Just Make Good Episodes, Then Decide What Kind of Show It Is

The Lost wannabes have failed because, well, they're wannabes

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There’s another round of soul-searching about the future of the serialized drama, epitomized by this article from Broadcasting & Cable. With Lost about to end, with all the Lost clones deservedly dying off, and with production companies once again noticing that serials don’t syndicate very well, the fear is once again that networks will demand that every show be a “procedural” (the term that is now mistakenly applied to any show with self-contained episodes; in fact, in the literal meaning of the term, The Wire is far more a procedural than Burn Notice).

I think these fears are overblown, as they usually are. The Lost wannabes have failed because, well, they’re wannabes, and shows that attempt to mimic a unique, flukey success will tend to die very quickly. Lost is a hybrid show, a blend of different things — equal parts soap opera, science-fiction, and reality TV. Any show that decides in advance that it’s going to be the next Lost is probably doomed. The article notes that Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives are still very popular, and those are serials of a more manageable, imitatable sort (basically, they’re both prime-time soap operas). But Lost is a freak hit; it can be learned from, but it can’t be copied, because if you set out in advance to do a Lost-style show, you’ll wind up with a show that starts out confusing and gets still more confusing as time goes on.

Lost itself didn’t start out that way, because Lost did not set out to be what we now think of as a “Lost-style show.” The ideas behind the show may have been there from the beginning, but like most successful shows, it began by looking like it could go any one of several ways: it toyed with the possibility of being a stand-alone adventure series with an ongoing mythology, as well as the all-mythology, all-the-time show it eventually turned into. Many hit shows begin that way.

And that’s what I think of the whole “are serials dead?” question. Of course serials aren’t dead. But I wouldn’t mind if shows stopped deciding in advance that they are going to be one thing or the other. You’re always hearing producers solemnly tell us that each episode has a self-contained story with ongoing character development, or that it has a great big mythology, even before the show has aired a single episode. But that’s really something that should be allowed to develop as the show goes on, its strengths and weaknesses become apparent, and the writers get a sense of the kinds of stories that work for the show. Maybe the stand-alone stories provide the best moments. Maybe the ongoing stories are the most interesting and they need to concentrate on those. But in an era when all shows, including so-called procedurals, have ongoing story arcs, there’s no real way for a show to know exactly what kind of storytelling approach it needs before it’s actually started making a few episodes.

The mistaken idea that Lost is a formula to be imitated, as opposed to an example of how a show needs to make some episodes and find its formula, has given us a lot of bad shows, including some shows that clearly should not have been imitating Lost at all. (V is a show where the ongoing mystery is not mysterious at all, which needs good strong individual plots to sustain interest, yet a decision was made by the network that this was going to be the next Lost, creating an emphasis on unexciting mythology.) Some of the blame might also be laid at the feet of fan culture; there’s a bizarre habit of treating standalone episodes as “filler” or something the fans need to suffer through to get to the arc stuff. This creates a pressure for certain types of shows, particularly sci-fi or fantasy, to overload on mythology even if the characters would be better served by going in a different direction. But mostly, what matters is that a show tends to find its own way, and its own style, during the first season. A show that knows what it’s going to be before it starts is not a serial, or a “procedural,” it’s probably just a flop.