EPISODIC VS. SERIAL - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, September 03, 2005

We burned out on watching Northern Exposure about 8 eps into Season 3. We sort of felt like, okay, we get the show. But it wasn't coming up with new material. Maggie would bitch at Joel. By the end of the episode they'd sort of be an item. Next episode, Maggie would be bitching at Joel. A series where relationships don't change much from ep to ep -- where you can pretty much just dip in at any point and know everything you need to know without a "Previously On" -- is called "episodic," as opposed to a "serial" show where story arcs span several episodes or the whole season/series.

DMc has a blog entry somewhere (I couldn't find it just now) about how networks like episodic series better than serial ones, and why he hates that. And our experience with NX just now reminds me why episodic doesn't work very well on DVD. The template shows its bones. Even on an inventive show like NX, you start to see the writers' habits and tricks. Maggie's in bed with Joel? Oh, yeah, that's obviously a dream sequence. We had the same problem with Boston Legal. Look, someone else is wearing something silly on his head.

You see that on a serial show, too, but it matters less, because there's an overall story to follow. Friends had its episode stories, but you could watch a lot of it before burning out, because you wanted to find out what's going to happen with Ross and Rachel, Chandler and Monica. It wasn't just a sitcom, it was a soap, too.

(I also liked that they weren't afraid to break the Bickering Couple rule. Ross and Rachel slept together within, like, the first two years. Then they were a couple. Then they broke up. You never knew where the writers were going to take that relationship. They'd figured out that the source of dramatic tension in that relationship wasn't whether they loved each other, but whether Ross respected Rachel and Rachel thought Ross was cool. And neither of them did. So they could be a couple and it wouldn't ruin the show.)

When you air a show on TV, its bones don't show so much. The viewers have a week to forget your writerly tricks. On DVD, where people throw in the next episode right away, you can't get away with stuff so much. Or rather, if you want to get away with it, you have to give them something else to hang their hat on. Like a real season arc.

I think that's going to change TV over the next 5-10 years.

4 Comments:

'Twas I who brought up that subject on DMG's blog and I'm sure glad I did. Both of you have given me some awesome opinions and advice on how to win over the prodcos and nets by selling them on the advantages of having a semi-serial TV series instead of mostly stand-alones. Thanks very much to both of you.

KJC (who's looking forward to working with you both someday)

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 10:30 AM  

I found the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series downright addictive on DVD. Also, I make sure each year to not watch 24 on TV but catch it on DVD -- though that would probably change if I had TiVo.

By Blogger Steve Peterson, at 1:54 PM  

Northern Exposure remains one of my all-time favorite TV shows, but like many other TV shows I've considered great (except Cheers and Frasier), its originality became an affectation after the first couple of years. I still enjoyed it for another couple of seasons, but beyond that I was watching more out of habit than anything else. That being said, even though I think Frasier's writing was as sharp at the end as the beginning, it does suffer for me from the DVD experience, as you point out. I haven't identified why yet--it may be Frasier's personality--but halfway into the first season I found myself needing to get away from it for a while.

By Blogger Clint, at 2:48 PM  

I think audience's like a certain level of familiarity, and the "bone's" are padding to follow the basic plot. Plus the first run determines if it even becomes a popular DVD title -- if it's a hit, you can start playing with the drama later. I don't like shows that impose a heavy commitment-levels up front, before I have a chance to warm up, preaching at me for missing 'church'.

Also those that buy the DVDs are already somewhat fans, and will not look at such with the same screenwriting critical analysis de jour. The 'templates' are the story, if the story is good, well pour the coals into a good thing.

As an example, been wading through Punky Brewster during my babysit tour-of-duties, and the "bones" there make your teeth hurt, but the charm and character development overrides it all. Northern Exposure, Simon and Simon, Cheers, Night Court, Malcolm in the Middle, Lucy, Beaver, Brady Bunch, 70s Show, CSI, Law and Order, WKRP, M*A*S*H, Happy Days and such, all have similar "bones", but they are megahits.

I think the trick is to spin the episodic tune a tad differently each episode, give it a differing pitch, throw the curve ball, but still firmly plant the usual strike. A very short arc, layered with a differing very short reverse or sideways arc upon that, instead of the James Michenerish encyclopedic long arc. If you want grand tour-de-force serial, like write a novel.

But looking at just the base economics, the Simpsons 6th and the Muppet Show 1st are episodic's. And Serial by the time it gets to DVD, the outcome is already known, hence you have to provide MORE material, hence more expensive. Also one reason why Reality TV doesn't play as nice on DVD. Serial on DVD needs something extra, some spark that you didn't see on TV. And Serial doesn't always age well either, but episodic is pretty much timeless.

By Blogger Christopher Coulter, at 10:52 AM  

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