In praise of highly serial television shows

When I was in high school, planning to go to college to major in something scientific (it ended up being Genetics), I remember thinking that college English classes and Literature classes didn’t reward writing that (only) got to the point, expressed it clearly, and backed it up with logic; they primarily rewarded a florid, pretentious writing style. I expressed this opinion to my friends, and they echoed the sentiment, agreeing that it was a problem with English classes in general. We had no basis for this perception except, I guess, what we imagined and what we had heard (from whom? each other?).

I never took any English or Literature classes in college (exempted by taking College English at my high school in 12th grade), and I only took a few humanities classes. Today I doubt my perception of style over substance held true in very many English or humanities classes across the country any time recently. Instead, based on what I read in newspapers, magazines, and web pages, I think another perception of mine is accurate much more often: that the broad world of professional and academic writing outside of the sciences judges the quality of a column or essay on how well the author seems to make his point and how strong its self-contained logic is, from the first to the last sentence, and not on whether any one of its statements is supported by actual data and not whether the author’s opinions are worth a lick more than anyone else’s (completely contradictory) opinions. I should note that this perception of mine is not based on any journals, college essays, or actual academic writing; it’s based on the columns of professional journalists, freelancers, and writers of other stripes that seem to say to the reader, “Take my analysis as fact based only on what I write here; don’t factor in any outside data that might contradict my conclusions, and don’t worry about the existence of other opinions, which would reveal that all I’m telling you is what I think, not what I know.”

I think I can identify the column that instigated this perceptual change in me. Or at least, looking back on that column now, it is the earliest column that I can remember that (should have) started me thinking this way. Unfortunately, I don’t know who wrote it or when it was published, but I know I read it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about 10 or 12 years ago. It was about the mis-perceived political and social messages of “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The point of the column was basically that “Sweet Home Alabama” isn’t a racist song or a lame Republican (Wallace, Nixon) cheerleading song. The author wrote something like, Skynyrd was actually being satirical and criticizing racist/segregationist George Wallace supporters, and the line, “Now, Watergate does not bother me. Does your conscience bother you?” was referring more to Northerners and Southerners and not simply to the Watergate scandal and the Republican president who perpetrated it, and they meant all Southerners are not to blame for Southern racism or governmental policies any more than Northerners are for Watergate, or something along those lines. (In scouring Google with every search-term variation I could think of in order to find this column, I came across a few others about “Sweet Home Alabama” that say basically this, so I’ll just assume the column I read in the AJC made the same points.)

I remember thinking as I read that column, “Well, maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t. How do I know? Why should I take your interpretation of the lyrics as fact?” It could be because he was limited to the space of the newspaper column, but I think that’s a secondary issue. Columns and blag posts that I read around the internet about entertainment, society, and leisure rarely back up their opinions or “facts” with data, studies, quotes, or even supporting opinions. That just isn’t how they do things. In my limited experience, they seem to write for the purpose of presenting their opinions and conclusions based on the way they see things and putting them up for comparison with the readers’ opinions and conclusions, and however well the author’s perspective jibes with the audience’s is how worthy their writing will be judged. However, the way it usually comes across to me is that they have analyzed the song, movie, TV show, book, societal trend, event, or other story, they’ve interpreted it and drawn conclusions based on their understanding of society and their own life experiences (and possibly sources they don’t mention), and they present it not as opinion but as learned analysis to be taken as fact or some combination of opinion and fact. I just don’t buy it most of the time.

My background in biomedical science doubtless flavors this perception of mine. In science, every statement in a primary-data paper is either reporting previous findings, reporting what the authors of the current study did (methods), stating what they found (results), or stating an obvious opinion or judgment on their part (“This discrepancy could have been caused by…”, “It is interesting to note…”, “It will be necessary to determine…”, “Future studies should investigate…”). Nothing is presented as true unless current or previous data are cited. I see nothing wrong with holding journalists, humanities writers, and entertainment columnists to the same standard. Either insert a lot more “I think”, “It seems”, “Maybe”, and “In my opinion”, or cite something to back up your claims.

These thoughts were most recently prompted by the column “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode” by the A.V. Club’s Ryan McGee. If you want the short answer, it’s No. If you want my opinion of his column, continue reading.

