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The Cosmology of Serialized Television
June 23, 2013 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Perhaps the most dangerous effect of the Big Crunch mentality has been to make television creators think of themselves as auteurs, to convince them that in spite of the massive interference with their work, they can somehow create a work of aesthetic integrity and sociological insight even if they don’t know where it’s going. Well, sometimes you get lucky, but more often, the result is disaster, and the effort spent toward that failure is redirected from where it would be better put: creating great trash. An essay on the challenges and pitfalls of writing serialized TV plots from The American Reader.

[Contains Some Spoilers]

Shows discussed range from Mad Men, Twin Peaks and Lost to The X-Files, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Breaking Bad, not to mention The Wire, Walking Dead, The Fugitive, Battlestar Galactica, Big Love and The Sopranos.

Harlan Ellison and Jack Kirby have cameo roles.
posted by chavenet (48 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
I liked that more than I thought I would. I write for what he would call a Steady-State show with a healthy dollop of mythology, and it does present real problems structurally. And he's right in that most serialized stories are going to fall apart without a clear beginning, middle and end. The truth of the matter is that most stories don't require 50-plus (or 100-plus) hours to be well told.

I think the future lies in shows like American Horror Story. I'm not a huge fan of the show, but I like how each season tells a contained story and the audience is brought back to the next season by a promise of the same atmosphere and actors, not the a continuos storyline.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:41 PM on June 23, 2013 [9 favorites]


I've actually used the Winchester Mystery House as an analogy for his "Expansionist" classification - in that Sarah Winchester didn't want to end construction, so the workers were asked to add increasingly odder things onto the house just in an effort to keep going. But the workers never really definitively knew whether the stairs they were building really would eventually lead to a third floor or a spare room or a new wing or not. Didn't matter; they still needed to build 'em.

I sensed that a lot with the X-FILES, of which I was an ardent fan for the first few seasons; I boycotted the final season in disgust. But I disagree on LOST, which actually nipped the increasingly-more-trimmings aspect of the writing in the bud when the writers declared an end date for the show; the writers now knew how much time they had to work with, and could settle down and trim back any of the extraneous bullshit they'd have otherwise thrown in. Granted, the plot that they did come up with was kinda bizarre still, but it wasn't nearly as baroque as it could have been, and as the X-FILES was.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:48 PM on June 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think Buffy is a great example of a failed attempt to up the stakes in every season, and there are some great bits in the aimless groping for plots of season 6 but it's ultimately sort of existential, meaningless and depressing. I much prefer what Angel did in its final season-- they did an interesting job of changing gears and forcing characters to deal with actual new challenges instead of bigger versions of old ones.

There's something else that's a problem with ongoing TV shows (and comics and books) that Websnark called the Cerebus effect, where stuff that's funny falls back on drama as it goes on. There are slow versions of this (Gilmore Girls) and sudden ones (Weeds) but they all lead to a certain kind of doom for so-called "dramadies".

I also read a lot of novel series that manage to do a pretty good job with this, though. You know that Harry won't confront Voldemort til the end; you know the last October Daye book is gonna confront Simon, stuff like that. It's ok to set up a Big Bad if you have enough interesting other stuff going on to keep the heroes busy the rest of the time and the heroes can develop. But they have to really develop. Artemis Fowl does well because the protagonist is half villain; he has to both grow up and learn to be a good person. They get an extra book out of a memory wipe and one from his developing a weird form of Magic OCD, but at least they aren't relying on vague attempts to become grimdark.
posted by NoraReed at 3:57 PM on June 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think there's a lot of good analysis in this piece but it veers too far in the direction of blame and is too free with the label of failure. Some shows failed to end well, that's for sure, but in the meantime they entertained. That's the real tension here -- do we want appointment television, where people want to show up every week and earn the advertising or subscription vig, or do you want a show remembered years later for its coherent, masterfully crafted ending? Which is in the business model?

