Monday, March 16, 2009

The End is Nigh? Thoughts on Serialized Television

It's spring, a time when, in recent years, a television aficionado's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of new pilots, and the faint but ever-present hope that unlike the fall selection, this batch will include at least one that doesn't suck. So far, the prospects are not good. The jury is still out on Dollhouse, but let's be honest: if the show had anyone's name but Joss Whedon's stamped on it, we'd all have dropped it by now. Nathan Fillion's new series Castle is fine in the sense that it'll keep him on our screens for what I suspect will be a much longer time than either Drive or Firefly managed, but if the pilot is any indication it's a cross between House and The Mentalist with both of those shows' already not very prominent rough edges filed off. Last night saw the premiere of Kings, quite possibly the highest concept non-genre series since Dexter hit the airways. I haven't watched the pilot yet, but it would be nice to think that Kings has both the intelligence and the guts to do justice to its premise. Even if it does--and if it survives longer than half a dozen episodes--the television landscape around it will still be bleak, a vast desert of reality TV, talk shows, cop, doctor and lawyer series, and, in lieu of genuine oases, the occasional Lost or even Heroes.

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.
At first glance, it might seem that the distinction I'm drawing between soap and serialized show is merely an arbitrary line on the spectrum between purely episodic and purely novelistic television. After all, from the viewers' vantage point, is it really that important that Londo was always intended to play a major, tragic role, but that Lorne only became a main character because both writers and audience were enchanted by him? To my mind, however, there is a crucial difference between these two types of shows--the difference between plot- and character-driven storytelling. For all their differences, formula and serialized shows share the attribute of being oriented towards plot. Whether the characters and their roles change or stay the same is dictated by the plot--individual episode plots in the case of formula shows; overarching, series-long plot in serialized shows. Soaps, in contrast, are character-driven. They can have strong plots, but whereas in formula and serialized shows the plot is the point and the characters merely the engine that drives it, in soaps the characters are the point, and the plot something that happens to them.

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.


Matt said...

Being something of an optimist, I'm hoping that the evolution of serialized television is only beginning. We've been holding serialized shows to the same expectations as episodic television, and by we I mean both viewers and the networks. A successful episodic show lasts for maybe 6 or 7 seasons, but the last few years have made it clear that serialized shows are nearly impossible to stretch out that long without disaster.

I think the British/HBO model of short seasons and long gaps between them is probably where things are going. That's not just how it should be; I think there's a noticeable trend of shows going in this direction, if only to be able to offer their fans a payoff even if they get canceled early on. Kidnapped and Daybreak come to mind as quite successful narratively (albeit not commercially) because they set out to be essentially 13-episode miniseries. Compare that to 24, which had a stellar first half-season, but when the full order came in the writers had to resort to amnesia to make it to a full season.

Can anyone point to a serialized show that lasted more than two seasons without suffering a nervous breakdown? I like Lost but it was in pretty bad shape before it was given an ending date and rallied. I haven't seen some of the bigger HBO series like Sopranos though.

Jonathan M said...

Matt -- the reason for that is because shows go into production after months and months of the head writers working out exactly where the show needs to go. After a while, that bank of initial ideas gets a run on it and they have to do a more or less hard reboot.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Longevity is an issue, but before the sophomore slump becomes a problem a show has to get past its first season. Daybreak and Kidnapped (as well as the other kidnapping show the premiered around the same time) are good examples. They arrived on the scene just at the point that resentment over unresolved serial storylines (because of premature cancellation or because of Lost-style chain-yanking) had bubbled over, and were heavily advertised as self-contained stories with an ending already in the can. As I recall, when Daybreak premiered ABC made public promises to air all 13 episodes no matter what (promises which I think it broke, to very little public outcry).

None of these assurances made a lick of difference because they didn't change the fact that all three shows were duds. I watched their pilots and yawned. Their plots were slack, the characters were thinly sketched, and the mysteries failed to grab me. Which brings us to a point I pretty much neglected in this post - that structure is meaningless if you haven't got good writing, though once again I think audiences are more forgiving of badly written shows with good characters than vice versa.

Can anyone point to a serialized show that lasted more than two seasons without suffering a nervous breakdown?

The only example I can think of is Dexter, and that's mainly because after a plot-driven first season the show moved towards character-driven storytelling in its second and third.

