Structure and Scheduling in HBO’s Mildred Pierce
March 27th, 2011
The front cover of the press kit sent to critics for HBO’s Mildred Pierce suggests that Kate Winslet is Mildred Pierce in a five-part Miniseries.
The inside cover, meanwhile, touts Academy Award winner Kate Winslet starring in a film by Todd Haynes.
None of this is ostensibly untrue. Kate Winslet is both an Academy Award winner and unquestionably the centerpiece of this project – if there’s a single scene in which she does not appear, I have no recollection of it. And this is indeed a project directed by Todd Haynes, and it will air in five parts over the course of three weeks starting this evening at 9/8c.
However, I’m admittedly quite intrigued by the notion of “miniseries” and “film” being used as synonyms. To be clear, I know it isn’t ostensibly wrong: considering that Todd Haynes directed all five parts of the miniseries, and that they were all scripted by Haynes and Jon Raymond, this is a single cohesive project which has simply been split into five parts (oddly enough airing over three weeks). And yet there’s something strange about considering this as a single project given the way it will be seen by the majority of its audience, and the way it will be covered in certain locations which cover shows on a weekly basis.
I was actually going to write about the reception of the miniseries independent of having seen it, but I felt that I should withhold that commentary until actually sitting down with all five and a half hours. And yet, watching it has created only more questions: did I watch it in the “correct” fashion by seeing it all over the course of a single evening with a brief intermission, or was it actually meant to be consumed in the episodic fashion being utilized by HBO?
And, perhaps more importantly, is it worth your time at all?
The answer to that question is part of what I’ve found so interesting about the pre-air reviews of the program, in that you’ll get a wide variety of answers. The division was so apparent that there was an effort to theorize its origins, although all theories were ultimately proven ineffective: an attempt to draw a split between critics with backgrounds in film versus those with backgrounds in television, for example, ran into numerous anomalies and risked essentializing the critics in question.
On a personal level, I would say that Mildred Pierce is impressive if somewhat exhausting. While the film does give us an image of a depression-era California, its narrow focus on a single character within this conflict somewhat limits its perspective. This is Winslet’s film through and through, which is more evident as the miniseries goes on and we abandon characters who drift away from Mildred despite their relative importance to the story at hand. Mildred’s relationship with Veda, her eldest daughter, is the centerpiece of the film, and yet we only see Veda in those moments in which her life intersects with her mother’s (which become less common the older she becomes). As characters disappear for long stretches, often transforming their lives in the process, our focus is purely on how Mildred responds to these changes rather than why the changes took place, or how they impact the other characters.
This probably sounds fairly critical, and on some level it is: Melissa Leo, who plays Mildred’s neighbor and confidante, feels wasted in a role that never gives her a chance to do anything but console our heroine, while Evan Rachel Wood does her best to add color to an adult Veda but can’t reverse the trend of the character’s actions being dialed up just to put the screws to her mother. As everything around Mildred becomes defined by Mildred, we discover that the film has two modes: the first is Mildred becoming more independent and working to support her family and achieve success irregardless of her gender/social position, and the second is Mildred succumbing to societal expectation in moments of weakness that mostly revolve around Veda (who, I will warn you right now, is pretty insufferable from a very young age).
On the one hand, this dichotomy does risk turning the actual plot of Mildred Pierce into an almost Black Swan-esque experiment in psychological torture in a film that many have (rightfully) described as naturalistic. However, on the other hand, Winslet’s performance captures something about Mildred that is incredibly important to this story: her problem is not that she is incapable of making the right decisions, it’s that the moment of uncertainty that follows any life change will often find us looking elsewhere for guidance when our best strategy might be listening to ourselves. Sometimes these regressions are spontaneous, and other times they are the result of extended pressure, but the swinging pendulum at the heart of Mildred Pierce was something that I found frustrating yet compelling. The back and forth became a pattern, but it was a pattern that Winslet and the rest of the cast were able to bring to life, and which Haynes pairs with some arresting visuals.
