Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Serial vs. Episodic Television

Twice a year, the Television Critics Association holds their press tour at the Ritz Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. These press tours provide opportunities for television networks to market their products to the people who will be reviewing them in the upcoming season. You can think of the event as a kind of "upfronts for critics." Ray Richmond, of the Hollywood Reporter's Past Deadline blog, has been covering many of the presentations at the 2 1/2 week event. Much of the discussion has focused on what one would expect to read from a television critic's blog, with topics ranging from the upcoming CW lineup to Dan Rather's future with Mark Cuban's HDTV network. But Ray Richmond is more than just a Television Critic, he is also a media critic which means he reports on more than just TV and its business. Ray also writes articles critiquing the critics and revealing the behind the scenes discussions at the TCAs.

This year Richmond's articles have quickly shifted from discussions of what viewers can expect to a major behind the scenes discussion which is resulting in some heated debates among the critics. It appears that CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler started the frenzy when she was asked about viewer decision making processes and whether viewers choose a show by whether it is serial or episodic in nature.

According to Richmond's article, "[Tassler] tried to sell the idea that audience members really don't differentiate between serialized (i.e. open-ended) dramas and ones that serve up self-contained weekly storylines when making their longterm viewing decisions."

Tassler asserted that she thought, "it's purely about the quality of the programming."

Needless to say, given recent discussions at prior TCA events, this stirred up quite a question frenzy. According to Richmond, one critic asked, "but it wasn't so long ago that you guys were saying the reason why all of these 'CSIs' were so successful was the fact that people knew they were going to get a payoff at the end of the hour."

The subject of serial vs. episodic and audience choices is one dear to my heart and not without real merit outside my own aesthetic. When one considers that shows like "Threshold," "Invasion," "Heist," and "Surface" were all episodic shows cancelled before any major narrative was completed, one can see that there are stakes for both the audience and television writers. When shows like these are left hanging the loyal fans, few as they may be, are left wondering what has happened to their characters. And on a show like "Threshold," where the creators had three seasons outlined (Threshold, Foothold, and Stranglehold were the themes of those seasons), the writers can only morn the fact that their story will never be told.

Before I continue, it should be noted that "CSI: Miami" this year had a serial element which led to the season finale.

CBS even has two new serial scheduled for this fall, "Jericho" and "Smith." Both of which I am very interested in watching.

I love serial shows, but they have two potentially huge problems, both of which contribute to the debate.

The first problem arises if the show takes too long to resolve the "A" storyline and making the show feel stagnant. An example of this is summed up by one critic in the Tassler presentation, "You're saying that people at the end of the first season of 'Twin Peaks' didn't care that there was no revelation of who killed Laura Palmer?" I call this problem the "but we don't want the story to end" writer's block. This problem can manifest itself in other ways too. Shows can take to long to reveal what the underlying narrative really is, and who the protagonists/antagonists are. This is the "Invasion" problem. Shows can also stagnate in an endless cycle of almost identical episodes which fear moving the underlying narrative along too swiftly. I call this the "Threshold" problem. The storyline resolution, and stagnation, problem could be solved with networks (and creators) not being afraid to implement a "telenovela" approach and just write a 16 episode show, which might be followed by another "novel" with the same characters or it might not. Either way the story would be finished and writers wouldn't have to "prolong the inevitable."

The second problem is the network decisionmaking process itself. Networks, who are motivated by profit, have to decide whether to keep a show or drop it in a relatively short amount of time. This can cause shows, even good but "cult" shows, to end before the story is over which leaves fans hanging ("Firefly" anyone?). This is where the expanding marketplace and the interwebonetosphere can come in handy. Or at least, that has been a part of the discussion. One suggestion proposed, according to Richmond, is "posting all unaired episodes on a digital platform of some sort for those who need to discover what's gonna happen." [sic] This is a great idea, as far as it goes, but even given Richmond's pleasant mocking of the obsessed fan, that isn't very far.

That is often exactly what happens when DVDs are released. "Firefly" included extra episodes in its DVD collection,as did "American Gothic," but neither resolved the storylines. Audiences are left hanging. Narratively this is a bad thing, morally it isn't a thing at all, and financially it may be a necessary thing. If there aren't enough fans for a show, and trust me I have been one of those disappointed fans too many times to count, a show can't survive.

What I hope is that television executives are brave enough to continue offering serial television programs with interesting narratives. Those are actually the shows I find most interesting and in that way I disagree with Tassler. Given the choice between an excellent episodic show and an excellent serial show, I am going to choose the serial every time. And yes, that includes my gripes about Pirates 2 not having an ending. I just want Pirates 3 out tomorrow.

I guess it stems from my love of the old "Flash Gordon" serials and the desire to see real narratives worked out on the medium of television. It is hard to successfully convey the epic cycle in one hour. Could you imagine Wagner's Ring condensed to an hour?
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