Jakob Schmidt said...

Interesting point about Buffy and Angel - I think part of why they worked so well is that both series did not just change direction towards soap/serialized, they kept elements of the formula series (often to make fun of them). Even though the overall storyarcs of these series were not that original, this combinaiton kept both of them unpredictable (in a good way, as opposed Lost, which disregards its characters in favour of arbitrary plot twists).
I guess the time of experimenting that started with series like Twin Peaks, X-Files and Babylon 5 is (for now) over. What was then new now seems stale and uninspired.

However, even if the second golden age of television is really ending, I'm not that worried - the number of new pilots each season is still huge, and there are bound to be enough gems to keep meh occupied. And then there are also so many great series to go back to. At the moment, I'm rewatching X-Files and Millenium, and even though they are not up to todays standards in many ways, I'm still surprised how outstanding some of the episodes are. I can change between Millenium and the Sopranos without feeling that Millenium were a significantly lesser experience.

Also, I'm quite axcited about HBOs adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire ...

And: I don't know if Six Feet Under would be considered serialized or soap (it certainly had elements of both), but at least it didn't suffer a nervous breakdown after season two. I think all five seasons of it worked quite well.

Tzvika Barenholz said...

At the risk of using pop psychology, isn't it possible that TV has stayed more or less the same (after changes upon changes) and it's actually you who've grown up and do not get attached to the serials of today the way you did to those of the 90s?

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I forgot about Twin Peaks (mainly because I was never a fan, and only caught episodes here and there), but you're right that it was an important early harbinger of non-formula television.

I never watched Six Feet Under regularly, but from what I saw it was definitely a soap, albeit one more willing than most such shows to make sweeping changes to its characters' lives.


I'm not sure what you mean. Nowhere in this post do I talk about reevaluating individual shows, and the specific reactions I list are the ones I had on my first viewing. Even Babylon 5, which so gravely disappointed me when I revisited it after a decade's absence, only did so on the writing and characterization level. I could have told you that the fifth season had gone off because of the series's inflexible structure back when I first watched it in 1998.

What is true is that I was excited by serialized storytelling when it first arrived on the scene, because it was something new and different. I've spent the last decade and a half consuming and thinking about this kind of television, and as a result I've come to some more nuanced conclusions about its strengths and weaknesses. It's called learning.

Raz Greenberg said...

I'm not sure regarding your conclusion about Dollhouse: in fact, if it had been anybody's name other than Whedon's on the show, I would have probably been far more forgiving towards the show's faults. After all, when Buffy debuted, I didn't have the first clue as to who Whedon is, and I kept watching (even though the show didn't really find its voice until the second season).
I think the old cliche about poor and hungry artists doing a better job is right when considering the problem you note in this post: J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Carter and Joss Whedon spent years at the bottom of the film/tv making-process before getting their big break (Whedon had a better-paying job than the two others, as a script-doctor, but he still didn't get to do his own thing). They didn't screw up - at least not as much as they did later - because they just couldn't afford to. In their later efforts, they felt comfortable to go in directions that some would call "experimental" and I would call "overconfident", believing that viewers will follow them everywhere.

So I think the next big thing in genre TV - serialized or not - is not going to come from any big, familiar name. It would come from nowhere - just as "Babylon 5", "The X-Files" and "Buffy" did.

Andrew Stevens said...

Raz, while your thesis is a plausible hypothesis, there are a couple of other plausible hypotheses on why poor and hungry artists might do a better job than established ones rather than taking too many risks when successful. 1) Established artists might have used up all their best ideas in becoming famous. Lots of people have one good idea; few people have twenty. 2) Older artists probably have less creativity than younger artists. It seems to me that creativity declines with age. Writing ability tends to improve with age, however, and it seems like the best intersection of these two normally occurs in one's mid to late 30s. So Straczynski was 39 when B5 started, Whedon was 33 when Buffy started, and Carter was 37 when X-Files started. Whedon, probably due to his privileged upbringing, saw his writing abilities peak sooner and higher than the other two. Straczynski is probably the most creative of the three, but the worst writer, and Carter really just riffed off of Twin Peaks when coming up with The X-Files. (Both series even have an FBI agent played by David Duchovny.) Carter's primary contribution was making it all genuinely spooky.

