There is currently a pretty big disconnect, as far as I can tell, between the kind of tv shows that writers love to watch, and the kinds of tv shows that networks want to be pitched.
Ask anyone, the networks want episodic shows. They want shows you can tune in for episodes 5 and 8 and 11 and not feel you missed anything.
The kinds of shows I like are, oh, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and DEXTER and MAD MEN. Sure, each episode tells some kind of story that completes by the end of the hour. But you really can't appreciate what you're seeing if you haven't seen a few recent episodes.
For sure, serial shows are harder to write. We painted ourselves into one or two pretty tight corners on CHARLIE JADE. Expectations are higher. No one would have minded the mess at the end of BSG if it hadn't been the culmination of years of story arcs.
But serial shows are more satisfying to write. You get to take the characters places. We got the BUFFY boxed set and we're watching Willow change from Hacker Girl to Cute Teenage Witch to Power in Her Own Right to Big Bad. And that's on a show that strives to give you an hour's complete entertainment.
Network execs will tell you that even viewers who say they watch a show tend to watch only about 1 out of 4 episodes. (That's hard to fathom because when my friends watch a show, they watch every episode or stop watching it. They buy the DVD or TiVo the whole thing. But I've heard this from several people who ought to know these things.) The danger with a serial show is that every time you lose a viewer, they don't come back; while it's very hard to get new viewers in mid-season. Who's going to start watching 24 in the middle?
When I'm pitching, I'm continually trying to thread the needle. So are many of the writers I know. We talk about X-FILES and how there was always an episodic story but it often contributed a clue to the überplot; or VERONICA MARS. We try to stay away from mentioning LOST; apparently it doesn't count because no one knows why it's working in spite of its ridiculously complex story arcs. (Maybe because of the ridiculously complex story arcs? But you can't say that.) And we try very hard to make sure there is a strong episodic story motor in the template of the show.
It's frustrating, because you can point to any number of successful shows that are blatantly serial. Soaps, even. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. GRAY'S ANATOMY. GOSSIP GIRL. Anything on HBO or AMC.
I dunno, maybe there's a list of showrunners who are approved to write serials. Obviously, serials get made. Maybe it's like movies and hooks: it's not that movies don't get made without hooks, it's just that you
can't get a movie made without a hook.
But the moral of the story is: the TV you love may not be the TV network executives want more of. Serial shows are a pain in the ass. You lose audience when you preempt them. You lose audience when you move them. And then if you cancel then, people mail you boxes of nuts. Safer to license CSI: WASILLA.
Or you can just go ahead and pitch what you love, and hope it comes out all right in the end.
Labels: serial vs. episodic