Why Episodic TV is Bad

Many times I’ve written on this blog about how much I hate episodic TV, and it’s time to come clean. Episodic TV are shows that follow a routine plot episode after episode. Most cop shows are like that, for example. I personally avoid episodic TV. I just don’t watch any of it, and I suggest you don’t either, for the reasons below.

1. Characters don’t grow
The characters never grow in such shows. The same cop you knew in season 1, it’s the same character in season 7. Even the popular House M.D., while it tries to have a back-story, it features no major character evolution. It’s still episodic TV, in disguise.

2. A single episode is not enough time to study big things
There is a reason why I like Star Trek: TNG. It is because on seasons 3-6 it would make me think about what’s ethical and what’s not, in a grander scheme. Instead of using crappy every-day themes like spouse cheating, it raised questions of privacy, technology, sociology, artificial life (and it barely managed it at 48 minutes per episode). But these are the kind of stories I want to watch about. I don’t give a damn about who cheated on who (e.g. Desperate Housewives), who ended up in a hospital full of swinging doctors (e.g. Grey’s Anatomy), or who killed who for revenge or money (e.g. CSI). These are plots that I LOOK DOWN TO. Call me a snob, call me an elitist, but these situations don’t represent me in the slightest. If I wanted to celebrate and waste my time with whatever is wrong with people today, I’d just bug the apartment of the couple next door, hoping for some dirt. Bleh.

3. Canned experience
We get the same, and the same again, and over again. A murder, an investigation, a small twist, the solution of the crime — all in 43 minutes. It insults our intelligence. Instead, I want to see grand, serialized stories, that have an impact in the whole of society, in the whole of the known world. I want to see how the heroes are working towards solving these problems for their world. Basically, I care about big problems, not about small individual hiccups of some mentally unstable people.

4. Not a stimulating art
CSIs, or Psych, are just not art. They’re just cheap shows, with cheap scripts. LOST is art — despite it’s disastrous 6th season. Firefly is art. ST:TNG is art (seasons 3-6). BSG is not bad either. These are “classic” shows because they had something big to tell us about.

There are some shows that while largely episodic, feature a strong background story — basically they’re hybrids. Stargate:Universe is such a show. I watch it, but it’s on the border of my patience. The fact that it’s sci-fi helps though.

On the other side of the story, there are serialized shows, where nothing really happens. Caprica is in fact a good example as to how a serialized sci-fi show, with all the right ingredients, that tries to ask big questions, can go bad.


Rikki wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 3:52 AM PST:

Couldnt agree more actually!

I watched an ep of CSI the other day having not seen it in a couple of years and all I could think was “its the same old same old, maybe a different building and motive but its all generic”. The only thing that caught my attention was the story unfolding in the background about the new serial killer which will continue across the series.

I loved the last few seasons of Dexter as each ep was fun in itself but also added to the greater context of the series.

TNG is still a stand out show that embraced sci fi but with a deeper meaning and cultural ethos.

As amusing as it is to say, you usually get more moral teachings in an episode of South Park when Stan or Kyle do their soap box routine at the end of show than the brain junk food with snazzy colour correction we get shoved down our throats from the TV studios.

Glenn wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 4:59 AM PST:

I’ve noticed that most new shows out of the US are either cop shows, FBI related, private invesegators, hospital shows, government related, conspiracies, or shows that include any of these. Some might be ok, but they need to something new.. More super hero shows perhaps?

