I Am Super Serial

After reading this Alex Epstein post on serials vs. episodic shows, I wanted to post a few new thoughts on my favourite hobby-horse topic.

As I’ve said in the past, I am personally oriented toward the episode-by-episode format, though I acknowledge that most of the best dramas of the past decade have been serialized shows. (That is, there’s no doubt that the highest aspiration of most of the really top-rank drama producers is to do a serialized show; the best people want to do The Wire or The Sopranos or Mad Men.) I think there are genuine artistic advantages to the episodic format, that haven’t really been exploited in TV drama in recent years — comedy is a different matter. Because each episode in a story-of-the-week show is an individual, complete work, the format lends itself to the creation of many different kinds of episodes, with each show having its own approach to pacing, structure, theme and style. This doesn’t always, or even usually, happen; many if not most episodic dramas not only have a formula (which every show has) but a uniform approach to tone (here’s the comedy scene, here’s the discovery of the body, here’s the jargon, here’s the crying scene). But it has happened in the past, and can happen again.

Serialized shows try to do this too, but they often have serious trouble doing it because they have to service the overall season-long story arc in every show, and the arc scenes often clash with whatever the episode as a whole is trying to do. You sometimes see these little scenes that drive the arc forward but have nothing to contribute to the actual 40-minute story of the week; these scenes can make an episode feel fragmented, choppy. It might be a part of the reason why audiences find serials hard to get into; not because they have to catch up with the plot (if that were a problem, nobody would watch soap operas), but because the episodes don’t have their own satisfying flow: they start at a certain point, proceed to another point, and end. And sometimes it seems like the writers on a serial don’t spend enough time on the stories of the week. Veronica Mars is the famous test case. First season, great stuff, great story arc — but the individual mysteries were often pointless and perfunctory, as if no one on the staff really had thought through how to write a good short mystery story (or, to be more charitable, working out the season-long mystery took precedence over the mysteries of the week). It was a serious flaw of the show that with all the storytelling opportunities provided by the setup, the episodes all kind of seemed to blend together; that’s more a sign of weakish episode writing than season-long seriousness of purpose.

Also, I think the development of character can sometimes be more interesting if it doesn’t have to serve a large story arc. The writers can learn from what happened in previous episodes and incorporate them into the future writing of the character, without having to worry about whether this fits in with whatever is pre-destined to happen to the character. This is one reason why some of the best serialized shows are those where the characters seem to be subordinate to larger forces that they don’t understand, like The Wire, where everyone is a very small part of a larger problem. On other shows, that feeling is less appropriate, but we get that feeling anyway, that everyone is “growing” and “changing” in ways that are subordinate to the overall plan. This is why your Archie Bunker types of TV personalities change a lot and become complete characters, even though it sort of seems like they’re the same every week (the writers take what we found out last week, and incorporate it into the next week’s show) while characters can change jobs, change wives, come back from the dead five times and still seem more like plot devices than people. The need to get a character to a certain place by episode 19 can take over the show and crowd out character development, maybe even more than the old, bad format where every episode’s events were completely forgotten a week later.

I have more to say on a related subject, but I’ll save it for a second post.

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