The first ad agency I worked for was an affiliate of Saatchi & Saatchi. It was an agency that had won awards around the world for their marketing strategies and effective advertising campaigns; getting an internship there was a big deal. I was excited, ready to show everyone my potential, but I knew that as an intern, the most I would get to do would be to watch from the peripheries. And that’s exactly what I did.
I learned a great deal observing the agency’s group of creatives come up with ideas and plan campaigns. They made it all seem like fun. Creating the graphics, building the pieces of the campaign, brainstorming for tag lines, it was exhilarating to finally face the real world that I’d been training for in classrooms for three years.
That buzz, that high, gave me a false sense of the job and obscured an important truth that I should have seen in the first few weeks of my internship: I hate advertising. Not the creative part of it — I still enjoy the design and the brainstorming sessions. But I hate selling. I hate it because it’s all about screaming louder and harder and longer than your competition. It’s an ever-growing tsunami, and each wave needs to be bigger, wider and more explosive than the last.
It took me almost a while to figure it out, a period which ran the course of my final year in college, another internship at a different agency and my first job, which lasted nine months. After that first job, I refused all offers to join agencies and chose to work with publications instead. I thought news organizations would be a good fit — fact-driven design couldn’t possibly be about noise, could it? It turns out I’m pretty dense. I’ve seen enough 24-hour news channels and read enough Chomsky to understand that, at the end of the day, the rat race in all forms — advertising, news, design, PR, sports, culture — is all about noise.
And it’s just getting noisier.
No More Roses to Smell
My husband recently searched for and found DVDs of a show from the sixties called The Fugitive for my mother. It’s a black and white show, the inspiration for Harrison Ford’s movie. Watching a few episodes with my mother, I was struck by the show’s pace, a markedly slow-moving canter that explored nuances of character and emotion rather than building layered plot-lines. It reminded me of the books I read when I was younger, the popular fiction novels that took time to describe, in remarkable detail, places and environments, with dense paragraphs of text on each page.
In comparison, today’s books and TV shows tick over at the speed of light. There isn’t time, in between the elaborate plots and twists, to stop and smell the roses. Along with the frenetic speed are characters that are zanier, bolder, crazier and, you guessed it, louder.
It’s an addictive trend. Big characters in the middle of big stories is what this generation is all about. It’s why Game of Thrones has captured everyone’s imaginations. The GoT world is vast, its characters bolder and crazier than anything we’ve seen on TV. The violence is more violent, the sex is more blatant and the profanity is now second nature.
Don’t get me wrong. I am completely swept up in this. I’ve read all of the Song of Ice and Fire books and am still watching the TV show (even though I rarely enjoy a movie/show if I’ve already read the book). One of my favorite TV characters has been Gregory House, with his deeply flawed, over-the-top personality. I watched Hannibal and the psychological savagery of that show with gruesome fascination. It inspired me to take a look back at The Silence of the Lambs and the movie Hannibal. As disturbing as Antony Hopkin’s Hannibal was, the movies just don’t match the viciousness of the TV show. The movie Hannibal came out in 2001. Fourteen years later, the show is bigger, harsher, more brutal. In every figurative sense, it’s louder than the movies.
Then there’s Penny Dreadful, a glorious tribute to the gothic tales of the nineteenth century. The show is brutal, it’s frighteningly dark. But, like Hannibal and The Killing, I’m drawn to Penny Dreadful because it’s deliberate and measured. It has characters like Ethan Chandler, who is understated and subtle, a quiet presence whose larger-than-life alter ego only emerges when needed.
Give Me Silence
These are the shows and characters and books that I want to be watching and reading. I’m watching SyFy’s Haven simply because its lead character Nathan, a man without the sense of touch, is a closed persona who rarely expresses anything but the barest of emotions. The sheer pleasure of a protagonist who isn’t constantly crying or laughing or always embroiled in melodramatic scenes is beyond my powers of description.
Yet, Haven’s audiences find Nathan boring and dull. There is no instant gratification with his character — you won’t be awed or repelled the first time you watch him. You have to watch the show for at least a whole season to let him grow on you. He reminds me of the heroes from Dick Francis’ and Mary Stewart’s novels. Mary Stewart’s protagonists, especially, were very reserved. They didn’t make grand gestures, they weren’t exceptional except in their reaction to extraordinary circumstances. Yet I still fell in love with them.
Today’s heroes are rarely subtle. As writers, we’re sometimes afraid of slowing down our writing because it’s no longer done. Long descriptive passages are unfashionable, as are characters who take the time to grow on you. But those are the characters you’ll always remember. Those are the ones you spend the most time with, the ones who you want to come back to over and over. Those are the characters that you have dig deep to find their real selves. The ones who surprise you the second time you see them or read them. Surprise you enough to make you want to read them again and again.
I want more than a surprise ending from my stories, my shows, the books I read. I want layers, depth and mystery. I want to discover my favourite characters at my leisure. I want more books that resemble a deep, dark, still lake than raging rapids. It’s time to silence the noise.