IO9 posted an interesting article called “What’s The Matter With Story Arcs On Television?” The comparison is summarized as this:
“on the one hand, self-contained weekly episodes are newbie-friendly and easy to show in reruns, because it doesn’t matter what order you show them in. On the other hand, how deep can your characters and universe really get when nothing ever changes and the situations get fully resolved within 43 minutes?”
Apart from the amusing fact that the article references “Blake’s 7,” which is way old-school compared to the other references, this makes a good point. As a viewer, I’m rarely content with the purely episodic anymore. It’s one (of many) reasons I don’t watch most sitcoms. I know that, no matter how many times the dad learns the same lesson, he’s never going to change.
However, as the article points out later, “shows that offer complete resolution every week tend to be lighter, maybe even fluffier, than shows that draw out stories over months or years.” I tend to prefer my shows lighter, happier. If I wanted dark, I wouldn’t be trying to escape. It’s one reason I eschewed the new Battlestar Galactica series.
My favorite shows strike a balance between the two extremes, but in a positive way. Psych doesn’t always bother, but most of the time, Shawn is growing up. He’s not conforming to some set standard of behavior (and since the audience is primarily independently-minded Americans, it’s unlikely that’ll happen), but he is learning that it’s okay to be more serious now and again. Numb3rs has seen the relationships between Don, Charlie, and their dad grow into more mature, adult relationships. In Doctor Who (which the article kind of pokes fun at for mock story-arcs), the companion, at least, grows and changes and matures through the seasons. Donna at the beginning of season four is different and, I think, a better person than Donna at the end.
The new Warehouse 13 is something I’m enjoying. It’s been primarily episodic and primarily upbeat. There are strings that are going through, but they’re not beating us over the head with them. So far, I like how it’s going. I don’t imagine I’m going to be watching a show a year from now in which the characters all hate each other but can’t escape their horrible situation. (Which is sometimes what I’ve felt from other shows.)
After all, even in shows with a more firm episodic format, like NCIS, you can have growth over seasons without a specific story arc. Granted, NCIS does have story arcs, some better done than others. The more interesting part to me, though, is watching the characters deal with the fall-out from the climaxes of these story arcs. Gibbs dealing with Kate’s loss and Tony dealing with the break-up of his relationship with Jeanne are two examples.
But I still have never forgiven [insert responsibel parties here] for the travesty that was the ending of Pretender. It became clear only later on that the writers didn’t actually know where they were going, so the clues that we get in the first couple of seasons never add up. Not only that, but they completely ditched two of the most important relationships in the series–Sydney and Jarod as father/son and Jarod and Miss Parker as love interests. They didn’t even change these relationships, so that we could understand why they moved on. They just stopped bothering. Even more than never knowing all the secrets they were lobbing at me, those changes still rankle.
Given the amazingly tough job it is to get a show made, let alone aired, I can understand why no writer would want to plot out everything in advance. Given the transiency in casting, where an actor may not want to come back for a second season, even the plotting out in advance can wind up all needing to be chucked out. I know I complain about how much bad TV there is, but given the process, it’s in many ways amazing that there’s not much worse! I tip my hat to the runners of my favorite shows, for being able to turn out good products year after year, despite all the pressures they face. Keep at it, because I love you!