Risk Vs Reward: Why Long Term Storytelling Is A Risk For Television... And Viewers
Recently I added two new series to my already overstuffed television schedule: SyFy's "Helix" and HBO's "True Detective". While both had promising premieres, it is quite impossible to judge these serialized dramas based on just one episode each... For that matter, it becomes only slightly easier to evaluate these series after half a dozen or even ten episodes have aired. Such is the nature of long term storytelling on television -- it demands a blind commitment, with no guarantees of quality or that you will even get a suitable "ending" to the story.
I come to television as a film fanatic. When I grew up, television had consigned itself to being the bastard nephew of film, and rarely (if ever) attempted to reach the heights of storytelling that one could see in the local cinema on any given day. One of the few advantages that television did have over film (outside of the campy serials of the thirties like FLASH GORDON) was the ability to tell a single story - or multiple contiguous/simultaneous stories - at a leisurely pace over the course of many episodes and/or seasons. Unfortunately, for a very long time this advantage was used largely only for daytime soap operas. Most of the stories from television's other programming was completely encapsulated to such a point that the order of airing was rendered irrelevant, and episodes could be shuffled and shown randomly with minimal impact. Granted, there are notable exceptions throughout television's short history, but those are mostly episodic programs with some serialized elements. A modern example of just such a program would be the outstanding futuristic police procedural "Almost Human". Every episode is a new case. A new viewer could potentially jump in at any time with little or no confusion.
To date, I have seen nothing other than discreet references to previous episodes. However, the series does appear to be slowly building its own "mythology", and characters do appear to grow and progress with each episode. Knowing that this is produced by "Lost" creator and geek-god J.J. Abrams, I fully expect to see some serialized story and character arcs in the near future. This "hybrid" type of series is probably the best compromise between long term storytelling, and new viewer friendliness/television studio financial risk. It allows for the casual viewer to tune in and enables them to follow the story with comparative ease (as opposed to a series like "Lost" that demanded constant and attentive viewership, or else the viewer would quite literally be "lost"), yet rewards the devoted viewer - albeit somewhat minimally - with progressing story/character arcs and subsequent payoffs.
If episodic shows with some connective threads (let's call them arcing-episodic) are the "happy medium", then on the opposite end of the spectrum from purely episodic series we have what is truly "long term storytelling" such as the previously mentioned "Lost" which follows story and character threads over the course of six seasons before many of them reach any kind of resolution. Probably my favorite example of this type of program is J. Michael Straczysnki's "Babylon 5", described by JMS and the producers as a "five year novel for television" - and indeed, that is the perfect description for the show.
B5, however, slowly progresses from an arcing-episodic show to a fully serialized story over time... It's done so subtly and gradually that you hardly notice that it is happening, but somewhere in late Season Two/early Season Three "Babylon 5" almost completely abandons the familiar episodic content (termed by many fans as "Mad Bomber episodes") to focus on developing story and character threads - most of which were introduced during various "Mad Bomber episodes" of Season One, and most of which are not resolved until Season Four (These plots were originally intended to be resolved in the show's fifth season, but when it seemed that the series might not get a fifth season, the show was re-written to wrap up by the end of Season Four. The show was then picked up by TBS and given its fifth season, even though most of the outstanding threads were resolved the year before.). Season Four of "Babylon 5" was one of the most satisfying experiences for genre fans in television history. I remember being fully on my feet alternately cheering and gasping as events unfolded that year. Shocks and well-earned surprises awaited around every corner; but unlike the majority of lazy writing that currently (and always has) flooded television, these surprises were subtlely foreshadowed. Everything was planned and executed according to an outline that JMS penned years prior, and it shows - just like a well-written novel.