Twin Peaks, by the way, changed everything about television. Its concept was basically just a soap opera, like Dynasty or Dallas, but its impact was enormous. (Lynch and Frost were going to do for soap operas what Hill Street Blues had done for police dramas.) From the music to the production values to convincing actors who normally worked on film to become regulars on a TV series, Twin Peaks changed the entire television landscape. Oh, and Mark Frost was 36 when it debuted (though Lynch was 43). Both were already very successful.

I definitely agree with your general view that Straczynski, Whedon, Carter, etc. are unlikely to do anything to revolutionize the genre even if it might be going too far to describe them as spent forces creatively.

Jakob Schmidt said...

Abigail - I think Twin Peaks and Six Feet Under are both only enjoyable if you watch at least one season of them, but I'd say both are worth a shot. 6FU is very similar to The Sopranos in it's narrative style, and it has interesting, well thought-out story arcs for the two most prominent characters ... and it has Michael C. Hall!

Tzvika - well, as I said, some of the older shows (x-files, millenium) hold up surprisingly well, to my mind, but I'm not able to get into Lost, I'm not even interested in Fringe, I think Heroes had a pretty good first season and that was it, while Sarah Connor Chronicles is solid, but lacks a certain spark. So it can't be just my changed perception, otherwise Millenium, a series that I'm watching now for the first time, should seem just as stale to me as Lost.
It seems to me that elements that were experimental in the late nineties have now become standard (as Abigail pointet out with regards to serialization). That does not only mean that I'm getting used to them, it also means that the people creating tv series and using these elements don't necessarily have to experiment with them any more. What made x-files and buffy occassionally great (and, especially in the former case, occasionally terrible), is that both experimented and blended older forms with new inventions. It's much more exciting to watch that kind of process in a series than just to see if they get their narrative structure straight or if they fail.

Tzvika Barenholz said...

What I mean is that in the process of learning one becomes more sophisticated and harder to please.

I'm not saying you were a dolt in the nineties, only that the novelty wears off. I was underwhelmed when I re-read You Can't Go Home Again recently. I think I would feel just the same if a modern day Wolfe wrote a new book after the same fashion.

So my point is that TV hasn't changed all that much. We're the ones who did the changing.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Yes, I expect more from Whedon than I do from other writers, but so far Dollhouse has done very little to grab me in its own right. If I were judging the show strictly by its performance, not the potential I think it has as a Whedon creation, I probably wouldn't have lasted this long.


So my point is that TV hasn't changed all that much. We're the ones who did the changing.

I still don't see how this is relevant. To say that TV hasn't changed much is patently untrue (at the very least I'd want you to offer some supporting evidence). To say that we've changed in the past fifteen years is just as patently obvious, and I'm sure there are series that I dislike or am lukewarm about today which I would have loved five or ten or fifteen years ago. But that's hardly the point of this essay, in which, as I've said, I don't reevaluate any of my reactions to television programs over the last fifteen years, but rather try to synthesize those reactions into a single argument.

Andrew Stevens said...

If Ms. Nussbaum is mistaken about the evolution of television, I would argue it is only because of her focus on genre and the 1990s to the exclusion of non-genre programmes in the '80s. The change she is writing about from episodic to serialized (or at least semi-serialized) television certainly happened. The question is did it begin with Babylon 5 and The X-Files in the '90s, or was it really Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting, Twin Peaks, etc. in the '80s that rang the changes and genre television which followed in their wake? Personally, I'm inclined to the latter hypothesis and believe that Straczynski and Carter were really following Steven Bochco. (Well, definitely Carter. Straczynski was arguably using soap operas as his model, certainly by the end of Season 2.)

Tzvika Barenholz said...

I submit HIMYM as supporting, if anecdotal evidence. IMHO it's just as brilliant a sitcom as the best of them, but none of my friends get hooked on it because they're just beyond getting hooked on a sitcom these days.

Criminal Minds vs Profiler is also a decent comparison. Essentially the same show (OK, without the supernatural angle) and yet I followed the latter religiously, but not the former.

Raz Greenberg said...


