Episodic vs. Serial: FRINGE - Complications Ensue
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Friday, November 27, 2009

I just watched a slew of FRINGE eps. I'm at the point where, having issued a Big Revelation with Earthshattering Consequences, the series goes back to being almost entirely episodic: weird cases with small consequences. Procedural stuff. A monster attacking people. A Bad Scientist.

I'm trying to thread this needle with a show I'm developing, but it's difficult, because once you introduce the Earthshattering Consequences, what are the heros doing fooling around with these minor cases? It was a problem we faced on Charlie Jade: once we establish that the stakes are the destruction of our entire universe, how can Charlie do anything that isn't directly related to stopping that from happening?

In the third of several episodic episodes (DREAM LOGIC, EARTHLING, OF HUMAN ACTION), there was a last minute tie-in to the uberplot, but it seemed fairly vague.

Is this some sort of fight between the network wanting an episodic weird-science-of-the-week show, and writers wanting a Big Season Arc? I don't know, but I know which show I'd rather watch.

7 Comments:

Here's my question: which hold up better in Syndication(or DVD sales), episodic dramas or comedies? With episodics, I need to 'find out how they resolve this'(hence, higher ratings), but the DVDs I am prone to go back and watch time and again are comedies like Family Guy.

By Blogger sean, at 10:47 PM  

I think it is possible to balance between the uberplot and the day-to-day missions of the characters. You just need the right show.

Take Angel for example. They're faced with an indestructable villain and they need to put this guy down hard! Now! But along the way, they don't lose sight of their primary mission - to help the helpless. So if someone jumps in front of them needing help, they have no choice but to help (thus taking us away from the tense uberplot and throwing us an episodic show/episode).

Interestingly, in Angel, the title character was up against Darla and Drusilla. He knew he needed to stop them, but an episodic moment appeared, meaning they had to save a kid's life. The other characters were all for it - this is what they do! But Angel wasn't interested. He rushed through the episodic mission to get to the ubervillains.

So it's interesting to play with these ideas - hwo do characters react. They do what they do on an episodic basis for a reason. So when that conflicts with something bigger and badder, we get more tension.

Having said all that, I see what you mean - slightly unrealisitc to take a full step back from the big plot. But then maybe it's not just the networks etc - maybe the viewers like to take a step back as well?

By Blogger Neil, at 6:10 AM  

It could be network vs. writers but it could also be an attempt to appeal to all.

One to put to Seth Godin, I guess.

By Blogger Karel, at 6:25 AM  

The new USA Network series White Collar has one interesting serial/episodic strategy. Neal is following a set of cryptic clues left by his girlfriend before she disappeared, but he doesn't want Agent Burke to find out about it. Which is of course different stakes than save-the-world, but because the ongoing serial mystery is happening in secret, he can't take a break from the weekly cases to focus entirely on it. Come to think of it, this worked for Buffy sometimes too--the season arcs about Buffy's ongoing romantic life weren't always out in the open.

By OpenID thirdreel, at 11:07 PM  

Your point about big vs. small consequences is an interesting one.

To understand that it may be helpful to reflect on our own society. The earth's environment is bad and getting worse. Given that, I'm always stunned by the concerns of those around me--black Friday shopping, Tiger Woods' backing into a fire hydrant, blah, blah, blah.

By Blogger David, at 11:16 AM  

Ya, but you can't fix climate change yourself. The heroes of sf tv series are often the only people who can prevent a fatal rift in the time-space continuum.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:30 AM  

I'm always partial to the idea that the episodics reveal tidbits of information that can later be incorporated into the uberplot.
See: Doctor Who.

By Blogger Cunningham, at 11:43 AM  

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