It's also unfair, I believe, to say that showrunners are encouraged to think of themselves as auteurs. It seems like the definition used is appropriate for film directors. But I think you can be an auteur of serial drama validly enough, as long as you're being evaluated on those terms.
posted by dhartung at 3:59 PM on June 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


I rather like the Wiseguy model of dividing the season into shorter miniseries of six to ten episodes. That way you can have a continuing story line through those episodes but then reset at the beginning of the next miniseries.
posted by octothorpe at 4:01 PM on June 23, 2013


The specter of sudden cancellation AND the fear of having to just keep going on is so interesting, you have to write around all these unknown factors, remember the confused frantic mishmash that was Angel's ooooh-shit-you-have-12-less-hours-to-wrap-this-uppp last season?

My current project isn't TV but it is serialized and I've had long conversations with myself and others on how to create something that is both satisfyingly self contained, open to expansion, and able to both come to a natural, dramatic head AND possibly go on further.

I mean I wish more TV could do the Discworld thing, just explore another character or situation for a while and give the main characters/plot line a chance to catch thier breath- a show where the setting or world building was compelling enough to support lots of different stories rather than the main arc and a few side ones of a small group of protagonists.

But that's, you know, expensive.
posted by The Whelk at 4:03 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Speaking of the Winchester House, there is, of course, that show that ran on CW with a hard limit of five seasons and ended after Lucifer was defeated and the world escaped the coming of the Apocalypse.
posted by Nomyte at 4:05 PM on June 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


Which some people are in the direct middle of and have no idea how they're going to keep this going ( despite thinking that all the slotting into place for the finale is actually very good and way better then they where expecting)
posted by The Whelk at 4:09 PM on June 23, 2013


The dude's conclusion is that we need more J. Michael Straczynskis and fewer David Chases. Just as you can have an 82-hour serial that blows it in the last twenty minutes, the final section of the article negates all that has come before, because are you fucking kidding me we need less Sopranos and more Babylon 5?!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:15 PM on June 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


Besides that, I always thought the creator of Babylon 5 was trying to write about Serious Issues in the first place? Just because it's SF doesn't mean it's automatically aiming to be trash.
posted by subdee at 4:22 PM on June 23, 2013


are you fucking kidding me we need less Sopranos and more Babylon 5?!

You’re taking his point a little too literally. What we need is more TV series where the creator knows how it is going to end, and has a rough plan about how to get there.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 4:22 PM on June 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


You’re taking his point a little too literally. What we need is more TV series where the creator knows how it is going to end, and has a rough plan about how to get there.

Sure, but what he actually says is to equate JMS with David Simon, which is just...I mean, if anything, this underscores that maybe long-term plotting isn't that big of a deal, ultimately, because if Babylon 5 did it better than The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Mad Men or any show, I guess, other than its peer, The Wire...well, I don't think anyone's going to argue Babylon 5 is a better show overall than any of those.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:27 PM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think anyone's going to argue Babylon 5 is a better show overall than any of those

Fortunately for you Mr. Pterodactyl is currently purchasing jerk chicken for my dinner or you would quickly be proved wrong, my friend.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 4:28 PM on June 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


It amuses me that the article's assertion that Lost "will quickly be forgotten" is self-negating. It also reeks of a "they didn't give me the ending I wanted" axe being hyperbolically ground: I don't think Lost is going to be forgotten any time soon.

He's somewhat right about Breaking Bad though. I've always felt that Gilligan has had trouble pacing each season, allowing it to tread water a bit too much in the midseason and then have to rush towards a conclusion and/or cliffhanger in the last few episodes. The weird 8+8 break in the current season/two seasons/whatever they're calling it now hasn't helped either.

But Fly is a fucking magnificent episode. "Structurally pointless" my ass.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 4:31 PM on June 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


No, B5 is not a better series, but it had a better series arc, and a more satisfying conclusion, and it at the very least demonstrated that such a thing is possible.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 4:33 PM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, B5 is not a better series, but it had a better series arc, and a more satisfying conclusion, and it at the very least demonstrated that such a thing is possible.

It could be, and while I'm intrigued by the idea of a writer with a flowchart that compensates for the contingencies of series television -- "If Actor X drops out to be in movies after season 3, go to... If Actor X drops out after season 4, go to... If the network gives us 12 episodes in season 5, go to..." -- I do wonder whether (a) a plot-oriented approach is necessarily the best thing for a character-driven show, and (b) to what degree JMS and Simon just got lucky and didn't encounter many external factors that would have forced them to deviate all that much from their original, most desirable plans.

