"Of course, this data has some problems. "
September 15, 2015 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Televised storytelling is often characterized as “episodic” storytelling. Whereas a movie generally tells one long story, successful TV in the United States is often about the creation of an engine for continued storytelling. You can’t just tell a story and stop, you have to keep telling stories, until you hit that magic 100 or 200 episodes and the syndication checks start rolling in.
Towards A "Case of The Week" Quotient
And then I reached out to the fine folks out there in OTI-land for help – coding a series episode by episode is fairly time-consuming, and I wanted to cast a little bit wider net of shows to see what I could come up with. And boy did you come through in fine style! I received submissions from a number of different people, coding a diverse array of shows.

With that data in hand (and one show from me), I’ve got 7 new shows to add to my data set:
The Case Of The Week Quotient Returns!
posted by the man of twists and turns (31 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I feel like this post needs the "cheeseburgertelevision" tag. For those who do not know what 'cheeseburger television' is. I define it as the following: predictable, satisfying, fulfilling, and easy to access/find/consume. (Law & Order, CSI, Bones, Blue Bloods, Elementary, etc.)

All of these shows suffer from 'Case of the Week' syndrome. And even though I appreciate long-form story-telling like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, sometimes you just want a cheese-burger.
posted by Fizz at 9:53 AM on September 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


I'm really surprised at how low Burn Notice's average is as a whole. As the author states, its trend is really indicative of the show's quality over time, but I also felt that more episodes were self contained than the apparent reality. Yeah, I like Burn Notice, and I'm not ashamed.
posted by lownote at 10:00 AM on September 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


For those who do not know what 'cheeseburger television' is. I define it as the following: predictable, satisfying, fulfilling, and easy to access/find/consume.

And will ruin your life if you consume too much of it?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:00 AM on September 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


And will ruin your life if you consume too much of it?

Oh absolutely, I only allow myself one or two of these shows in any given year. I'm currently consuming: Elementary and Blue Bloods. I tune in each week and know exactly what I'm going to get. I'm ok with it.
posted by Fizz at 10:02 AM on September 15, 2015


Shows like Lost, which would probably be great if they were mapped out to only last a season or two, are like a cheeseburger that starts out as a cheeseburger, but then they add so many toppings and condiments that they spill out beyond the edges of the bun, and then somebody throws a pizza on top of that mess, plus some oysters, Sour Patch Kids, a salad and somewhere in there another cheeseburger or two.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:09 AM on September 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


I propose to call shows like Lost "Bloody Mary television".
posted by J.K. Seazer at 10:11 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


The easy way to tell if a show is a "cheeseburger" is to determine if you missed an episode, would it matter to the plot, story-line, viewer, anyone?

If you could remove a chapter from a book and not notice, then I would argue it shouldn't have been there in the first place.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:17 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I like Burn Notice, and I'm not ashamed.

I, too, like Burn Notice, but the quality of the show definitely follows the downward trend of the Case of the Week Quotient. It's a great example of a show that has a premise that can really only take it so far, and so inevitably the writers have to try to find more and more outlandish ways to twist the story around until it's just not that fun anymore.

I recall the last couple seasons being pretty bleak overall -- way too serious, with weird tonal shifts away from the sort of "Miami A-Team" vibe into lots of people being killed or hurt or whatever.

I'd be interested in a similar look at Suits, which is another USA show that I think has the same problem. Fun and funny characters with a great rapport, but a central premise that can only be stretched for drama so far before it breaks. I've still got 1 episode left from last season to watch, and I've been stalling for a while, because I'm just not that excited -- I think it passed the point of no return already a good season or more ago.
posted by tocts at 10:18 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


...a cheeseburger that starts out as a cheeseburger, but then they add so many toppings and condiments that they spill out beyond the edges of the bun, and then somebody throws a pizza on top of that mess, plus some oysters, Sour Patch Kids, a salad and somewhere in there another cheeseburger or two.

