To Be Continued…and Continued…and Continued…(or Not)

Two of best shows currently airing on TV are ABC’s LOST and HBO’s True Blood. While these two series are incredibly different in scope and subject, they are similar in one major way: they tell their stories through serialization rather than episodic content.

LOST If viewers were to watch LOST starting halfway through Season 3, they would understand nothing that was going on. They would be jumping into the middle of a narrative that never took a break to catch new viewers up to speed. LOST tells a single story over the course of six seasons. Season 5 doesn’t make sense without what happened in Season 4, which doesn’t make sense without Season 3 and so on. While there is a cohesive story being told that ties all of the episodes together, each season has its own narrative arc that is contained within the premier and finale. Some episodes can be almost entirely standalone (“Expose,” for example), while others are direct continuations of the serialized arc (“Through the Looking Glass Parts 1, 2, and 3,” for instance).

True Blood, too, is presented serially, but there are absolutely no stand-alone episodes. While each season has its own arc that becomes resolved, there is nothing separating the episodes or season breaks from one another. Honestly, if you were to take out the opening credits and end credits, the whole series would run as a single 20+ hour (at this point) episode. Each episode ends in the middle of a scene and the successive episode picks up directly where the last left off. Whereas LOST will often skip some time but remain serial, True Blood is just one long “to be continued.” I can think of only one instance where an episode beings by not picking up directly where the previous one ended.

And for these two series, the serialization works better than any other storytelling device. The story is designed to be told in such a way that long-time viewers are consistently rewarded with an immersive narrative. When I watched LOST, I was off work and out of school, so I was able to finish the first three seasons in four days. As I put it to friends, I lived on that Island right beside Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Hurley. I never wanted to stop watching because there was never a stopping point. The story kept going and so did I; I only paused when I ran out of episodes.

True Blood sucked me in (forgive the pun), too, and I watched what is available of both seasons in maybe four or five days. I felt as though I were an active participant in Sookie’s life because of the seamless narrative, and that made me want have to keep watching. The gloriously wicked cliffhangers linked the episodes together so well that I would lose track of time because the story was so engrossing.

While serialized TV appeals to me more personally, I do see the need for and appeal of episodic content, too. Shows like C.S.I. and Stargate SG-1 (and almost any traditional sitcom or hour-long drama) have a mythos built through individual, stand-alone episodes, with only a handful actually possessing direct continuity between them. This structure can work as a positive in two ways: new viewers are more easily attracted because they are required to have no prior knowledge to tune in, and they can come and go as they please because the show requires no commitment like serialized series do. Picking up after a break is much easier in an episodic show than serialized because anything that the viewer misses, he or she will be able to get by without knowing.

X-Files And then there are hybrid shows like Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files which end up working toward the expansion of a series-wide mythology through a combination of stand-along storylines and serialized narrative. While each episode might have its own mini-conflict that is resolved within the confines of the timeslot, there are also subplots threaded from the beginning of the series that weave all the way to the finale. There are even The X-Files DVD sets called Mythology Collections that forego the “monster of the week” episodes to concentrate more fully on the interspersed serial narrative that worked as the show’s backbone. By hybridizing serialization and episodic installments, shows can create a universe viewers can become emotionally attached to and feel immersed in, while still allowing them to feel free and untethered to any particular commitment.

It boils down to personal preference when it comes to the TV shows we all end up watching. Some people cannot make a six-season commitment to LOST. Some people feel unrewarded for tuning in if every episode is cleanly and formulaically wrapped up within 22/45 minutes. I find that I can’t watch nearly as much episodic content as I can serialized because I always get closure as episodes end. With serialized shows, I always have to know what happens next, so even if I am tired of watching TV for a while, I push forward to get my fill of the story. I am glued to the set because of immersion. When I am watching a series based around stand-alone episodes, however, I feel complete because the order of the day has been filled and there has been some amount of resolution to whatever the conflict was; I can move on with my life without feeling the nagging that there’s more going on I don’t know about.

So which do you all prefer? Long, drawn out narratives that could feasibly exist as an epic if the networks only allowed it, short bursts of story that come to a resolution within whatever timeslot it fills, or some meshing of both?

Comments

  1. Longasc

    I think LOST has taken it too far. I did not watch season 2, and never got back into the story. I wondered what this is all about and got bored. Sad, but true.

    I prefer the mix of BSG, you do not get totally lost if you miss out some episodes. Plus the format is still able to tell longer story arcs.

  2. Beej

    I know a lot of people who think LOST took it too far, and maybe I would, too, if I were to have watched it as it aired. But on DVD and the freedom that gives the viewer (especially considering how little story is actually left–18 episodes), I think it's a fantastic way to immerse the audience in the world.

  3. Anonymous

    Of course you just *had* to write about Lost on 8/15.

    Anyways, I love LOST and serialized storytelling. What this form offers is the opportunity to engage in epic mythology. Myths are stories that never happened, but are always happening. They make the personal into the universal, and the universal into the personal. As such, it can be the foundation of religious experience.

    That said, I'm not always looking to fulfill that kind of intention. If I want to chill out for an hour, just decompress, an episodic show that doesn't require much investment will appeal. Star Trek is a great example of this.

    I find the hybridized format most challenging, actually. I wonder if that has to do with its unpredictability. Tuning into to BSG or X-Files, I don't know if I'm getting a serial episode or a stand-alone. BSG did it quite well, using the one-offs to develop characters, which is another way of developing a mythos. Then again, BSG is primarily mythic.

    Pushing Daisies, a fine show that I lost interest in, really tried to mix the two formats, but it was unsuccessful in retaining an audience. The serial watchers tire of the dippy procedural, and the episodic watchers can't keep up with the serial character development or a shifting universe – there's not enough "ground" for periodic viewing, so it ended up requiring too much for those just dropping by.

    -jane

  4. Jennifer

    I think the first season of Veronica Mars balanced the episodic/serialized content just right. Each episode stood on its own on one level, as Veronica investigated some mystery that was contained within the episode, but as she investigated, she also found information about the season-long mystery of her best friend's murder. Only occasional episodes were devoted 100% to the big mystery.

    Buffy had a similar structure, but it was harder to jump in on a single episode because the show was set in such a specific world, one that seems pretty ridiculous until you learn to appreciate its dual tone of camp and legitimate drama.

    Veronica Mars also has a very specific setting. Not only is the show very much about the social dynamics of the town of Netpune, but one of my favorite aspects of the show is its rich backstory. I love that the show is about how this character navigates her new reality AFTER the major life-changing events (which we see in flashbacks). Any other show would have focused on the events themselves. But with VM, it's still a lot easier to jump into the episodic content ("snarky, unpopular Nancy Drew helps her classmates solve personal mysteries") than it is with Buffy.

    I really need to rewatch the first season of VM. When I finished it the first time, my immediate reaction was that it was the single best season of television I had ever seen. I look forward to finding out if it holds up.

  5. Tesh

    It's interesting to me that I like serial storytelling, but only in DVD format, while episodic storytelling works for me either as originally broadcast or on DVD. As such, I think the market for serialized storytelling will naturally be more constrained, but it's still there, and I think that it can offer better stories. (Setting up, as always, the dichotomy between good product and profitable product.)