Television: Three Ways To Tell A Great Story.
In the next few articles, I’m going to outline the three major ways television shows tell their stories: The Episodic Procedural, The Season-to-Season Serial Drama, and The Multi-Season Serial Drama.
Before I really get into it next time, let me give you a definition and example of each.
An episodic procedural is a show that has a new story to tell each and every week. The episode’s story is contained within that episode; however, the same characters are usually back to deal with their recurring personal problems. The most common procedurals are shows about people with certain highly esteemed professions (House, Bones, Law & Order, etc). Procedurals can also be science fiction or fantasy oriented (Quantum Leap, a lot of Star Trek, early Supernatural, etc).
The season-to-season serial drama is a show that has planned out a season to perfection before it begins filming. Then, during the hiatus, the writers can think up new ideas and the show can change gears. Most shows like this are shows on cable such as Dexter and True Blood. Some of the big networks try their hand at this kind of storytelling too, as is the case with Heroes.
The multi-season serial drama is a show that has story arcs and character elements planned out over several years. The best example of this would probably be Babylon 5.Other examples are Flashforward, and Defying Gravity. I haven’t watched The Tudors yet, but I imagine that it probably fits in here too.
Obviously, these three groupings can’t be used to categorize every single program out there. Every show is it’s own unique beast with a specific ratio of all three of the above. Most of the best shows find a good balance between them. Some of these shows have very blurry definitions. Battlestar Galactica was a multi-season serial drama and yet was made up as the writers went along. Fringe is written in an episodic fashion and yet has enough overarching mythology to almost make it a multi-season serial drama.Something like Lost, which fits best into multi-season serial drama, can also be seen as a season-to-season serial drama (SPOILER ALERT: Season 4 is the flashforward season, Season 5 is the time travel season, Season 6 is the flashsideways season).
To generalize that idea, every serial drama has to have episodes that are in some way self-contained. It might be as simple as having episodes about characters caught in a turbo-lift. That kind of filler aside, an episode has to have a beginning, middle, and end. It can’t just be one continuous blob of story. I know that Luhks (a lost recapper) said some very interesting things about that in his recap of Follow The Leader. Check it out once you’re done!
At the same time, every procedural has to have some overarching plot elements. Star Trek Voyager and Quantum Leap tell us the stories of people trying to get home. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse all have a big bad or a clear goal for a season or more, even though there’s a new conflict each week. Grey’s Anatomy starts a season with a very specific end-goal in mind, not unlike a season-to-season serial drama, while maintaining a very accessible episodic format.
As a final note, there are shows that most definitely do not fit into any of the categories at all. In fact, everything I have described is at least a dramedy, if not a serious drama. I left the other kinds of shows out purposely. In my last article, I discussed how television has the ability to produce phenomenal works of art. Sitcoms and reality television shows, though often excellent at doing the thing for which they were designed, can’t really be considered ultimate works of art. I really don’t mean to hate on them. I love me some How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory. They just aren’t what I was trying to describe in that last article. My thoughts are often going to stem from there so here it is if you missed it last time:
Television: The Greatest Art Form Ever
Alternatively, it may be easier to check my blog.
Thanks again for reading my thoughts. I really hope that you enjoyed them, especially if you made it all the way down here. I’ll be back in a couple of days with an article about episodic television!