McGee’s thesis is that the popularity of HBO’s heavily serialized shows (shows that link each episode with the previous ones and tell a single story over a season(s)-long story arc, as opposed to procedural shows like CSI and Law & Order that tell a completely self-contained story within each episode that does not link to anything else), represented primarily by The Sopranos, has led to such a focus on serialization in the TV industry that the (largely) self-contained single episode has suffered, which is a bad thing that often makes the viewing experience worse, not only for that episode but for that show as a whole.

Below, I will first quote McGee’s statements that strike me as assertions of fact that I think could only be accepted as fact if supported by real outside data or some sort of statistical analysis, and then I will contrast his analysis of (over-)serialization with my own perspective.

Here are the statements that seem to be written as facts, but I have no way of knowing whether they are really true because he cites no outside sources and has no data, statistical or otherwise, to back up his claims:

[M]aking HBO the gold standard against which quality programming is judged has hurt television more than it’s helped it. [This is one statement of his thesis, which seems to be backed up subsequently by a bunch of opinion, not facts or data.]
[E]ach piece of art [novel vs. TV program] has to accomplish different things.
HBO isn’t solely to blame for this trend. It’s been accelerated not by internal mandate, but by viewer consumption. [That’s probably true, but the column cites no outside opinion or data to show it.]
Plowing through a single season in two or three sittings may feel thrilling, but it’s also shifted the importance of a single episode in terms of the overall experience.
How about those who sit at home on the night of initial airing and obsessively analyze that week’s episode in order to discuss it at length online or at the water cooler? Such a viewing model should put an emphasis on the episode as a discrete piece of the overall pie. And yet the critical praise heaped upon HBO has infected the way we look at that discrete piece.
Rather than take stock of what has just transpired, eyes get cast immediately toward that which is still unseen.
After all, if we measure quality by the gold standard of HBO, then by definition, the best element of the show has yet to actually air.
Such an assignation has merit, but has established a benchmark against which other programs simply can’t compare.
But the perception exists that the only way to be a critical hit is to write the equivalent of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.
[T]hese shows [that follow the Burn Notice “mythology” model] feature long-running arcs that usually harm, not help, their sturdy-if-bland lather/rinse/repeat episode structure. Rather than having the two dovetail, they often work against each other, producing uncomfortable friction as both sides seek to establish the same space.
David Goyer, who created the show Flash Forward, bragged that he and his writing staff had built out the show’s first five seasons before the pilot even aired. [Again, I don’t doubt this is true, but how are we to know? Take Ryan McGee’s word for it? Search Google on our own? It is a statement that we are supposed to take as fact because he read or heard it somewhere, mixed in with all of his opinions that are also presented as fact.]
The idea of having a fixed point toward which a show inevitably builds is fine in theory, but false in practice. There are too many variables at play when producing a television show that slavishly adheres to a predetermined finish line.
Assuming that a superior idea won’t arise later is simply arrogant thinking, and counterintuitive to any collaborative process. [I don’t know, maybe it occasionally replaces mediocre collaborative results with brilliant ones; who knows? How can we ever tell? What observations support this claim?]
Laying in groundwork for a massive payoff down the line is a terrible risk, one that comes with so little control as to be almost laughable.
With a theoretically unlimited amount of episodes to fill, it’s smart to look at the environments in which shows operate and look under rocks and behind corners to see what might exist. [Always? Necessarily?]
Show-creator Vince Gilligan planned the overall arc of the show [Breaking Bad] in the broadest strokes possible: the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface. But he’s run a writers’ room in which narrative improvisation fueled the actions seen onscreen. Rather than staying constricted to a heavily planned scheme, Gilligan and company have worked through each episode, looked at the results, and then adjusted accordingly down the line. [Probably true, but mixed in with pure opinion, it makes most of the statements sound like facts.]
A meticulous attention to detail on the part of both those who create television and those who consume it has stymied a desire for the kind of experimentation and exploration working in the microcosm of episodes allows.
Everyone’s so concerned about getting everything right that they’ve forgotten how much fun mistakes can be.
Showrunners are too often trying to fool the audience rather than entertain it. Audience members are too busy trying to solve the show and being disappointed when reality doesn’t line up with theory. Amid all of this, the episode has suffered under the weight of crushing expectation over where a story is going to go as opposed to what it currently is. [How verifiable is any of this?]

