Only a few years ago, there was a whole slate of series that I felt excited about, both for the stories they were telling and for the new uses to which they put the television medium. These days, there isn't a single show that engages me that way. There's a natural turnover to fannish affections--some series end, either prematurely or past their time, and others keep going but lose their freshness and originality--but up until a few years ago I could always count on new titles replacing the ones that dropped away or faded in my affections. If I look at my television viewing habits today, I find a few series, such as Dexter or Doctor Who, that I like but am no longer thrilled by, and a whole bunch--30 Rock, Chuck, How I Met Your Mother, The Sarah Connor Chronicles--that I follow but am not very attached to. The closest thing I feel to genuine fannishnes these days is the anger and exasperation aroused by Battlestar Galactica or Heroes, and their failure to be the next step in the evolution of television storytelling I'd hoped for. I don't think this is just me. Every year there are fewer and fewer interesting, groundbreaking new series on the air, and more procedurals and tired retreads of last year's success stories.
It was with these glum thoughts in mind that I happened upon this LJ post by cryptoxin, and through it these two articles, by Maureen Ryan at The Chicago Tribune and Jeff Jensen at Entertainment Weekly, about the fading glory of what Jensen calls the second golden age of television.
There have been harbingers of The End for a while, but the death knell came with the writers' strike; it demonstrated how tenuous our relationship is to a TV show: How quickly it can disappear! In the strike's aftermath, viewers became both reluctant to re-engage with the old shows that left them hanging and wary of the new shows that promised unique vision or quirky cool. While J.J. Abrams' hipster sci-fi series Fringe is attracting just 9 million viewers a week, its time-slot rival The Mentalist, a conspicuously old-fashioned CBS crime procedural, was the No. 1 show the week of Dec. 9, with almost 19 million. And if viewers didn't abandon dramas with continuing story lines in 2008, they certainly found them less essential. (Prison Break, down 23 percent; Grey's, down 12 percent; Heroes, down 26 percent.) With demand for edgy entertainment shrinking, so is supply. Media industry volatility and recession economics are pushing TV networks toward the safest, sanest options possible. Sopranos wannabes are out; Bones clones are in.Ryan, like Jensen, thinks that television has 'lost its nerve,' and that a weaker economy means that networks are less likely to take chances on esoteric, demanding entertainment. While there's doubtless some truth in this, I'm struck by Ryan and Jensen's assumption that scripted television can fall into one of only two categories, episodic or serialized, and that thought-provoking television will almost inevitably belong in the latter. Take a look at the series that, in Jensen's argument, are suffering from the after-effects of the writers' strike: Prison Break, Grey's Anatomy, Heroes. I don't follow the first two, but it's been impossible to miss the increasingly loud carping of their fans as both series have delved further and further into ridiculous plot twists and soapy shenanigans, and as someone who is still watching Heroes, I know firsthand that those viewers who have given up the show in disgust did so with good reason. Being serialized isn't the same thing as being good TV, and when a serialized show goes bad it usually does so far more spectacularly than its episodic counterparts, in the process souring its viewers on other shows like it.
Jensen and Ryan are, however, right when they say that we've been experiencing a golden age of television. A decade and a half (Jensen calls it a mere decade, but he's ignoring ER as well as, predictably, most of the groundbreaking genre series of the early 90s) in which writers and directors stretched and tested the capabilities of the medium, most notably the serialized and even novelistic form. Whether that period is at an end or whether we're simply experiencing a lull, this is an opportunity to look back and learn some lessons about what does and doesn't work on television, and from where I'm standing, serialized television doesn't have a great track record.
Most heavily serialized or novelistic television series collapse under the weight of their own structure--Babylon 5, so enslaved to J. Michael Straczynski's five year plan that it imploded the moment its structure was altered; Carnivalé, doggedly persisting in its slow, meandering plot progression despite its obvious creative stagnation; Veronica Mars, which produced a stellar first season and then went to pieces as its writers desperately scrambled to tell yet another story with characters they had no further use for and a setting they'd played out. This is not even to mention the shows like Alias and The X-Files, which pretended to be serialized only to devolve into nonsense, or the sheer tonnage of series that never made it past a season or two and left fans waiting for an ending that would never come. It's not the writers' strike that soured viewers on televised novels, but the novels themselves, and the realization that to become invested in one is almost always a losing proposition.
