So it seems that Heroes is killing Lou Anders’ love of episodic television:
What [Heroes is] doing that is making it for me is that it seems to be leaving the episodic nature of television behind completely. Sometimes they’ll run a “To be continued” and this just blows my mind, because in a show where everything seems to be carried forward and thru, I can’t figure out when they decide something is “to be continued” and something isn’t. I think it’s just to give us a break from the horrid voice overs, since the TBC episodes don’t have one at the end and start. What Heroes is doing to me and my wife is showing us the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.
I am actually very disturbed by this.
Because that’s how most television has been written since the medium’s inception.
I always prided myself on not being one of those people who can’t watch black and white film or refuse to watch things because they are old or the special effects aren’t up to today’s standards. My excuse was always that it’s the story that matters, not the set dressings. But Heroes is doing fundamentally different things with story. I know this began with St Elsewhere and Babylon 5 and a dozen other shows over the last decade, but the level of inter-connectivity, non-episodic format is to an entirely new degree. Rome does this too — they are really neck and neck for my affection and it’s probably just that I’m more into comics than history that puts Heroes ahead — but Rome feels just a touch more episodic.
What I’m realizing is that changes in the sophistication of narrative may forever remove me from the garden and I’m not sure I can go back.
To put it mildly, I have some problems with the value judgements being made in this argument. Before I get to them, though, a quick defining of terms: by “episodic”, I am assuming Lou is talking about series in which installments can be treated independently, even if they are embedded in a larger continuity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, was an episodic show, although it became less so as it went on (to its detriment). I’m going to call the non-episodic format “serial”, by which I mean series like 24. You can watch, say, “Band Candy” with minimal knowledge of previous Buffy, and it’ll work fine. You can’t do the same with episode 13 of the fifth season of 24. The term “arc”, I would argue, is somewhat meaningless when applied to a serial show, because in a serial show there is only arc — there’s no “non-arc” for contrast.
Next up, areas of agreement. Television drama — or at least US television drama; British tv has certainly had short self-contained serials for as long as I can remember — evolved primarily as an episodic medium. More recently — again, particularly in the US — there has been a shift away from episodic storytelling and towards serial storytelling, although I don’t agree that Heroes represents anything more than, at most, an incremental advance in this trend. (And believe me, I like Heroes a lot.) I don’t know how long the current absurd practice of an October-to-May “season” punctuated by sweeps months and periods of hiatus has been operating, but you only have to look at the way shows like Buffy would “save up” showpiece episodes and/or big plot developments for November, February and May to see how it’s affected the structure of US shows, to the point where the decision a few years ago to start the season of 24 in January and run straight through — without breaks! — to May felt genuinely radical.
This, not unnaturally, leads to the assumption that a given number of episodes in a season are filler, just there to make up the numbers. I think this is a deeply suspect assumption, but I also get the impression it may be one of the factors that leads to Lou talking about Heroes as an example of narrative sophistication: a series where every episode is essential is obviously superior, right? But that’s not the part that really gets me: what I object to most are the assumptions in the idea that Heroes is an argument against “the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.”
On any given day, my list of favourite Buffy episodes — which of course I’d argue is representative of the best episodes — would include “Lie to Me” or “Earshot”, possibly both; my list of favourite Angel episodes would include “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been”; my list of favourite Farscape episodes would include “…Different Destinations”. My list of favourite West Wing episodes would probably be comprised almost entirely of standalones, because with a couple of exceptions (end of season two) that show didn’t do much serial storytelling. All of the episodes I’ve named start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end. But “Lie to Me” is the finest articulation of Buffy‘s core morality the show ever produced, “Earshot” possibly the finest articulation of the high-school-is-hell theme; “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” is a devastatingly powerful story about, among other things, race in 1950s America; “…Different Destinations” is arguably the best televisual time travel story of the past decade; and The West Wing never failed to deal with whatever issue it chose in a thoughtful and engaging way. Put bluntly, the point is this: an hour (or rather, 45 minutes) is plenty of time to tell an interesting, powerful, self-contained story.
Nor is the difference between the individual episode and the serial one of sophistication, any more than the difference between a short story and a novel is one of sophistication. That’s an imperfect comparison, but the basic point is easily demonstrated: probably my favourite Firefly episode is “Out of Gas”, which has a narrative that weaves between three time-frames with an almost breathtaking economy and grace. It is, by any measure, a sophisticated narrative. Heroes hasn’t produced an episode to match it yet — even “Company Man”. I would go so far as to say that Heroes taken as a whole doesn’t match it yet. Certainly serial storytelling has qualities that episodic storytelling can’t replicate: an accumulation of detail, a more sustained period of engagement with the tale. But consider Battlestar Galactica, which has been alternating unevenly between periods of serial storytelling and periods of episodic storytelling since its inception. The serial episodes are, almost without exception, the better episodes of the show (the creative peak is probably the start of season two), but — though I’ve seen the suggestion made several times — the disparity has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the two types of storytelling. Serial is no easier or harder to get right than episodic; they’re different skill sets. So the problem with Galactica is not that it’s turning out standalone episodes, it’s that it’s turning out bad standalone episodes — ones that do offer too-easy answers, that rely heavily on melodrama, convenience and cliche. Serial storytelling is just as easy to do badly: look at Lost. If I wanted to, in fact, I’m pretty sure I could construct an argument that the pleasures of serials are often ultimately simplistic, familiar, consolatory pleasures — but I don’t want to, because that would be just as much a misrepresentation as the idea that a serial is more “sophisticated” than a standalone.
I feel a little weary typing all this, because I’ve been coming across variations of Lou’s argument more or less since I came online. One of the most succinct rebuttals I’ve seen in that time is, perhaps not surprisingly, by David Hines, from his review of the Angel episode “Through the Looking Glass” (the penultimate episode of the second season, while they’re in Pylea). As it happens, I think “Through the Looking Glass” is an odd choice to use as a defence of the principle, since it’s part of a mini-serial, just a mini-serial that appeared less related to the show’s larger continuity than many people would have liked. But on that principle, I think Hines is dead right.
Did I enjoy the Darla/Dru arc? You betcha. Have the writers stepped away from that a bit for more standalone-ish episodes? Yeah. Is there anything wrong with that? Nope. I enjoy story arcs as much as the next guy. But there’s something more important than story arcs — and that’s telling *good stories.* I don’t care what ANGEL tells stories about, as long as the show tells good stories. If the writers felt inclined to make season three an all-standalone year, that would be fine by me; many of ANGEL’s very best episodes (even this season) have been standalones, and I’ll take a story like “Untouched” over one like “Redefinition” any day of the week. Other shows, including one from Mutant Enemy, have gone story-arc crazy and suffered. Give me a good tale well-told any day.