I also think there is a creative danger in approaching a series with a strong overall idea of how it will play out over the course of years. It isn't an approach that takes into account breakout characters and better ideas; famously, Breaking Bad originally intended to kill off Jesse Pinkman in its first season, which would have resulted in a very different second season or, quite possibly, no second season at all. I suppose that JMS' flowchart method could have accounted for this kind of major change, but any outline that accommodated it would have to be so flexible I'm not sure it's even an outline.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:45 PM on June 23, 2013


This is interesting, especially since I just started watching Hannibal, a show I by all right should love, but that continuously leaves me cold inbetween bits of Good Stuff. It's like it's written by network writers who have watched all the cool, edgy HBO shows and decided they wanted to do the same thing, without actually understanding what makes those shows work. Also, while the acting is generally very good, especially Mads Mikkelsen's, the plot holes are getting ridiculous, things plainly make no sense, and the constant network TV "screen full of promotional supers for other shit" and "fade to black for commercials every 5 minutes" is really grating.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:05 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think Lost is going to be forgotten any time soon.

The events of the past week taught me that a lot of my coworkers (who are on average a few years younger than me) are only vaguely aware of The Sopranos. Nerdy schlock has a long half-life. Drama doesn't seem to.
posted by Nomyte at 5:07 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's a cute theory for a coherent ending for Mad Men:

https://medium.com/sterling-cooper-draper-pryce/e96804523838

I don't buy the airplane fixation though. But the idea of having the show circle back around to its starting place seems a reasonable way to get to a satisfying ending.
posted by joeyh at 6:44 PM on June 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


I do wonder whether (a) a plot-oriented approach is necessarily the best thing for a character-driven show, and (b) to what degree JMS and Simon just got lucky and didn't encounter many external factors that would have forced them to deviate all that much from their original, most desirable plans.

I don't know about Simon, but JMS was very, very far from unlucky about external factors. If there's one thing I think of as characterizing the B5 story arc, it the way that it kept on replacing key characters, characters with unique backstories and lots of foreshadowing about how they're going to be important later, with functionally equivalent new characters with backstories that were blatant remixes of the backstories they replaced. They actually replaced the hero of the story at one point. Another character, they lost and then got back, requiring a quick abandonment of the plot they had concocted around her replacement.
posted by baf at 6:52 PM on June 23, 2013


I do wonder...to what degree JMS and Simon just got lucky and didn't encounter many external factors that would have forced them to deviate all that much from their original, most desirable plans.

If I recall correctly, Babylon 5 was planned as a 5 season show and the two major story arcs were set to be resolved one after another during seasons 4 (Shadow war) and 5 (liberation of Earth from a dictatorship). Season 5 was canceled, so JMS had to compress the resolutions of those stories into season 4. My teenage self was quite satisfied with how that worked out*.

Ironically, given the reputation of the show, season 5 was then picked up by another network, but by then JMS was pretty much out of A-story material from the original plan, so it was basically a B-story that had been cut in order finish the series at the end of season 4. This didn't work as well.

* I haven't watched the show since it's original run, so I don't know if my adult self would like it as much. I'm also not a very sophisticated TV viewer.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 7:23 PM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


fantastic essay, thanks for posting it. That's the kind of essay I wish I had written or could write. I love how he takes what seems like a bad thing about serialized dramas -- that they so often fail to hold together in terms of the larger mythology -- and then points us to where the real creativity is happening in those things. It's against the constraints imposed on decision-makers that some really interesting and inspiring stuff happens, and if the fact is that television writing is basically in a medium over which the writer has almost no control at all, then it's not surprising to me that maybe the act of creating the mythology which people want is probably going to be the place of really how to measure a degree of success of the creator, and not the coherency of what they made. Thanks again.
posted by scunning at 7:29 PM on June 23, 2013


I don't think Lost is going to be forgotten any time soon.

