I really feel like I have been wanting to write this for a while, but I don’t know if it fits in here on a tech and gadget blog. I like to write about technology, and I think we all know that television is technology’s answer to storytelling.
Oftentimes, I watch today’s television on Hulu, Netflix, or some other online method. Yeah, I don’t ever watch television shows on a television anymore. I’m guessing that most of you readers probably have the same viewing habits.
This is what I don’t like about television episodes: they seem to go off in all directions. I honestly believe that most situation comedies are modeled after Seinfeld. In the show’s prime, each character would have some storyline, and these plotlines would often play off each other until they would usually tie together. Nowadays, the current model is to introduce the show’s cast, and start them on their individual storyline, and end them…somewhere. Plotlines don’t intersect or even resolve, and they are often far off from wherever the heck they started.
It feels like the current model of situation comedies often has one plot, and then some secondary plot. Sometimes there is even a third and fourth plot running around. I personally think the secondary plot is one of the most improperly used inventions. I used to think it was created in the eighties, when shows used to repeat in the summer and the network could show an ad with the secondary plot, and maybe viewers would think “hey, I haven’t seen this episode”. Then, after the viewer would be tricked into watching, they would say: “oh, this is that episode”.
It feels like television episodes are more like some writers created three different episodes, and some editor took the “best” from each and mash them together. I don’t know if this is really the best way to write, especially if the original episodes were, at best, mediocre.
For example, a most recent episode of The Simpsons recently focused on Moe, and how he was depressed. Through a series of fortunate events, Moe goes to the big city to sell his brand of whiskey. This was probably the main plot. Then there was a secondary plot with Bart and his grandfather, exploring their relationship. Mixed in this was a plot where Lisa was upset because her late jazz legend “Bleeding Gums” Murphy was replaced by a hologram. Now, each of these plotlines could have been an episode of their own, and really should have been. Instead, these episodes are stuffed in a blender, the editor hit puree, and then poured out the script.
Dramas use the same formula as most comedies. Instead of mixing the plotlines in a humorous way for a united plot, the plots almost never intersect.
Now, there is one thing that I enjoy about contemporary television, is the “story-arc”. A lot of shows seem to have a direction that they are going. If done right, this is incredible and it makes a simple TV show excel over film as you are getting an incredible saga of a story. One of the best and often unappreciated shows was Babylon 5, a show which had a 5-season story-arc. It wasn’t like the creator had every episode planned out, but he knew where the storyline was going before the first episode was filmed. Sadly, the show was only able to get four seasons out of its original network, so the writers adapted and wrapped up the story in four seasons. Unfortunately, TNT picked up B5 and it got a fifth season that was downright unnecessary. Of course, most shows never think past one season. However, the storyline of Buffy the Vampire Slayer used that to its advantage, as every season was a different storyline that concluded on the season finale.
So why does this happen? I guess the writers are really trying too hard to succeed in a method of storytelling that is very hard to maintain. These days, television shows have to be a hit, or they can’t stay on the air. Then the cast and crew doesn’t get paid, and everything goes off the air. This is why I suggest to have a definite plan, and not just put some story on.
Now there is one good example I can site, and that is Arrested Development. This was a show that aired for three seasons on Fox, and then they cancelled it. I believe that the reason for its cancellation was a lack of viewers, but it really should have had more. The plots of Arrested Development was similar to Seinfeld as it dealt with funny plotlines that would intersect and create a lot of chaos. What really made it excellent was the characters, who seemed to get deeper and deeper into trouble until it was just hysterical.
Somehow the show got a fourth season, and all of its season’s episodes went directly to Netflix. That is very different than most shows, and it works to its advantage. The writers of Arrested Development decided to make all of Season 4’s episodes into one mega-story. It is a story that is very hard to follow, but it totally draws the viewer in.
Now, this storyline may go off in all directions, but it is very much unified as plotlines interact. It also uses a formula where each episode focuses on one particular character, so we get an excellent singular story as well as one saga. It creates excellent viewing that can be watched over and over.
In short, I believe that we need to get over our episodic nature of television and embrace one that knows its storyline from start to finish. I think we will be seeing more shows that will unveil themselves by season and not per episode. This will force the writers to have to come up with quality episodes that will be more than the sum of their parts.