All of this being said, I don’t know if this amounts to a recommendation to tune in tonight. Part of this is because this seems like such a divisive project, which means that the best advice I can offer is reading as many reviews as possible if you’re on the fence about diving in. However, the other question is whether or not you should tune in tonight in particular, given that this does not in any way, shape, or form necessitate weekly viewing. In fact, I’m having a hard time imagining watching this project on a weekly basis, as the purposeful repetition of certain patterns would (for me) become more frustrating spread over subsequent weeks.
On a personal level, serialized stories that are aired over multiple weeks create an expectation for progression, and I wonder if Mildred Pierce would be able to pass that test if you were to watch it over three weeks. There is no question that Mildred goes through some tremendous life changes, allowing the show to cover different parts of the 1930s and different stages of this woman’s life, but the lack of development in characters other than Mildred might become overbearing. This is especially true of Veda, who Morgan Turner and the aforementioned Evan Rachel Wood make into a starkly (and problematically) consistent character throughout the miniseries. We’re meant to hate Veda on some level, to resent her impact on her mother and the general ungratefulness on display throughout, but that hatred will play out very differently depending on how we watch Mildred Pierce. Watched over the course of one night, Veda’s singular behavior feels damningly if purposefully consistent; watched over the course of three weeks, it risks being seen as a blatantly recurring plot device designed to fuel drama.
It returns us to the question of what exactly a miniseries is. Is it a single story in multiple parts, or a single story split up into multiple parts? We could ask the same question of Mildred Pierce‘s two biggest competitors for the Emmy for Best TV Movie or Miniseries, iTV/PBS’ Downton Abbey and Sundance Channel’s Carlos. The former aired in seven parts in the U.K., each episode telling a fairly contained story, but it was reworked into a four-part series when it aired on PBS – while I think one could easily argue that the American airing qualifies as a miniseries, what precisely separates the seven-episode structure from other highly serialized television series considering that there will be a “second series” later this year? As for Carlos, which beat out The Pacific to win the Golden Globe, the film made multiple Top 10 lists from film critics at the end of last year, very much positioning the project as a singular entity despite its structured airing on television.
And we can’t ignore the fact that both Downton Abbey and Carlos were somewhat quickly available in forms which betray their origins and contradict the way they aired on American television. Carlos is currently streaming on Netflix Instant Watch (where you could watch all three parts back-to-back if you so desired), while Downton Abbey was available on DVD in its seven-episode form while the PBS airings were ongoing (and available on Netflix shortly after). While they may have been exhibited in a form we normally associate with a miniseries, this was only in order to fit into their respective network’s expectations of how people would watch the films. In the case of Downton, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre productions are always ninety minutes long (or so), and so the project was rejiggered to fit into that format (which has always been a common space for Miniseries projects). And as for Carlos, it seems a situation similar to Mildred Pierce: at over five hours, the realities of television scheduling meant that it needed to be split up over multiple nights because people don’t sit in front of their televisions for that long.
But do we need to be concerned about this in the OnDemand/DVR era? Many viewers will probably catch up on Mildred Pierce once the final episodes air on April 10th, waiting until they can spread all five parts over a single weekend. This is not a project that I expect to be widely spoiled, nor a project where spoilers seem particularly problematic. I also don’t think that there’s much value in the way of weekly discussion: while a long-form miniseries like The Pacific sought to tell a contained story within each episode, these “Parts” are often just continuations of the same story with almost no break in continuity. This feels like it was meant to be seen as something close to a single unit, and the advent of these technologies allows that to happen in only a few weeks’ time (or, if people are patient, in a few months’ time with the DVD release).
It makes you wonder why they bother stretching out a project like Mildred Pierce over multiple weeks: between DVR and OnDemand, making the entire series available over the course of a single day (or a single weekend) seems to best reflect how people could (and, if we take the film as a single entity, should) experience the project. In previous years, HBO executives have even spoken out against traditional modes of scheduling: while most networks are concerned about the flow of one program into another, HBO knows that its audience’s familiarity with these forms of technology mean that they will find it regardless of what comes before or after. So, if this is the case, why not just make Mildred Pierce available to be consumed at the pace viewers (and perhaps Todd Haynes) might want to follow?
