There’s been some discussion of whether Fringe, whose “mythology” episodes are consistently better than its stand-alone plots, should drop the procedural format and just become a full-time serial. Though I still think shows should go wherever they need to go for the stories that work the best, I’m not completely sure this would work for Fringe, if only because the procedural stuff is so baked into the premise, and because the impact of the mythology stuff may in actually derive from the fact that it’s spaced out, rather than taking centre stage every week. But let’s assume that the show decides to do what it does best and turns into a serial — how does it do that? It’s somewhat tricky, because what makes the show a procedural is that the characters are people who solve crimes for a living, and their lives are therefore bound up with the elements of a crime procedural; the serialized stuff is directly related to the procedural stuff. Lost could mostly abandon stand-alones early on without a lot of trouble because the characters don’t currently have jobs. (Or do they?) But Fringe can’t just make its characters stop solving crimes.
If a show wants to become more of a serial, it needs to make the transition appear seamless; it has to avoid the Dollhouse problem where the first half of the season is mostly stand-alone assignments and the second half becomes one big soap opera. This is particularly true with a show like Fringe that is at least fairly successful and doesn’t want to drive away the viewers it’s already accumulated. So what does it need to do?
Without getting into the position of suggesting future storylines, I would say that the easiest way for a show to make this kind of transition is to push the “cases” — the mysteries that are solved through the use of a pre-set crime-solving procedure — further into the background of the episodes they appear in. A show like this builds most episodes out of two types of material: the case of the week, and the ongoing storyline. The two frequently overlap, but in a self-contained episode, the case usually gets more screen time, or at least gets more of the key spots in the episode (the climax is the climax of the case, not the suggestion that there might be some secret to be revealed five months from now). As a show moves toward more of a pure serial, it doesn’t eliminate the cases, but it can give them gradually less time per episode, or place the procedural story beats at less crucial points in the episode. When this is done, the identity of an episode is muddled. Instead of remembering it as the episode about the mysterious purple people eaters and whether they ate people or only purple people, we remember it as the episode where Jenny and Johnny finally made plans to kiss next month, during sweeps. And as this goes on, the audience starts to accept that the individual cases are not the most important part of a given episode, and the writers can push the cases still further into the background, or do whole episodes — and finally, whole blocks of episodes — without them.
We’ve seen this sort of thing happen even with shows that didn’t become full-fledged serials, like when Moonlighting kept de-emphasizing the mysteries (never their strongest suit anyway) more and more until, by the time they did the three-part arc about the characters sleeping together, it was basically a romantic comedy/soap where the characters happened to get in a funny car chase once in a while. That show never actually dropped the case-of-the-week format, and Fringe doesn’t have to either. But Fringe can, if that is the right thing to do — and I’m not totally convinced it is, as I said — create a situation where the audience doesn’t perceive the case of the week as the key fact about most episodes.
Also: I’ve talked before about shows that shouldn’t have decided in advance that they were going to be heavily serialized, but with Fringe you can sort of see the same thing happening from the other direction. The creators talked constantly, before it began, about how the show was going to have stand-alone episodes and allow new viewers to jump in and all that, as if this was some sort of experiment. Which, for these creators, it sort of was; not that they’d never done it before (the Sam Raimi shows weren’t exactly heavily-serialized), just that they hadn’t done it in a while. When creators decide in advance that the show must have X number of self-contained episodes, and talk it up in the press, that could be a sign that they would prefer to go in the other direction but something is stopping them — in this case, a combination of network pressure and self-imposed pressure.