I don't think it will be forgotten, but I don't think it's going to be remembered and revisited the way some of these other shows are.
posted by crossoverman at 7:32 PM on June 23, 2013


That's a smart piece, thanks. This is almost vicious:

The ending, when it comes, will consequently not quite fit. Mad Men’s Weiner has taken to making excuses in advance, correctly predicting that any ending to Mad Men stands zero chance of not being pilloried by fans. He vented at a Q&A:
You know the show is going to end on an ambiguous note. My God, people must be prepared for that. Honestly, I can’t even tell what closure is to this audience.
Weiner seems to acknowledge that the medium has forced him to promise what he cannot deliver: a coherent story.

posted by mediareport at 8:42 PM on June 23, 2013


Lost will be referenced for many years to come as an object lesson in how to hook a vast audience, slowly write yourself into a corner and leave everyone frustrated. It did all three of those things to such an unprecedented degree that I'm sure it'll still be talked about decades down the line. Stuff like Heroes will be forgotten.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:57 PM on June 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


The reason Buffy's sixth (and ultimately seventh) season were weak is that St. Whedon thought it was going to end with season five. The same plan was in effect for Supernatural, which someone noted above and was a damn fine ending. The Wire went 5 seasons. JMS's plan for B5 was five seasons. I am noting a pattern here. Something to do with a number between four and six.
posted by Ber at 10:00 PM on June 23, 2013


But Fly is a fucking magnificent episode.

I'd be interested to hear your reasoning. I think it's the weakest episode of the entire show.

First off, the whole episode trades on Walt "acting all crazy" and obsessing over killing a fly. Yes, I know, metaphorical, blah blah blah blah blah, but it just doesn't work with his character. Walt is not "crazy". Sure, he's paranoid and obsessive, but his paranoia is almost always justified; the thing he's afraid of turns out to be the thing that's actually happening. Fly is the only episode where he acts full-on crazy, and it just doesn't work. Walt is cold, rational and calculating. Even when he does things for emotional reasons, he's still rational and methodical about it.

Secondly, Fly was a failed attempt at a bottle episode where one wasn't needed. Remember that episode where he and Jesse are stuck in the RV because the battery went dead? That was an absolutely perfect bottle episode, and it totally freakin worked. One of the best episodes of the entire show. It got to the very meat of the Walt/Jesse dynamic, which, lets face it, is the best part of the show.

Fly, on the other hand, concerns itself with the dynamic between Jesse and a substitute Walt that behaves in a way that Walt never behaves and will never behave again. When I re-watched the series with my girlfriend, it was the one episode we skipped.
posted by evil otto at 10:07 PM on June 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


The end of a tv series is totally fucking besides the point of tv. Who gives a shit how it ends? TV as serial is repetitive, cyclical. This is why the Sopranos ending is the best ending ever.

Ps everyone say a prayer for Jon Hamm tonight. Maybe if we all pray for him real real hard, he'll become immortal and never die. Amen.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:13 PM on June 23, 2013


I do wonder whether (a) a plot-oriented approach is necessarily the best thing for a character-driven show, and (b) to what degree JMS and Simon just got lucky and didn't encounter many external factors that would have forced them to deviate all that much from their original, most desirable plans.

As others have mentioned, the show weathered multiple casting changes, including replacing the hero of the show, had to deal with cramming in a 5-season arc into 4 seasons, and then figure out what to do with a 5th season when it turned out that it would get one.

Some of the external factors made the show more enjoyable overall for me (I vastly preferred Bruce Boxleitner's acting and Sheridan as a character in Season 2-5 to Michael O'Hare's acting and Sinclair as a character in Season 1). Other ones made the show less enjoyable overall for me (losing Ivanova as a character for season 5 because of contract issues with Claudia Christian meant losing 4 years of character development to be replaced by a brand new character. Gah.) But all of the changes, IMO, hurt the sense of coherent narrative on the show. Even if the new character is more interesting, you have all of the history/backstory of the old character that's lost, and you have to spend more time establishing the new character's backstory.

JMS is not a perfect writer. B5 was not a perfect show. (My husband and I took months to get through the first season because it was just that painful). But given all of the external factors JMS had to deal with, the show did an amazing job at telling a mostly coherent story from start to finish. As far as I'm concerned, JMS earned all the praise he receives for that particular aspect of the show.
posted by creepygirl at 10:23 PM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


In my heart, every time someone acknowledges that LOST and BSG were brilliant shows with pure-shit endings that cheated their loyal viewers, and angle gets its wings.
posted by MoxieProxy at 10:31 PM on June 23, 2013


I'd be interested to hear your reasoning.

