Most of us have watched or at least know of Breaking Bad, the gritty television show about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin following a cancer diagnosis. It’s probably one of the most acclaimed shows of the last decade. But how does a show like Breaking Bad come about? What laid the groundwork for the so-called “golden age” of serialized television?
Serialized drama is nothing new to storytelling as a whole. You can probably trace the origins of it back at least a few centuries. But serialized television is a relatively new thing, brought about only in the last decade or two. Most television shows of the past (such as The Fugitive or Quantum Leap) had a basic, underlying premise that unified the show, but the episodes themselves were largely standalone affairs, with maybe a two-part episode here and there. A big reason for this was due to the time-based nature of television. If you wanted to keep up with a show back in those days, you would either have to be available at a specific time on a specific day to watch it or have a friend catch you up on any episode you missed. Thus, television shows were very much “story of the week” type affairs, with the hero arriving somewhere and doing something (usually to help out some distressed person) for that episode before taking off.
Nowadays, things are different. Shows are more likely to build an undercurrent mythology that runs through the entire series, allowing fans to dig deeper into its world. And this is something that probably started in the late ’80s, early ’90s.
The first show I can really remember having grander serialized elements was Star Trek: The Next Generation (or TNG for short) which ran from 1987 to 1994. It was one of those defining television shows of the time, changing the way television was done from characters and storytelling all the way to the practical effects (early on whenever the ship shook the actors had to jiggle back and forth to simulate the effect, whereas later in the show they had a mechanical set that would shake back and forth on command, making a much more believable effect). In terms of storytelling it was one of the first I had seen that actually had lots of recurring elements (Romulans, the Borg, Q, and so on). Most television shows beforehand maybe had a single recurring villain or theme, but outside the main cast of characters nothing really stayed the same from week to week. TNG was still very much an episodic or standalone type of show, but often standalone episodes would include those recurring elements, helping to build the sense that the show was part of a larger universe. But while it may have started the trend (and I honestly can’t be certain on that one…the history of television storytelling is a very murky affair at times), it took other shows to really give it a boost.
One of the biggest influences on this type of storytelling was The X-Files. I recently talked about the X-Files‘ return to television after a fourteen year hiatus, and one of the things I noticed is how it felt locked in the ’90s. It felt archaic in its storytelling, especially compared to more modern shows that improved the formula it helped start. X-Files had two types of episodes. The first type was standalone episodes dealing with a mysterious occurrence of the week that Mulder and Scully would have to investigate. The second type was known as “mythology episodes” and dealt with a grand government conspiracy regarding the existence of alien life. The show was highly influential, building interest in the idea of a singular, recurring story within a show (Fringe, among many other shows, would copy this format later on). But in the end, X-Files left a bittersweet taste in people’s mouths because it simply went on for a bit too long, leaving to most people becoming frustrated with the lack of progression in the show’s main arc.
In an article for The American Reader, David Auerbach calls X-Files out on this, complaining that it wasn’t planned out from the start. He says this about a lot of other shows as well, including the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galatica (well worth watching if you’re a fan of dark sci-fi). I wasn’t a major fan of this article, mainly because I feel as though the writer went out of his way to criticize popular television shows while praising shows like Veronica Mars (a name which, unless you’re a member of the cult fan base, probably has you saying “oh yeah…that was a show that existed at one point”). The thing Auerbach doesn’t seem to take into account is the time period a lot of these shows were in. Yes, X-Files suffers in later seasons due to being on for so long, but it also aired in the ’90s before serialized shows were big. It deserves some leeway for being the inspiration for a lot of the serialized storytelling we enjoy in television today. Sure, if the show hadn’t aired back then and was thrown on TV now, it wouldn’t look nearly as good. But historical context can carry a lot of weight.
Even then, it wasn’t really until Lost aired that shows really began to make use of serialized stories. Lost aired in 2004 and quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Sure, the series ending polarized a lot of the fan base (as a fan of the show, I can tell you that I found the finale to be incredibly disappointing in a lot of ways), but the show was influential in creating a base for deep, character-based storytelling. In the first season of the show, many of the episodes would center around one particular character, giving us their backstory through flashbacks and explaining how they ended up in the plane which eventually crashed on the island. And they continued to use this format, telling stories about the characters that took place before the island and giving us an in-depth look rarely seen on television up to that point, if at all. It made character deaths seem far more poignant because of this focus on their backstories. The show may have been flawed and the writers may have pulled a fast one on their fans by claiming they had the end planned out when they totally didn’t, but to simply dismiss the influence it had because of these complaints would be ridiculous (but of course there will always be those people who insisted that the show was trash and that they knew it was trash the whole time because hipsters and stuff).
Serialized storytelling is still evolving, just like television as a whole. And oftentimes, it will suffer due to the way television works (many shows don’t get a good heads up on their ending date, leaving them to either scramble to put together a finale or end the show on a cliffhanger). But judging by the general preference for serialized television shows (as evidenced by the success of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and other shows), they are here to stay. They allow for a greater sense of investment, one that we don’t often get in this era of viral videos and social media trends. Things come and go, often faster than we can react. Sometimes it’s nice to have something that we can stick with for a long time, because it gives us a sense of substance, of meaning. It may not always work out in the end (many shows have trouble resolving everything into a satisfying and conclusive finale), but for many of us it is the journey that truly counts.
Well that’s all I have for this time. Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.