Taco Town Television

Let Domey explain it to you.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:28 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


There is a curious contradiction to a lot of these shows: if they're good, I get really invested in the big arcs of the show, but it's very rare for a show to tilt its focus towards the big arcs without becoming silly and self-important and meaninglessly portentous. For Scandal, for the X-Files, even maybe for Burn Notice, it feels like it's impossible to get meaningful plot development while also preserving the structure of the series -- if you actually engage with the mytharc, at some point you break the show. So you keep on toying with the central mysteries of the series two or three times a year, and then putting them on the back shelf again, until everyone's long realized that Mulder and Scully are never going to figure out the thing, that there is in fact no thing to figure out beyond the writers dropping some tantalizing but ultimately inconsequential clues.

Buffy did better with this, especially in the earlier seasons, because obviously they weren't trying to solve the Big Conspiracy Behind The Hellmouth. Anime, which is usually 13 episodes or 26 episodes and you're done, used to satisfy my urge for longer plot arcs that actually reach a resolution -- I don't watch as much of it as I used to, but I miss that, even in this age of "serialized drama" TV.
posted by Jeanne at 10:29 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'd be interested in a similar look at Suits, which is another USA show that I think has the same problem. Fun and funny characters with a great rapport, but a central premise that can only be stretched for drama so far before it breaks.

I loved early Burn Notice, after season 2 of Suits, I got bored. USA Network does have Mr. Robot which just finished its first season, it leans more towards the Game of Thrones/Breaking Bad long-story arc. Mr. Robot is worth watching if you want something interesting and unique.
posted by Fizz at 10:30 AM on September 15, 2015


Mr. Robot is long arc, with multiple layers that could be interpreted as "Taco Town", but the unreliable narrator is like the counter kid who got your order all wrong... of course, he KNEW you'd like the carnitas better than the shredded beef...
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:36 AM on September 15, 2015


Goddammit, The Card Cheat, now I'm hungry.
posted by Etrigan at 10:46 AM on September 15, 2015


I'm kind of amazed at how low ST:TNG was. Particularly during the early seasons, it sure felt like it was all alien-of-the-week.
posted by Etrigan at 10:51 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you could remove a chapter from a book and not notice, then I would argue it shouldn't have been there in the first place.

Depends on the book. Not all books are trying to be a single continuous plotline. You could remove some of the stories from The Martian Chronicles and not notice, although it'd start looking thinner than you'd expect a book to.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:42 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


but it's very rare for a show to tilt its focus towards the big arcs without becoming silly and self-important and meaninglessly portentous

This is the worst. I hate when a cheeseburger tv show tries to become a New York strip through the magic of story arcs. Dr Who and late season Deep Space Nine I am looking at you.
posted by boubelium at 11:53 AM on September 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


There is one show that I can think of that when it moved away from an issue of the week towards an overarching plot got better: Babylon 5. The first season is weak, the second is getting better and the third and fourth are quite good. The number of incident of the week episodes drops to 0 in the fourth season. We do not speak of the fifth season, even though it contained many of my favorite incident of the week episodes.
posted by Hactar at 12:18 PM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Facinating, if I was inclined it would be interesting to run the numbers on shows with a monster of the week, like supernatural, buffy, or doctor who.
posted by Braeburn at 12:18 PM on September 15, 2015


The easy way to tell if a show is a "cheeseburger" is to determine if you missed an episode, would it matter to the plot, story-line, viewer, anyone?

This is Criminal Minds, for me. Random toppings in a Penelope Garcia bun and life is good.

There is one show that I can think of that when it moved away from an issue of the week towards an overarching plot got better: Babylon 5.

That's bc JMS wrote out the story beforehand. There's a lot of foreshadowing going on in S1. Also I think it worked out because the pace was believable. Everyone's minding their own business, having their own adventures (I loved The Episode About The Janitors) and then something big happens and sweeps everyone up in it. That's how life works. Lost failed at that because they had no endpoint to get to so it was just wheel-spinning. Mad Men hit a delicate balance, I think, between "throwaway ad pitch of the week" and the overall story.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:30 PM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Obviously to keep high levels of drama, we should be going with the BBC model, with half-seasons, and no expectation of continuing. 13 episodes, then done, finished, never see it again. It's utterly ridiculous that I should be expected to care about the Sopranos or Breaking Bad for hundreds of episodes- I have neither the time nor patience to puzzle out those convoluted plotlines or care about incremental character development.

