Sunday, January 28, 2007

Good stories are not hard to find

Filipino dramatic productions on television--except for a very few that did not last long--have always been more boring than not. And there are no productions more boring than the local
teleseryes that have sprung, no thanks to the ratings war between the two largest local TV networks.

Which is, to me, totally incomprehensible. Why hasn't any local TV network executive in charge of dramatic production ever gotten it into his head to visit a school library or a local book store and, taking an armful of the classics (or even the newer published books) given his scriptwriters orders to produce an adapted script out of every story in a published book of short stories, out of every segment of a novel, out of every chapter of a biography or autobiography? There is no shame in adapting a published story to film or television, as long as the effort is a genuine adaptation and the proper credits are given.

Then, perhaps we can watch stuff on local television more interesting than the eternal love triangle, the battered child or spouse, and the scheming madrasta or lustful stepfather.

"Impressions," TV Times, 3-9 June 1979


Watching Peping on and off can provide the viewer with regular exercises in suspended disbelief. One time, and the little boy appears and disappears from the screen like everybody's favorite dwarf. Another time, and he goes frolicking around with a portly friar. More recently, he suffers nightmares about an unborn brother. All of that strains my credulity a lot.

Yet, I am somehow thankful--for a few pluses that are outside the quality of Peping's episodes and not tied up with whether they are worth viewing or not.

I am glad that at last, we have found another child talent worth building up--someone more mannered, less quarrelsome than NiƱo Muhlach. Someone more in the mold of your child and everybody else's. Precocious, but in the quiet manner of most Filipino children, without the shrill and sometimes oppressive flamboyance set by local cinema's current child wonder.

Perhaps we can then have more drama series other than those about love (as in romance) and storylines a little more different from the rest, with a twist here and there. A child can bring light to the dark weave of the Filipino psyche.

Not that Peping's episodes have, so far, been exactly promising. In the one that I watched recently, Peping's mother and father separate because of the mother's jealousy, only to come together when Peping disappears. Nothing new to the storyline. Even the existence of the father's daughter by another woman does not make the episode any more imaginative or interesting.

What is interesting, though, is the fact that the episode provides a few glimpses into the tired old world of local television drama. I had wondered all the while where newer station-produced dramas are going, and how they will get there. If Peping is any indication--and why should it not be, when it was given a prime-time slot--then I can say that local station-produced dramas are trying to move up in ideas but failing in the implementation.

Essentially, the episode of Peping that I am talking about is another overextended hour anchored on a very thin storyline, very slow pacing, and very trivial acting.

The storylines of local dramas simply cannot be improved unless the stations are willing to develop a full stable of good writers and a full inventory of good stories. This should not really be difficult because nobody demands that all stories presented on television be original, only that they throw some piquant and arresting light on the obscurity of the human tragedy or the absurdity of the human comedy.

To do this, the networks can cull from the best and the worst of the world's literature--including our country's own--and compress, condense, adapt, snip, scissor-and-tape, visualize. I shall be the last to fault the networks for adapting--from the West or the East, from Europe or Asia--existing stories as long as proper acknowledgment is made. I shall be the first to complain--as I have complained in the past--about purported originals that are not original at all.

With substantial storylines and tight scripting, pacing should not be the problem it is today for local dramas and local directors. A director can do no more with an eight-page loose script for a 45-minute dramatic episode--unless he is extraordinarily adept, totally experienced, remarkably literary, in which case, as with film, the drama becomes the director's medium--except to implore his performer to look lugubriously at space, cry copiously and endlessly, shake his head violently, and stare fixedly at the camera.

Out on location, a director can at least make performers walk long stretches or drive long distances, providing a little movement and a little interest. But within the tight confines of a studio set, a director has nothing to work on but the performer's faces. Unless it is the hideous Mabini paintings. Or the ubiquitous centerpieces of plastic flowers.

And acting cannot but be influenced by storyline and role. No performer can afford to dum-dum it through a weighty story, a demanding role, masterful direction, and inspired acting by other performers. He goes dum-dum once, and he sticks out like a sore thumb. He does it another time, and he bombs before he has even ignited.

But when the storyline is trivial and the pacing is slow and the performances are all limp, then what should be the mean becomes the standard. The result is episodal mediocrity. Mediocre episodes lend credence to charges that the small screen is a mediocre medium.

That is why I have always held out for a substantial storyline as the basic requirement for interesting drama. Stories we can really chew on, not sleep through. There is no lack of such stories, if our television writers will only swallow a little of their misdirected pride, dig deep into the bottomless mine of world and local literature, and put in a little more work into fleshing out their scripts. So much depends on a good storyline--on stage, in literature, on film. And definitely, on television.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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