarr’s long-take ballet of the camera is, even with a necessary intermission, at its seven-plus hour length is a cumulative, more cinema-friendly experience. When I first viewed it I had it on VHS and watched it on four consecutive nights. When I acquired it on DVD I watched in one day and the experience, though harder to schedule was more complete and moving. The Secrets of Barslet not just with its mysteries but with its addictive nature is perfectly realized as a television show. You finish a chapter and you immediately want to proceed and are forced to wait until you can see the next one.
Another similarity it has Satantango is that there are some small mysteries this show feels no need to explain furthermore its not interested in the banal histrionics of having everyone understand everything in the end. True to its format of limited omniscience it allows the viewer to see the whole truth while the characters remain fairly myopic. The Secrets of Barslet is the epitome of a modern cinematic television series not just because of its aesthetic, or the way it cuts but because of its narrative sophistication.