Okey-dokey. Big fat spoilers for S1-S3 and for Fly in particular:



Yes, I know, metaphorical, blah blah blah blah blah

Yeah, but Fly is all about the metaphor; if you reject that you reject the entire episode.

The fly in the lab is an out-damned-spot metaphor for Walt's guilt; he's struggling with what he has done -- especially to Jesse -- and what he has become. And it's a fruitless struggle and a bleak conclusion: the final "It's all contaminated" is an acknowledgement that he can't go back.

It's Walt out of character because it's Walt pushed out of control: his actions have ended up with them stuck in this situation, under Gus's thumb, and with no obvious way out.

It's also an extremely well-written and well-played suspense plot, which maybe works best on first viewing when you really don't know which way it's going to go: HOLY SHIT is Walt going to confess to Jesse about Jane? It walks us right out to the edge of the precipice before yanking us back to safety: "not your fault."

Plus, it's funny. "Oh, I'll make it count all right."

Plus the top-and-tail of Jesse at the beginning desperately trying to convince Walt he's not skimming -- "vestiges" -- versus Walt's weary "I won't be able to protect you" at the end.

It's all so good.


Fly was a failed attempt at a bottle episode

Ironically, if you listen to the Insider podcast: 4 Days Out (the "stuck-in-the-desert" episode) was an attempt to save money by making a bottle episode, but ended up costing more than a regular episode because so much of it was location.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:46 PM on June 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, but Fly is all about the metaphor; if you reject that you reject the entire episode.

Walt's behavior was so out-of-character, I couldn't suspend disbelief long enough to buy the metaphor. The whole thing seemed so forced : let's make Walt act crazy for one episode so we can drive home a point.
posted by evil otto at 2:06 AM on June 24, 2013


I am largely in agreement with the writer except that I'm resistant to the idea that we have to capitulate to the practical reality of American television — that a coherent serialized long-form narrative is mostly not possible because the creative team involved has very little control over the conditions of the production.

I don't think we have to accept that. I don't think we will continue to accept that.

For one thing, this isn't the model for television production everywhere. Notably, Britain has long been making contained, well-conceived long-form productions for decades and they do so by allowing for shows to be what we used to call "miniseries" here. In the US, while very few shows make it to a hundred episodes anymore, there's still the inertia of the syndication era where there's a presumption that a show ought to air as long as possible — because, in the past, it was really important for financial reasons to hit that 100th episode mark. But it should be okay to conceive of a show as having a run of only one or two seasons. I think that it's possible that American television could move away from the aim of almost every new show having an indefinitely long run.

For another, the rise of (relatively) highly serialized drama in the US isn't primarily a function of the prestige of successes like Sopranos. It's primarily a function of the transition away from the broadcast networks which creates more creative and audience opportunity for successes like Sopranos.

There will always be a place for more episodic television, what the writer calls the steady-state model. Probably this will continue to constitute the majority of programming because highly serialized shows require a large commitment from the audience. They won't be willing to make such a commitment to many shows at the same time and, even if they do, many of them won't be able to maintain it. Even in the era of time-shifting.

But, even so, the simple fact remains that television is unique in providing a venue for very long-form visual narratives. Film and theater can't really tell forty-hour long stories. They can tell ten-hour long stories, but few will watch them. And so even if ten hours is optimum for most of these television stories (and it may well be), it's still something that TV does better than anything else. But certainly when it's multiples of ten hours.

To my mind, the fact that television is uniquely suited to long-form visual narratives is a very good reason to attempt them and to refuse to acquiesce to the prevailing conditions in the US that makes them very difficult to manage.

What should be resisted by everyone concerned, including the audience, are "expansionist" productions that flirt with being "big crunch" productions — that is, those like Lost and BSG that pretend, at times, to be a coherent long-form narrative but can't be, because they never were.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:38 AM on June 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


In my heart, every time someone acknowledges that LOST and BSG were brilliant shows with pure-shit endings that cheated their loyal viewers, an angel gets its wings.

