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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

October 15, 2006

TV Serials...
...whatever happened to the old fashioned drama?

A big trend in modern television is the serialized drama. It used to be that such serials were generally relegated to weekday afternoons, and the much maligned "soap opera". Sure, night time series would occasionally feature a gradual development of relationships: characters who were romantically involved for the first few seasons might eventually get married in a later season, or kids might be added to a family dynamic. And there were even greater exceptions: watching the original Battlestar Galactica a few years ago, I was surprised to realize that there was a progression to the episodes, as characters and situations introduced in some episodes might have an influence on later episodes.

Then, in the 1980s, perhaps because of the success of night time soaps like Dallas, truly serialized stories began to creep into more conventional genres, like the cop show Hill Street Blues. These were series where romantic entanglements and the like would carry over from week to week, then perhaps be resolved as some new sub-plot offered some fresh story ideas.

It was probably in the 1990s that the notion of something more entrenched emerged -- the "story arc". Sci-fi series like Babylon 5 and the X-Files, and TV crime dramas like Murder One, didn't just offer ambiguously free flowing, on going sub-plots, but promised definite story arcs, of beginning, middles and ends, stretched out over multiple episodes -- Babylon 5 was a self-described 5 season-long "novel for television". Of course, such series still offered their stand alone episodes -- X-Files in particular threaded its conspiracy plot through, I think, the minority of its episodes. But it was still claimed it formed a definite story arc.

I say "claimed" 'cause with a lot of these series, I'm not convinced. Heck, a TV station once even showed all the X-Files "conspiracy" episodes in their proper chronological order -- and I still wasn't convinced it really made a lot of coherent sense by the end!

Nowadays, it seems like half the series out there -- including sitcoms -- feature serialized stories and even epic story arcs. It's even creeping into movies, with the Matrix and the Pirates of the Caribbean and the X-Men releasing instalments that aren't meant to stand alone. And, of course, I haven't even touched on comic books, which are so tied up in their continuity and story arcs, even when a run of issues are collected in a single often still don't get a full story!

Oh, there are still exceptions -- on TV, the CSI series may include a few vague character-based sub-plots, but in general, each episode is meant to stand on its own.

You know what? I can dig such serialized series. They can tell wonderfully Byzantine stories, and they can kind of be fun to eagerly await the next instalment.

But they also have their short comings, too.

I was thinking about this when I came upon a few message boards talking about some of these modern serialized series -- like Carnivale to the new Battlestar Galactica to what have you. What I noticed wasn't just that some people really dug these on-going story arcs...but felt anyone who didn't was, well, stupid. Had a short attention span. Was emotionally deficient.

And I though, hey, now, come on.

Okay, I realize I shouldn't take it too seriously. There seems to be an unspoken rule of message boards that all message boards shall deteriorate into puerile name calling and put downs within five messages. But still, I thought it was funny.

Enjoy the story arcs, sure, appreciate the stories that can be told in that form, great -- but assigning a value to it? Puh-lease.

Here at P&D we offer serialized adventures -- that's part of our gimmick (as well as short stories, and editorials like this, and reviews). But I don't think anyone reading -- or writing -- those serials would necessarily say they are inherently better than short stories. Yes, you can tell some stories better, you can tell different stories in a longer format. But just because it's longer doesn't mean it's inherently better, or more sophisticated. It's just, y'know, different. And the same is true of TV (and comics, and movies).

You see, what I miss is the "stand alone" episode. The story where you turn it on, watch it for an hour, then turn it off -- and if you turn it on again next week, it's because you really enjoyed the episode, not because you feel a need to see how the story ends. One could make the argument that is a serialized drama really better than an episodic drama, when an episodic drama has to woo its viewer back week after week based on the quality of its stories, whereas a serialized drama can woo a viewer back just as long as it has a good cliff hanger?

Part of the thinking, marketing wise, behind the serialized drama trend is that, once you hook a viewer, they stay hooked. You've got a constant audience you can sell to an advertiser. Whereas an episodic drama might find its audience more transitory, watching this week, skipping next week, then watching the week after that. But the flip side is, once you miss a few episodes, you can find yourself losing the desire to pick it up again. There are a number of series that I was watching -- and even enjoying -- but had to stop watching for a while, for personal reasons, and now, well, I'm just not sure if I'm that interested in trying to dive back into that particular stream -- and there are other series that I just haven't even tried, for the same reason. I'm not prepared to devote week after week of my time, just to see if I like it.

In fact, just as the fans of the serialized drama can sneer and say those who don't like 'em have a short attention span, the detractors of same can sneer back: "It's not that I don't have an attention's that I have something else: a life!"

Now, as I say, I can really enjoy series with developing sub-plots...I've mentioned before being a big fan of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer precisely for its evolving, complex story arcs -- though Buffy had the advantage that it usually promised season long arcs. That is, it wasn't just vaguely open, never ending storylines, but ones that climaxed and, more or less resolved, in a single season. You see the downside is that I think a lot of modern series makers use the "story arc" as a kind of crutch, as a way to start the ball rolling, hook viewers...and then pray a good solution comes to them, or that, as often happens, they get cancelled before they have to deliver. I'm just not convinced that, a lot of times, when producers claim they have a "story arc"...that they really do. Call me cynical, but it seems to me I've seen a few series where they start out bragging about their "story arc"...which then just seems to peter out, or ramble about aimlessly, for the next few years.