I must re-emphasize that I’m not saying he has no business publishing his opinions, whichever statements were in fact supposed to be opinions. I’m definitely not saying every statement in a TV column needs to cite either outside sources or primary data. I also can’t really say entertainment writing should be any different. What I am saying is that I simply don’t buy a lot of it because he presents nothing to support his analysis except a bunch of personal experience, and furthermore, that mixing in things that are definitely verifiably true or false (e.g., the David Goyer and Vince Gilligan stories) with assertions that strike me as purely subjective (most of the rest of the column) leads to the perception that all of it is verifiably true—that he has done research to obtain objective facts and is not just spouting his personal opinions. The tone or wording is usually not different between the sentences that seem to be facts and those that are probably actually opinions. Maybe I’m being too much of a scientist and failing to interpret this column the way a normal person would (mostly opinion that we can take or leave), but I just don’t buy a lot of it.

Now my comments on McGee’s assertions and conclusions, with plenty of my own opinions and un-cited facts. My thesis is: McGee’s conclusions are only valuable if one or both of the following conditions hold: (1) his assertions and judgments are supported by outside facts and statistical analysis that would reveal them as actual, verifiable trends and not just subjective perceptions; (2) you already agree with his opinions anyway.

The Sopranos took a patient approach that rewarded sustained viewing. The promise that payoffs down the line would be that much sweeter for the journey didn’t originate with the HBO mob drama, but the series turned into the boilerplate for what passes as critically relevant television.

But is this a good thing? The Sopranos opened up what was possible on television. But it also limited it. It seems silly to state that the addition of ambition to the medium has somehow hindered its growth, but making HBO the gold standard against which quality programming is judged has hurt television more than it’s helped it. The A.V. Club’s TV editor Todd VanDerWerff started pointing out the change in HBO’s approach when, speaking of Game Of Thrones, he noted something that had been in the back of my mind but not fully formulated until I heard him say it: HBO isn’t in the business of producing episodes in the traditional manner. Rather, it airs equal slices of an overall story over a fixed series of weeks. If I may put words into his mouth: HBO doesn’t air episodes of television, it airs installments.

This isn’t merely a semantic difference that paints lipstick on the same pig. It’s a fundamentally different way of viewing the function of an individual building block of a season, or series, of television. Calling The Sopranos a novelistic approach to the medium means praising both its new approach to television and its long-form storytelling. But HBO has shifted its model to produce televised novels, in which chapters unfold as part and parcel of a larger whole rather than serving the individual piece itself. Here’s the problem: A television show is not a novel. That’s not to put one above the other. It’s simply meant to illuminate that each piece of art has to accomplish different things. HBO’s apparent lack of awareness of this difference has filtered into its product, and also filtered into the product of nearly every other network as well.

Why is treating an episode as an installment a problem? An episode functions unto itself as a piece of entertainment, one that has an ebb and flow that can be enjoyed on its own terms. An installment serves the über-story of that season without regard for accomplishing anything substantial during its running time.

I think he and I would agree on one thing here: there is a valuable distinction between connecting an episode to the overall story arc in such a way that it entices further viewing and making an episode simply boring, unimportant, and un-entertaining by itself because little happens in it. To the extent that his argument is, “The propagation of episodes in which little to nothing happens and which can’t be enjoyed on their own (by some people) is due entirely to the obsession with serialization,” he seems to be on solid ground. But when he jumps to conclusions like (paraphrasing) “treating an episode like an installment is a problem”, “TV shows shouldn’t be like novels”, “TV shows can’t be planned weeks, much less months, in advance”, “Focusing on the future often hurts the present”, and “Adding a long-running story arc to a show usually harms, not helps”, he has ventured into pure opinion and conjecture.

HBO isn’t solely to blame for this trend. It’s been accelerated not by internal mandate, but by viewer consumption.
[emphasis added]

Yeah, because people like it, an obvious and well-established fact that McGee entirely ignores throughout his column.