BSG is especially annoying, because WHY would you announce at the beginning of every episode that there’s a plan, when you don’t have a plan? That’s kind of a dick move.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 4:54 AM on June 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


Lost will be referenced for many years to come as an object lesson in how to hook a vast audience, slowly write yourself into a corner and leave everyone frustrated.

Actually, if you shift your focus on Lost a bit then the ending becomes...well, not necessarily redeemed, but "not so bad". If you look at it as a series of discrete character arcs it improves things nicely; forget the plot bullshit and focus on:

* Sun and Jin's love story
* Hurley having no faith in himself, growing in that faith over the course of the show, and finally becoming King Of the Island
* Ben wanting desperately to become King of The Island to the point that he is willing to do evil to get it - but when he tries letting himself become someone's friend, Hurley actually offers him the job unbidden and he gets what he wanted all along just by being vulnerable

...Okay, it doesn't work for everyone (I think Sayid got shafted like whoa), but some of the individual story arcs were quite good.

Or maybe I just really liked Hurley. I watched the finale at a "final episode of Lost" event in a bar and when they made Hurley King Of The Island about five people jumped up and started cheering estatically.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:03 AM on June 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


1970s Antihero: "BSG is especially annoying, because WHY would you announce at the beginning of every episode that there’s a plan, when you don’t have a plan? That’s kind of a dick move."

Well, it was the Cylons that had the plan, not the writers.
posted by octothorpe at 6:18 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I remember a "Carol Burnett" skit where a suddenly cancelled soap opera is given ONE episode to resolve 20 or so years of continuity and dangling plot threads. Characters appear and launch into 30 second soliloquies tying up decade long mysteries, relationships and identities. One fugitive character is found hiding in the basement after 10 years, etc. Aside from being achingly hilarious, in retrospect it holds up well compared to the finales of "Lost", "Sopranos", et al.
posted by TDavis at 7:41 AM on June 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


TDavis, I remember that one. it was one of those moments where burnett & her writers managed to burn through my adolescent cynicism and show me that even though my parents liked it, this was still some seriously funny shit.
posted by lodurr at 10:08 AM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


LOST and BSG were brilliant shows with pure-shit endings that cheated their loyal viewers,

It's a hard question whether a terrible ending ruins an otherwise good book / movie / show.

With a show like LOST, so much of the interest is in the mystery. If the various enigmas turn out to have no explanation or reason (or if explanations are egregiously bad) I think it does sour the whole thing, and certainly makes repeated viewing less interesting.

With BSG, on the other hand, the pilot and some of the early episodes are still some of the best science fiction that has ever been on TV, astonishingly better than most of what came before. Going back, episodes like "33" are every bit as gripping even if you know about the overall flaws and thoughtlessness behind the human/cylon mythology. The big picture is lame, but so many of the details are inspired and meticulously thought through.
posted by straight at 11:20 AM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think really where Veronica Mars succeeded was that was made up of smaller overlapping arcs which for the most part got wrapped up within a season of when they started. This kept the heavy continuity confined to more manageable chunks.
posted by ckape at 11:44 AM on June 24, 2013


Article writer here. I appreciate the discussion! Just a few points where I wanted to clarify my own position.

the fact that television is uniquely suited to long-form visual narratives is a very good reason to attempt them and to refuse to acquiesce to the prevailing conditions in the US that makes them very difficult to manage.

I think I'm in agreement here too, as long as circumstances permit it. The Wire worked out pretty well. The British series Utopia is the best thing I've seen in quite a while, tying up enough ends while leaving enough for a second season. IF the second season matches it, it will be quite an achievement.

I think really where Veronica Mars succeeded was that was made up of smaller overlapping arcs which for the most part got wrapped up within a season of when they started. This kept the heavy continuity confined to more manageable chunks.

Agree completely. I would have spent more time praising it if I'd had the space. Rob Thomas & John Enbom seem to be so brilliantly fluent with genre conventions (see Party Down as well) that they should be entrusted with a prestige show long before David Milch ever gets to touch one again.

Some shows failed to end well, that's for sure, but in the meantime they entertained.

I agree completely, and I praised a number of them--St Elsewhere and 12 oz Mouse, for example. Someone brought up Arrested Development, which qualifies as well. My criticism is precisely that shows are spending more and more time on the part that doesn't entertain: building up the eschatological mythology tease.

