Overthinking the whole episodic structure. Man, this writer’s got
balls guts. Yeah, erm, that’s right. Guts:
by Ben Adams
Televised storytelling is often characterized as “episodic” storytelling. Whereas a movie generally tells one long story, successful TV in the United States is often about the creation of an engine for continued storytelling. You can’t just tell a story and stop, you have to keep telling stories, until you hit that magic 100 or 200 episodes and the syndication checks start rolling in.
And to a great extent, the “Golden Age of Television” has been about breaking this mold, and telling the kind of stories that match the cinema in unity of purpose and dramatic arc. You will often hear shows like Mad Men characterized as a “serialized” drama, putting it in opposition to the more mundane “episodic” shows of the past.
But of course, a Mad Men or Game of Thrones remains very much the exception to the rule. A huge swath of the TV dial is dominated by shows that are fiercely episodic in their nature. A quick look at a list of TV ratings will show that the vast majority of viewers tune in for a) sports, b) reality shows, c) situation comedies, and d) crime procedurals – none of which are known for their serial story telling prowess. Rather, each of those genres is about a weekly stand-alone story that fits into a season- or series-long arc.
TV is frequently consumed bit by bit, particularly when its packaged up and sold to the USA Network to run three times a day until the heat-death of the universe. Not everyone sees every episode, or watches in the correct order, and so its important that each episode be able to stand on its own, as a story in miniature – you don’t need to know the back story to appreciate a Monday Night Football game, it’s not vital that you have seen every episode of American Idol to appreciate when that girl knocks a Ke$ha song out of the park, and you can walk into another week of CSI: Something Horrible Happens to a Woman without ever having seen any other episodes (or its spinoff, CSI: Something Horrible Happens to a Woman, but This Time It’s in Florida).