It’s easy to blur the line between “episode” and “installment” if you’re blowing through an entire season of Breaking Bad over a single weekend. When doing this, thinking about how a certain episode works on its own becomes less relevant. Simply getting through the virtual stack of content becomes paramount, with the next episode literally moments away from appearing on your screen. Plowing through a single season in two or three sittings may feel thrilling, but it’s also shifted the importance of a single episode in terms of the overall experience.

He again implies that something is bad when what he means to say is, “I don’t prefer it.” The affordability and ubiquity of DVD/Blu-ray players and of TV series on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix has changed the landscape of TV viewing. People neither need nor want to catch every episode of every TV show they like on a weekly basis, even with the life-saver that is DVR, preferring instead to buy the disc set (or torrent entire seasons) and watch them as the televised novel that they are written as. I am one who prefers the latter. My wife is another. I think of heavily serialized TV dramas, with good, exciting, dramatic, suspenseful TV episodes that not only put you on edge during the episode but make you anticipate what’s to come in the future and entice you to guess how an individual episode’s events will tie in to the overall story arc, as far superior to (mostly) procedural dramas.

How about those who sit at home on the night of initial airing and obsessively analyze that week’s episode in order to discuss it at length online or at the water cooler? Such a viewing model should put an emphasis on the episode as a discrete piece of the overall pie.

How about those who like completely serialized TV shows with no stand-alone episodes? They don’t get any shows that are up their alley? Their tastes are just dismissed as wrong or, actually, ignored altogether? McGee’s opening example of Luck, an HBO show in which virtually nothing happened during the first three and a half episodes except to set up a web of storylines that would all come together during the fourth hour, is obviously popular with many people (Tony Kornheiser called it the best show on television in a recent episode of Pardon the Interruption). Many viewers most likely felt rewarded and even further enticed by the big payoff that materialized mid-way through episode four. There might very well be many people, perhaps including many fans of Luck, who would rather see a completely novelistic TV show with no stand-alone episodes that includes some boring clunkers along the way in exchange for the long-term payoff. McGee seems basically to be pushing the conclusion that this is bad, when a more accurate take would be that he doesn’t like it. Who cares?

I also find suspect his conclusion, “Such a viewing model should put an emphasis on the episode as a discrete piece of the overall pie.” I don’t think such a viewing model should put an emphasis on either one. I would say that to the extent that one model (self-contained vs. subservient to story arc) is better for discussing online or at the water cooler, I would lean in favor of the episode that is subservient to the story arc. It is more interesting and popular, among people I correspond with, anyway, to talk about how an episode fits into the story arc and not just about what happened in the episode alone. This is just another in a long list of conclusions reached by McGee that might be verifiably wrong or are simply opinions that he tries to dress up as objective analysis.

The single episode has taken a backseat in importance to the season, which itself is subservient to the series.

I say that overall, that’s a good thing. Nothing is perfect (as McGee notes later), and if some go-nowhere episodes are the price to pay for a several-season story arc that actually resembles the paths that many people’s lives could take in the real world (well, a real world far more interesting than the actual real world), then that’s a great tradeoff to me. If you don’t like it, then, (1) who cares?, and (2) watch something else.

Rather than take stock of what has just transpired, eyes get cast immediately toward that which is still unseen.

Not mine. I am actually able to think about what just happened, what happened before that, and what might come all at the same time! If you can’t think about two things at once or don’t want to, then, again, who cares? And why pass off your own experience as universal fact?

In other words, what just aired gets mixed into what we’ve already seen in order to formulate opinions about the unknown future.

In my opinion, that’s a good thing. I like being reminded (or being forced to remind myself) what happened to lead to this point, and I love how a good TV show will make you try to anticipate and speculate about the future.

Then there are shows that adhere to the USA network’s model of modern-day television “mythology.” … The model: Any particular episode will have roughly 90 percent self-contained story. This works well and counters the trends listed above. But for some reason, these shows also feel the need to have a larger, ongoing story that serves as the spine for a season.
[emphasis added]

Hmm, I wonder what reason that could be. Why would TV writers construct stories in a certain way, and why would TV producers hire them to do so? Why, why, why… It’s like he isn’t even capable of taking millions of people’s tastes into consideration. It’s like he has some sort of neural block or electrical device hooked into his brain à la “Harrison Bergeron” that prevents him from acknowledging that shows do this because people like it! I am one of those people, and there are millions more who like or even love it! This concept is honestly, seriously not that hard to understand.

