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TV: Big-picture story vs individual episodes

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I've tried out nearly a dozen new-to-me TV series recently; I'll post more about them soon, but for now I have a general observation.

In many series, there's an overarching long-term storyline; in such shows, each episode usually has its own plot, but also advances the big-picture storyline to some degree. It's sometimes called the show's “mythology” or “arc”; TV Tropes calls it a “Myth Arc.” I don't find any of those terms very satisfying, so I'll just call it the overall storyline.

What I realized recently is that in most shows that have an overall storyline, that storyline is what I'm most interested in—but I think the individual episode storylines are generally what the people running the show are most interested in. The overall storyline is there to keep viewers watching, with tidbits of information doled out in one or two Arbitrary Information Units per episode, but that information is often treated almost as an afterthought.

The specific instance that led me to this thought is Burn Notice, which Kam and I have now watched the first few episodes of. The overall storyline is a spy story, but the individual episodes are more or less detective-show mysteries. (In this show, the two kinds of stories don't even match in genre.) The protagonist claims to be primarily interested in finding out who issued the burn notice, but he spends almost all of his time solving mysteries and rescuing people in distress. (Though I'm told that later in the series there are episodes that are much more focused on big-picture stuff.)

I think the same kind of thing is probably true of most shows that have this structure, going back to The Fugitive or maybe earlier for all I know. (And including that whole subgenre of shows featuring an itinerant protagonist finding someone in trouble each week and helping them.) For me, the individual-episode stories feel more or less like distractions along the path of the overall storyline; whereas I suspect the writers (and most viewers) of such shows see the individual episodes as the point, with the overall storyline being a carrot to lure the viewers to keep coming back.

Note that I'm mostly not really talking about an open-ended overall storyline like “Will Lorelai find love?” or “Will Vinnie survive as an undercover cop long enough to take down the bad guys?”; I'm mostly talking about overall storylines that pose a specific mystery to be solved, like “What alien menace is the government conspiracy covering up?” or “Who issued the burn notice?” or “Who is the one-armed man?” or “What killed the protagonists' mother?” or “Who is Red John?” I'm not sure I can firmly delineate between open-ended and specific overall storylines (and I'm sure there's a big grey zone between them), but they feel to me like different things.

In some cases, the big-picture storyline isn't for a whole series, just for a season. The beginning of the season sets up what looks like it's going to be a season-long storyline, and so I expect that every episode will be focused on that story—and then it turns out that half the episodes of that season don't even mention the season story. When Buffy season 7 did this, I thought it was just really bad pacing, with forward momentum starting and then lurching to a halt every couple of episodes. But then I saw the same thing in Leverage season 3; it looked like the whole season was going to be dedicated to dealing with the Moreau issue, but there were entire episodes where he wasn't mentioned. I eventually realized that I was misinterpreting. What I was seeing as a season-long storyline, the show's writers were seeing as a backdrop, or as a several-episode storyline shown in intermittent chunks over the course of a season.

Recognizing this disconnect definitely helps me appreciate the shows for what they are. But it nonetheless leaves me a little disappointed; it means that most shows, no matter how promising or intriguing their big-picture storylines are, are unlikely to be what I want them to be.

There are, of course, shows that don't distinguish much between big-picture and individual episodes, shows in which most episodes are important parts of the overall storyline. I tend to like that approach a lot—about half of my favorite shows take something like that approach—but such shows can get so immersed in their storylines that it can become difficult for new viewers to find an entry point.

And there are shows that are somewhere in between; I often like those too. Hill Street Blues tended to have overlapping two- to three-episode storylines. Nikita has plenty of standalone episodes that aren't focused on the season-long storyline, but I suspect that even those episodes would be largely impenetrable to someone unfamiliar with the backstory. And so on.

So I'm not trying to set up a set of firm categories here. I'm just observing that in general, if there's a longer-than-one-episode storyline, I'm likely to be more interested in that than in the one-off standalone stories that (to me) interrupt that storyline, even though I think the writers often see the standalone stories as what the show is really about.

4 Comments

Arbitrary Information Units: I love it. It really does apply to a certain set of shows that aren't so much formulaic as modular. Burn Notice is a good example. X number of words about helping people + 2 AIU + Y number of words of spycraft voiceover + chain-smoking Sharon Gless + generic Miami exterior/bikini shots = Episode. (Effective, insofar as it was a DVR got-to for a few seasons...but it also hasn't occurred to me to check if episodes we haven't seen are on Netflix.)


I too am generally more interested in the longer story arc than in the individual episodic stories. However, I've resigned myself to the fact that television is highly focused on episodic storytelling, and rarely does a good job with story arcs. I think the commercial demands of American network television work against story arcs; most shows gets an initial order of 13 episodes, and then maybe 11 more for a full season, and then an unknown number of following seasons. (And of course there's the time pressure of having to produce an episode every week and a half.) With constraints like that, long-form storytelling is difficult.

I think Buffy paved the way for long-form storytelling on television -- before that, most shows were almost entirely episodic -- and that it remains perhaps the best example of combining season-long story arcs with case-of-the-week episodes. My complain with most shows that try to do story arcs is that they try to set up a mystery that will last the entire run of the series; these are just about impossible to resolve satisfactorily. What Buffy did was set up a new arc for each season, one that could be resolved satisfyingly but didn't mean the end of the series. Some other series that did this were Veronica Mars and The Wire. I wish more series would attempt this format.


Owls: I like "aren't so much formulaic as modular"—well said. And your recipe for a Burn Notice episode is spot-on from what I've seen so far, though a couple of people have now told me that there are later episodes that do focus on the big-picture plot—and I gather that there are season-long chunks of big-picture plot, with the goal changing each season.


Ted: Good points, especially about the constraints of TV production.

My perception was that Babylon 5 was the show that really paved the way for long-form TV storytelling of the kind we're talking about; before B5, I didn't see much of anyone attempting this (though I didn't watch a lot of TV), but after B5, it felt like everyone in certain kinds of shows jumped on the bandwagon. I don't know whether there was cause and effect there, though; it may just have been zeitgeist. And certainly Buffy was more widely popular and may've done more to popularize the approach.

Definite agreement about the problems with entire-run-of-series arcs; if the show can't resolve the central mystery without ending, then the writers are setting themselves up for it to be unsatisfying. It doesn't help that, as far as I can tell, half the time the writers have no idea what the resolution is from the start, and the other half the time (at least on sf shows) the resolution is something mystical and vague and unsatisfying. And after years of buildup, pretty much any resolution is likely to be unsatisfying.

I was going to say (expanding on a couple of your points) that part of the problem is not knowing from the start how long your series is going to run; but then it occurred to me that even when you think you do know, it's easy for things to go awry, as demonstrated by B5's near-cancellation and revivification resulting in huge structural and pacing issues.

I agree that season-long storylines are a good compromise, and I think more and more shows are doing that, but it bugs me when (as in season 7 Buffy and season 3 Leverage) even the season-long storyline is frequently ignored in favorite of standalone eps. Somehow this didn't bother me in Veronica Mars, perhaps because I never felt that Veronica and the writers had completely forgotten about the big picture.

I haven't yet seen The Wire, but it's on my list; a huge number of people have recommended it over the years.


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