I will always remember my friend Tim who hounded me for months to share his passion for B5, offering to loan me the episodes on vhs to get me caught up (the show at that time was in its third season, if I recall correctly). "Watch the first eight or ten episodes before you decide whether or not you like the show", I remember Tim telling me as he handed me a hefty grocery bag filled with many videotapes, "The show doesn't really hit its stride until then". Tim was right, and I've given the same advice to all of the people over the years to whom I've recommended the series. After all, while reading only the first chapter of a book can tell you something about the basic writing skills of its author, you will rarely ever get a sense of the book's plot - let alone its themes - from just those first few pages. I was hooked after those first eight or ten episodes, but was still completely ignorant of the juggernaut story yet to come. JMS judiciously teases just a taste of what is ahead, at first just in hints littered here and there that initially seem inconsequently and insignificant (which is part of why re-watching this series can be so rewarding), gradually increasing the frequency and quantity throughout the run of the series. The point is this: While B5 was a watermark in long term storytelling on television and a true achievement in terms of creativity and writing, it was far from profitable. The fact that it was imagined as a five year story and survived that long was only through fan support and the perseverance of JMS and his producers. While the influence of "Babylon 5" on subsequent television, films, and video games is undeniable, it is hardly the show you would want to reference if trying to pitch a television network on a long term story.
Viewers tend to turn off and tune out if they cannot follow the story, and TV executives know this very well; yet short term rewards completely self-contained within a one hour time slot (much less minus commercials) are extremely limited and unlikely to "wow" anyone to the degree that a well-planned long term arc can accomplish, and these easily consumable shows are rarely memorable. Alternately, successful long term stories like the aforementioned "Lost" or HBO's "The Sopranos" or arcing-episodic series like "The X-Files" are revered and discussed for years after they have left the air.
It has been noted that the popularity and proliferation of edgy and cutting edge serialized dramas on cable stations has ushered in a new age of television, and as a result, network television has been forced - kicking and screaming - to venture forth from their safe haven of traditional programming in order to remain competitive and to stem the flood of viewership leaving the networks' predictable still waters for the white water rapids of daring and innovative programming like AMC's Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead.
To be fair, the networks are playing with higher stakes than their cable/satellite brethren. ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX are not subsidized by subscriber dollars... They must instead rely completely upon finicky advertiser dollars. Advertisers have never heard the idiom that "you can't please everybody", and are startled into a panic faster than a cat in a firecracker factory by the notion that they might "offend" potential customers. For this reason, I have to give credit where credit is due to the networks when they choose to air a series as controversial and edgy as NBC's "Hannibal", which is both serialized and graphically violent to a degree that it was all but completely banned from NBC affiliates in Utah. The networks are slow to the party, but they eventually can see which direction the predominant winds are blowing... and are occasionally willing to "blow" a little themselves.
Bear in mind that most programming decisions tend to be made by committee (even when a show is axed by an upper executive, it is usually upon advisement from a committee or several committees), add the skittishness of advertisers to the apparent inability of many television executives to identify quality programming when they see it, and it is truly a wonder that we get any decent shows on network television. This volatile combination also results in the inability to correctly identify key demographics for shows and the utter and complete bungling of marketing and time slotting (see "Firefly" or, more recently "Awake").
All of television programming is ultimately a gamble. Some shows will become immediately popular, while others take some time to find their audience. Still others rely heavily upon critical praise and positive word-of-mouth in order to rise to their potential. The long term story is a slow burn, and therefore the biggest gamble of all. It demands a lengthy "hands off" period by the tinker-happy execs while viewers make the decision whether they think this will be worth the considerable time investment. As I pointed out earlier, that is not an easy decision to make based on just a few episodes. In the case of "Helix" and "True Detective", my confidence is largely based on the track record of the network/station and the pedigree of the talent involved. SyFy tends to be very hit-and-miss with their programming, but they did air the reboot of "Battlestar Galactica" which I loved, and which was created by writer/show runner Ronald D. Moore... who happens to be the creator of "Helix". Based on my love of BSG (and his other work which includes HBO's "Carnivale" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation"), I am willing to exhibit great patience as Moore reveals his latest opus. Over the last two decades, HBO has become synonymous with quality original programming, and their "Game of Thrones" has accrued incredible accolades and a rabid (and ever growing) fan base. Add "A" level talent like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to the mix, and this one is bound to be worth our time.
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