See, the thing is, that though a "story arc" can suggest boundless possibilities and add extra nuance to a given week's can also be used to excuse half-baked, unfinished stories. As the hero battles a villain/monster/alien for an hour then, when the episode ends, we're still unsure what was the motive of the villain/monster/alien, because we are just cryptically assured it's part of a story arc. So instead of getting a complex, well-plotted, character-driven get a story that has none of those things because, so we are promised, maybe two seasons down the line we'll get those things.

And, as I alluded to earlier...given the capricious nature of ratings and television -- a lot of these series won't last to see their story arcs fulfilled. And in this day and age of DVDs and multiple channels desperate to re-air reruns, it means you're stuck with this unfinished, vaguely promised story arc in perpetuity.

In fact, last season saw the introduction of a slew of sci-fi/fantasy series, all selling their story arcs -- from Surface, where literally each episode was just a chapter in the longer saga, to The Night Stalker, where some episodes were stand alone, but with a sub-plot threaded through them, and including Threshold and Invasion and probably more -- and all have been cancelled. Now maybe some were smart enough to offer up some sort of resolving episode, but I'm guessing most didn't.

The result, if you believe message boards, is that more and more prospective viewers are claiming they won't even bother watching a series that hypes a story arc...because what's the point, knowing it will be cancelled in mid-story? A kind of Catch 22, if people refuse to watch, fearing it will be cancelled, but it'll only be cancelled because people refuse to watch.

And me, well, as much as I like a good serialized story arc, I miss a good stand alone drama as well. What's bizarre about the attitude expressed by some that the serialized drama is inherently better, smarter, than the episodic drama, and that anyone who disagrees is stupid or has Attention Deficit Disorder is to realize what these supposedly "smart" people seem to be saying. Is Shakespeare now to be considered a hack because he wrote plays meant to be viewed in a single night? Should Arthur Miller's the Crucible be rejected as a provocative work because it didn't end "to be continued"? Are authors like Raymond Carver and Ray Bradbury to be dismissed because they did most of their best work in the short story form?


Decades back, you had a lot of TV series that were almost hybrids -- weekly series, featuring recurring characters, but still fuelled by the 1950s era style of teleplays, stand alone TV dramas. Series like Maverick and 12 O'Clock High and Wojeck and the original Kung Fu were almost as much anthologies as they were weekly series (in fact, 12 O'Clock High star, the great Robert Lansing, supposedly quit after a season because he felt there were too many episodes where he had nothing to do, playing supporting part to that week's guest star).

These series were often written less as "episodes" than as mini-movies. I can't help wondering if there's a significance to the fact that three of the six big budget motion pictures featuring the cast of the original Star Trek series were reminiscent of actual episodes -- not just in concept, but in scenes and plot progression (Wrath of Khan=Balance of Terror, Final Frontier=The Way to Eden, The Motion Picture=okay, it borrowed from two, The Changeling and The Immunity Syndrome). Clearly the thinking was there was enough going on in those episodes to make a decent two hour movie. In fact, if you ever get a chance to sample, say, 12 O'Clock High, do so (and bear in mind, I'm not a big "military fiction" fan, per se). I remember watching a rerun of it ("Soldiers Sometimes Kill") when my late brother, Blair, came in, missing the opening. After watching it for a bit, he asked what it was. I told him. He said, surprised: "This is a TV series? I assumed it was a movie."

Whoosh! And he slaps it into the net!

Another great example from 12 O'Clock High was an episode -- a "mini-movie" -- called "The Trap". Interestingly enough, both episodes featured Lansing front and centre, so they were still very much a part of a "series", even as they were well crafted stand alone episodes.

Granted, the era of the "great" episodes may have faded over the years -- fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation may claim it as a better series than the original Star Trek...but not too many people have suggested any of the Next Generation movies took -- or could've taken -- their inspiration from specific episodes.

I miss the well-crafted, literary, stand alone episode -- the one where you watch it for an hour and come away going: "wow, that was some right good writing." As noted, there are series that still rely mainly on stand alone episodes, like CSI -- but it's very much a procedural, more about the puzzle than the drama. In fact, a sidebar to my point is the fact that the role of the "guest star" has been significantly diminished over the years in a lot of shows. Whereas once, a Robert Lansing might've quit, feeling he was being usurped by the guest stars, now a guest star in, say, CSI, is lucky if he gets two interrogation scenes -- and for that he spent four years in drama class!

So enjoy the serialized drama -- wondering what's next for the intrepid Desperate Housewives, or what is the secret of the bunker on Lost (or did they solve that one? -- told ya, I kind of had to drop a few series) But don't be too quick to overlook the power, the poetry, the pure unadulterated story telling verve involved in the days where the focus was on crafting a stand alone episode, either. They're different animals.

And different is good -- but it's not necessarily better.

D.K. Latta, editor

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