Dave wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 5:16 AM PST:

Well expressed, I think part of your hatred of ‘episodic’ TV comes from the way American (and many other countries) TV series are made. In the UK, and often in Australia, a TV show is commissioned for a series of a given length (like 12, or 6 episodes), they are all written as individual ‘stories’ so that you don’t need to have seen them all but so that some sort of development happens in a background arc you can see when you have seen them all. Then the next series starts anew, sometimes the show isn’t renewed and sometimes it is. US shows have the habit of having a pilot, being successful, then getting commissioned for the rest of time until it isn’t popular then it gets canceled. So with no given amount of time to work with, its hard to have ‘episodic’ stories with a developing background, you don’t know if an actor will leave or if you will be cancelled. The issue with something like Lost is that not only is there a risk of cancellation (Firefly…) but also there is a huge turnoff for anyone who hasn’t always watched it: they can’t just sit down and watch an episode. Especially Lost. It makes /no sense/ unless you have seen all or most of it. Episodes where no consequences of an episode are carried over and the same plot happens again and again are annoying, but a TV show you need to watch 46 episodes of to be able to get the reference someone made at work is ridiculous.

Rikki wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 6:02 AM PST:

Good points Dave. It wasnt the greatest show on TV but I quite liked the 4400 which got canned with pretty much nothing being explained or taken to completion.

Brian wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 11:55 AM PST:

Aside from casual viewer confusion (ala Lost), the main problem with a with a grand serialization is that you still have the need for basic story structure *within each episode* to make it a satisfying experience. A difficulty, rising action, a climax, and problem resolution within a hour–even if it’s part of a larger story. By this analogy, even Lost could be described as episodic.

To do something more serialized would mean that entire episodes would be extremely boring; i.e. nothing “happens” to move the story forward. It would just be exposition. I suppose you can think of it as filming an unabridged version of a novel, then watching it in chunks.

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Eugenia wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 1:46 PM PST:

Brian, nobody says to become a soap. The LOST paradigm was the right one. The serialized story was the MAIN attraction, but each episode was a bit episodic as well, but within the confinements of the serialized story.

Dave, regarding not knowing what’s going to happen with your show, this is why I’ve written many times that such agreements must be done beforehand, and the script must be all drafted ahead of time, before even going to the network to ask for X number of episodes/seasons. The way it’s done now, indeed, it doesn’t leave much room for improvement.

Brian wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 2:08 PM PST:

We’ve all seen the occasional “to be continued” 2-part episodes in network TV. How about a series where story arcs would finish within say, one month? Then, any viewers left behind could jump on board a few weeks later and not have to struggle catching up. I’m also reminded of how X-Files used to air stand-alone monster episodes most of the time, and then a full storyline program every 3rd or 4th show.

My favorite current show is Rubicon, which revolves around the bigger picture, rather than using it on the edges. Seems like a serial to me….Eugenia?

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Eugenia wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 2:31 PM PST:

I never watched “Rubicon”, so I don’t know of its story format.

As for the monster-of-the-week episodes, and then a throw-away mythos story, it’s out of the question. I hated it when x-files did that. Testament of that, is that I only bought the alien mythology DVDs, and not the full DVD release.

Glenn wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 6:43 PM PST:

Yeah, I’m a big fan of Rubicon also. Hopefully it will be renewed for another season.

Dave wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 8:17 PM PST:

A show which uses individual stories of high quality but with an evolving backstory would be the current Dr Who series since 2005. Each episode is a story but the main characters evolve throughout as well as a great tension built up for a finale. Also, stories that need more than an episode to develop frequently have 2 parts, allowing for as much content as they average film.

Vast Majority wrote on October 19th, 2010 at 9:24 PM PST:

Yes, Rubicon. Not episodic. Good stuff.

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Eugenia wrote on October 20th, 2010 at 2:58 AM PST:

Tonight I watched the last few episodes of Rubicon on Comcast’s OnDemand service (the first episodes were not available for free). I was able to follow the storyline just fine, it wasn’t very complicated.

