Did you see Game of Thrones this week? How about Mad Men? No? Well then, you’d better park yourself in front of your Tivo, my friend, ‘cause you need this week’s context to make sense of next week’s episode.
I love serial television, but following some of the best dramas has begun to take up an insane amount of time. Gone are the days when we could pop in and out of a series at will. Now, only police procedurals and a select set of reality shows expect viewers to watch single, self-contained episodes. If you want in on Once Upon a Time or Revolution, get ready to gorge on whole seasons just to catch up. Although the current obsession with giving continuity to every episode has resulted in some great shows, it has also had negative consequences for series that don’t fit the mold.
One-and-done episode-based shows can do great things. Sometimes, a story only needs 45 (or 22) minutes to feel complete. See early episodes of M*A*S*H (like “Tuttle,” a Season 1 episode in which Hawkeye and Trapper invent a fake officer to get extra medical supplies). Today, that storyline might have played out over an entire season. But, as it was written, we get a succinct reaction from every single character, and a tight, well-constructed story. Star Trek: The Next Generation has the incredible one-off “The Inner Light,” in which Captain Picard lives a lifetime in an hour. The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits distill whole universes into tiny parables. We don’t have a good word for this kind of television series, because it used to be called “TV” — stand-alone episodes were the norm. Plotted seasons were the stuff of evening soaps (Dallas). I can’t imagine a producer today pitching a drama without imagining there will be stories that follow from episode to episode. Even American Horror Story, which swaps out cast members and settings, has a serial storyline for each season.
Some shows have shoehorned serial stories into their otherwise really good episode-by-episode formats. Castle has suffered significantly since the romance between Castle and Beckett became the primary connective thread of the series. What once was a fun little procedural now feels stilted. Doctor Who feels like a slog this season, every episode dragging on until we finally get to a big reveal about new companion Clara.
While some series were meant to be novels, others were intended to be a collection of short stories. A show like Mad Men has an entire ensemble of rich characters to flesh out over the course of a season; each has his or her own foibles that play out in painful slow motion. If you take a silly character like Castle and try to spread out his issues into several hours, it becomes too easy to see the flaws in the show. In The Walking Dead, some episodes blur together because the key events take place over two or three weeks. I’m not sure that every single beat of that show is even necessary — sometimes it seems that the directors are filling time to make it to the next major turn of events.
Even comedies are trending toward serial stories. Arrested Development has serialization built into its DNA, so it won’t be too surprising when viewers need to consume each new episode in order. But it’s getting harder and harder to watch The Office out of order, as the show becomes more and more of an evening soap. The soapy aspect of New Girl has discouraged me from getting started with it, even though I have friends who say it’s the funniest show on television. Who has the time to care about yet another TV family of friends?
There are a few shows left that don’t require everyone to grow and change from episode to episode, that don’t need my undivided attention every week. Archer episodes usually all stand alone, as do episodes of Happy Endings. As for dramas, I’m still looking for that special show that won’t care if I leave it be for a few weeks, and won’t pester me about all the plot points I missed.