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!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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The Woes of Broadcast Shows

To get started, let’s take a look at this promo for an episode of the show Designated Survivor:

 

 

Nothing unusual here right?  Just an average promo for a television show right?  Well that’s sort of my problem with it.

I stopped watching shows on broadcast television a long time ago (the last show I followed was Fringe, and that ended its run four years ago).  My issue is the kind of thing you see in the trailer.  Instead of actually giving us a clue as to what might happen next, it dwells on the “shocking” twist at the end of the mid-season finale.  “The shot that shocked the nation,” it proudly proclaims before going on to tease “who took the bullet?”  Because that’s the kind of hype these shows are built up on.  How many television show promos have you seen tease a plot twist you “won’t see coming”?

For another example, let’s take a look at the ABC series Scandal.  Scandal‘s main premise is about Olivia Pope, who is a “fixer”…that is, someone who gets rid of problems for people who can afford it (namely the rich and powerful).  Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of season one:

“Season 1 introduced Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the various members of her firm, as well as President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) and his chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Season 1 focused on the lives of the team members, the relationship between Olivia and the President (her former employer), and the mystery surrounding Amanda Tanner’s (Liza Weil) involvement with the White House, among other cases the team solved.”

It doesn’t tell us much about what happens in season one, but it doesn’t need to.  Scandal clearly started out as a procedural type of show with some recurring elements.  I’ve never watched it myself, but that’s the impression I get from the summary.  For contrast, let’s take a look at season four’s summary:

“The first half of the season focuses on Jake’s arrest for the death of Jerry Grant after Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator. Rowan continues to try to make everyone believe Jake is guilty, which inspires Olivia to find out the truth for herself. After forcing Tom to reveal Rowan as his operator, Fitz, Jake, and Olivia make a plan to arrest Rowan. Unfortunately, the plan fails, causing Rowan to shut down B613 and start eliminating B613 agents. Olivia tries to kill Rowan when she confronts him, but he manages to flee. Abby is now the White House Press Secretary, and is struggling with gaining the respect of Cyrus and Fitz, because they choose to demean her by calling her “Red” instead of Abby. Later in the season, Abby finds herself stressed even more by the presence of her abusive ex-husband, who has been nominated for Virginia State Senator, and she enlists Leo Bergen to help ruin his campaign. Quinn has stayed in contact with both Abby and Huck, in addition to trying to find Olivia.”

Did you get that?  No?  Me neither.  It just sounds like a mess of different plot points.  And that’s not even the entire summary.

Now, to be fair, any show with an overarching plot can sound confusing if you just jump in four seasons deep.  But even so, Scandal‘s season four just sounds like it’s over-stuffed with plot elements.  Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator, but Rowan is the real operator!  They try to get Rowan arrested but the plan fails!  Meanwhile Abby has to deal with office sexism!

Even just watching the preview for the next episode of Designated Survivor gives you an idea of how quickly things can get out of hand.  Pro tip: if you’re only halfway through the first season of your political espionage thriller show, maybe don’t make the Vice President of the goddamn United States your bad guy.  Because honestly, where do you go from there?

And that’s my big problem.  It seems that network television spends most of its time trying to out-“OMG” the competition rather than producing good, solid content.

From 2004 to 2010, Lost demonstrated the potential of serialized television shows.  It wasn’t really until Lost that network television really started to shift in that direction.  The groundwork was laid by shows like X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was Lost that really brought it all together.  Sure, the show was (and still is) mocked for not giving any real answers to its mysteries, but its strength lay in how fleshed out its characters were.  Over the course of six seasons, you got to know a lot about their lives…almost too much.  But Lost was also known for all the crazy plot twists that happened.  They were all the crazy “water-cooler moments” that people talked about the day after an episode premiered.  And it seems that’s what network television took note of, so now broadcast shows are just a race to get the biggest “OMG” water-cooler moment of the year.

I mean, it might actually be working.  For all the guff I gave Scandal‘s fourth season, it apparently has the highest Nielson ratings of all of them.  But the story is different for Designated Survivor.  On average, the ratings have been dropping ever since the premiere episode.  This plot twist obsessed mindset is not going to be sustainable forever.

