In many ways, there’s no longer a distinction between serialized shows and shows with self-contained episodes. There used to be a very clear distinction: either an hour-long show had storylines that played out over multiple episodes (or even multiple seasons) or it gave us a series of totally unrelated mini-movies where main characters were the only continuing element. But now, even the non-serialized dramas have so many serial elements and continuing storylines that they would have been considered full-blown soap operas a couple of decades ago. You can enjoy these shows without knowing what happened in previous episodes, but you will usually hear about some of the things that happened in those previous episodes, and by the end of the hour, at least some of the characters are not in the exact same place they were last week. The many continuing story and relationship threads on House or Pushing Daisies make them very different from older shows, where absolutely everything went back to the status quo every week.
In part, this is a by-product of the near-extinction of the freelance writer. Most dramas used to keep a small writing staff and get the rest of their scripts from freelancers, who came in to pitch stories and either sold an idea or (if the producer liked them but not their stories) were given a story idea to work on. As Jeffrey Stepakoff explained in Billion Dollar Kiss, this system became increasingly unsatisfying, because it required producers and writers to rely heavily on writers who didn’t know the characters as well as they did. And it also didn’t work at all for serialized dramas, because the freelancer system depends on the show’s basic setup being exactly the same all the time. (Otherwise the freelancer can’t pitch stories, since he doesn’t know what’s happening on the show or even which characters will be alive by the time he finishes the script.) So shows shifted more and more to being entirely staff-written. And once almost every show had switched to the new system — a large writing staff that does nearly all the scripts — every show, comedy, drama or otherwise, started to get a bit more serialized, because every script is now written by someone who works full-time on the show and knows not only what story he or she is working on, but what stories other people are working on. So the writers of your average procedural drama co-ordinate their stories and pick up on hints from previous episodes in ways that didn’t happen in the old system.
(This may also be why, in the ’70s, comedies actually had more continuing storylines and character development than dramas did: comedies were more heavily staff-written and had larger writing staffs than dramas at that time. More staff writers, more continuity between episodes.)
This is overall a very good thing. The old way of writing TV drama — what McGrath has called the “reset to zero” way, where there are no consequences next week for anything that happened this week — was so unsatisfying that it’s amazing it lasted as long as it did. (Though it’s understandable: TV drama has its roots in the old B-movie series that used to play in theatres — the Charlie Chan or Roy Rogers type of picture — and so any TV drama that wasn’t a soap was thought of as a succession of little B-movies, each one a separate thing that happened to star the same character. But as it became clearer that TV had the ability to make you follow characters from week to week, very few shows took the hint that we might actually want to see the characters remember what happened to them last week.) In many ways the ideal kind of TV episode is one that works as a complete and satisfying story while also advancing the characters to a different place — that kind of show is not a soap opera, not a B-movie, but something better.
But there are always a few shows that I get the feeling would be better if they’d go a little retro and have fewer continuing elements. Usually these are escapist adventure shows where the continuing stories just seem to become a distraction from the real fun stuff. Chuck is a show like that. It doesn’t go too heavy on serialization, but as a Josh Schwartz show, it can’t help having plenty of things ongoing from week to week. Yet it sometimes feels like the show is getting too caught up in the stuff about relationships and shifting allegiances and all that stuff about the Intersect. The Intersect was, or should be, just the excuse to get a slack-jawed nerd involved in glamorous espionage, but the episodes (especially because they’re so short) sometimes feel like they’re spending too much of their precious time on week-to-week issues, when they should be spending more of it on chases and stunts. It’s one of the few shows that I feel would be more entertaining if it had less depth, meaning just give Chuck a mission every week and make it as fun as possible.
Then, strangely, there are shows that I feel the opposite way about — shows that have too few continuing storylines. Reaper is like that, even though it got better toward the end of its first season. (The CW picked it up for another 13 episodes but hasn’t yet announced when they’ll air.) It still seemed to rely a bit too much on monster-of-the-week stories, and the problem there was that this is the exact opposite of Chuck: a show where the continuing stuff is more fun than the individual plots. There are only so many ways, especially on their limited budget, that Sam from Reaper can fight an escapee from Hell, and the week’s plots rarely have a lot of opportunities for the best character on the show, Ray Wise’s Devil. It’s in the conversations that aren’t directly related to the story of the week, that deal with general issues or with Sam finding out about his origins, that Ray Wise gets a chance to shine, so that show is more entertaining the more serialized it becomes.