Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Episodic Serial

John McFetridge

Earlier this week on her blog, Patti Abbott asked for, “One Suggestion For Improving TV Shows,” and offered her own; stop having a scene with each major cast member on your show each week that utilizes their one major character trait.

An excellent suggestion. And one of the commenters, Randy Johnson, pointed out that most shows don’t have any real character development because when they’re shown in syndication it’s sometimes out of order and they need to stand-alone. I guess it’s the same for series novels.

Except in many novel series these days there are huge events that change everything.

I mentioned in my review of Giles Blunt’s latest book that the wife of the main character dies in book number three. On the weekend I read a review of the fifth book in Louise Penny’s series and found out that one of the characters I really liked in the first three books (the gay owner of the B&B) is the murderer in book four. If you read these series out of order they’ll still be really good books but your impressions of the characters will be different than if you read the books in order.

My one season in a TV writers’ room isn’t much experience but what the hell, I’m going to make some sweeping statements anyway; this episodic vs. serial approach comes up everyday but no one really believes it.

On The Bridge we were told the show had to be episodic, each episode had to be completely close-ended and stand alone.

Then we’d get notes like, “We like the Russian mobster, can you use him again?”

The answer, of course, is yes, we’d love to develop that character some more so we put him in the next script. And then the note would come back that we’ll have to explain who he is, so we can’t really develop the character because every time he shows up we’re starting from scratch.

At the moment I can’t think of a truly episodic show – just degrees of serialization. And it seems the longer a show runs, the more serialized it becomes.

So I wonder, why can’t we just admit that’s the way it’s going and start there?

Does anyone prefer more episodic shows or stand-alone novels?


Steve Weddle said...

Remember the old X-Files show on the TV? They'd do stand-alones to break up the episodic ones. That way they took breaks from the longer story arc.

John McFetridge said...

"Old X-Files," that's funny.

It's a good example of a show that mixed episodic and serial. It was also fairly slow out of the gate and took a while to find its audience, something not many TV shows get a chance to do anymore.

Barna W. Donovan said...

I do like the episodic TV format a lot because they tend to feel like they can deal with a much more layered problem if they keep coming back to deal with it week after week, rather than wrapping everything up neatly in one episode.

So far this seems to have worked well in the sci fi and supernatural-oriented genres like "Lost" or "Heroes." I started watching the new "Event" show and I'm a big fan of "Fringe," and last year I liked "FlashForward" a lot. When the writers are creating some otherworldly plot - or the show's mythology, if you will - it's a bit more satisfying to see it fleshed out over a long story arc. I think for many viewers it can create that cultish fanboy experience where you're in the know if you've been loyally following the show along and guessing as to where it will all eventually lead to.

Except the experience can sour if it leads on the final episode of "Lost," in my humble opinion.

Or I can see where some viewers might be reluctant to invest the time in such episodic shows knowing that they might suddenly get cancelled with no resolution to the big mystery they've been so faithfully following. I usually keep taking my chances, even when I get disappointed by cancellations. I was sorry to see "FlashForward" go.

But to tell the truth, I'm not that keen on authors doing long series novels. I'm a stickler for following a story in the order it was created and it's a lot more time consuming to go back and read 10 books to catch up with a series. Almost all TV shows available on DVD make catching up easier. Plus, if a writer's working in the print medium, he can take 300, 400, 500 or however many pages to tell a character's story completely.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I don't watch much on "regular" TV anymore. The commercials are just too mucha. The shows I'm following now are on cable: Dexter (bordering in jumpimg the shark), Madmen (DVR through the commercials) and Boardwalk (good so far) I liked the Soprano's as well.

For me I like some sort of closure at the end of a season, but during I like things to jump around, keep it fresh. I also like novels, and movies that jump around from scene to scene, but tie averything together as the story arc heads toward the down slope.

Great post John. Glad I found this blog, as I thought Levitown was your only blog.

John McFetridge said...

Welcome aboard, Sean. Maybe one of these days I'll talk about pitching "Levittown" - it's been... interesting.

Barna, I think it's intereting how sci fi has become one of the best long form genres on TV. I remember when it was the most stand-alone with stuff like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits (okay, even I'm not old enough to remember the original Outer LImits).

I do remember one of the things I liked most about Star Trek: The Next Generation was the episode-to-episode consistency that wasn't part of the original series.

Jay Stringer said...

I guess like most things, i find my own personal answer is somewhere inbetween.

I love old shows like Rockford, but i also worship The Wire. It takes a real level of greatness to pull off something like The Wire though.

I think the best model for a modern tv show is to have an overall story arc, a running theme, and sub plots that build to dominate the show at the end of the season, but to have some stand alone fun along the way.

Season 5 of Dr Who would have been a great example if it weren't for the fact that a couple of the stand alone episodes were pretty weak. In theory though....

As for books...well series vs stand alone is a subject that depends on mood.

But for a series itself, i like self contained novels that also add up to a bigger story. Take the Moe Prager books. Each of them can be read on their own. Each has an ending that could conclude the novel or series. But the series adds up to something very interesting.

And that last Bond film is interesting. Personally i loved it, and could talk a lot about what i think works in it. But at the same time it's easy to see that the film was largely dependent on the audience having seen the three hour 'prologue' of Casino Royale. And, even though i enjoyed the film, i can see that it went maybe to far in that regard.

Comic books lead the way. The art of telling a story over 22 pages that adds up to a deeper and more complex story over 108 pages? Comic books have that nailed. Brian Bendis' run of DAREDEVIL lasted for about 50 issues. Each issue told a story. Five or six issues in a row gave a good story arc. Fifty issues in a row aded up to one long story. On each of those levels there was something for a reader to enjoy.

Paul D Brazill said...

The stand-alones were the best episodes of 'Ye Olde X-Files', for me.Hill Street Blues was the best combination of both, I think. I remember the original Outer Limits BTWbut maybe it was shown in the UK a few years after the US transmission. Yep, thet'll be it...