One of the most talked about shows last year was Stranger Things, a show that was exclusively on Netflix.  Broadcast television has always had an edge because it’s free, at least in the sense that you don’t have to pay a bill every month to watch.  But as streaming becomes more prevalent and more affordable, broadcast TV might be on the way out.  Instead of having to wait and see what happens next episode, you can just click “next episode” (although you’ll still likely have to wait for new seasons to come out).

I talked about this a little bit when I spotlighted Person of Interest, but one of my major issues with broadcast television is that there’s so much filler content, even in shows that claim to be serialized.  And this is because broadcast networks are obsessed with ratings, which means that they give shows these twenty-odd episode seasons that they are required to fill up.  Now, obviously, it’s nearly impossible to make all those episodes about an over-arching plot without it quickly growing convoluted and incomprehensible, so most shows opt to have filler episodes surrounding the main story.  This is what Fringe did, and while I still very much enjoyed the show, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the show had been on a non-broadcast network or had been a streaming show.

This format isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s very stifling in a creative sense.  And unless broadcast television changes its ways, I don’t see much of a future for it in the age of on-demand streaming.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

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.

The Truth is Still Out There: A Reaction to the X-Files Revival

Note: spoilers for all of X-Files, new and old, follow.  Read at your own risk.

Few television show themes can claim the same fame as The X-Files.  It’s one of the most recognizable themes ever, with people being able to pick up on it only a second or two in.  It was a show that helped reshape television in the ’90s, airing from 1993 to 2002.  It was the longest running science-fiction television show until it was eclipsed by Stargate SG-1.  It holds a special place in many people’s hearts, myself included.  I can credit the show with being a major part of the reason I’m a fan of the horror and science-fiction genres.

But that was then.  And this is now.

Ever since the news about the show’s revival, fans have been patiently waiting to see how it would all turn out.  Other shows had been given the revival treatment and done well afterwards, heralding what many believed would be a return to form for what they consider one of the greatest shows to ever grace their screens.

I found myself underwhelmed by this new season.  It’s hard to fight the feeling that it might just be too late for X-Files.

 

Let’s start off by discussing the format they decided to take with this season.  They were given six episodes to work with, which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for having filler content.  So what ends up happening is this: we get four standalone episodes and two episodes that deal with the overarching plot.  The standalone episodes are sandwiched in between the serialized episodes.  It’s what would you expect from the X-Files back in the ’90s.

And that’s exactly the problem.

X-Files debuted in a time when suspicion of the government was a common thing and conspiracy theories were widespread.  It sat comfortably in an era where the government was not to be trusted.  But things are different.  And now, the show feels like it’s trying too hard.  In the second episode, the dead person Mulder and Scully are investigating is revealed to have had a secret gay lover.  That’s fine.  It’s a real thing that happens, and served as a decent red herring leading to an amusingly awkward moment.  But later on in the episode Scully makes a pointed remark about how strange it is that the man would have to hide his sexual preferences in the year 2016.  That’s when it started to hit me.  The writers were deliberately saying to the audience “hey look, we’re topical…look at us we’re still relevant!”  And it became even more obvious in the next episode when Mulder and Scully interview a transgender person about a monster they saw.  At that point, I said to myself “you guys aren’t even trying to be subtle anymore.”

Then they did the Muslim bomber episode.  Because apparently you can’t have an investigation show without an episode about Islamic terrorists…

Not to mention that the episode is easily the weakest of the bunch.  The tone of the episode veers off all over the place.  First it’s about the debate over Muslims in the United States.  And then it’s about two quirky FBI agents who are basically younger versions of Mulder and Scully.  And then it’s about the allure of revenge, of getting back at the terrorists who commit such acts.  But hey, look over there!  Mulder’s tripping on some magic mushrooms ha ha ha let’s laugh at that for five minutes straight (it is admittedly amusing).

But wait no, that’s all wrong.  The episode is REALLY about the power of love vs. hatred or some other philosophical hoopla.  It’s like here’s point A, here’s point B, and the line in the middle is a scribbled mess similar to a child’s early attempt at drawing.