Another show from that decade you should have mentioned is "Wiseguy" - which not only set new standards in developing long-running plot arcs but more to the point, also provided "The X-Files" with most of its logistics at its early seasons - sets and many crew members (from designers to directors and writers) came directly from Wiseguy (and Stephen J. Cannell productions in general - I think SJC deserves a lot more credit for setting the early infrastracture of genre shows in the '90s than Bochco).
Genre shows of the '80s also deserve a mention - "Star Trek: The Next Generation" at the very least proved that there is a market for an ongoing science-fiction drama on TV (and JMS actually started working on Babylon 5 trying to correct what he thought was wrong with the TNG formula). "Quantum Leap", which technically began at the '80s, went for the "soft genre" approach when it combined genre elements with other elements of modern-day drama.

Gillian said...

Hi Abigail,

I've recently discovered your blog and been enjoying your reviews / essays. I hope it's OK to comment here.

One television series format that I found interesting was a British (non-genre) series a few years back called 'Fat Friends'. This centred round a group of people attending a Weight Watchers / Slimmers World clone. Each episode of the series focussed on one member of the group and told their story. There were two series and 6 episodes in each series. I don't recall any repeat of a character taking centre stage.

This was a little different from the more usual episodic series eg Star Trek, which may have featured one cast member more prominently in a given episode, but usually also had a fairly meaty role for the central character / captain.

Each character's story would continue in the background in subsequent weeks (and was often foreshadowed in earlier weeks) so there were continuing arcs, but each arc only got one shot centre stage, where the main part of their story rose to crisis point and was substantially resolved.

The episodes could also vary wildly in tone depending on the character's story (eg some were humourous, others tragic). I don't think I've ever seen exactly this format elsewhere, but I thought it worked rather well. I don't know whether this format could work equally well for other series or not.

Andrew Stevens said...

Wiseguy would also be an example, sure, though I'm not sure it had a huge influence on television in general as distinct from The X-Files in particular while Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks (at least) had an influence which reverberated throughout the television world.

In 1997, someone wrote a book called Television's Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER, which I've never read, which appears to argue the same thesis that I am arguing. His claim seems to be that the whole revolution occurred because NBC was stuck in third place and decided that they would try for commercial appeal by garnering critical acclaim.

Next Generation certainly reopened television for science fiction, but it was a very stodgy and traditional approach. (Of course, if we don't expect further revolutions from Joss Whedon, how much less from Gene Roddenberry?) It took Babylon 5 to shake up the Star Trek people and get them to join the television revolution that Hill Street Blues had inaugurated. Quantum Leap also has its good points, but it was also almost entirely episodic.

You may be right about Cannell having more influence specifically on genre shows. I'm only arguing that it was Bochco who began the serialized television revolution in general. Of course, Cop Rock did not manage to similarly revolutionize television.

Todd C. Murry said...

Late to the party (again).

Although I agree with much of what you say here, it seems to me that your "types of shows" discussion is notable for not isolating theme as an element before trying to cook down the whole thing into a workable categorical scheme. The Sopranos = Gray's Anatomy without accounting for what the shows have to say (well, and quality concerns) and that wouldn't be a very useful categorization. Gray's is clearly a soap, interested in putting the characters through stuff, with "theme" only considered on the sub-Gump episode platitude level ("life involves choices... what to eat, what to wear..."), while the Sopranos exists (Deadwood or the Wire are even better examples) to try to say something about our lives. In the "3D show space," these shows should be on opposite sides of some axis.

Defining a soap is an issue here - the definition is a bit slippery (rim shot!). I think of a soap as a show whose driving force is character exercise as plot. You can best identify a soap as shows about which you find yourself asking "I wonder if X is going to sleep with Y, they haven't done that one yet... and no one's been pregnant and decided to keep the baby only to miscarry either." That's really all such a show knows how to do is figure out how to bounce the balls off of each other in a way they haven't before. Even if you respond to them, we eventually get burned out on soaps because they've abused the characters too much, all because of the momentum in the show is doing stuff to the characters and seeing how they handle it... sex, death, cancer, marriage, divorce, babies, addiction, etc, etc.

Todd C. Murry said...

Late to the party (again).

Although I agree with much of what you say here, it seems to me that your "types of shows" discussion is notable for not isolating theme as an element before trying to cook down the whole thing into a workable categorical scheme. The Sopranos = Gray's Anatomy without accounting for what the shows have to say (well, and quality concerns) and that wouldn't be a very useful categorization. Gray's is clearly a soap, interested in putting the characters through stuff, with "theme" only considered on the sub-Gump episode platitude level ("life involves choices... what to eat, what to wear..."), while the Sopranos exists (Deadwood or the Wire are even better examples) to try to say something about our lives. In the "3D show space," these shows should be on opposite sides of some axis.