So then, to improve everything, the Sopranos should have been two thirteen-episode series, only partially related to each other, because the joke if a gangster seeking psychotherapy is really thin. Breaking Bad should have been at most three ten-episode seasons, with Walter White dying at the end of the second one, and the series following his kids or something. Hannibal? One season, he gets caught at the end and put in prison. Done. Onto the next show. That's how you do it.

Have I mentioned that we're up to I dunno, episode 500 or so of Game of Thrones and we STILL haven't had the damn winter? When I heard "Winter is Coming" I thought it as an actual threat- by now we should be in late spring..
posted by happyroach at 12:34 PM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


IIRC the Lurker's Guide had a lot of quotes from JMS about how many B5 episodes are arc stories vs not and how the number increasing as they approach the arc climax was well planned. Partly because that's what works, partly because you reach a point in a show's run where you're probably not adding many new viewers anyways. So arc work is easier because a larger percentage of your audience is returning again and again vs having just wandered in.
posted by phearlez at 12:40 PM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Of possible related interest on topics like Babylon 5 and Lost - The Cosmology of Serialized Television.

Have I mentioned that we're up to I dunno, episode 500 or so of Game of Thrones and we STILL haven't had the damn winter? When I heard "Winter is Coming" I thought it as an actual threat-

They are coming off a summer that lasted 10 years. An autumn of 5 x 10 episode seasons doesn't seem unreasonable - or are they stuck in an Eternal September?
posted by nubs at 12:40 PM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


That's bc JMS wrote out the story beforehand. There's a lot of foreshadowing going on in S1. Also I think it worked out because the pace was believable. Everyone's minding their own business, having their own adventures (I loved The Episode About The Janitors) and then something big happens and sweeps everyone up in it.

Yeah, he had a five year arc planned going in. I actually started about a year ago to rewatch the series and blog about it, with a focus on that arc and how certain developments later in the story change your understanding of what came before ("holographic storytelling" was how JMS described it); not a new storytelling technique, but not one we saw in TV an awful lot at that time.

Anyways, I bogged down in late S1 and have kinda stalled out. In part because of life (new job, family stuff), in part because S1 is a lot of MoTW, even when you know the larger themes are getting touched on. It really picks up in S2 through S3 and then in S4, everything gets compressed to the point of insanity because he was afraid of not getting an order for S5...so S5 (as I recall - I think I only ever watched it once) is a kind of weird mess where the series basically explores some of the leftovers and sets some hooks for later works that never get established.

That Janitors episode ("A View from the Gallery") is early S5, but I think my favourite mention of how different characters in the universe are impacted/involved to greater degrees is somewhere in S4, where one of the main cast casually mention to someone on Mars about how "we won the Shadow War" and the person from Mars goes "Great! Great. What War, again?"

Anyways, threads like these remind me I should get back to that blog before I become like cortex.
posted by nubs at 12:59 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


TV sure was a lot easier to deal with when EVERY show was a cheeseburger.
posted by briank at 1:18 PM on September 15, 2015


TV sure was a lot easier to deal with when EVERY show was a cheeseburger.

It was easier from a "this occupies less mental space" kinda way, because you didn't have to track big arcs and multiple storylines and who knows what about which.

But like any steady diet of cheeseburgers, I'm not sure how good it is in the long run...I like the fact that we're at a point with TV where we expect more than just cheeseburgers on the menu, and even the cheeseburgers are a little more burger and a little less cheese, if that makes sense. Storytelling is a pretty important human tradition, and I'm glad to see TV as a medium step up its game in that regard. Because both the people making it and the people watching it are capable of handling complex stories.

