Procedural Gains? The Value of “Case of the Week” Television Shows

A long time ago, television was different.  Shows mainly focused on the weekly adventures of its characters, very rarely (if at all) connecting them in any meaningful way beyond the initial premise (i.e. “Gilligan’s Island”).  But nowadays we have shows like “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead” which have a single, continuous story going on throughout their episodes.  Television has changed quite a bit.  I wrote a bit about serialized storytelling in television shows a while back, where I basically said that it’s becoming more and more the standard for television shows.  But what about those “case of the week” shows?  You know, all those shows like the “Law and Order”s and the “NCIS”s and even that “CSI” show where it’s imperative that David Caruso put his sunglasses on at the end of each episode.

 

We have sunglasses! Repeat. we have sunglasses! ROLL CREDITS!

 

Well, these type of shows are still around.  “But,” you might be asking, “how are these shows surviving if serialized storytelling is becoming the norm?”  Well, some of them aren’t.  “CSI: Miami” has been off the air for about five years now.  But even so, “CSI: Maimi” went on for ten seasons and the original “NCIS” is still going (they’re on season fourteen as of this writing).  So how did they make it?  How are they still drawing an audience in the age of serialized storytelling?

Part of it has to do with the nature of broadcast television itself.  Since each episode airs at a specific time on a specific night, it’s sometimes difficult for viewers to keep up with an overarching story.  You can watch recent episodes of shows on digital streaming services like Hulu, but a lot of those require a monthly fee.  It’s just simpler to watch a show where each episode is its own story that doesn’t connect the other episodes.  And they’re sort of relaxing in a way.  I’ll admit that I watch some of them back to back when I go back to my parent’s house for a weekend, partially because I don’t have television at my apartment (I do have a handful of broadcast channels, but nothing on them interests me).

But even with this simpler nature, the streaming age is still marching on.  As more and more people gain access to these services and as the internet infrastructure in the United States and other countries gets stronger and stronger, these shows will lose that edge.  If you can watch a show anytime you want, that pressure to sit down and watch at a specific time disappears entirely.  And it seems that broadcast television is aware of that in some way.  More procedural shows have started injecting serialized elements into their DNA.  Lots of crime shows will have arcs that take place over multiple episodes.  A good example of this would be a main character suffering an injury in an episode and then the following episodes dealing with the fallout and limitations of that, all while they go about solving the crime of the week.

And this is something that procedural shows are very good at.  In serialized shows, we see characters always under pressure, always struggling against great odds.  But rarely do we get to see how they’d react to what they’d consider a normal situation.  Procedural shows are actually good at giving us glimpses into the normal lives of their characters, rather than using broad strokes like most serialized shows do.  It actually tells you a lot about a person when you see how they respond to a normal, everyday problem rather than an extreme one.

On the flip side, when serialized shows try something like this it often ends up feeling forced or it messes with the pacing.  A good example of this would be in season three of “Breaking Bad”.  There’s a segment that deals almost exclusively with domestic drama between Walter and Skyler.  And it’s just…boring.  There’s a lot of tension, but very little release.  It doesn’t really go anywhere and it just feels as though the writers were looking for a way to eat up time.  I mean the best moment from that section of the show is Walter bringing his family a pizza.

 

Incidentally, this scene was so popular that the show creator had to make a statement asking fans to stop throwing pizza on the roof of the Walter White house.

 

The strength of procedural shows lies in the myriad ways they can examine their characters.  “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did a wonderful job with the episodes focusing on Data, the resident android.  In a way, we got to know Data far better than any of the other characters on the Enterprise. which made him a fan-favorite from the series.  It would be a shame if we lost that power because television is growing more and more serialized.  That being said, it appears broadcast television has a ways to go before they can compete with the likes of “Breaking Bad”.  In particular, ABC seems to go through new shows like a hot knife through better.  Remember “Time After Time”, the show about H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper?  If you don’t, that’s okay.  It was cancelled after five episodes.  And this happens a lot with broadcast.  I mentioned once that I thought broadcast television was too focused on the plot twists instead of the characters.  And the advertising seems indicate that, with commercials focusing on “that twist you’ll never see coming”.

But progress inevitably continues.  And eventually, they’ll have to catch up…sooner or later.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story!

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Media Evolution: The Rise of Serialized Storytelling in Television

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 BadMad MenGame 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.

What’s in a Story? The Importance of Narrative Fiction.

Considering how often I like to talk about stories (particularly in video games and the like), I thought I’d take some time to examine why such things even exist.  Why are stories so important to us?  Back at the dawn of our existence, sitting around a campfire, we shared stories of the hunt with our fellow humans.  What is their purpose?  Why do we seem to need them?

Recently some outrage occurred on the internet (big shock right).  It was announced that for the new Star Wars movie they were throwing out most of the expanded universe (essentially stories that exist in some form beyond the movies).  This got some hardcore fans really upset, with some making the comment that they quote “wasted twenty years” reading those books, as if one person or company’s re-evaluation of canonical material immediately invalidates another’s enjoyment of it.  If you enjoyed reading those books, you didn’t waste your time is how I see it.  But it made me wonder, why were people so up in arms about it?  What power do these stories hold, and why are they so important to the people who read them?

We’re going into existential territory this week, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

Escapism

The most obvious reason for the intrinsic value of stories is escapism.  The grind of everyday life can get to us, as it often does.  Sometimes, we need to immerse ourselves in a world not guided by complex social and societal factors, where money isn’t always a constant concern, and where events and people are larger than life.  We want the comfort of a place scripted beforehand, where the events are carefully crafted and constructed by a writer for the enjoyment of the audience.  Nothing goes wrong without intention.  The randomness of the real world does not apply.

