Season One of The Churchmen is eight episodes long, making episodes four and five the middle of season. How is content influenced by structure? What makes a melodrama different from a soap opera? This may be a good time to discuss form–not just the shape of the individual episodes, but that of the season as a whole.
Most American network shows have around twenty-five episodes per season. Cable shows, such as Major Crimes, Game of Thrones, or The Shield often have half that amount. The need to create double or even triple the content of some other shows makes it understandable why networks tend to love procedural shows. (Think Law & Order, E.R., or just about any reality show, such as Survivor or Project Runway.) Writing is hard, and unless you have a single show runner with a creative vision (David Simon in The Wire, J.J. Abrams in Lost, or Aaron Sorkin in some seasons of The West Wing), developing plot arcs over multiple episodes is particularly difficult. As someone who has tried at times to do weekly recaps of television shows, I can attest that it is hard to write efficiently, effectively, and consistently, on a weekly basis for twenty-four weeks in a row.Imagine how much harder it would be to not merely summarize and analyze content but also create it.
The procedural format allows a weekly episode to be self-contained, at least in the “A” story, while perhaps allowing character arcs or development to play out at a slower pace over multiple episodes. But in any project that is collaboratively written, subtly is hardly an option–hints or clues about characters need to be obvious enough that writers of other episodes don’t contradict them and viewers who tune in once a week (rather than binge watching or living with the characters daily) feel smart for picking up on them. Soap operas are built on cliffhangers and near constant change, so the pace is much quicker there, even if no one episode is self-contained.
Shorter series have a bit more freedom to tell a single story across multiple episodes (Prime Suspect, Luther). Or they may have plot-lines involving each character with different episodes focusing mostly on one story-line while advancing the others only slightly. Downton Abbey is written in this vein, and so too, I think, is The Churchmen. All eight episodes of Season 1 are written by David Elkaim and Vincent Poymiro, so one expects–and gets–a bit more continuity in the storytelling than one might get in an American show. It appears to be one story, that of the first year at seminary, split over eight episodes rather than eight different stories set in the same place. (It is worth noting that Rodolphe Tissot is credited with direction for episodes 1-4, while Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont are credited with directing episodes 5-8. Does the visual look of the show change? More on that, perhaps, in my next/last recap.)
Of course, whether or not a story arc is six episodes or twenty-four, it still has to have its Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end. Middle episodes sometimes feel like filler–more often in television than in film–because the conflict has been established but the show is not ready to bring it to a resolution. The end of episode four and most of episode five has been the first time that The Churchmen felt dumbed-down to me, at least in one of its story arcs. After secreting off to the Vatican and charging, unwelcome, into a superior’s private chambers, Father Bosco returns to the Capuchins only to find a packet of cash in Fromenger’s desk. That this might prompt a crisis of faith in some characters is credible, but Bosco’s loyalty to Fromenger is one of his defining characteristics. Doubt? Possibly. But I had a hard time believing he wouldn’t go to Fromenger himself to seek an explanation.
The stories around the seminarians fare a little better, in part because they are more often individual episodes. Yes, Yann’s musical flirtation with the punk singer has covered multiple episodes as has Rapheal’s family business.(The latter coming off better than the Bosco story arc because it was allowed to climax and move to the next phase rather than remain unresolved so that each story line could peak at the end of the season.)
But if the plotting of the middle episodes are somewhat conventional, the characterization remains exemplary. Jose and Raphael are the most assertive of the seminarians, so it is right that they should both clash and bond. And it is nice the way the show does not ignore the inevitable class tensions arising from the different background of the candidates. Much of this episode revolves around the seminarians taking clothes to a squatters’ camp, leading to discussions about the merits of socio-political activism versus charity that is strictly religiously motivated.
I also like the easy familiarity between Fromenger and his female assistant. Religiously themed dramas too often don’t know how to depict a range of relationships between genders and so end up giving us the same-old-same-old, the “will they or won’t they” (succumb to sexual tension) one sees on just about any workplace romance. But in five episodes of The Churchmen, we’ve already seen Emmanuel’s confession regarding visiting a brothel, Yann’s struggle with jealousy (and budding realization that intimacy is as much an allure as sex), a chaste friendship between a priest and a nun, and one seminarian’s erotic dream hinting at a deeper struggle with chastity than we’ve yet seen externalized.
Finally, I really like the depiction of Fromenger as a teacher. When informed about the seminarians’ scheme to clothe the squatters, rather than being directive, he listens, highlights ways of looking at the situation that they might not have considered, affirms that they will eventually have to make and be responsible for their own decisions, and avoids giving them an order. There is, most probably, a bit of foreshadowing in his reminder that they won’t always have him to protect them, and one wonders if that prophecy might find fulfillment when it is revealed that Yann inadvertently consumed MDMA.
It remains to be seen whether or not The Churchmen can transition not just between one character’s arc and another’s but between a character’s arc and his next. How will Rapheal be affected by the news regarding his brother? Will Yann’s experience at the bar drive him deeper into a distrustful, monastic life or sow seeds of temptation that he struggles with further down the line? Will Bosco’s suspicions, once he knows the rest of the story, contribute to greater self-loathing or make him realize that he can’t continue to idolize Fromenger? That I am even asking these questions is a good sign, one that suggests The Churchmen has already become more about character than plot.
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