I keep reading and hearing things about how we have no attention span any longer, and that no one can hold a thought longer than sixty seconds and we're getting dumber and on and on. And then I look at the popularity of things like Breaking Bad or Mad Men or a Lost or some such, and wonder - if we're all so attention poor, how come we keep tuning into TV shows that follow some complex story lines and touch on big themes again and again, and reward the viewers who watch carefully and so forth? And, yeah, that's being overly simplistic and reductionist on the question, but I still think there's a point to be made that when you tell good stories, you'll find an audience. To return to our cheeseburger metaphor, basically, what we're seeing is TV as a medium figure out that you can have cheeseburgers and steak and chicken and vegetarian options on the menu, and on you go. And one person's steak is another's chicken cordon bleu, and that's ok too. At least that's what I think.

Anyways, I seem to be kinda threadsitting so I'm gonna go have a cheeseburger. With bacon.
posted by nubs at 1:38 PM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I like the balance that Veronica Mars struck.
posted by Monochrome at 1:49 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mad Men hit a delicate balance, I think, between "throwaway ad pitch of the week" and the overall story.

There might be another axis to this too... thinking about Mad Men some more, I feel like around Season 4-5 it became more of an "anthology" show - where they may or may not have been encapsulated stories, but each episode only focused on three or four characters and whatever plots centered around them (at least in part since the cast was getting so big). Harry or Joan or Pete or Sally would move to the fore for a bit and then virtually disappear for a few episodes; Don was really the only character who showed up every single time. So besides "heavy mytharc" vs. "case of the week" there's also "the gang's all here" vs. "your turn in the driver's seat."
posted by psoas at 2:59 PM on September 15, 2015


Why has TV storytelling become so complex?

Touches on a few things I've been kicking around in my own head - more channels allows for more diversity; rise of technology (when you can rewind and rewatch shows, much easier to introduce complex elements); and one I hadn't - the engagement of "forensic fandom", which I guess I thought was more of a byproduct than a contributor, but it could be both I guess. I also wonder about generational/demographic shifts - not in the sense of being able to handle more complexity, but in the sense that expectations & demands are changing, along with an assumed ability to be dropped into the middle of something and be able to make sense of it via the Internet resources that the fandom creates.
posted by nubs at 3:12 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


along with an assumed ability to be dropped into the middle of something and be able to make sense of it via the Internet resources that the fandom creates

I would assume a big part of serial television's increasing popularity is also from the various "television-on-demand" tools like DVRs, DVD sets, Hulu, Netflix and illegal torrents that make it so it's not as easy to miss episodes (or downright impossible with something like Netflix). Although the rise of serialization started a bit before those tools really caught on so I don't think that's the prime driver here, just something that pushed it along.
posted by john-a-dreams at 3:23 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anime, which is usually 13 episodes or 26 episodes and you're done, used to satisfy my urge for longer plot arcs that actually reach a resolution

That was exactly my experience with anime as well. I was really into it in the late '90s, back when it was moderately challenging to get ahold of (often fansubbed), and a huge part of why I loved it was because its creators were willing to tell a complete story, start to finish, in 13 or 26 episodes.

Very few modern series (even those lauded for serialized storytelling) are willing to do that, and I really do miss it.
posted by tocts at 6:10 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've dumped so many shows for turning serialized when I preferred them as episodic. It's not that I only want the cheeseburgers of episodic TV, it's that way too many shows swing for a coherent mytharc or serialized plot and miss, ending up with a bloated mess with confused stakes. A shorter season helps to avoid that, but I'd also add that no show should last longer than six seasons. (Well, unless it's an anthology series, or it has significant cast turnover. Sitcoms and cartoons also get a soft pass on this rule thanks to their genre.)

Six seasons should be either a) enough time to wrap up a serialized plot (and if it isn't, you either started your story arc too late, or you let it turn into a cancerous overgrowth of plot complications), b) enough time to have hit your stride and have produced a nice batch of competent episodic television without overstaying your welcome, or c) to have achieved some ideal balance of both. Preferably, those six seasons should also feature actual character development, rather than constant reset buttons, returns to rock bottom, or no development at all.
posted by yasaman at 8:32 PM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


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