I guess that we as individuals each have tells in telling stories, including our life stories. Certainly all writers have a tell, a catch phrase or common set of words that use in telling a story or in setting a scene. All artists have a unique signature, a nuance within a particular style or genre that sets them apart from someone painting by numbers. Sometimes, at least for me, it takes heavy doses of a writer’s style or of someone’s art for me to see the unique tells in the telling.
That’s been so true for me in watching entire TV series through Netflix over the past two years, whether through DVD or online streaming. Since the spring of ’10, I’ve watched, in order and their entirety, Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Voyager, House, Firefly, Heroes, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Oz, Eureka, Warehouse 13, Battlestar Galactica, Bones and Fringe, mostly through Netflix. Now, some of these shows I’d seen plenty of when they were regular series, especially DS9, Six Feet Under, House and Oz, while I viewed most of these series for the first time.
There’s something different about watching a TV series all at once than watching it once a week in twelve, twenty-four or twenty-six episode blocks year by year. Especially with unlimited streaming. Earlier this year, I watched all seventy-six episodes of Battlestar Galactica over a six-day span in April, including the first two seasons between Saturday morning and Sunday evening Easter weekend (see my post “Battlescar Galactica” from June ’12).
In watching so many episodes, you quickly sense the rapport being actors, the plot and its direction, and the tells about a particular episode or season of a show. In watching DS9, I learned that whenever Quark would mention Dax’s relationship with a Gallamite (a race with a transparent skull) or a Tholian ambassador, I’d learn something revealing about one of the main characters, especially Dax or Quark. Only, there may’ve been only one scene in 176 episodes in which there was a Gallamite character, and none for a Tholian ambassador.
With House, if the “sarcoidosis” diagnosis came up before the last segment of an episode, it was always wrong, but if it came up in the last segment, it would occasionally be correct. The writers obviously knew that sarcoidosis was such a general diagnosis that it could mean nothing in nearly all the show’s mystery illnesses, revealing the desperation and pressure the characters felt in finding the right diagnosis to save someone’s life.
For other shows, it could be a word, a line, an appearance of a sign or character even. For the first five seasons of Bones, the tell for Brennan’s emotional state — or lack of one — was how she’d say “phalanges,” “distal phalanges,” or even “ungual phalanges.” Brennan wiggled her “phalanges” with delight for babies and kids, and examined microscopic details of dead peoples’ phalanges with scientific coldness otherwise. For the sci-fi western Firefly, lines like “the money was too good” and cursing in Mandarin Chinese illuminated the contrast between haves and have-nots of twenty-sixth century humans, between technological advances and moral devolution.
There’s also Fringe’s opening with changes in colors signifying alternate universes and timelines. Not to mention Breaking Bad’s opening scenes foreshadowing how a season would conclude, or the use of light-skinned or biracial actresses as either technically or ephemerally brilliant characters on Fringe, Warehouse 13 and Bones.
But my all-time favorite tell in any season these days is from Battlestar Galactica, when Adama asks,
“What do you hear, Starbuck?”
“Nothing but the rain, sir,” she says
“Then grab your gun and bring in the cat.”
No matter how the characters felt, how dire the situation, or how triumphant the moment, it was the line that showed how precious the connections we have and need to have with each other and with our humanity.
I think that the way I can — we can — watch movies, TV series, read books and articles, look at art, and listen to music through these tells can tell me a lot about a writer, a musician or an artist. But it also tells me a lot about me. Not just that I’m a little weird. I’m also a sucker for a good story, one that is a bit ironic, a tad asymmetrical, that is quirky and epic, unique and yet mundane. A story that mirrors my life is one that tells me about me, at least in part.