But Can They Do Two-Parters?


So, something else that I didn’t have room to talk about in my previous post on serialized TV: the distinction between serial and episodic is of course a bit artificial nowadays, since basically all dramas are serials by traditional standards. (Almost every show has some kind of ongoing story for the characters, even if those stories are kept way in the background and only mentioned occasionally, like the characters’ personal lives on Law and Order. What you don’t have, for the most part, is the old format where the weekly drama is really an anthology show with continuing characters, and no stories are carried from one episode to the next.) But there are degrees of serialization: some shows are hyper-serialized like Lost, some shows are a mix of serial and episodic like Chuck, while others are pure episodic shows with little bits of continuity.

There are several ways to gauge just how serialized a show is, but one method I particularly like is to ask the question: “Can this show do two-parters?” The two-parter is, almost by definition, a concept that belongs to the episodic format. Soap operas (the purest serials) cannot do two-parters because they don’t have individualized episodes (or, in many cases, even individual episode titles). A very serialized show can’t do a true two-parter because that implies that once the two episodes are over, a complete story has been told. Lost sometimes designates episodes as two-parters (Update: see Myles’s comment for more about that), but we’d never really know it if we didn’t know the episode titles. Since the stories in a serial all continue for several episodes at a minimum, it would be silly to call, say, last night’s Sons of Anarchy season finale “part 2” of the previous episode; every episode is a continuation of the last one to some extent. (Update 2: Jason Mittell, in comments, arguest that the Lost 2 parters are designated that way for a reason, and that the episodes have more individual identity than I’m giving them credit for.)

As Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, when you’re watching a show, you can “sense the To Be Continued coming” when you realize there are five minutes left in the hour, and they don’t have enough time left to end the story (“Timmy’s still stuck in the cave! There’s no way they can wrap this up in five minutes!”). Serials don’t normally have To Be Continued signs, because we watch them knowing in advance that the story will not be wrapped up at the end of the hour. The episodes are structured like Part Ones where Part Two never comes. This can have a negative effect on structure and individual episode identity, but it can also have a positive effect by freeing the episodes of the sense of let-down that often comes with the wrap-up section: the resolution, and the relaxation of pressure that follows it, are often the weakest moments of a stand-alone episode. The writer of a serialized show is free to end the episode at whatever point seems most exciting or interesting; what they lose in structural logic, they arguably gain in avoiding that inevitable resolution let-down.

So one way you can judge whether a show has crossed over from being an episodic show with serial elements, to being a serial with some stories-of-the-week, is whether the show ever does true two-part episodes, a double-length episode that clearly stands apart from the episodes that precede and follow them. Buffy The Vampire Slayer is one of the most obvious test cases. In its early seasons, it had some genuine two-parters, sometimes designated as such (“Becoming,” part 1, followed by “Becoming,” part 2). As it went along, it became more wedded to season-long stories; the fifth season was the first that didn’t have any two-parters, and that’s because the last few episodes of the season all sort of blended together. The sixth season, with a less unified season-long arc, began and ended with episodes that were designated as two-parters (though I don’t think of the season finale as a genuine two-parter, because the episodes were really just part of a four-episode arc). And the seventh season, which started promisingly and went to pieces, had no two-parters because the last half was all one long, boring undifferentiated story arc.

Now, some shows are episodic but still don’t do two-parters, but that’s because they either don’t want to or the network doesn’t want them to. But if, say, Glee did a two-part episode, we would look at the clock at five minutes of the hour, thinking that something was amiss because the episode’s events didn’t seem to be resolving themselves. We would never look at the clock wondering why a Lost episode hasn’t resolved itself yet.

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But Can They Do Two-Parters?

  1. As always, great analysis.

    What intrigues me is how a show like Lost actually uses the "Part" structure to help dismantle not some broad expectation of closure but rather the specific role an episode might service. For example, there's nothing that required the Season Four Premiere ("There's No Place Like Home") to be in three parts – if you had called the first part a completely different episode, no one would have really known the difference since, as you note, no one expects an episode of Lost to out and out resolve itself.

    However, they do expect certain things from certain episodes, and the episode was labeled as Part One so that viewers could more clearly draw a connecting line between the chess-like reorganization of characters and the exciting episodes that would follow. The titles, rather than changing how the episodes are structures, dictate what viewers expect from the hour, which shows the newfound prominence placed on episode titles in the internet era (where they create expectation ahead of airing depending on their content).

  2. I like the distinction, but think Lost is a bad example – they do use two-parters quite a bit (pretty much every finale, even though they first aired as one 2-hour ep) and it works because each episode has its own particular parameters: it's a flashback/forward for X character, or it's a structurally unique ep (like "The Other 48 Days"), etc. "Exodus" and "There's No Place Like Home" were actually a 3-parters! A better test case would be The Wire, which has no episodic structural unity (just tonal/thematic unity), and thus it's hard to imagine what a 2-parter might look like.

  3. Lost used the flashbacks as its sop to having a story that wrapped up within the episode (and the flashbacks were much more prominent in its first, most popular season). The episodes with "Part" in the title tend to have multi-character flashbacks or more ambitious flashback structures.

  4. I'll comment in more detail below on your larger statement, but I think that the first part of "There's No Place Like Home" could have kept the same flashforward structure without being part of the next episode – they both present collective flashforwards, but by nature of airing separately they are disconnected flashforwards, chronological but necessarily connected. I would argue that the title is the larger binding factor between the two episodes, in the end.

  5. I think my question here, and it's more an open one than one I have to answer to, is whether the flashbacks/flashforwards are the guidepost by which viewers engage with the material. If they are, you're right: Lost episodes all have some element of structural unity that makes them a Jack episode, or a Charlie episode, and the show tends to save its two-part structures for those episodes which go outside of those traditional parameters.

    However, I'm not convinced that people actually view the show this way, as the prevalence of cliffhangers and the "island" plots tend to dominate the serial elements of the series. I think there's an expectation that every episode of Lost will advance the "plot," and for some flashbacks don't service that goal (I think they're crazy, but what can you do?). This becomes complicated when you enter Season 4 and the flashforwards become integral to understanding the show's plot, but either way I feel as if viewers derive their sense of serialization from elements unrelated to the show's structural unity/disunity.

    As such, I think you're right: Lost certainly "can" do two-parters through the connective thread of the flashbacks/forwards. However, I'm not entirely convinced that it's a necessary action: I believe viewers would anticipate the following episode of the series just the same whether it was Part One or another episode entirely, which makes the "To Be Continued…" redundant if not impossible.

  6. My comment below cross-posted with Myles. I guess I disagree, given that most Lost episodes are defined by their unique parameters. "There's No Place Like Home" is a bounded 3-parter because they are the only episodes that provide the collective flashforwards of the Oceanic 6. It's less about resolution than structure & scope.

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