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In the Writing #1: Parallax in Arrested Development and Five Other Top TV Shows

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A recurring discussion of writing and literary technique in television and film.

(Warning: this essay contains potential spoilers for Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Lost, Orange Is the New Black and The Wire.)

In the months since its release, Netflix's Frankenstein monster fourth season of Arrested Development has become the subject of fierce debate. Where some praised its take on the evolving television medium and postmodern sensibility, others felt distanced from what they perceived to be an overly conceptual structure, which, unlike previous seasons, concentrated on a different character each episode. The show, they argued, had achieved recognition and cult fame through the combustion of Bluth family personalities, and the singular focus forsook the very ethos that led to its resurrection. But Arrested Development has always foregrounded iconoclasm over popularity. Despite the potential frustration of its jigsaw puzzle plot, what Hurwitz and company created demands a non-chronological appreciation of the narrative, that, in addition to rewarding active viewers and commenting on the inherited bounds of televisual structure, introduces the function of parallax, a staple of modern and early postmodern thought.

In science, parallax refers to "the apparent displacement or the difference in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points not on a straight line with the object." Parallax not only helps determine the distance between bodies (astronomers have used it to hypothesize otherwise immeasurable distances), but dimensionality -- in humans and other animals, parallax between two eyes is what facilitates depth perception. These animations offer a visual representation, and, if you can stomach the cheesiness, this video also provides a brief history and explanation of the subject:

James Joyce was obsessed with the idea of parallax; Ulysses, arguably his masterwork, is constructed around the notion on multiple levels. Though stream of consciousness has become passé in the minds of many contemporary writers and critics, the style was still prepubescent when Joyce virtually perfected it in Ulysses -- published three years before Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, and a full eight years before Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, both considered preeminent texts of the style. Joyce allowed for the intimacy of experiencing even peripheral characters in their own distinct voices, using intersecting references, motifs, and leitmotifs to otherwise anchor the plot. As much a puzzle for readers as a mode of world building, the structure reveals character motivations that help contextualize earlier actions as the story progresses.

Maybe the best example of parallax in Arrested Development -- though hardly the only one -- lies in George Michael's development of "FakeBlock." In the episodes building up to the reveal, viewers have been led to believe that George Michael, the naïve manifestation of his father's "Do as I say," morality, has been building privacy software in reaction to his family's intrusive and narcissistic behavior. Through a series of misadventures, FakeBlock becomes subject to the competing interests of the likes of Hollywood and Anonymous. The comedic plot twist that ensues, alters our understanding of George Michael's earlier behavior(s), and, in witnessing his ability to lie so believably for personal gain (if forgivably), we realize that the proverbial apple may not fall far from the tree, offering a new perspective on the Bluth family and its impact.

Arrested Development is perhaps the most intricate offering of Joycean parallax in television to date, but it is certainly not the only one; Game of Thrones, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost and, recently, Orange Is the New Black, all bear direct lineage to Ulysses in this regard. Where Arrested Development's parallax is largely structural, The Wire and Game of Thrones use it at the level of character and scope of world, fostering gradual accumulation through the medium's long format. Like an IV drip, each scene adds a layer of nuance that more deeply renders the narrative; we become more familiar with the worlds the characters inhabit and the motivations, beliefs and decisions that result therein. Jamie Lannister's explanation of how he earned the nickname of "Kingslayer" (and what it communicates about his attitude toward life), for instance, causes us to reevaluate our possibly simpler assessments of his earlier actions -- even the atrocity committed in the show's pilot -- inducing a reconsideration of who he's been, who he is and who he's becoming.

The cyclical mire of crime and the criminal justice system in The Wire's Baltimore, operates as a contextualizing force that becomes more intricate with each season. Revealing the matrix of interconnectedness among the city's gamut of individuals, institutions and political arenas -- and how no one of them is to blame for the conflicts that spring up as a result -- the show's complex realism belies the relative conceptual simplicity of parallax, which, at its most basic, demands a withholding of judgment of a given thing until studied from multiple vantage points. That's not to conflate the idea with character development or plot twists; parallax occurs in viewers' minds through the technical elements that facilitate it, and is not dependent on chronology.

Lost and Orange Is the New Black use the more obvious (though no less valuable) device of the flashback to mirror Joyce's management of voice. In seeing how these characters' earlier lives impact their present actions, we begin to understand, both literally and figuratively, "where they're coming from." Red's distrust of friendship and all-or-nothing mentality about loyalty make sense when we see how her friends treat her pre-incarceration, as does Sawyer's perceived misanthropy upon witnessing the childhood trauma from which he draws his name.

Trading scope for intimacy, Breaking Bad showcases parallax at the level of character through Walter White's Shakespearean transformation from reticent chemistry teacher to drug kingpin. Yet even that description undercuts its parallactic function -- what makes the show so compelling is that Walt's "transformation" is more a revelation of who he's been all along. Parallax, when executed effectively, elicits repeat viewings. Having a better sense of the plot allows viewers to focus more thoroughly on nuance, which is why the most rewatchable shows are often ones that exhibit the parallactic impulse. In reexamining Breaking Bad's earlier seasons with the full knowledge of the destination, for example, viewers realize that Walt has in fact always been the arrogant, despotic, chip-on-shoulder antihero depicted so powerfully by the fifth season.

Parallax exhibits both modern and postmodern qualities; its interest in deconstructing traditional ideas of narrative speaks to postmodernism, while its synthesis of multiple understandings pushes toward meaning and truth in the modernist vein. Through this blend of impulse, parallax exists most purely in the interstitial space of the metamodern condition (a subject to be discussed more thoroughly in a later post) -- an important (if esoteric) thing to consider given the current direction of the television industry (as well as the culture driving that industry). Parallax is a display of humanism. It deepens our understanding of why characters act the ways they do, and, by proxy, forces us to notice the creative choices on the part of the artist(s) -- eliciting empathy (if not always sympathy) from audiences, humanizing us all the while by asserting that, even though we can never fully understand another person's life, we are better for trying.