[T]hese shows [with a mysterious “mythology” behind everything] feature long-running arcs that usually harm, not help, their sturdy-if-bland lather/rinse/repeat episode structure. Rather than having the two dovetail, they often work against each other, producing uncomfortable friction as both sides seek to establish the same space.

No, I think the background mythology rather helps the creative and entertainment value of the show, and the only reason they would work against each other is if there isn’t enough of the mythology, which I think is the case so far with Grimm. If a lather/rinse/repeat episode structure is bland, that seems to speak against the procedural TV drama, and his whole column inveighs against overly serialized dramas, so what does he want? A happy medium? So do most people; that’s not really saying much. Hopefully the mythology of Grimm will continue to grow and absorb Detective Burkhardt into itself, so that the show can actually go somewhere instead of giving us formulaic supernatural police procedurals, which perhaps Ryan McGee prefers to serialized “mythology” shows.

David Goyer, who created the show Flash Forward, bragged that he and his writing staff had built out the show’s first five seasons before the pilot even aired. But what Goyer and company forgot to do was build five characters the audience could relate to. The idea of having a fixed point toward which a show inevitably builds is fine in theory, but false in practice. There are too many variables at play when producing a television show that slavishly adheres to a predetermined finish line. All those breadcrumbs have to lead somewhere. But what if that destination changes along the way? How can one account for the clues already left behind? Assuming that a superior idea won’t arise later is simply arrogant thinking, and counterintuitive to any collaborative process. A television show is a living, breathing entity that represents a synergy of creative, cultural, and social forces that simply can’t be predicted five weeks out, never mind five years out.

Actually, contrary to his completely opinionated and unsupported claims, several shows have succeeded by planning out large chunks of their storylines months and even years ahead of time. For example, Supernatural, my favorite show that I started watching within the last few years. Eric Kripke originally planned out a rough three-season story arc for Sam and Dean Winchester, but as they got into making the show, it turned into a five-year arc. The above-quoted paragraph therefore does contain a nugget of valuable insight, but only a nugget: A television show is a living, breathing entity that can change along the way with writers’ input and viewers’ opinions. But it very obviously can be planned five weeks out and even several years out. Every script needn’t have been written; only the overall story arc.

Another show that I only watched recently that followed the season-long story arc model for the first two seasons was Veronica Mars. According to the commentary from creator Rob Thomas in the special features to season 3, they didn’t have every major plot point of season 3 planned out before they started shooting, but I would predict that they had most of seasons 1 and 2 planned out before each one started shooting. And it worked to perfection: Veronica Mars is a brilliantly plotted mystery show that presents the viewer with good mysteries and interesting happenings during most episodes, with occasional big payoffs, the biggest obviously coming in the season finale.

Yet another perfect example of the merits of planning things months in advance is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon probably knew how he wanted some plots to unfold and the paths he wanted characters’ lives to take before they started shooting each season. The best adjective that I’ve read to describe Buffy is “groundbreaking”. That was a show that was dominated by the season’s story arc (the “Big Bad”, they always called it), and it had great stand-alones, but my favorite parts of that show were the whole Slayer mythology and the paths the characters’ lives took, which may not always or even often have been planned far in advance but sure seemed like it sometimes.

This very TV season provides us with three perfect examples of phenomenal dramas that seem to have been planned out, either broadly or meticulously, from the beginning to the end of the season: Ringer, Revenge, and Once Upon a Time. I have never watched three TV shows all in the same season that are as good as these, and it might be a long time before three shows as good as these debut at the same time. The main thing that makes them good is their serialization, the season-long story arcs that must, at least in the first two cases, have been planned out in some level of detail, before shooting or possibly even casting began. I would love to know if this speculation is true. Whether it is or not, the effect on me, my wife, and the couple friends I’ve talked to about these shows is the same: They seem like they were planned out from beginning to end, and that makes us admire the shows even more. The only drawback to Once Upon a Time so far, in my opinion, is the stand-alone episodes that don’t push the season’s story farther along.

