More on Archive 81 and storytelling

So last week I waxed ecstatic about Netflix’s Archive 81, a show I was attracted to mainly because I worked in archiving and restoration at WRS Film and Video Lab for a spell. There’s a kind of alchemy involved in restoration, whether it’s photochemical or digital. It feels as much like magic as it does science.

Hot Splices front cover
Cover designed by Ryan Hose.

Because WRS was such a miserable place to work, I drew upon that misery while writing the stories that became Hot Splices. I write about the feelings of isolation, being buried alive (WRS was a windowless bunker made from a former slaughterhouse – the vibes were wretched there), the fog of chemicals you’re constantly breathing. I saw things darting in and out of shadows constantly, and it wasn’t just the guys working in the processing rooms. The entire day was spent in semi-darkness and in the winter, it was even worse. You never saw the sun.

Also in Hot Splices, I sort of mock the idea of the cursed film. Amy and I were involved in a movie years ago that dealt with the cursed-film type of mythology. I wrote the initial script and had some fun with the back-stories of the villains, etc., while still taking shots at the clichés. Kind of parodying, for example, John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns. The human sacrifice, the dark gods, the madness produced by watching a cursed film, the inevitable scavenger hunt to find them. I chewed these clichés up pretty good because I thought they were so old hat by the time I got to them. It had as much heavy-handed satire as Splatter Movie.

Well, Archive 81 must not have seen the endless cursed-film movies, or read the endless cursed-film books. The Throat Sprockets and the like. Because every silly cliché I laid out as ridiculous is on full display in Archive 81: the human sacrifice, the lost snuff film, the rift in dimensions, blah blah blah. Most of this crap is dumped on the viewer in the last two episodes, wherein it also betrays its own structure.

Allegedly, Archive 81 is about a man uncovering a mystery by restoring a series of damaged Hi-8 tapes. What he sees should be all we see. But narrative requires forward momentum, so we also see the world around the woman in the films, the narrator and documentarian. In the last two episodes, she aims the camera at her feet during every confrontation, but we are shown the events as they unfold, the camera be damned, and we’re to assume the archivist can see what we see because… narrative demands.

In the post-Blair Witch era, we’re used to the found footage format. We give that format a lot of license. Archive 81, of course, wants it both ways—found footage and edited film. It works if you remain consistent, which this show never manages to. While the story wrapped naturally in Episode 6, the show runners decided to tease it out further for two more episodes, thus ensuring a second season.

Which is, of course, the reason for making television any longer: multiple seasons. Don’t worry about telling a story, a shaggy dog joke you can stretch out into 30 episodes is better. Nothing needs structure any longer. Beginning-Middle-End, who cares, right? It’s all about next season.

I’m not a huge fan of American Horror Story—they fudge the landing more often than not and pretty consistently destroy their own momentum one season to the next—but they are telling an anthology of stories. Sometimes the stories interconnect, but for the most part, they’re self-contained 8-10 episodes. Ryan Murphy is a pretty terrible storytelling himself, but at least he’s capable of moving on.

Archive 81 didn’t have enough story for multiple seasons, so instead of telling one story, the show runners (is the term “creator” even a thing any more?) crammed a dozen new subplots into the final two episodes, to justify dragging us back for more. It should have respected itself and the audience enough to give us an ending.

Because of the way we consume media these days, binging full seasons at a time, we’ve lost the ability to not only tell stories but comprehend them as well. Look at the overstuffed Eternals. So much of the running time is bogged down in repetition—different characters having the same conversations for the illusion of character development. The same problem is happening with long-form series. Episodes bloated with redundancy, call-backs, unnecessary flash backs, digressions. It’s not in the service of “a good yarn” either, it’s just running out the clock.

The most recent episode of Boba Fett was lauded because the title character was left out! In his place, we get the return of The Mandalorian and for even more fun, we get to watch him work on his car for 40 minutes. This was the fun episode of the season!

It is stupid to continue to decry the “commerce” part of art. After a period of resurrection—I was pretty pleased to see the return of long-form miniseries—streaming services have settled into the old bad habits of the networks: string it all along until the money runs out, then cancel it and leave everyone angry.

I don’t know what the answer is. The nice thing is, this stuff comes and goes in waves. Maybe the ship will righten again and we’ll get tighter stories.

Anyway, check out our ongoing 3-for-$20 DVD sale.