Serial storytelling

Successful TV dramas are unfolding one episode at a time, and procedurals are taking notes

We used to know a TV story was almost over when there were only 10 minutes left in the episode. Today most shows aren’t over until the series is cancelled. The serialized drama, where stories unfold over multiple instalments, was once mostly confined to soap operas, but serials like the Showtime cable series Homeland are increasingly winning the awards. And times aren’t so great for the procedural, the TV form where every episode is a self-contained story, usually a crime that gets solved. “I don’t think there’s any question that any writer would prefer to write serialized stories,” says Hart Hanson, a Canadian TV writer and creator of the successful procedural Bones. TV critic Alan Sepinwall, whose new book The Revolution Was Televised is an inside look at the best TV dramas of the last 15 years, puts it more starkly: “Procedurals are still by and large designed for people who don’t want to have to think too hard, or watch every episode.”

These days it’s often the more complicated serials that pull in the ratings. The biggest hit dramas on cable are AMC’s serialized zombie adventure The Walking Dead, which pulled in 10 million viewers for its season premiere, and FX’s equally serialized biker drama Sons of Anarchy. The only new drama this fall with high ratings is NBC’s serial Revolution, whose premiere attracted 11 million viewers interested in a world where the power has gone out and no one knows who did it or why it happened. There hasn’t been a breakout procedural hit in several years, which may explain why networks are starting to move away from that form. The USA network’s Burn Notice, a popular adventure show about a former secret agent, used to focus on weekly adventures where the hero helped ordinary people fight mob bosses or drug dealers. The creator, Matt Nix, told the Hollywood Reporter that he recently switched “from a largely self-contained, episodic show into a highly serialized drama.” And it worked: the ratings have gone up now that there are more cliffhangers.

And serialized drama is now considered the artistic pinnacle of television. All the shows in Sepinwall’s book are serials, such as Friday Night Lights, and only one of them—Buffy the Vampire Slayer—did a lot of stand-alone “monster-of-the-week” episodes where bad guys were introduced and killed off in one hour. In doing interviews for the book, Sepinwall found writers were relieved by “the lack of narrative rules” HBO imposed on shows like The Wire, where creator David Simon “didn’t bother with episodic stories at all,” treating the series as a novel for TV.

Writers of episodic shows, even hits like the CSI franchise or House, often envy the freedom of open-ended dramas. Hanson says a serial has “more time to stretch out and do a proper job, more subtle story beats and shifts and dynamics, more opportunity for characters to affect action.” And a procedural, where characters solve more mysteries in a season than most cops do in a lifetime, has trouble being realistic. “Neatly solving a case each week propels the entire tone of the series away from naturalistic drama,” Hanson says. “Somehow, within the fabric of the series, we have to create a universe in which it isn’t insane to catch a murderer over, say, three story days.”

But if procedurals don’t have the flexibility of a show like HBO’s The Wire, they’ve still been learning from serials, throwing in hints of continuity to tease the viewers. “Today’s procedurals seem to feature more ongoing elements,” says Sepinwall, pointing to shows like ABC’s Castle, where the female lead spent years trying to crack the case of her mother’s murder. Aidan Quinn, who plays a police officer on the procedural Elementary, says the writers write in hints about the past lives of characters: during an early show, “one of the producers dropped a piece of information to me about upcoming episodes. I said, ‘I’m glad you told me that, because that affects how I play the rest of the scenes in this episode.’ ” Compared to a show like Star Trek, where no one remembered anything that happened in previous episodes, old-fashioned shows like Elementary or NCIS are at least somewhat serialized.

One reason is that serialization attracts the most devoted fans. Hanson says a portion of the Bones audience watches the show to see a murder solved every week, and the writers have to make sure to keep that element of the show. But “the remarkable loyalty of our audience, over eight seasons, is because of the serial elements,” especially the romance between the two lead characters. “If our cases are highly compressed,” he adds, “we compensate in our relationship arcs. We may catch a murderer in 44 minutes, but it took us six years to have Booth and Brennan consummate their love.” Fans are particularly fascinated by long romance arcs. Krystin Pellerin, a regular on the CBC procedural Republic of Doyle, says what fans talk most about is whether her character will get together with the male lead, Jake: “Some people are just coming up and giving Leslie advice on what to do about Jake, that she should tell him where to go, or give him a break.” Solving a mystery is fun for newcomers, but regular viewers argue about whether the characters will die or get married.

With all these things pushing TV in the direction of more serialization, is there any hope for the survival of the stand-alone episode? Hanson thinks they still have a place on shows that are seeking a larger audience than the average cable show: “A serialized show has a tougher time picking up new viewers because people think they’ve missed the bus.” And the less serialized a show is, the better it does in syndication, where episodes are frequently shown out of order and where viewers don’t always come in knowing what happened in previous instalments. A show like Law & Order, with almost no ongoing stories, is still a major success in syndication, while serials like Lost or Breaking Bad can’t make much money in daily reruns.

But even that business model may be changing, since new media is opening up new ways for serialized shows to make a profit. Shows like Mad Men have been so successful on Netflix that the streaming service has created its own morally ambiguous serialized drama, the Kevin Spacey vehicle House of Cards, which will have its premiere in February. And thanks to streaming, DVR playback and complete seasons on DVD, viewers can easily catch up on past instalments of a serialized show, which may make it unnecessary to market TV shows to people who haven’t seen previous episodes.

Of course, as it becomes more common, the formulas of serialized drama could become as worn out as the old system of wrapping up every story in an hour. Fans of ongoing stories sometimes get angry with how much they’re stretched out. “It frustrates the audience when they can’t see whether something is going to happen or not,” says Hélène Joy of Murdoch Mysteries, another procedural that became more serialized as it went along. In the 2000s, some serial dramas annoyed viewers by dragging out story arcs and mysteries: fans spent years speculating about the solution to the mysteries of Lost, only to feel a sense of anticlimax when the series left many of these questions unresolved and ended with all the characters meeting up in a blissful New Age afterlife. Some shows deal with this problem by churning through a lot of story material very fast. Homeland, which won the Emmy for best drama series last year, surprised many fans by wrapping up an important story arc—the heroine’s attempt to have the male lead arrested as a suspected terrorist—early in the second season; that kind of speed may be the only way for a serial to avoid exhausting storylines.

Sometimes it helps to create stories unconnected to the main arc: fans of The X-Files often preferred the stand-alone episodes to the ones dealing with the over-arching alien conspiracy, and Sepinwall says that on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the writers benefited from their ability “to move back and forth and just do monster-of-the-week stuff when needed so they wouldn’t be burned out by the 22nd episode.” It could be that if the stand-alone, case-of-the-week episode survives, it’ll be because audiences need something to keep them from getting bored with never-ending story arcs on serials. But for now, at least, fans may be more interested in figuring out what’s going to happen in future episodes, not analyzing the plot of the episode they just saw. “Any time we make a shift in our characters’ relationship, there is a great hue and cry,” explains Hanson. “We’ve come to realize that we fear silence much more than cursing. We never hear any cursing about the weekly crime story.”