In defense of episodic television

I’ve had this post in mind for weeks now, ever since I read this article based on comments made by J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, but I haven’t gotten around to it for one reason or another, and honestly, I wanted to mull over these thoughts a little more.

They’re talking about serialized television, and how networks don’t want serialized television anymore – and I think they’re right about that. Networks, in general, don’t want the Lost, or the Dollhouse. They don’t want shows where missing an episode means missing an essential piece of the puzzle – they don’t, in fact, want television where the premise of the show is the puzzle. And the reason for that is because viewers have grown tired of that particular formula – or at least tired of the way it’s dominated in the past several years. It wasn’t that long ago when it seemed like every new show was a serial, a show that was finite and structured like a novel, and as a form, that kind of tv requires a commitment that can get wearying for the casual tv watcher after several years of it.

What really sticks out for me, though, is this quote from Abrams:

“I’m just less personally interested, naturally interested in non-serialized shows,” Abrams said. “I enjoy the investment and the anticipation and the characters and what’s going to happen… To me that’s the thing that always grabs you. I think they want [serialized stories] too — they just don’t know it. When they talk about stories, stories imply time and progress.”

He’s correct, of course. Stories do imply time and progress, but the mistake he’s making is in assuming that the only way for a story to progress is through the serial format, and that’s not the case at all; if it was, no one would write any fiction that wasn’t in the novel form.

I think that Abrams and Whedon have both forgotten about, or are underestimating the episodic format as a vehicle for stories. It’s true that episodic television has a conflict and a resolution in each episode – it could be a case, a relationship dilemma, whatever – but thinking that  this limits progress in a story indicates that the two of them have forgotten that the most engaging, enthralling part of the story is often not the plot. It’s the characters. And it implies that they’ve forgotten that one of the strengths of good episodic television is the ability to carry at least two stories at once: 1) the episode’s conflict and resolution, and 2) the larger arc, the conflict and resolution that will stretch throughout several episodes or even the entire series.

This can be done explicitly, as in the first and best season of Veronica Mars, where Veronica was solving cases on an episodic basis but was also looking for who killed her best friend Lilly. Or in White Collar, where there’s a case of the week, but there’s also the overarching themes of Kate and the music box. Burn Notice, where Michael Westen spends the first several seasons trying to find out who burned him while taking very odd jobs in Miami.

But it can also be done implicitly, and it can be done well implicitly. I’m thinking Criminal Minds here, particularly. The series is about the case, and the case rarely lasts more than one episode – there are exceptions, of course, especially the Foyet arc of last season. At the same time, the cases and the characters’ reactions to the cases provide a vehicle for growth and progress, and it’s shown. Dr. Spencer Reid is far from being the same man we met. Derek Morgan is far from being the same. All of the characters have changed and grown, and even though Criminal Minds is a procedural that practically defines the standard of episodic television, there is a story there, and one that’s grown over the five years they’ve been on the air. The same can be said of shows like NCIS and CSI. These people have changed throughout the shows’ runs, and that makes them their own kind of stories.

It’s fine if these aren’t the stories that JJ and Whedon want to tell – and if movies are better vehicles for what they want to do, then they should focus on movies – but that doesn’t make the form used to tell these stories less valid. It is, after all, the form that stories have taken on television for many years, and it’s one that still has legs.

Comments ( 7 )

  1. Mura

    a show that was finite and structured like a novel This is totally a tangent and not really your point, but that right there exemplifies my problem with serialized shows... at least, with most serialized shows made in the US. A serialized show SHOULD be finite, because it's supposedly telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The problem is that in fact most serialized shows aren't really, in the sense that if they are popular, the expectation is for the story to be stretched out for as many seasons as possible, which means either you reach your climax (ORE... SANJOU!!, oh sorry, Den-O reference!) in season two and then somehow how have to figure out what the hell to do now that the story you were telling is effectively over and spend the next 3 years pulling shit out of thin air, which may or may not even be in the spirit of the original show... or you decide, we can't let the story climax! Let's spin our wheels all seasons in pointless tangents!, thus pissing off the people that WERE invested in the story you've chosen to stall on. And then your show gets cancelled before you get to take up your story again.

    • Amanda

      Yeah, honestly, this complaining is coming from two people who historically don't even do serialized tv well - Whedon's good stuff, i.e. Buffy and Firefly, Angel, I suppose, but I never saw any of it...wasn't serialized. Dr. Horrible was, but again, it was finite. And you've obliquely pointed out the problems with Abrams serialized tv. :D

      • Mura

        Except that Alias' problems appeared when JJ left. So I wouldn't say he can't do serialized stories, just that he doesn't stick around to see them through.

  2. Angela

    Yes, thank you. Especially that character is important in episodic shows. Character is really the reason why I watch shows. Even if most episodes have the same structure week after week, it is the characters that grow over time. And, I love that you used Criminal Minds as an example of this. It does seem sometimes that the audience -at least in places I've been- forgets the importance of character and focuses only on the plot. Like when people complain that the shows are redundant and predictable. It's true, in every episode of House, there's a disease for him to diagnose, and even the solution comes at just about the same moment in every episode. Except there's more to the story than that. There's the story of House himself and to a lesser extent the other characters. I would say with any good episodic show, and any show in general, has the story of its characters and their development.

    • Amanda

      Characterization is pretty essential in episodic tv, even more so than with serialized television which can theoretically get away with limited development as long as the plot's engaging (it doesn't work in the long run - Alias was only watchable for the characters by the end, because how much Milo Rambaldi can you take, really?)

  3. Mura


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