Dragons, fairies, heroes and villains, all tropes of a fantasy world that doesn’t abide by the rules of the world we live in.  Whenever we read these books, watch these movies, or play these games, we are visiting an impossible realm of magical proportions.  No one who went and saw Lord of the Rings in theaters thought to themselves “yeah, that’s an accurate depiction of life”.  Realism isn’t usually a primary concern with such things.  The entire point of it is to be fantastic, because that’s what people are drawn to.

The climax of the game Max Payne 3 involves the titular hero taking on an army of private military goons in a Brazilian airport.  Is it realistic?  Oh no.  Is it epic?  Oh yeah.

The climax of the video game Max Payne 3 involves the titular hero taking on an army of private military goons at a Brazilian airport. Is it realistic? Oh no. Is it epic? Oh yeah.

When I fire up a game like Dark Fall or Alan Wake, I don’t go into it analyzing it by real world mechanics.  I don’t question the plausibility of ghosts and the supernatural.  I enjoy the ride, let myself be taken away by the fantastic elements present in the games.  It’s not about how realistic it is, it’s about how enjoyable it is as a form of entertainment.  Sometimes I feel like people forget that, and start over-analyzing all the little details.  Because in the end, no piece of narrative fiction is truly realistic because it’s always scripted in the same ways and never changes, unlike real life (unless you want to get into solipsism in which case, for the love of god, don’t).

Mirror Mirror

Escapism helps explain most of our fascination with stories, but what about those other stories, the ones with characters that aren’t perfectly heroic or morally good?  What about those stories with characters you don’t care for, characters whose actions can cause you to despise them?  Where do their stories fit in, and why are we so fascinated with them?  Why is Walter White’s slow descent into evil in Breaking Bad such a fascinating experience for us?

It has to do with something I like to call the Mirror Effect.  There’s a genre of literature called satire, where the follies and evils of humankind were made to be larger than life and more ridiculous for the sake of pointing them out to the audience.  The story’s purpose in that sense was moralistic, to point out our flaws so that we can better ourselves.  Essentially, it put a mirror up to our society so that we could see in full view the things we ignore or just plain don’t notice in our culture that are considered detrimental by the author.  Satires were especially big during Shakespeare’s era, with many playwrights leaving social commentary peppered throughout their works.

But it’s not just satire that falls under this effect.  Many works that aren’t satires have left their comments on our societal ills.  The 2009 movie District 9 is a clear example, with the story of humans oppressing and mistreating extra-terrestrial refugees a dead ringer for rampant racism that is still present in our modern day.  Stories classified under the horror genre are good at this as well, exposing our very human faults and our capacities for great evil, greater than some of us can even imagine.

The story of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs isn’t just about the main character’s descent into madness and quest for redemption. It’s also about the fear of ourselves, of what we are capable of as a species.

In Walter White’s case, it is a tale of greed and pride gone too far, of vanity that destroys.  At the beginning of Breaking Bad, Walter has a chance to solve his issues without going into the drug trade.  However, for reasons of pride, he chooses to make meth instead of accept charity from people he dislikes.  Walter slowly and surely transforms into a monster, and by the end of Breaking Bad‘s five season run, he has alienated himself from everyone he cares about, and the fault lies directly with him.  But we still understand his choices despite the absolute terror he becomes, because his choices are so flawed but so human at the same time.

The power of narrative fiction to reveal certain truths present within ourselves and our society cannot and should not be denied.  But they can only go so far.  Stories aren’t some mystical magic spell.  They can’t just fix our problems just by existing.  What they can do is point them out to us.  Fiction can be like a signpost, pointing the way to our problems so that we can build our way to the solutions.

Closing Thoughts

In the end though, I think it mostly comes down to entertainment.  Stories are there for us to enjoy.  We like seeing this portrayals of over the top heroes just as much as we like watching the flawed anti-heroes.  We like watching stuff explode and people struggle with issues that are both believable and ridiculous.  We like watching the drama unfold, because it is thrilling for us.

I feel like the people who complain all the time about certain things not being realistic in a movie or television show or whatever are missing the point.  Who cares if that car wouldn’t explode like that in real life?  Who cares if that explosion wouldn’t be that big realistically?  Who cares if that object wouldn’t float that way in space?  It’s entertainment, pure and simple.  If you find yourself spending more time focusing on such tiny details, then I’d say you’re missing the point.  You can think that way if you want, but I feel like you’re just depriving yourself of a good experience over something incredibly inconsequential.

It started with tales around a stone age campfire, progressed through myths and fables, and has since become a multi-billion dollar industry of storytelling, for better or worse.  Storytelling comes as naturally to humans as breathing and walking.  It is fundamental.  It is powerful.  And it is here to stay.

We all have our different ways of enjoying stories, but we enjoy stories nonetheless.  Regardless of our own personal preferences and inclinations, we can all agree on the fact that our love for fictional narratives runs deep down into our history.  We can complain about the state of Hollywood, that the movie industry has become a place for phonies.  We can complain that the video games industry has become too focused on money and budgets.  But the fact remains that despite all that, we will continue to look for new stories to enjoy.  We will continue to indulge our lust for escapism, our almost voyeuristic interest in the lives of fictional people.  Because that is who we are.  We are storytellers.  We are creative.  We are artists.  We are human.

And that’s all for this week.  To access next week’s post, run down a long hallway, narrowly escaping an explosion by diving out a window at the other end.  Until then, have a great week.  See you next Wednesday.

The picture from the video game Max Payne 3 was taken from the Steam store page here.