The recent talk of “The death of serials,” which I’ve touched on before, mostly means “The death of Lost ripoffs.” The latest round involves noticing that serials are doing all right on cable, though not on broadcast networks. To some extent it also means an increased awareness that the “pure” serial format doesn’t really work in the network TV model. Network shows have 22 episodes a season, and even that is arguably less than they really need. (If they could figure out a way to have the same quality while spending no more money than they do now, I’m sure they’d be happy to go back to 30+ episodes a season: it would be great to have a full season with no repeats, if only it were feasible with modern budgets and production standards.) Serials are doing well on cable, where the seasons are short. Not only are they short, but they can be produced as a unit: when the season is only 13 episodes, you may shoot all 13 before any of them air. In network TV, you may also shoot 13 episodes as a block — but you want to be picked up for another 9 episodes to be aired as part of the same season.
The 13-episode, single-unit season is very well suited to the serial format, which I might describe as “concentrated soap opera.” There’s an ongoing story, and the episodes are not self-contained, but unlike a soap opera, which just wants to go on and on for as long as possible, the serial is usually working within a smaller unit: the season. The season is meant to give a satisfying conclusion to the story the show has been telling for the last few months, without wrapping things up so completely that we won’t want to come back again.
In other words, the way a 13-episode serial season is planned out is almost the way an episode is planned out. You can think of the individual episodes as individual beats or set pieces within an episode.
That works for a 13 (or 10) episode show for several reasons: the short season doesn’t dilute the story and force the creation of extra episodes that don’t relate to the main plot. The money is usually going to be spent for the full season anyway, so the writers don’t have to worry that they won’t be able to end the story they’re creating. And above all, there’s no “back nine”: the season is one unit, whereas in network television it is at least two. You can’t do Damages on network television because you can’t plan out a 22-episode season as one unbroken story.
You can do 24 on a network, yes. But 24 is really more like a regular soap opera: while there is an idea of how the story will end, its main purpose is to keep us in suspense until the story is over, and each scene is a buildup to the one that follows it. That means the writers can take stuff out and put stuff in depending on what seems to be working; the plan for the season can be looser than the short-season serials. And the writers can get away with throwing in almost anything that seems to work, as long as they make some effort to connect it to what’s happened before this season.
What they can’t usually do is decide in advance that the theme is as follows, and that the character will change in certain ways that have been decided on in advance. The need to make a long season, and to adjust to audience and network response as the season is going on, makes that very difficult.
So what does that mean? I don’t think it means that networks are going to start making 13-episode seasons. I sure hope it doesn’t; as I said, even 22 isn’t enough sometimes. And Tim Kring, the poster boy for showrunners who have only 13 episodes’ worth of good ideas, sounds a little whiny when he wishes Heroes had been able to do short seasons: I’m sure he’d also like an unlimited budget and a pony, but that’s not going to happen either. Most shows aren’t going to get away with the Lost method of almost converting themselves into cable shows (doing shorter seasons and giving themselves less pressure to change things while the seasons are going on), because most shows aren’t Lost.
What it comes back to is that the network television show usually can’t — not always, just usually — do seasons that are thematically and stylistically consistent; they can’t plant an idea in episode 1 and follow it all the way to the end of the season. Their seasons are not only longer, but looser and more digressive. None of this means that shows can’t tell ongoing stories. Though it does mean, as I said in an earlier post, that they’re better off not planning to be heavily serialized, to just let it happen naturally if that’s what turns out to be right. (Even episodic shows today are serials by the standards of the pure standalone shows of another era. So when a show becomes a true serial, it can happen almost imperceptibly; most network serials could have been episodic shows if they’d developed a bit differently from their early episodes.) It means that a network TV season rarely has a truly unified style. It is what it needs to be to get the full 22 episodes.
And that’s fine; in fact, it’s potentially great. Loose, rambling, digressive works are some of my favourite novels and movies, and sometimes they’re better and more rewarding than the works that are purer. Some of the best network shows that embrace the looseness of the format, and admit that the most memorable moments can be the ones that don’t fit into an overall plan. (The stand-alone episodes on a show like The X-Files were often better than the “mytharc” episodes, and they also enriched the show as a whole and made the mythology more interesting.) It can be tricky, because fans of network serials sometimes want to treat them as if they are pure serials where every development fits into a grand plan, and will sometimes dismiss any digressions as “filler.” But think of the 22-episode serial as something like a picaresque novel, which will incorporate separate vignettes and even separate stories with new characters (like those stories scattered throughout Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers). There’s a beginning, there’s an ending, the stuff that happens in the middle is related to both the beginning and the ending. But getting there is, as they say, half the fun.