Golden Age of TV Talk, But in a Different Way

I have said repeatedly that I don’t believe there’s a golden age of television (it’s not the ’00s, it’s not the ’50s, it’s not now), so it follows that I also don’t agree with Alasdair Wilkins’ argument that we are also in “a golden age of awful television.” But it’s still an interesting read, since it makes some points about how the latest round of Lost clones can be so frustrating to watch.

Wilkins’ argument is that TV takes more chances and is more artistically ambitious now, but because TV aims higher, it is even worse when it fails. Specifically, he’s arguing that the recent batch of pointless, plotless, shapeless shows like FlashForward and The Event achieve a new level of badness by not even having the basic building blocks of character and story construction that a regular bad show has:

What’s worse, the serialized storytelling actually starts to erode the basics of storytelling. In an awful scifi show from the eighties, at least you were guaranteed the story would have a bad beginning, a terrible middle, and an awful ending. But now? Serialized shows can use the “Previously on” recap as their beginning and the “Next time on” teaser as their end, leaving nothing but a listless, amorphous middle.

At that point, you’re lost in an unstructured wilderness, where there’s no sense of forward movement or clear storytelling, and all you’re left with is a bunch of stuff happening for no real reason while the sixty minutes tick agonizingly away. This is a trap both Lost and Battlestar Galactica fell into more than once, and those were both legitimately great shows.

This is a legitimate problem with a serialized fantasy show, one that Lost solved by starting out with a defined structure for most early episodes — even a formula, if you will, for how the episodes would be put together and how they would mix present-day stories and flashbacks. They then moved away from this format (bleeding viewers in the process, though remaining popular enough to stay on as long as they wanted), but at least it started with a premise that was something more than “here are a bunch of people who have some vague relationship to an issue that we’re not going to tell you about.”

One of the biggest problems the pure serial has in broadcast TV is that broadcast U.S. television shows are rejiggered while the season is still in production: with rare exceptions like animation, they don’t just make a season’s worth of episodes and then put them on the air. (Even a show with a 13 episode order will have only completed a few of them before they start airing; remember Lone Star was in the middle of filming when its pilot came out and bombed, and there were questions about how many episodes they would get to finish.) The advantage of this method is that the show can adjust its approach based on the ratings and early reactions — they don’t have to depend entirely on focus groups and other questionable sources, but can respond to information about how many people are actually choosing to watch the show on their own time. The disadvantage is that it pretty much throws any “plan” into chaos. It’s impossible to plan out a whole season in advance, and this means that, unlike a novel, a TV show can’t really plant story ideas in the full expectation that they will pay off later: maybe they’ll pay off and maybe they won’t, but nobody knows for sure.

The other problem is, as many people have pointed out, a 22 episode season is just too long to sustain this kind of storytelling. Viewers will get angry if they are constantly told that Something Big is coming but it never arrives, or if the Something Big doesn’t match the buildup — and it never does. (Remember Buffy season 7? All that hyping of the big battle. All the hyping of the Greatest Threat Ever which turned out to be an incorporeal and therefore basically harmless being.) Since I think it would be a terrible idea to reduce the number of episodes in a season, I don’t think this is a bad thing; it’s just something the producers of these shows fail to account for: the audience cannot and will not stand for 22 weeks of delayed gratification.

I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of an attempt to go back to one of the earlier models for serialized non-soap opera shows: Wiseguy, with mostly self-contained story arcs running 10 episodes or so — essentially, treating blocks of episodes as if they formed a very long episode. (Soap operas, the basic model for all serialized TV, sometimes do this too, though the stories run longer and they might try to move imperceptibly from one to the other, so we don’t immediately realize that an arc has played itself out.) This idea has been toyed with sometimes; the final season of Veronica Mars tried something like it. But it seems to me like that could be a model that would work better than the “story arcs running through standalone episodes” model. So many shows try that and demonstrate that the writers have no interest in standalone mysteries, and writers who don’t want to do something rarely produce their best work. Doing full-blown arc storytelling, but signalling to the audience that every arc will have an ending sooner rather than later, wouldn’t work for every show but it might work for some of them. Of course it would mean a show would have to have a premise that can be separated from whatever mystery or ongoing storyline it starts out with — but in the case of a show like V, that wouldn’t be a major problem.

In other words, the question that I sometimes ask is “why do they have to wait until the end of the show, or even the end of the season, to reveal the answers?” Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — they might be better off revealing the answer after a few episodes and then moving onto a different question altogether.

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