You know what?  I’ll draw it out for you.

 

I am the best at art. Don't you try to deny it.

I am the best at art. Don’t you try to deny it.

 

But I digress.  All of this topical stuff wouldn’t feel so out of place if it wasn’t  X-Files.  X-Files was about supernatural mystery.  It was about conspiracy.  It was about the pursuit of the truth.  It didn’t need to shine a light on the issues of its era.  It didn’t need to be so heavy-handed.  In essence, it seems that the show is playing catch up, trying its best to handle all of the big subjects that passed it by when it was off the air.

This becomes increasingly evident when you look at the mythology episodes (the episodes dealing with the serialized story arc).

If you were a fan of the show back in the day, you’ll likely remember that the main story arc of X-Files dealt with a massive government cover-up of the existence of alien life.  As the show got deeper and deeper into its run, a main antagonist was revealed in the form of a cabal of super-rich people with ties to the government.  Their main goal was to ensure their survival in a post-alien invasion world.  They agreed to cooperate with the aliens to ensure a smooth colonization of Earth as long as they and their families were spared the aliens’ wrath.  And all of this, as the series finale revealed, was set to happen in December of 2012.  The show ended without resolving the major plot, promising (or at the very least implying) that all would be brought to an end in a future movie.

And then they made the movie and it had nothing to do with the overall alien plot, leaving the fans unfulfilled.

But now, with the new season, the writers apparently decided “screw all that” and completely rewrote the entire mythology of the show.  I wish I was joking.  Basically in the first episode Mulder stumbles on this revelation that all their years on the X-Files were just an elaborate ruse to cover up an even greater conspiracy.  Apparently the aliens never wanted to invade at all.  They were only showing up because humanity finally had the capacity to wipe itself out with nuclear weapons.  They were worried about mankind, and the government used technology and medical data obtained at the Roswell crash to set up this elaborate conspiracy to wipe out all humans except for a chosen few.

And the plot starts sounding so absurd.  “They’re using satellites to control the weather,” the characters say.  “They’re militarizing the police force!  They’re controlling the food and water supply.  They’re controlling us with healthcare!  They’re using the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act to oppress the poor!  They’re slipping things into our vaccines!  They’re using microwave towers as a means to trigger a super virus, destroying our immune systems and culling the planet!”  It’s like they took all the conspiracy theories they could get their hands on and threw them in a blender.  In all fairness, part of the problem is that they only had two episodes dealing with the main story, so it ends up feeling rushed because of that.  Honestly they should have taken the entire six episodes and wrote one long arc for the entire season instead of trying to cram a bunch of standalone plots in there as well.  People don’t want that anymore.  People like their serialized shows.  They like Breaking Bad.  They like Game of Thrones.  By comparison, X-Files‘ structure ends up feeling archaic.

In a lot of ways, the new X-Files is a shambling zombie, limping behind its livelier counterparts in the television world.  It’s ironic, because X-Files helped define the kind of serialized storytelling that modern TV shows employ.  But now it’s caught between evolving and holding on to the remnants of its past.  It tries to be topical and deal with modern subject matter, but it also retains too much of the ’90s quirk (especially in the third episode, which while funny can be seriously off-putting for some).  Television is different now.  A show like X-Files can’t find great success in the same way it did back then.  If the show wants to stick around, it needs to evolve.  It needs to show audiences that it has something new to offer.  Granted, it’s hard to judge from only six episodes, but if the trend continues it could be bad for the show.

And yet, despite all that, I don’t hate the new season.  I never found myself overcome with an urge to simply stop watching.  Part of that might be due to my nostalgia, but I’d like to believe that the show still has a lot of life in it.  Despite my gripes about the new mythology and how it basically ignores a lot of what occurred in previous seasons, it still has a compelling atmosphere to it.  I found myself intrigued about where it will go from here.  And looking at how the season ends with a giant cliffhanger (that, fittingly enough, would feel squarely at home in a ’90s television show), it’s obvious that the creators have plans to keep the show going for a little while at least.

X-Files was revolutionary back in its heyday.  Let’s see if it can’t recapture some of that magic.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.