Actually, I liked 12 oz Mouse's ending.

maybe long-term plotting isn't that big of a deal

It may not be, but if it's not, shows shouldn't act like it is. My article was about bad faith, not aesthetics.

But for what it's worth (not much), I enjoyed the middle 3 seasons of B5 more than the last 3 seasons of the Sopranos, which says *something* about the ability of plotting to compensate for deficient acting, dialogue, characters, and special effects.

I cut this paragraph from an already-too-long article, but since it relates to the discussion--

"It worked out nicely for The Wire, whose underrated fifth season was only hampered by the need to bring all plotlines to closure simultaneously. Contrast Babylon 5, where the threat of cancellation led series mastermind J. Michael Straczynski to tie up the main plot at the end of its fourth season. When unexpected renewal came, he was left only with insubstantial loose ends to spin out into an aimless fifth season. In contrast, the fortuitous cancellation of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse led him to compress five planned seasons of plot into a dozen episodes, making for a remarkably substantial second season after a wretched first."

I've actually used the Winchester Mystery House as an analogy for his "Expansionist" classification

I love that!
posted by waggish at 3:24 PM on June 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


I concur that JMS's plotting and trapdoors and overall coherency was a VERY good thing while dealing with the changeability of actors and television. I really wish more showrunners did this--or that it was possible for them to do this, which it might not be at this point. Hell, who writes almost all of their own episodes any more? I think JMS did a spectacular job under the circumstances of "oh shit, my lead actor is having mental health issues and needs to go" and characters dropping out for other reasons AND being told he had to wrap it up a season early and then getting another season after all. I miss JMS being on television and think a lot of folks, especially the LOST folks, could learn a lot for him.

At the very least, if you make up weird shit, don't just throw it in at random and hope years later that Future You thinks of a good explanation for it (I'm looking at you, Lindelof, Cuse, Moore, and Lynch). Try to have some idea of what that weird thing might mean, even if you end up changing your mind on it later. Because while saying, "hey, polar bears in the jungle are cool" or "hey, I like this Opera House idea" is one thing, at least figure out what to do with it later on when people are fucking wondering.* If you bungle that, you've got angry fans slandering you across the Internet.

I actually think Joss Whedon did a pretty good job of wrapping things up every season in the event of cancellation as well, something other folks should do from season to season these days. Don't leave it hanging (I'm looking at you, Rob Thomas, though I did pay for your upcoming movie. Also, Barbara Hall, the creator of Joan of Arcadia) in hopes that you can dare the network to not cancel them.

* To be fair, they did explain the polar bears in a not-bad way. As for the Opera House...well, they tried. Still want to kick Ron Moore for the Starbuck thing, though.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:08 PM on June 24, 2013


The reason Buffy's sixth (and ultimately seventh) season were weak is that St. Whedon thought it was going to end with season five.

People always say this and I've never seen any actual evidence. If Joss wanted to end Buffy at five seasons he simply would have. The Gift is a great season finale, and seasons 6 and 7 have many many problems, but Buffy ending with The Gift would robbed the series of a lot of its thematic heft.

Another character, they lost and then got back, requiring a quick abandonment of the plot they had concocted around her replacement.

Are you talking about Ivanova? Claudia Black never came back, it was just that the series finale was shot during season 4.
posted by kmz at 4:24 AM on June 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another character, they lost and then got back, requiring a quick abandonment of the plot they had concocted around her replacement.

Are you talking about Ivanova? Claudia Black never came back, it was just that the series finale was shot during season 4.


Patricia Tallman played Lyta Alexander in the pilot movie. In Season One she was replaced by Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters. Winters left the show in Season Two and they brought back Tallman as Lyta to continue the telepath storyline. Which meant that the storyline of Winters' alienation from PsiCorps and growing telepathic powers was dropped and handed over to Alexander.
posted by creepygirl at 6:43 AM on June 25, 2013


Try to have some idea of what that weird thing might mean, even if you end up changing your mind on it later.