Defining a soap is an issue here - the definition is a bit slippery (rim shot!). I think of a soap as a show whose driving force is character exercise as plot. You can best identify a soap as shows about which you find yourself asking "I wonder if X is going to sleep with Y, they haven't done that one yet... and no one's been pregnant and decided to keep the baby only to miscarry either." That's really all such a show knows how to do is figure out how to bounce the balls off of each other in a way they haven't before. Even if you respond to them, we eventually get burned out on soaps because they've abused the characters too much, all because of the momentum in the show is doing stuff to the characters and seeing how they handle it... sex, death, cancer, marriage, divorce, babies, addiction, etc, etc.

Todd C. Murry said...

Sorry for the double post.

As long as I'm here, lat me say that I do agree that the golden age should probably go back to the early 90's. In my conception, 1990-4 were a sort of experimental explosion with a lot of shows with long runs and/or lasting impact, 1995-8 was a fertile plateau of many serviceable shows and new interesting shows with just a few that had lasting impact (e.g. Buffy), while 1999's Sopranos the -easy-touchstone starting a climb to an even higher plateau, which really began to take off in 2001 (the Alias, 24, Smallville year) and sort of topped out in 2004 (the annis wonderfullis of Lost, Veronica Mars, House, and BSG - at least for me... the start times for others in the states may vary).

In my opinion, using 1993 as the start year is probably the best (X-Files, Homicide, NYPD Blue, and DS9, with less good genre shows like Lois and Clark, Power Rangers, and DSV starting, Babylon 5's pilot airing, new comedy ranging from Bevis and Buthead to Frazier, and ER and Friends right around the corner), while considering the 1990-92 era as the sort of Twin Peaks prodromal era.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


There are, obviously, more axes along which one can place a television series than just plot-driven/character-driven. What you're describing, I think, is the difference between two kinds of character-driven stories - the one that tries to describe relationships and how they change, and the one that tries to capture the essence of a person and (usually) how they stay the same regardless of what happens to them and how much they might like to change.

Soap is, obviously, a slightly pejorative term which suggests the former, relationship-oriented story and which, as you say, can become tedious after a while (but then, what long-running series doesn't? I was well and truly sick of The Sopranos long before it wrapped up its run), but I chose it deliberately in order to stress the character-oriented nature of these shows and differentiate them from plot-driven serials and formula shows.

S Johnson said...

The term formula show is sort of pejorative. Guest characters can and in fact (so I think) usually do, act as drivers. That's why so many series have people whose jobs have them in contact with other people in crisis. Policemen, lawyers, doctors deal with people whose stories are as character driven as you might want.

Thinking that the series should be about how the leads change ignores that fact that in real life people don't change much as a rule. And in real life, many interactions are role determined. How much do we really know about the inner lives of coworkers? How much do we really know about the work lives of family members? Children don't know their parents because of that.

As far as serialized stories go, the difficulty with drawing artificial distinctions between plot-driven and character-driven is that the characters in a well made plot have reasons for what they do. There are shows hailed for good characters but bad plots, which in fact don't have good characters because you don't really know why these people do what they do, or what they want.

If the characters don't want different things, or think differently, is there anything driving the plot other than arbitrary strife? Or, if characters' personality changes are part of the plot, how is this necessarily bad? Except that radical personality changes are generally unbelievable, that is?

The problem with serialized shows is the artificial complications, aimed at delaying resolution of story lines. The cliffhanger is a commercial ploy to keep audiences.

The problem with soaps is that the personality changes tend to be reversed so that the satisfying story line can be repeated. Villains are redeemed, then relapse so they can be redeemed again. Etc.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing article. I feel that some of the conclusions are overly pessimistic, though, and don't consider the presence of highly serial, still aesthetically viable shows. (Mad Men, Big Love, to a lesser extent Weeds). The crisis in serialism, to mangle a phrase, seems to be more a characteristic of the scifi genre than beyond it. Perhaps it's a consequence of less need to support a distinctive setting, and often seem s abit more diverse with characters.

Dollhouse season two might prove an sub-set of this issue one way or another, both in seeing how serial it's storyline is, adn then how that's received.

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