Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Death of Episodic Television

Because I was already thinking of doing this, and not because Chris Roberson beat me to it, or because our blogs are going to become a forum for a personal argument, I'm going to post some thoughts I shared with Roberson and Sean Williams in an email this morning on why I think NBC's Heroes is my favorite show on television currently and may emerge over time as my favorite show of all time. Note this is NOT a rebuttal to Chris - I long sense gave up on trying to get him to watch. This was a digression into what I think Heroes is doing that is notable in the history of evolving TV narrative:

What it's doing that is making it for me is that it seems to be leaving the episodic nature of television behind completely. Sometimes they'll run a "To be continued" and this just blows my mind, because in a show where everything seems to be carried forward and thru, I can't figure out when they decide something is "to be continued" and something isn't. I think it's just to give us a break from the horrid voice overs, since the TBC episodes don't have one at the end and
start. What Heroes is doing to me and my wife is showing us the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.

I am actually very distrubed by this.

Because that's how most television has been written since the medium's inception.

I always prided myself on not being one of those people who can't watch black and white film or refuse to watch things because they are old or the special effects aren't up to today's standards. My excuse was always that it's the story that matters, not the set dressings. But Heroes is doing fundamentally different things with story. I know this began with St Elsewhere and Babylon 5 and a dozen other shows over the last decade, but the level of inter-connectivity, non-episodic format is to an entirely new degree. Rome does this too - they are really neck and neck for my affection and it's probably just that I'm more into comics than history that puts
Heroes ahead - but Rome feels just a touch more episodic.

What I'm realizing is that changes in the sophistication of narrative may forever remove me from the garden and I'm not sure I can go back.

Now, back on B5 - I started on season three and went back, having hated it when it first aired. [And the weaker] Season five's not Joe's fault. He thought he had to end the show on season four, so he hurried to do so, then got the extra year after all and had to stretch it out. Then a major cast member quit between seasons, and he'd planned to hang a huge arc on her. But I often wish B5 had been 5 books instead of 5 years of tv so that the story he meant to tell
from the beginning could get told.

Meanwhile, I am expecting the next truly brilliant, paradigm shifting SF epic to show up sometime in the next five years, not from US television at all, but from another corner - either Asian tv or YouTube or bittorrent or elsewhere. I'm expecting that whoever is behind it is working on it right now and that when it arrives it will be mind-charringly brilliant, as it is able to tell exactly the story it sets out to tell, in exactly however many segments that entails (and no more), without being beholden to the time and commercial constraints of tv, and that once it arrives the real era of SF filmmaking will be well and truly underway. Godspeed!


Christian Berntsen said...

Hi Lou,

Along the lines of Heroes and Rome, HBO's The Wire is follows I think a similar path. While there's rarely the cliffhanger endings of Heores (I can't speak to Rome, I had trouble getting into it, though I do want to give it a chance on DVD someday), it is the overall story of The Wire that pushes it forward, storylines blend into one another and continue throughout episodes, and answers are never easily found (if, indeed, they are to be had). I guess for this particular show what it comes down to is, while the episodes them selves always feel like they end, there is always something lingering, unresolved. That goes for the season finales as well.

That dramas, especially legal (both of the lawyer and cop variety) and medical shows, always wrap up by the end credits has always been something that takes me out of the story a bit. Anyone with a modicum of real life experience on either front knows that it requires a suspension of disbelief greater than any episode of Star Trek, Farscape, B5 or any other SF show has ever asked of its viewers. I am happy with resolution as much as next American, we of the short attention spans, but do long for the more fulfilling and rounded story, which is part of the reason that shows like Heroes, The Wire, Lost, 24 etc. are welcome. I never saw it, but wasn’t part of the premise of Murder One that is follow one case throughout the entire season? A quick check on IMDb shows it only made it two seasons, and it looks like season two was cut off or cut short with only 18 episodes.

Given all that, I don’t know that episodic television will ever truly die as long as the medium remains. The majority of people just don’t seem to have the patience to wait for the resolution (Lost comes to mind in that respect, I hear many grumblings on that – I pay them no mind, however), especially in the ever-quickening pace of our world. People simply don’t have the time to invest, and right now little inclination to do so.

A parallel thing seems to be happening in the comic book medium right now, serial (monthly) books versus graphic novel/trade editions, which I’m sure you are aware of. I tend to favor the Graphic Novel side myself, though my company is starting out with serial books (and anthology serials no less – we must be crazy). I suppose the comparison could even be extended to publishing, with short story collections being a harder sell than novels, or a series of novels for the long haul.

I don’t know if all this is a problem or not, or simply the evolution of entertainment in general. I do know it’s rather confusing, frustrating and exciting all around, and make for an interesting ride. And by the way, I’m already working on that SF epic, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Dianora said...

