A Long Post On Television

“Football.  Bloody Hell.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

The above quote has nothing to do with anything I’m going to write in this blog post.  It is just to honor the fact that man who managed the first team I fell in love with and has been that manager throughout that time has announced his retirement.  If you look at the numbers starting with 13 league titles in 26 years, they are ridiculous.  Bill Barnwell put it best on Twitter this morning:  “Of course, it seems pretty easy to sum up Fergie’s reign at United: He joined the club as a manager and left as a knight.”

 ♠♠♠

I’m going to try to make television relate to the thoughts on creativity I’ve been running through the last few days.

I love television.  I love even the bad, crappy scripted television (I would rather watch a formulaic USA or TNT show then any “reality” television.).  However, I reserve my real watching for the shows that aim for something a great deal higher.  You know the ones:  Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones (GoTH), Rectify, etc.  Those shows don’t dumb themselves down for the viewer.  They expect you to bring something to the table as far as intelligence and willingness to immerse yourself into the richly drawn worlds they inhabit.

One of the criticisms of these shows (mostly by television critics) is how these shows, particularly Game of Thrones, do not make episodes as much as they make chapters.  This concept of a season long (in GoTH case series long) story arch is not new to television. I remember it first in Murder One.  Many shows, particularly dramas have had stories that have run throughout the spine of the show.  These stories like the Adena Watson case on Homicide lasted well over a season and informed many of the aspects and traits of the characters involved.  In fact, one of the changes in episodic dramas is the continuation of story lines and threads throughout the run of the show.  This is true of shows from Sons of Anarchy to Bones.

One of the shows on the short list for best show of all-time The Wire was probably the best at this and one of the first to have episodes be chapters.  What I mean by that, in normal episodic television each episode can stand alone and be viewed without having to have seen the ten previous episodes.  Each episode has a beginning, middle, and end that wraps up a storyline in 45 minutes of screen time.  That works great in the old model where the goal is to get the show into syndication.

Even some of the best and most daring shows on television still follow this model even if they are trying to tell a season or series long story.  That usually works by giving the characters a problem that relates to the story arch that is the spine of the show at the beginning of each episode.  Then the characters solve that particular problem over the course of that episode or maybe two episodes.  That way the episodes are self-contained and they still serve the larger story.

Where The Wire changed things is its episodes sometimes didn’t have a beginning, middle, or end.  They were like chapters in a book.  They really can’t be viewed in isolation.  The other show that should not get short shrift in this change is 24.  It’s structure was more traditional and more cliff-hangery, but it is a show best viewed as one continuous movie.

That helped lead to the second change of how television is watched.  Viewers now binge on shows.  These shows plus the advent of DVD box sets and finally Netflix blew-up how viewers watch television.  Now, we have the ability to sit and consume a show all at once.  Maybe, more importantly it changed how writers view television.

House of Cards was not revolutionary because of its subject matter.  It was revolutionary because it explicitly says episodes do not matter unto themselves.  They are individual parts of a much greater whole and you can’t judge the episodes in isolation.

Within the critical community of television, many good critics and writers have expressed their frustration with GoTH because episodes either seem to go nowhere and resolve nothing or there are storylines and narrative choices that seem arbitrary and useless.  The reason is they are reviewing the show as a weekly episodic television show because that is how HBO presents it.  In fact, it isn’t a weekly episodic television show.  It is the television adaptation of a huge series of books that chapter structure to tell its stories.  It is best viewed in binges and it will have details mentioned in this week’s episode that may not pay off until episode 5 of season 6 (this is season 3).  That effects how it needs to be reviewed and how it is watched and enjoyed.

This has to be frustrating for critics who in the internet age have made their bones by reviewing and critiquing individual episodes of shows.  We are at a time when the structure of television storytelling is changing because viewers are changing their habits and television writers and creators are changing the way they tell stories to respond.

Wow, that was a lot of words to get to, “The structure of television is changing.”

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