Overall, it’s a nice show, but the storytelling is disjointed and slow. Also a bit one-sided, seeing everything from the eyes of the hero — both his little conspiracy theory hobby, and the international crisis. What kept my interest was the fact that it was serialized, but it could be done better. I guess what keeps the show back is its low budget. Rating: 7/10

horace wrote on October 22nd, 2010 at 3:53 AM PST:

what do you think of shows like dexter, true blood, breaking bad? they are quite serialized. not really sci-fi though. 🙂

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Eugenia wrote on October 22nd, 2010 at 12:35 PM PST:

I don’t like Dexter much. True Blood is ok, I started watching it a few days ago on Netflix. Could be a bit better though, since it feels a bit too stereotypical.

Pikky wrote on October 23rd, 2010 at 12:48 AM PST:

Hmm, yeah, though I’m okay with episodic TV that develops the characters over episodes even if they don’t completely change them. I watch Mentalist because even though you can pick into the series from any episode, the characters change their relationships with each other and what their goals are each few episodes, so there’s some background going on. Other than a few dramas though (such as White Collar which is awesome), I try to avoid television dramas because they treat the audience like an idiot who’s too tired from work to use his/her own brain – the same way Hollywood feeds us baby food with overly-predictable movie plots over and over again.

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Eugenia wrote on October 23rd, 2010 at 2:50 AM PST:

I personally find the Mentalist to be a prime example of bad TV. It’s a show for old people.

D. Michael Martindale wrote on October 25th, 2010 at 11:20 AM PST:

Shows with long-range arcs are doomed–and why? Because the audience can’t trust the network to deliver. At any end-of-season moment, the rug can be pulled out from under the loyal fan (Firefly, Flash Forward) at the whim of mindless execs.

This discourages potential viewers from every getting invested in a long-arc show again. I wrote to ABC telling them that very thing–I would never try any of their long-arc shows again after what they did to me with “Flash Forward.”

“Lost” was the archtypical strategy for doing it right (except for the half-assed finale). “Dexter” is right up there too. The most recent season with John Lithgow was virtually perfect in its structure. The whole season was really a single story spread out over multiple episodes.

“Dexter” accomplished that by using a format that has all but disappeared–the old Flash Gordon cliff-hanger format. You don’t necessarily need a complete story per episode to satisfy the viewer. Just make some progress and provide a cliff-hanger at the end that makes it impossible fore them to resist coming back.

Lost was a hybrid this way. Many episodes advanced the long-arc story, using cliffhangers at the end of the episode, and many of them were standalone stories. Surprise surprise, the standalone episodes were usually the least interesting to me.

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Eugenia wrote on October 25th, 2010 at 1:51 PM PST:

But this is why I said that the writers and networks must come clean and say, “we have drafted-out 3 well-thought out seasons, with 16 episodes each. That’s how much this show is scheduled to last”. Then, people WILL commit. The big problem is not fear of having your favorite show canceled, but mostly the fear of the writers making it up as they go along. Because if they do, they introduce plot holes, and stupid over-the-top plots that turn people away. Things just need to feel real, and solid. If you have an open-ended show, you just can’t plot the series properly, because you don’t know how much it will last.

Regarding cancellations, if something doesn’t sell, well, it’s better to get canceled anyway! But if it’s going to get broadcasted, then it should be 100% thought-out, all season/episodes, before principal photography even starts!

zima wrote on October 28th, 2010 at 5:27 AM PST:

And so the Caprica got cancelled. Too bad really, at the least it was one of the few that could become quite good; and with some fabulously climatic elements already, IMHO (though I wonder what was the effect of gods-god story arc not being mostly a cute background anymore) – but as was said above, most likely no scriptwriter even knew how long the story should run…

Regarding True Blood – hey, vampires are full of cliches. But in this case they seem to be presented in an entertaining and dare I say even classy way. Mostly not “vampire emo” at the least.
(BTW, there is some wisdom in airing that show in summer – watching it during warm summer nights really seems to put one in the mood of the setting)

PS. Yup, a major reason why I watch the two above seems to be the mood of the presented world. Maybe that makes me old… (but explains Twin Peaks – serialized …which doesn’t help with the “story” in any way ;). Or Farscape, which was just fun)

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