All of which is not to say that I'm abandoning Dexter for The Mentalist and its ilk. Both Ryan and Jensen use the term serialized to encompass anything not formulaic, and end up lumping very different series under the same umbrella. Lost and The West Wing. Prison Break and Battlestar Galactica. Heroes and The Sopranos. It seems to me that there aren't, as both of them insist, two distinct kinds of television series, but three:
- Formula shows - most episodes are self-contained and follow roughly the same basic plot. Characters and settings may be replaced but always with someone or something that performs the same function. The characters' roles and importance in the show remain fixed--secondary characters stay secondary, main characters stay in the main cast. The status quo rarely changes, and if it does it's in order to temporarily wrongfoot the audience and then quickly return to normal.
- Serialized shows - one single overarching plot drives the entire series. Individual episodes rarely stand alone or have their own self-contained plots. Each character has a predetermined role which carries it through the story, their personality and prominence either changing or remaining the same as the plot demands. Settings and characters are replaced in order to advance the series-long plot.
- Soaps - open-ended on the macro level, but often comprising self-contained plot arcs. Episodes will usually perform the double duty of telling individual stories and advancing the current arc. Character and plot interact--changes in setting dictate changes in the characters' personalities and roles, and vice versa. Secondary and tertiary characters can become more prominent and advance to main character status, and main characters can fade into the background.
Complicating the issue is the fact that no television series belongs solely to only one of these types. Most series combine attributes of at least two, and over their lifetime may shift from one type to another. The X-Files was a formula show with serialized elements that slowly took over it. The Sopranos was a soap, but constantly created expectations of serialized storytelling by teasing the audience with the possibility that it would devolve into any number of mobster film clichés. Buffy and Angel both started out as formula shows, then became soaps, and in its fourth season Angel made the transition to fully serialized show. Farscape was also formulaic in its first season, soapy in its later ones. House uses its formulaic plots for the soapy goal of showcasing the title character and his antics, in much the same way that the Sherlock Holmes stories are a delivery method for that character's inimitable shtick. Lost started out a soap with serialized touches, but fans rebelled at what they rightly perceived as the writers yanking their chains with no intention of delivering a satisfactory payoff, and the show was retooled into a fully serialized story.
Most importantly, as cryptoxin noted in the LJ post that started me down this line of thinking, the serialized storytelling model has so thoroughly permeated the television landscape that even the most rigidly formulaic procedurals take care to include serial elements--the hunt for the serial killer who murdered the main character's family in The Mentalist, an unsolved crime which spurred the female lead in Castle to become a cop. Which, I believe, is one of the factors contributing to the resurgence of procedurals on the TV landscape, as these serial-tinged formula shows offer viewers no longer satisfied by pure formula a hint of overarching plot without requiring the loyalty and attention to detail that true serialized shows demand from their audience. And that, I think, is the reason we may truly be at the end of the golden age of TV, and why there are so few fannishly engaging shows on our screens these days--it's not that serialized storytelling has failed, but that it succeeded too well. It's become an industry standard, and as a result television is becoming increasingly plot-driven. You've got a lot of people making serialized shows, and a lot of people making serial-esque formula shows, but hardly anyone is making character-driven soaps.
Which is a problem, because if the last fifteen years of experiments with novelistic television have shown us anything, it's that TV is a medium much better suited to character-driven stories than the plot-driven kind. It's intimate, continuous, open-ended (especially in the American model)--great qualities if you're trying to get to know a character or an ensemble, but often a hindrance to telling a self-contained story. It also occurs to me that fannish enthusiasm tends to accumulate around series with strong, appealing or interesting characters more often than it does around strongly plotted shows, and in fact some of the most popular fannish shows are ones with great characters and poor plotting, which leave enterprising fans with a lot of room to play and improve on the show's invented universe. A self-contained, plot-driven story is also one that leaves less room for such playful exploration, as most deviations from the canonical plot have nowhere to grow, and viewers are thus relegated to a passive role. This is not to say that plot is unimportant--most of my favorite series have engaging plots and premises, and I have no interest in shows like Grey's Anatomy or Brothers & Sisters, whose goal is simply to explore interpersonal relationships--but I can enjoy a series with good characters and indifferent plotting (such as the supernatural soap Being Human, which recently concluded its first season) whereas an impeccably plotted show whose characters are blank will usually leave me cold.
The last fifteen years have been characterized by attempts to port cinematic tools over to television (visually as well as narratively), and these have resulted in some tremendous successes and a revitalization of the medium. Used in self-contained 'events' or British-style mini-seasons, these tools can continue to enrich the television landscape, but if the unspoken aim of the industry becomes to make television indistinguishable from film, then--well, then we'll end up pretty much where we are right now. I think it is right to say that we're at the end of the second golden age of television, not because serialized television is at a wane but because the innovations that sparked that golden age have been fully digested and incorporated into the medium's makeup, for better and worse. What we need now is the next big thing, the next new tool with which writers will shake up an inherently conservative, risk-averse industry. Stay tuned.