There are plenty of mainstream shows that have been doing this since before Heroes was fabricated at a pitch meeting. ;) But what's interesting is that this season of new shows actually put the lie to your post. Most of the serial dramas bombed, with Heroes being a notable exception. While shows like Lost and 24 and Prison Break and Grey's Anatomy (all of which predate Heroes -- I defy you to watch an episode of Prison Break on its own and have any idea what is going on) continue to rock on with the serial storytelling, most of them go the way of The Nine (which was an excellent show, btw). There will always be room for a few select serial dramas, but there will always be even more room for episodic shows like Law & Order or CSI -- mostly because those shows continue not only to garner high ratings, but more importantly, they do ten times better in syndication. And syndication rules all.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Christian.
I love this quote - "Anyone with a modicum of real life experience on either front knows that it requires a suspension of disbelief greater than any episode of Star Trek, Farscape, B5 or any other SF show has ever asked of its viewers." I'll have to remember that one.

I agree with you and Dianora that this has been done before, that its a continuum not a break, and my title "the death of episodic television" is intentional hyperbole. I don't think episodic tv is going away any more than reality tv is. I think it is just dying FOR ME. In an email correspondence, Roberson likened it to his own inability to watch two-camera situation comedy any more, despite having been a huge fan of Taxi, Cheers, Seinfeld, etc... This doesn't mean the situation comedy or episodic tv is dead or dying. Only that individual viewers who are developing their tastes on HBO etc... are losing their appetite for it.

I'm actually frightened that if I don't hurry up and show my wife Babylon 5 I never will. I was on set for two years and even appear as an extra in the penultimate episode, so I feel very personally attached to the show, but raised expectations for dramatic narrative may make it hard to watch now, despite my awareness that that show pioneered what was possible for scifi tv.

And, again, I suspect that the medium that will take the most advantage of the possibilities of complex narrative isn't television but internet.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

I've felt that Heroes shines brightest when it ditches its early-season self-conscious aping of Lost and strikes out on its own. But by the same token, I feel the episode "Company Man" two weeks back worked brilliantly, mainly because they relied so heavily on the Lost-style interspersed flashbacks.

And Heroes does very well as long as it sticks to the arc. There've been a few filler episodes that were just treading water, narratively speaking. In episodic television, those would never be noticed, but on Heroes they really stood out as weak. That's one downfall of the continuous narrative--the writing staff and show runners really have to be on top of their game the whole way. No breathers allowed.

Lou Anders said...

I think you are totally correct and in fact, think that's one of the reason BSG is taking so much heat. Earlier shows, such as many of the Trek spin-offs, would be allowed many more misteps before all these accusations of jumping the shark. It's precisely because there were doing better of this end of last season, beginning of this one, that BSG's string of fillers shows. I suspect that the order to do a few placeholding character episodes is because of the shift to Sunday night, which brought them a broader audience, and it was probably thought these newcomers needed a few stand alone episodes while catching up. But it's hurt the core fan base.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

One thing that is annoying me about BSG is that they're abandoning some of the internal mythology as they go along--their universe is getting smaller as the series progresses, rather than larger. Take the Cylons, for instance. There was a big hint in the original mini (and in interviews from that time) that we'd see the old "chrome toaster" centurions in some capacity in the future. "They still have their uses." Ron Moore also promised a look at the Cylon homeworld prior to season 2. We've gotten none of that, just a New Caprica and Algae Planet that both look suspiciously like the world where Kirk fought the Gorn.

A big part of the problem is that the series is so monotone bleak, it's becoming tiring. There needs to be some success, and some levity among the story lines in order to establish contrast. Tragedy is much more powerful when juxtaposed with joy. There is absolutely no joy on BSG in any form right now. I'm surprised they haven't had an episode focused on skyrocketing suicide rates among the fleet. Notice how they don't even keep track of the population anymore? Shrinking universe.

I'd recommend to Moore that he and the writing staff stop and watch the entire series from beginning to end. The episodes and plot elements that jump out at them, build on those. The episodes and sub-plots that don't stand up in comparison, don't write like that anymore. :-)

Lou Anders said...

I have a question about "secret" of the final five. Didn't the bullet heads build the new models? So, are they not telling or something...

They've also dumbed the bullet heads down to little more than automata, so I have trouble envisioning them building anything.

Jim said...

Horrid voice-overs? Oddly enough, I loved that element from the earlier episodes. I thought they set a particular tone for the episodes, but then again, I'm a bit more philosophical in nature than most people, so I enjoy anything that kicks my brain into high gear.

Lou Anders said...

Jim I'm in awe.
I'm about the most enthusiastic Heroes voice here, in terms of liking it with the fewest reservations, and even I can't stand the voice overs.
I'm in awe, and glad that somebody likes them!

BillP said...

I think The Prisoner is worth mentioning here, for more than one reason. Like Lost, the show had an overarching storyline driven by at least one mystery (Who is No. 1? Who is holding No. 6? What do they want from him?) and with the possibility at the end for the character to obtain escape and success. Part of what made the show great is its limited run, and I think it's clear to everyone that Lost will be especially worth remembering if it stops when it ought to, probably at the end of season four.

