Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker TV critic, has a good piece on the show Justified and the issue of the stand-alone story.
Justified is one of many shows that started as a procedural and then “shed its skin,” becoming more of a novelistic serial with every passing season. The first season followed a pattern that a lot of shows seem to follow, where most of the season stand-alone mysteries, but a bigger story is teased and finally dominates the last few episodes of the season. Season two, with the unforgettable Margo Martindale arc, was shaped similarly, but the seasonal story took over the show about halfway through – and since it was the Mags story, no one could really complain. And then season 3 was essentially a full-fledged serial with some procedural elements.
It’s gotten to the point that you can almost bet that any drama that runs long enough will become a serial, unless it is on a network that in some way enforces the procedural format (if The Good Wife were on any other network but CBS, we probably wouldn’t be seeing many case-of-the-week stories by now). And I think it’s not simply that the serial is more prestigious and acclaimed; it’s that the stand-alone story can sometimes turn off viewers, especially cable viewers, who have come to think of a season as a little novel and therefore want each episode to move the story forward. A stand-alone episode can sometimes seem like “filler” if you think of a season that way. I’ve noted before that a situation like The X-Files, where fans often preferred the crazier, more experimental stand-alone episodes, rarely happens today.
But sometimes this view of the season as a novel, and every episode as a piece of the novel, can contribute to the tendency of arcs to burn themselves out before the season is over. In particular, Nussbaum notes that one of the clichés of serialized TV is to tease a big battle that isn’t happening in this episode, but which will, we are assured, happen in a future instalment – not next week, or the week after, but certainly no later than the season finale.
Extended storytelling has its own conventions and clichés… late in the season, when one character intoned, “There’s a war coming,” my heart sank: it echoed every cable drama, in the worst way.
To me the most memorable example of this is still Buffy season 7, which did a run of something like 12 episodes about preparing for the Big Final Battle, making speeches about the Big Battle that not everyone will survive. It was especially egregious because the big villain they were fighting was an incorporeal Satan figure who wasn’t scary at all, but the big thing that made it a problem was that nothing seemed to happen on the show, we were just told that something would eventually happen. And when the battle comes, of course, no TV show has the budget to deliver a final battle that lives up to that kind of hype.
Which may provide a logical reason for taking some breaks, even in a 13-episode season, to address other issues and tell shorter stories: a sprinkling of tangential stories can help prevent the inevitable feeling of anti-climax when the big arc is resolved.
And if nothing else, some X-Files-style stand-alones can help create the feeling that the characters are not simply focused on one thing all the time, but have to do their jobs, take on smaller assignments and short-term issues. You don’t have to do stand-alone episodes to convey this feeling; the really great serialized shows find ways to make it clear that there are other things that go on even while the big story is playing out, and that the characters’ lives are not solely defined by the arc. When one arc takes over a show completely, that’s no more true to life than the old format where no story ever had ramifications beyond that week’s episode. Life mixes arcs with stand-alones, you might say.