Things change so quickly. It was just a little over a year ago that critics and audiences were wild about shows like 24 and Heroes, where the stories were serialized over a full season, and episodes had no clear beginning, middle or end. Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes, gave an interview in which he exulted in the success of the show’s complicated format and praised the network for “embracing the very type of storytelling that was off limits less than two years ago.” Now it’s in danger of being off limits again, as new shows feel the pressure to switch back to traditional self-contained stories. When Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles premiered earlier this year, it featured a long, elaborate story arc about the title character trying to uncover a conspiracy. This season, each episode focuses on a stand-alone adventure for the characters. Series creator Josh Friedman told the Television Critics Association that the show’s producers are going where the ratings are: “In the middle of the season when the ratings dipped, we were doing some heavily serialized mythology episodes. This year, we’re trying to tell slightly less ambitious stories.” Serialization is last year’s thing; today, a show needs a story that gets wrapped up every week.
You can tell that serialization is in trouble if you look at the ratings. Serialized shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Heroes are down, Prison Break is on the verge of cancellation, and the only shows that are doing better are the ones that tell self-contained stories, like comedies and mysteries (such as CBS’s new hit procedural The Mentalist). Even the producers who helped create the serial fad in the first place are being encouraged to tone down their penchant for never-ending stories. With Lost, producer J.J. Abrams went further with serialization than anyone had gone before, creating plots that lasted not just for a season but an entire series; he expected the audience not only to know what happened last week, but to accept that nothing would be resolved in the current week. But while Fringe, Abrams’s new show, has an overarching mystery like Lost, every episode has a self-contained story about a “monster of the week.” Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were shows that became famous for featuring more complicated story arcs and fewer stand-alone adventures with every season. In 2009 he’ll return to TV with Dollhouse, but he wrote on his fan site whedonesque.com that the network asked him to “make the episodes more stand-alone, stop talking about relationships and cut to the chase.”
The biggest problem networks have with serialized shows is that they’re closed shops: if you didn’t start watching at the beginning of the season, it’s difficult to understand what’s going on. Abrams explained to USA Today that Fringe is a reaction to complaints about his other shows: “So many people would say to me, ‘I was watching Lost or Alias, but I missed a couple of episodes and I couldn’t keep up and get back into it.’ ” And unlike daytime soaps, these shows don’t even have hotlines to bring you up to speed.
Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars—a show famous for its labyrinthine season-long mysteries—told Denis McGrath of heywriterboy.blogspot.com that network market research had demonstrated that “the average viewer of any show will watch one out of four episodes,” making it difficult for serials, where you have to watch every episode to know what’s going on. He’s learned his lesson: on his new show, a remake of his ’90s cult flop Cupid, every episode has the title character bringing together a different couple. Shows like these can still have subplots that run throughout the season; Cupid has a continuing storyline about the sexual tension between the main characters. But because every episode tells a complete story, new viewers aren’t lost; no matter when you find House, you’ll know that it’s about a misanthropic doctor who solves medical mysteries, and a mystery will be solved by the time the hour is up.
And yet by appealing more to casual viewers who don’t want to watch every episode, networks may risk losing some of the viewers who actually want to get hooked on a show. The shows that make the strongest impact are often the ones that build stories week by week. Shows as different as 24, The Sopranos and Buffy became cultural touchstones in part because they kept audiences arguing about where the story arcs would go. Networks may find that you can’t create that level of involvement if viewers can afford to miss three out of four episodes.