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.
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.
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!