Both Davies & Moffat have fessed up to doing a lot of that on Dr. Who. Davies planted a bunch of seeds knowing explicitly that they could go in different directions depending on whether or not David Tennant re-upped his commission. But on a show like that I think you're just continually banking Items Of Possible Significance, knowing that you can always ignore or retcon them later as needed.

In that way, Dr. Who makes an interesting model, since the whole thing becomes a sort of schizophrenic fever-dream of retconned significance. Reality is basically fluid, and their challenge is to remold it in a way that the viewers find stimulating and pleasing. Obviously that's a little harder to do with The Wire.
posted by lodurr at 8:25 AM on June 25, 2013


Since Doctor Who just came up and the sf-savvy population here is so high, a few more observations....

The Expansionary model, where open-ended mythology is slowly built up with no planned resolution, has always lurked within science fiction. Science fiction creates these Expansionary mythologies simply by filling in blanks in its backstory. To some extent, the genre forces it, since science fiction requires you to make up new rules of reality, and you can’t blame fans for holding you to those rules. If you say the Enterprise can only go to Warp 9 in one episode and the next week it goes to Warp 10, some fans will be peeved.

Speed limits are easily overlooked, but Doctor Who stumbled into the problem when it started giving explanations for the origins of its main character, who had just been a mysterious traveler with a time machine for almost a decade before the “Time Lord” mythos was introduced ad hoc. Since then, it has been elaborated upon, modified, rewritten, ignored, contradicted, erased, and unerased, so that any retrofitted coherence would be as stupid as it would be pointless. But that doesn’t stop people from wondering whether the current show-runners will pay heed to a throwaway line in 1976 that Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times. We wouldn’t even be having the discussion had writer Robert Holmes picked 30 or 300, but because he picked 12, we get to debate whether the show’s creators will ignore the number or address it somehow, as the number of actors who’ve played the Doctor passes that magic number.

And just in case there's someone here who isn't already reading it, Tardis Eruditorum has covered these issues intensely as they've affected Doctor Who over the years.
posted by waggish at 9:28 AM on June 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


a good deal of the fun for me in the newest incarnation of Dr. Who is watching to see how long the showrunners can continue to up the ante. It's what I tend to think of as the Claremont Problem, after Chris Claremont -- I've thought of it that way since about 30 years ago when a friend pointed out in exasperation that Claremont was basically setting the universe up for annihilation about 2-3 times a year.
posted by lodurr at 9:56 AM on June 25, 2013


It worked out nicely for The Wire, whose underrated fifth season was only hampered by the need to bring all plotlines to closure simultaneously.

I'd argue The Wire avoided the "Big Crunch" trap by having largely self-contained seasons. Each season was a discrete "chapter" and could pretty much exist on its own. In this way, you could say it was "Expansionist" in the short term, but "Steady State" in the long term. Across seasons, the characters change and grow and you get to know them better, but you could appreciate the individual seasons without being fluent in the "mythology".

Season 5 had its own problems. The most significant, I would argue, would be a lack of compelling new characters. I actually didn't mind that Season 2 dropped everything in favor of the dockworker drama, because I thought the dockworkers were interesting. Of the "newsroom" cast that's introduced in Season 5, I would argue Gus is the only interesting, nuanced character. The others are either nonentities or straight-up villains. McNulty's foil -- I can't remember his name, the dishonest reporter guy -- is nowhere near as nuanced or believable as McNulty.

Other problems with Season 5 : I had a hard time believing Freamon would go along with McNulty's fake serial killer bit. Also, lots of scenery-chewing on the part of McNulty, a character who we're supposed to believe suddenly ditched all his hard-won self-actualization to re-engage with his inner megalomaniac alcoholic.

It's interesting you name Mad Men as one of the "failed mythology" expansionist shows. I'm inclined to agree, although it's less apparent in Mad Men than, say, BSG, simply because Mad Men does what it does so well. It all seems so intentional, it's hard to believe it isn't actually going anywhere. The only time we see snatches of this is when they lead us down obviously irrelevant blind alleys, typically involving a principal character's family. See : Betty's dad subplot, Peggy's preacher subplot, pretty much any subplot involving Peggy's family, Pete's mom's senility, Don's affair with the teacher, Joan's bisexual roommate, etc.
posted by evil otto at 1:45 PM on June 25, 2013


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