It's worth noting that, once you've seen the entire run of The Prisoner, very few episodes are actually crucial. Even watching it the first time, it's clear that some are filler, fun tales told against the strange backdrop. In retrospect, even the crucial ones aren't so crucial--at least, not dramatically or narratively, though they are crucial in terms of the ideas the writers wanted to develop. I suspect the same will be true of Lost in the long run--which is why an ep like the one featuring Hurley recently was great, I thought. We don't always need pieces of the puzzle, but we do need to explore characters and ideas against the puzzle's backdrop. Some of the eps this season that seemed so concerned with moving the plot forward really, it seems to me, accomplished very little, leaving the characters running in circles and forgetting what really makes the show work.

Of course, if we get a series-ender like the one on The Prisoner, a lot of people will be pretty unhappy...

Bill Preston

A.R.Yngve said...

I just bought a whole season of HILL STREET BLUES on DVD...

What strikes me on viewing it again:

1. There are several story arcs going on at once;

2. There's a lot more comic relief than in today's "drama" shows -- especially as this was the top "gritty" cop show of the early 1980s!

3. Violence occurs, but not with a lot of blood;

4. Nobody utters the F-word (and I don't miss it one bit).

What could today's writers learn from HILL STREET BLUES?

dave hutchinson said...

I'm not sure that presenting a problem at the beginning of a show and resolving it by the end is absurd, you know? I think that kind of structure has its place; it works well in something like `House,' and if memory serves (and forgive me if it doesn't) there were episodes of `Babylon 5' that were like that and none the worse for it.
I haven't seen `Heroes' yet but apparently it's coming to terrestrial tv over here soon.
I didn't know you were in the last-but-one episode of `B5.' I'll have to dig out all the old tapes I recorded off the telly...

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Interestingly enough, I've always felt that the strongest X-Files episodes were the self-contained ones. Those that played more toward the overall story arc (which in retrospect, Chris Carter was making up as he went along) were significantly less engaging and satisfying.

A.R.Yngve said...

I totally agree with Jayme here: the finest X-FILES episodes were the self-contained ones.

(For example: Peter Boyle as the man who could see the future... the "Trailer Trash" vampires... the hunt for an elusive "Loch Ness"-type lake monster... the list goes on and on.)

Lou Anders said...

I stopped on X-Files way before anyone else, on about season three. For me, oddly, it was when the show shifted focus from its early claims of not being science fiction - when they still maintained in the press that they based their episodes on "actual" UFO witness and abductee reports. Once they started making choices, and moved into the area of science fiction, I began to lose interest. Also, does anyone remember Dark Skies, a show which started GREAT and went RAPIDLY downhill. Fear of DS taking over the alien territory lead X-Files into a more Night Stalker direction. I'd say that X-Files, though, relied on the mystery and did suffer when they tried to work it out.

Now, obviously, I've gotten in trouble from hyperbole and inarticulate expression here, but I'd say that the most useful metaphor to come out of this for me is the comparison on television seasons to novels, the episodes to chapters in same. I think it's true that television - or at least some television - is adapting to changing viewing habits - the boxed set and Tivo allowing episodes to be watched in tandum, outside of their intended broadcast slots. For me, and let's make that a strong for me, I prefer the sophistication of these new, complex narratives and look forward to more of same as they evolve and grow.

dave hutchinson said...

I don't think you were inarticulate or indulging in hyperbole at all; it was a fair point. I like the new narratives as well, I just think there'll still be room for episodic television.
I love the box set thing; I watched a couple of episodes of Rome on the telly and then bought the box set and watched the whole thing as if it was a very long movie.

Lou Anders said...

Thanks Dave. Oddly, this whole discussion really has me hankering to go back and watch BABYLON 5 start to finish.

Ted said...

(If any of the commenters here haven't read the follow-up discussion at Torque Control, I recommend it.)

Even within the context of long television narratives, I'd like to make a distinction between novelistic storytelling and serial storytelling. I think of serials as making greater use of cliffhangers at the end of each episode than novels do at the end of each chapter. Admittedly some novels do use cliffhangers, but some novels are entirely episodic, too; the novels that are quintessentially novel-like don't have crises occuring with metronome-like regularity. It's in this sense that I think The Wire is like a novel, while Heroes is definitely a serial.

Lou Anders said...

I appreciate that distinction. I'm also sad that it is highly unlikely I'll watch THE WIRE, as my curiosity has been piqued.

ian mcdonald said...

ll hail the telenovela! It's not just 'Ugly Betty', that was just the fist to out itself as that dirty thing.

Lou Anders said...

Christian just sent me this link to an article at Flakmagazine about "the Legacy of Joss Whedon" and what an influence he was on Lost, the OC, Heroes, BSG, and a dozen other shows. We all know this, but it's nice to see it spelled out and enumerated: