In the era of reality TV, when studios are starting to turn once again towards scripted shows, the once novel concept of being able to tell a story with deep, fleshed out characters is coming back into style. Now, depending on the genre of the television show you’re watching, you expect different things, but one thing should be prevalent throughout is the ability to tell a story both in the singular episode and the collective entity of the television season. No matter the genre of the show, there’s a plot (or possibly more than one) that is explored as a secondary story over a few episodes or the entire season. For the Mentalist, it’s the pursuit of Red John. For House, it was his drug addiction or his friendship with Wilson and Cuddy.
However, for every new show that has a sense of deeper characterization and storytelling, you have about 20 that flub it or simply don't have it at all.
If it’s a drama or action show, the plot of each episode moves towards some final overarching plot objective. Throughout the season, the law firm works hard to avoid being absorbed by fierce rivals, or an undercover agent edges ever closer to securing some top secret item. With each episode that huge climactic moment approaches and each episode leaves us with a cliffhanger – except sometimes they don’t. In procedural television, whether it’s criminal investigation, medical, or something else, the team recognizes a problem or arrives on a crime scene and then spends the next 40 minutes eliminated subjects/diseases until some “Eureka!” moment that leads them to the answer. The interpersonal dealings of the team evolve and each grows a little – except sometimes they don’t. In reality television, a few things happen and someone either gets eliminated…or nothing happens whatsoever. That’s just reality TV – it doesn’t have standards. For sitcoms, a situation arises, usually in line with the handful of sitcom tropes used over and over again. Wacky things occur, we laugh, and when 21 minutes closes out, things usually end up back where they started – except sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes they don’t.
How long did The Simpsons go on before any event of true lasting significance occurred in the show? I’m not talking about events that were referenced in future episodes like Sideshow Bob framing Krusty, because frankly the Sideshow Bob episodes are their own little universe within the show. Can you name the singular plot event that has permanently impacted the world of Springfield? The death of Maude Flanders. That death marked the first time a Simpsons' character died and actually altered the day-to-day interactions of common Simpsonites. Bleeding Gums Murphy was a side character with a few part bits, his death may have affected Lisa – but it was by no means a death that had a lasting effect on Matt Groening’s world.
Conversely, Groening’s Futurama did the exact opposite, from day one insisting upon telling stories whose events would have vibrations that affected future episodes. However, that was the very nature of the show – it was based on a character from the past becoming dislodged from his era and ending up in the future. That premise opens up a huge span of time in which the audience has no idea what occurred and consequently requires lots of retroactive definition.
Both shows are animated sitcoms and yet one was content to wallow for 11 seasons in a stagnant routine of Bart and Lisa trapped in grade school forever, Homer never receiving a lasting promotion or changing jobs, Marge remaining the ever tolerant homemaker who occasionally takes on projects doomed to failure, and Maggie being used as the child Homer doesn’t remember he has. Even South Park and Family Guy avoided these pitfalls (showing the South Park kids advancing grades and actually killing Kenny off or Peter Griffin losing his job at the toy factory). To be fair, they got to learn from the mistakes The Simpsons made, but they still enacted these changes early on.
Stagnation doesn’t just happen to sitcoms though, even if that’s the easiest genre for it to exist within. You could go back through the years and find examples in every genre, or just turn on the television any night in the next week. Some of television’s most popular shows have no sense of forward motion and are content just sitting back and enjoying a steady run of ratings. Take a look at some of the leading crime procedurals.
Despite having little substance outside of each episode’s crime-of-the-week formula, CSI and all of its various spin-offs don’t worry about imbuing seasons with larger stories – but that’s not necessarily the norm. Other shows in the same vein do a better job at cultivating long-running stories for its characters. Take Criminal Minds or Bones, both are far more character-driven than their CSI-counterparts, and the story arcs of individual characters can be charted with noticeable dips and curves within each season. Most notably, Criminal Minds has a knack for taking much more severe turns. Much of this has to do with the nature of the show, the tracking of serial killers, and consequently it becomes inevitable that the main characters will be thrown into the line of danger one time or another – and it happens, more than once or twice. Furthermore, the changes have lasting effects on the characters, and the writers do superb work of showing the psychological toll of the job.
Or take House, wherein both the titular character and those around him go through some extreme changes. House (Hugh Laurie) pisses off a police officer, experiences hallucinations due to his addiction, and finally finds a mature balance for his relationships with Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) and Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein). Foreman (Omar Epps) gets infected by a virus, falls in love with a terminally ill fellow doctor, and commits a medical act that pretty much strands him on House’s team. Chase falls in love with Cameron, marries her, and then they separate after he medically murders a foreign despot when he’s hospitalized at Princeton Plainsborough. Kal Penn has an unfortunately short stint as a doctor who unexpectedly commits suicide, leaving a chink in House’s psyche. This is really just the tip of the iceberg, and House M.D. proves that being a medical procedural should have no limitation on the ability to explore character motivations.
Procedurals don’t have to be cut and dry and devoid of any character depth. Even if we turn the show on because we find the formula comforting, there’s no reason to think that evolving the players will worsen the experience. That has been disproved thoroughly
Then we have shows which are, at their core, serialized dramas that are all about story. Look five years back, in the midst of the reality TV surge, and you’d be hard pressed to find one of these that wasn’t on cable television.
When a dramatic serial comes along that succeeds on network television, it rarely has it easy. Look at The X-Files, which was equal parts Sci-Fi "monster of the week" procedural and ambitious alien conspiracy theory. In some episodes it told a simple ABC story, while others it weaved formula and long-form storytelling into a compelling plot that spanned about seven seasons. Fox slotted it into Friday, giving it slim odds to succeed, and yet it did. Then you had 24 and LOST, two shows that snagged and held viewers courtesy of fast-paced stories that always left viewers asking questions (one leaving more questions than the other, obviously). I said you'd be hard pressed to find examples of dramatic serials not on cable television, and while not impossible it’s really hard (even harder now that the two biggest names, LOST and 24, have retired).
It's only made harder though when serials come along that fail miserably. Remember Heroes? It charmed the pants off of American audiences in its first season, and then subsequently raped them for ever having taken pity. Honestly, how bad was the writing in the second and third seasons? Atrocious. Even for a writer's guild strike. This season alone we have shows like No Ordinary Family, Glee, and The Cape - shows more concerned with latching onto trends than producing entertainment with solid writing and acting. No Ordinary Family and The Cape are both attempting to ensnare the disenchanted audiences that Heroes left behind. Glee, on the other hand has been on a downward spiral since midway through its first season and seems to have stopped all forward progress in favor of theme weeks and becoming a showcase venue for the Top 40. Such is the state of network television storytelling: for every step forward, it takes three steps back.
It's no longer the norm to expect to find quality serialized TV on a network; now, if you want something high quality and with a sense of dramatic cohesion you have to subscribe for cable.
The way that paradigm changed is not by moving such shows from cable to network, but from making so many quality serial dramas on cable that it became almost impossible to not have AMC, Showtime, TBS or HBO and still expect to be in the loop when it came to great television. No one ever thought AMC, famous for running classic movies virtually 24/7, would come up with not one but two shows (Mad Men and Breaking Bad) that have laid waste to competition at the Golden Globes and Emmy’s year in and year out. Mad Men gave us a heaping of nostalgic drama featuring a lead cast of nobodies (Jon Hamm, January Jones) while Breaking Bad was a totally unexpected trip into the life of a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) who turns to cooking meth to cover his medical costs and leave his family with some money. In its first year Mad Men caused an upset, and Breaking Bad did the same. Did anyone expect, before the first few episodes of Breaking Bad, that Bryan Cranston was such a powerhouse dramatic actor? I doubt it. His performance, the superb writing of the show, and its consistently rising in the number of average viewers per episode, all prove that viewers thirst for high quality scripted television.
You would think that the incredibly wild reception for serialized dramas would be enough to convince networks, major and cable alike, to seek out this type of entertainment – but sadly that old truth of the entertainment as a business is omnipresent. When a program intent on telling a long-form story reaches broadcast it has to contend with reality television programs which have notoriously low overhead costs and feature nearly infinite opportunities for corporate sponsorship. And while a box of Wheaties might pop up on a shelf in Justified or Dexter, they’re hardly the proper format for abundant product placement; nevermind the fact that not many brands want to be associated with a trigger-happy marshal or serial killer.
Yet these are exactly the sort of shows that need to become more prominent. Consider the comparison between a novel and a celebrity news magazine. The latter is fine if you’re lounging about a waiting room of a doctor’s office, but it doesn’t have substance and really only seeks to help fill up time. It has no real value beyond that. Comparatively, a novel has something to say, a collection of thoughts to string together. One challenges and engages the mind, while the other simply wants to distract it. The mindset that television is little more than a box that turns your brain to mush stems from the type of entertainment that has no aspiration beyond filling time. Luckily, it seems that reputation is gradually being redeemed.
The age of mindless reality TV and empty stories of young beautiful people behaving badly isn’t behind us, as the genres have become permanent fixtures in television; but the wild popularity of these shows, and even True Blood or The Sopranos, demonstrates that people still crave stories. Films have a great capacity to tell a story, but they can only cram so much into a two-hour window. With a 12 or 24-episode season, television can map out adventures with depth that film can never hope to parallel. The trend is rising in favor of scripted television’s return, and even though unscripted or formulaic television will always exist, it’s good to know that a portion of the TV consuming public can recognize substantial entertainment when it rears its head.