The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


March 14, 2014

Joe Hadsall: Close-up episodes important for TV shows' growth

JOPLIN, Mo. — Judging from the howling I hear from friends who love "The Walking Dead," last week's milquetoast Oscars were slightly more exciting than a snoozer episode featuring Daryl and Beth.

But it's one of many examples of a type of episode in a TV show: the close-up.

A short definition: A close-up episode features only one or two characters in a show. Where a show might normally feature many characters intertwined in major plot points, the close-up is defined by the lack of back-and-forth. It sticks with one group and follows a strict timeline.

Even though these episodes draw critical acclaim, fans usually hate them because they derail the normal pace of action. But I think they are necessary and awesome for character development. They give even more weight to fast scenes of madness that hit hard but pass quickly. They infuse key moments with much more importance.

And it's why "Walking Dead" fans who are bored with the current episodes should quit their belly-aching.

Seriously, y'all -- is this half-season so bad? Count your blessings.

Season four has had none of the snail's pace that plagued season two. And that season didn't feature a single close-up episode.

I think I could make a case that "Lost" was such a great show in its first seasons because so many of the episodes had the close-up mentality. The final seasons drifted away from that formula as the characters spent more and more time chasing events -- when the flashbacks and flash-forwards got to be about propelling plot instead of developing character, that's when the show started slipping.

Or take "Breaking Bad," a show that wore its turtle-with-head-on-shell speed proudly. Although the pace of season three was slower, it ground to a halt in the episode "Fly," where Walter White and Jesse Pinkman fought to find a contamination-spreading insect -- and that's it.

Of course, that wasn't all that happened. There were some key decisions made in that episode, which carried all the way over to the finale. And "Fly" made sure that every bit of meaning was obvious.

The close-up episode helped slow the pell-mell plot devices of "House of Cards" in the first season.

That show, which everyone watched via binge-watching, was beautifully slowed down in "Chapter 8," where Sen. Frank Underwood returns to his alma mater and spends an evening terrorizing the campus with his old childhood friends.

That is the only episode in the series to give any sort of redemption to Underwood.

Let's face it -- the show is nothing but him doing despicable things then telling viewers directly why he did them. But there are no asides in that episode -- no witty philosophies, no knowing looks. We watch Underwood relive his glory days, feel the joy of re-enactment and the weight of being so far away from them. The episode puts a number of things in season two in context, from a certain out-of-nowhere tryst to the finale's final scene.

The close-up episode even helps a mediocre show. "Revolution," which started out its second season with a strong positive surge, got back to its usual lunacy of incredibly fast walks across the country and an alarming number of characters getting caught then escaping.

But last week featured a great episode featuring mostly Aaron, who found himself in something resembling the future and discovering it was more like "The Matrix." Watching him spar against the nanobots over his refusal to fix a programming bug was rewarding -- he's also the greatest character in that show, so an episode completely from his point of view was great.

So back to "The Walking Dead": Why all the whining about Daryl's and Beth's housewarming party in "Still?" Consider the short game: That episode added a tremendous amount of meaning to "Alone," the most recent episode.

But this half of the season has been nothing but slow-play character trips in close-up episodes. The first half of the season was the same way, with two episodes devoted to the Governor and his final attack on the prison.

And some of the show's greatest episodes are close-ups. Season four's "After," where Rick and Carl struggle and Michonne changes, means nothing without season three's "Clean," where Rick meets an old acquaintance and Michonne and Carl clear a restaurant to get an important memento.

"The Walking Dead" isn't going anywhere. Season five is planned, and the comic provides a fertile garden for future plotlines.

There's no reason "The Walking Dead" needs to start running or even jogging. I'm just fine with this season of close-ups because they will all give context for the coming clusterfreak.

Joe Hadsall is features editor for the Globe. Contact him at jhadsall@joplin

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