I’ve had a funny relationship with TV as a storytelling medium. During the 80’s and much of the 90’s I used to mock it as generally inferior and for numbskulls. But let it be said that I watch TV for stories. I pretty much detest the medium for information transfer (like news) and I despise reality TV and other non story based programming. The article title makes light of the difference between what I call “episodic” and “continuous” television. The Love Boat is episodic, you could scramble the order of many episodes, and everything resets back to neutral between shows. This is pretty much a constant. You KNOW when watching the show that any changes that occur during the course of the episode will get resolved and unwound by the end. Almost all sitcoms fall into this category. Although in more recent years, even some of these are hybrids, like Friends, where major changes do slowly occur.
Lost is an extreme example of continuous television. The story runs continuously — I hesitate to say linearly — from episode to episode. In the most extreme shows of this sort, like Lost and HBO/Showtime dramas, the episodes and seasons are merely chunks of delivery, much as Dickens novels were originally sold in chapters.
I was never much for episodic TV. During the dark years of the 80’s I watched little TV, and the few programs I did watch were either hybrids or had extreme appeal (like the original Battlestar Galactica which is both). I did find myself attracted to some early ventures into the continuous arena: Hill Street Blues, Saint Elsewhere, Miami Vice (my REVIEW HERE), Wiseguy, etc. One might classify these as adult soaps — and they are — but at least they allowed for character development. That’s the thing about episodic television. There isn’t much development, and very little risk. If you know that everything will get back to where it started by the end of the hour, why worry, why invest?
A number of factors have contributed to the rise of continuous television. These 80’s trendsetters can take some credit, as can the miniseries, but probably it is the rise of cable that was the next big step. On cable, freed of some of the childish conventions of traditional network programming and more importantly of the albatross of mid-show advertising, television has become a medium where it is possible to deliver “books” of 10-17 hours of solid programming. This is radically different than film’s 1.5-4 hours (and 4 is a Gone with the Wind length movie) scope. Sure film often has a bigger budget to work with, but that’s not what really makes a story. Writing fulfills that responsibility. DVD packaged television provided the second huge step, allowing even interrupted network programs to be viewed in a continuous manner.
With this in motion the 90’s saw the rise of more hybrid continuous shows: My So Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (my DISCUSSION ON BUFFY HERE), the X-Files, to name a few. These straddled the line, retaining a roughly episodic format, but allowing characters, relationships, and big conflicts to arc from episode to episode. In the late 90’s, with the rise of the big HBO dramas this all changed. Some network shows like Buffy that started episodic became largely continuous. In the 2000’s we experienced a golden age of fully continuous television. Network shows are still mixed, with most being largely episodic or hybrid. It’s rare on the networks to have a fully continuous show like Lost, but few are wholly episodic like most 80’s fare. The big cable dramas: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, Carnivale, The Tudors, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Dexter (my REVIEW HERE), Weeds, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, Trueblood, Entourage, etc. are pretty much all continuous.
This new medium, the continuous or strongly hybrid series, allows for a depth of character development and intrigue not possible in the traditional visual mediums. Although, I guess technically soap operas have done this for decades, but the narrow demographic focus, slow pace, and extended melodrama makes these a unique species of their own. I myself am basically drawn to television on a basis of how continuous it is, and the quality of the writing, not so much the particular genre or subject. Often I sense the progressive modulation of quality in a show is based on where it falls in the spectrum. For example, Roswell, which began with a hybrid first season that leaned toward continuous was forced into a more episodic form in the second season, much to the detriment of the show’s quality. Likewise, Buffy, my all time favorite show, picks up strength in seasons 2-6 as the show sheds itself of the early episodic quality and becomes a more continuous narrative.
Another interesting phenomenon is that continuous shows are much better when watched in bulk on DVD without the breaks in time or advertising. I’ve discussed this with many friends and all agree that when you start a show like Lost on DVD, bingeing through episodes back to back it has a continuity and emotional intensity that is lost when one is forced to skim through ads and wait a week between episodes — and we won’t even mention the endless inter-season breaks. Catching up to “realtime viewers” can feel like driving into a brick wall. This exists for book series as well. Pounding through a huge series of fantasy novels back to back is much more satisfying than when one catches up with the author and has to wait years.
In any case I’m all for this, as I like longer more substantial storytelling where characters are free to change. Anything else is just repetitive.