The answer, of course, is that HBO does care about scheduling on certain levels. They want you to be tuned in to HBO on Sunday nights, to see “Watching HBO on Sundays” as a weekly tradition in the same way that NBC has branded Thursday for nearly two decades. The reason the project isn’t being stretched into the more logical five weeks (given that it is in five parts), in fact, is that they didn’t have five weeks to spare – Big Love finished only last week, and the network’s dark fantasy series Game of Thrones begins on April 17th, which leaves a three-week window. While HBO may not be concerned about flow within a Sunday schedule, willingly mixing shows like Game of Thrones and Treme (which starts April 24th), they are concerned with the week-to-week flow of having high quality programming in that 9/8c slot. They may expect that most of their viewers will watch on a different schedule, and move away from more traditional modes of scheduling, but they’re as concerned as any other network with cultivating patterns among their audience (if only on one night).
Mildred Pierce is a miniseries because HBO wants (or maybe needs) it to be one. Now, this was probably apparent from the very beginning, which is why the project is divided into five parts, but it’s airing in three because that’s the way HBO decided to schedule it. It confirms that “miniseries” as a definition often has little to do with the nature of the project and more to do with the scheduling expectations which continue to focus on live viewing even as other methods become dominant (especially with projects like these which are subject to formal confusion which might push viewers to wait until they are available to consume all at once). The “long movie” does not exist because television scheduling doesn’t allow it, not because that isn’t how projects like Mildred Pierce are conceived.
I suggest that people check out Mildred Pierce, if you want some kind of an evaluation: it’s an intriguing project with strong performances in which the parts that most frustrated me felt as though they were doing so in a purposeful fashion, and the divisive response to the miniseries suggests that this is a “Your Mileage May Vary” situation where you should sample it for yourself before taking my judgment as your own. However, I would also suggest that you wait two weeks before starting: watch the first two parts on Friday, the third part on Saturday, and then finish things off “live” with the conclusion on Sunday.
I don’t know if there’s really a right way to watch a project like this, but that’s at least a compromise that might better reflect the project’s most basic form (and the ongoing questions about how that form is being represented in a new era of content distribution).
- We saw similar scheduling issues with The Pacific last year, as some viewers got “bored” as some parts didn’t feature intensive battle sequences. Many of those people then chose to wait for DVD, where the(ir) pacing issues were ameliorated by the ability to just switch to the next part on the disc. It also, arguably, makes it easier to follow the various different characters, although that’s not really an issue with Mildred Pierce (given that there are not a particularly large number of characters, unlike Band of Brothers/The Pacific/Downton Abbey).
- On the matter of Emmys, consider Kate Winslet a lock for the win given her pedigree, HBO’s pedigree and the strength of the performance. It isn’t perfect, but it is super baity, and she acquits herself more than well enough over the course of 5+ hours of screentime to walk away in a fairly limited field. Things become more interesting in the supporting arena: Guy Pearce will pick up a nomination for his role as Monty Beregon, fairly uncontested in the supporting actor field, but the battle between Melissa Leo and Evan Rachel Wood will be more interesting. The former just won an Oscar but gets little to do, while the latter gets a lot to do but lacks the same pedigree and is playing an expressly unlikeable character. Expect plenty of writing/directing/costuming/art direction/etc. nominations as well.
- Two unique Emmy notes for the series. First off, how will it be submitted? Most Miniseries have to submit individual parts, but will Haynes be nominated for directing only part of the project when he directed all of it? And second, will the Academy see Hope Davis’ name and nominate her despite the fact that she is only in two brief scenes and doesn’t make much of an impression? It’s not quite Ellen Burstyn’s twenty seconds of screentime, but it is a very small period of time given the length of the series.
- This all reminds me that I’ve got John Adams and From the Earth to the Moon sitting on my bookshelf unwatched – a summer project, perhaps.
- While I won’t be tackling the individual parts on my own, The A.V. Club’s Donna Bowman will be doing weekly coverage, so I’m curious what this will amount to (both for Donna and for the commenters): is it simply a space to discuss the episodes in a setting where spoilers are allowed (and both supporters and detractors can discuss their opinions in more detail), or is there value to evaluating a project like this at the HBO-defined intervals?