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Serial Killers: Are HBO-Style Dramas Ruining the TV Episode?

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I’m currently fighting off a cold so potent that you probably caught it simply by reading this sentence, so blogging may be a little light for a while. Fortunately, my colleague and critic-pal Ryan McGee at the A.V. Club has offered up an essay that should keep you busy for a while. In it, he argues that The Sopranos and every hallowed HBO drama that followed it (like Luck) have changed TV for the worse by focusing on long-form stories at the expense of individual episodes that are enjoyable on their own terms:

The Sopranos opened up what was possible on television. But it also limited it. It seems silly to state that the addition of ambition to the medium has somehow hindered its growth, but making HBO the gold standard against which quality programming is judged has hurt television more than it’s helped it… HBO isn’t in the business of producing episodes in the traditional manner. Rather, it airs equal slices of an overall story over a fixed series of weeks. If I may put words into his mouth: HBO doesn’t air episodes of television, it airs installments.

This isn’t merely a semantic difference that paints lipstick on the same pig. It’s a fundamentally different way of viewing the function of an individual building block of a season, or series, of television. Calling The Sopranos a novelistic approach to the medium means praising both its new approach to television and its long-form storytelling. But HBO has shifted its model to produce televised novels, in which chapters unfold as part and parcel of a larger whole rather than serving the individual piece itself.  Here’s the problem: A television show is not a novel. That’s not to put one above the other. It’s simply meant to illuminate that each piece of art has to accomplish different things. HBO’s apparent lack of awareness of this difference has filtered into its product, and also filtered into the product of nearly every other network as well.

I can’t say I agree with McGee overall, though I do think he’s right that not all great TV shows should be HBO-type serials. Falling into the mind-set that there’s one way to make TV — be it long-form narrative or anything else — means that some shows will end up shoehorned into a format that doesn’t work best for them.

That said, I think McGee’s essay (1) overstates a problem that (2) is not much of a problem to begin with. For starters, HBO, AMC and FX notwithstanding, most television today is still highly episode-oriented. And I think focusing on the importance of one form or another — the stand-alone episode or the long-form series — is a bit of a rarefied critics’ concern. The episode, as a genre in and of itself, doesn’t matter much; nor does the long-arc series. What matters is good stories, and overall, I think the trend toward more-serial dramas has been good for them, for a few reasons:

• It’s true that a TV series is not a novel. But it’s also not a movie. Every medium works best when it takes advantage of what’s distinctive about it. TV is linear and cumulative, allowing a story to unfold over weeks, months or years. There were good business reasons to structure TV stories that began and ended within one episode, and many of them are still best told that way, but the ability to spread a story out is part of what makes TV TV.

• One argument McGee gives against serial stories is that some shows (he cites The Killing and The Walking Dead) have adopted the form to be taken seriously as a drama to negative effect. Without getting into the specific examples, I’ll grant that this may be true, but it’s also beside the point; if only a handful of shows and creators can really execute a long-term story well and brilliantly, I would hope it does not follow that we’d be better off if no one tried, because the failures are too sad.

• Which brings us to the crux of McGee’s argument: “creating a layered, lengthy narrative is really fucking hard,” and a number of shows have wasted viewers’ time trying to tell stories beyond their skill sets. One big danger, he says, is that you end up with series that are so focused on nailing down and mapping out a long-term story — he cites Flash Forward, rightly — that they sacrifice character. That’s definitely a problem, but the fault is not with serial storytelling; it’s with a fundamental misunderstanding (both by fans and creators) of how serial storytelling should work. One of the most unfortunate legacies of Lost, I believe, is the mistaken concept that writers should have the end of their stories planned out at the beginning — that making it up as you go along is a sin, rather than a key element of organic, character-based storytelling. McGee is right that adhering to a rigid story map undermines characters by making them subservient to plot. But that’s not an argument against serial stories; it’s an argument against bad serial stories, ones that fail to recognize that they’re supposed to allow for surprises and unexpected detours.

A TV show is not a novel — nor is it a short story, nor anything else but TV — but it can still benefit from following E.L. Doctorow’s description of novel writing: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” If more TV makers would keep this in mind, it would go a long way toward solving some of the problems McGee points out.

But I’m starting to defeat the purpose of this post, which is to buy myself some time to rest up. Go take a look at McGee’s essay. I’m going to hunker down with a box of tissues, a pot of tea and several episodes of a long, serial TV drama.