Yet another show that was definitely planned out from the beginning to the end of its most recent season was Dexter. A few episodes of season 6 were followed by short clips of interviews with showrunner Scott Buck, who basically revealed that they had planned the plot twists and the major plot lines before shooting ever began. I think that’s how every season of Dexter has been, much to its benefit. Therefore, TV writers clearly can plan storylines five months in advance, and this clearly does produce excellent results, and frequently.

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is The X-Files, which many people think mixed the stand-alone episode with Chris Carter’s “mythology” brilliantly (at least, for the first seven seasons). Some people’s favorite episodes were the stand-alones, whereas mine were the alien/government conspiracy episodes. One problem with the alien mythology that Chris Carter created over nine years was the very fact that it was a living, breathing storyline that wasn’t really planned out from the beginning, such that what we really got (as far as I remember) was every question being answered with three more questions and Mulder never really finding any closure with the aliens and the government conspiracy (although he did find closure with his sister, which was the most important to him), and I was always left wanting more about the alien mythology: more answers, more facts, more explanation, more closure. I scarcely got any, because Chris Carter had no answers or end-goal from the beginning, only a great ability to keep people watching by making stuff up as he went along.

Contrast that with Supernatural, a show I originally thought was just a cheap X-Files knockoff but which I now like more than The X-Files for two main reasons: It is more serial, meaning there are fewer stand-alone episodes and more focus is put on the multiple-season story arc and the whole Winchester mythos; and much of the first five seasons was planned out from the beginning, with the result that things actually went somewhere and, in fact, ended somewhere, at least in a way (a very good way). My only two problems with the sixth and seventh seasons are that season six was a little bit unfocused and didn’t handle all four of its major storylines perfectly, probably because they didn’t have a plan from the beginning but rather were making much of it up as they went along, leading them to struggle to either eliminate or tie together the plot lines in the last few episodes; and season seven has had way too many stand-alones in a row and absolutely zero action on the story arc since about Thanksgiving.

The balance between standing alone and tying into the mythology or story arc is a topic of some debate among fans of many shows. I have corresponded with Supernatural fans on the internet who miss the good ol’ days of Sam and Dean huntin’ ghosts and burnin’ bones, and I must say that nearly every stand-alone this season has been excellent, especially “The Mentalists”, “Adventures in Babysitting”, “Repo Man”, “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magic Menagerie”, and “Season 7, Time For a Wedding!” (which was less stand-alone than the others). But there’s just something missing from season seven, and that is a heavily serialized story arc that ties episodes together, builds on the Winchester mythology, and portends of things to come.

Clearly for most TV shows, especially those with full 22–24-episode seasons, a good balance between episodic and novelistic interest is ideal, and making the viewer interested in the characters is the most important thing, as with any fiction. But McGee’s disparaging comparison of TV episodes to installments of a novel fails to be useful or meaningful at all, to me. The reason is because not even novels get away with being boring and having very few events until some big payoff towards the middle and then some bigger payoff at the end. A good novel piques people’s interest throughout. Not necessarily in every single chapter, but certainly every 50 or 100 pages. Therefore, in order for a TV show to be novelistic in a good way, it must pique most viewers’ interest in every episode and keep them enticed to follow the overall story arc. For a TV show to be novelistic in a bad way, it won’t pique the interest of many viewers very often, just as a bad novel loses most readers’ interest along the way. And just as a good novel draws three-dimensional characters that readers relate to, root for, root against, or care about on some level, so does a good TV show. Therefore, to say that a show is bad because it is novelistic doesn’t hold water; it might be bad because it’s like a boring novel, but it’s good if it’s like an interesting novel! To say a TV show that fails to build five characters the audience can relate to or that sacrifices interesting individual episodes to serve a pre-planned, season(s)-long story arc is bad because of serialization is like saying a novel is bad because of some inherent problem with novels. No, they are bad because the writers are bad and failed to find one happy medium or another that would appeal to enough viewers to maintain sufficient ad revenue and/or studio support.

The serialization or novelization of this generation of TV shows isn’t bad and hasn’t gone too far, according to some people, such as myself. It might very well be true that some TV writers, even entire teams of TV writers, are driven too far to the TV-novel end of the spectrum, where they aren’t as effective as if they stuck to 45-minute procedurals. It also might be true that some writers apply the paradigm of serialization poorly to their particular show (McGee sites The Killing and Walking Dead as examples). This isn’t a problem with serialization, and it isn’t indicative of over-serialization in Hollywood. It seems to me like a problem of some writers trying to do something that works for others but not them. If I watched more TV or were paid to analyze it, I probably could find some examples of TV shows that were too procedural and not serial enough. For example, the main reason I was so intrigued by The Office in the first three seasons was the Jim and Pam storyline; maybe some sitcoms could benefit from more (any) serialization, which would just go to show that serialization hasn’t necessarily gone too far or spread too wide, the fixation with serialization isn’t undue, and the problems are with individual writers and writing teams that are trying to expand outside of their forte.

When Ryan McGee complains about overly serial TV trying to be something it isn’t, a novel, he strikes me as similar to the dinosaurs in the record industry and movie industry who don’t understand or don’t accept that technology changes, society changes with it, and they have to change with society. The record industry has sort of adapted by embracing digital downloads, but the movie industry is stuck in the 1990’s. They are (perceived as) old, greedy, out-of-touch suits who think they are owed money simply for doing the job they’ve always done and refusing to adapt to change. Well, TV has changed too, maybe starting with The Sopranos or maybe starting with Buffy or earlier, and its evolution into a TV-novel paradigm should be praised as progress rather than denigrated as eroding the single episode’s purpose. Whose purpose? Ryan McGee’s purpose? The purpose of fiction is to entertain while exploring the human condition and creating characters the audience cares about, and I think novels and TV shows are wonderful ways to accomplish all of those goals. TV offers opportunities a movie doesn’t: to explore how characters and their interrelationships evolve, in addition to telling much longer, more epic, more rewarding stories. To suggest that a fixation with serialization is bad and that erring on the side of more self-contained episodes and less story-arc progression/tie-ins is the solution would be to deny TV the great advantage it has over other audio-visual media, and would unjustifiably clip its wings.

If anything, I’d rather TV writers err on the side of too much serialization, because as McGee notes, nothing is perfect, and there’s a cost/benefit tradeoff to everything in life, so I prefer the heavy serialization and seasons-long story arcs, even with the drawbacks they bring (which are much fewer and less important than McGee would have us think).

In summary, I feel like I can look at this rambling column by Ryan McGee in about three ways:

1) His opinion of good TV differs from mine. So what? Why is that worth a 1938-word essay? Why is that worth a salary as a professional writer? What has he added to the world if his entire column is opinion backed up by more opinion, selective sampling, and blind assumption? (What am I adding to the world by writing this? Probably very little. What am I getting paid for it? Even less. Fortunately for me, I write for myself and not anyone else.)

2) He actually isn’t saying serialized TV shows are bad per se, just that a happy medium between self-contained episodes and a season(s)-long story arc needs to be found. Wow, that’s even more worthless than option #1.

3) He is actually right but has a grand total of zero data to support his hypothesis.

The answer is obviously a combination of #1 and #2, but option #3 brings me back to my original impetus for writing this blag post: opinion pedaled as objective analysis. His conclusions aren’t the result of research and data-gathering; it is all just contemplating and opinionating. Again, maybe my scientific background skews my perception of professional writing in other fields, such that I simply don’t appreciate what everyone else appreciates, viz., that he’s offering primarily opinions that we can either take or leave. But they sure don’t seem to be phrased like just opinions. Many of my assertions and opinions in this post don’t begin with “I think” or “In my opinion”, and they are presented pretty assertively, like facts, but to me it seemed pretty obvious that most of them came from my thought processes in response to McGee’s statements and my TV experience, not research or fact-citing, and the tone and purpose of a blag post are both much different from an entertainment column by a professional writer in an actual publication. Maybe I should just start interpreting the purpose of non-scientific writing as experience-backed subjective analysis that we should compare to our own perspectives, and stop interpreting it as purported objective analysis to be judged as correct or incorrect.

This entry was posted in Entertainment, TV, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.