Monday, 7 December 2009

Episodic vs. Serial

This is a great post from Alex Epstein about episodic vs serial TV:

There is currently a pretty big disconnect, as far as I can tell, between the kind of tv shows that writers love to watch, and the kinds of tv shows that networks want to be pitched.

Ask anyone, the networks want episodic shows. They want shows you can tune in for episodes 5 and 8 and 11 and not feel you missed anything.

The kinds of shows I like are, oh, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and DEXTER and MAD MEN. Sure, each episode tells some kind of story that completes by the end of the hour. But you really can't appreciate what you're seeing if you haven't seen a few recent episodes.

For sure, serial shows are harder to write. We painted ourselves into one or two pretty tight corners on CHARLIE JADE. Expectations are higher. No one would have minded the mess at the end of BSG if it hadn't been the culmination of years of story arcs.

But serial shows are more satisfying to write. You get to take the characters places. We got the BUFFY boxed set and we're watching Willow change from Hacker Girl to Cute Teenage Witch to Power in Her Own Right to Big Bad. And that's on a show that strives to give you an hour's complete entertainment.

Network execs will tell you that even viewers who say they watch a show tend to watch only about 1 out of 4 episodes. (That's hard to fathom because when my friends watch a show, they watch every episode or stop watching it. They buy the DVD or TiVo the whole thing. But I've heard this from several people who ought to know these things.) The danger with a serial show is that every time you lose a viewer, they don't come back; while it's very hard to get new viewers in mid-season. Who's going to start watching 24 in the middle?

When I'm pitching, I'm continually trying to thread the needle. So are many of the writers I know. We talk about X-FILES and how there was always an episodic story but it often contributed a clue to the ├╝berplot; or VERONICA MARS. We try to stay away from mentioning LOST; apparently it doesn't count because no one knows why it's working in spite of its ridiculously complex story arcs. (Maybe because of the ridiculously complex story arcs? But you can't say that.) And we try very hard to make sure there is a strong episodic story motor in the template of the show.

It's frustrating, because you can point to any number of successful shows that are blatantly serial. Soaps, even. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. GRAY'S ANATOMY. GOSSIP GIRL. Anything on HBO or AMC.

I dunno, maybe there's a list of showrunners who are approved to write serials. Obviously, serials get made. Maybe it's like movies and hooks: it's not that movies don't get made without hooks, it's just that you can't get a movie made without a hook.

But the moral of the story is: the TV you love may not be the TV network executives want more of. Serial shows are a pain in the ass. You lose audience when you preempt them. You lose audience when you move them. And then if you cancel then, people mail you boxes of nuts. Safer to license CSI: WASILLA.

Or you can just go ahead and pitch what you love, and hope it comes out all right in the end.

So what do we think? This relates mainly to American television, but what's it like in the UK? 'Coronation Street' vs 'Spooks'? Is there an assumption that serial TV is somehow 'worse' than episodic?

I don't watch a lot of Brit TV (I know, shoot me!). I find American stuff more to my tastes - obviously the work of Joss Whedon and 'Dexter' at the moment. Where does the future of TV lie? In episodic of serial? Or the combination of both as we see most often?

Genuine question!


Adaddinsane said...

When I pitched a serial to Kudos I got a blank look. They'd read Ep. 1, they *loved* the *writing* but actually make it? Blank.

Nobody makes serials.

Except: Children of Earth, Criminal Justice, then there's the semi-episodic: Misfits, Being Human, Survivors...

(Never mind the huge US shows you've already mentioned.)

Honestly, I really don't understand. Is it that it can't be writer-led?

Michelle Lipton said...

That's weird. I'm finding the complete opposite!

I'm developing a returning TV series with Hat Trick (in the UK) which was very episodic when I took it to them - each ep was primarily a self contained story - but the development process has centred around making it more serialised. More returning characters, more standing sets, development of bigger storylines for secondary characters...

Even for Radio 4, I'm working on a series that started life as five self contained stories taking place in the same city and has since become more serialised with a character that feeds through each and an overarching story across the whole thing.

All these things do still have stand alone episodic content, but in my recent experience the emphasis has definitely been on the serial.

Neil said...

Now that's bloody interesting!

I can see the appeal of a more episodic show - people can come in and watch any time. It also makes it easier for new writers to join?

With serial TV you can possibly get bogged down in the story and lose sight of the whole thing. Also, if planning suffers, you can have a royal mess (Battlestar Galactica?).

I'm nowhere near experienced enough to say which people want more but I love a show that has an overhanging serial story (a "Big Bad" in Joss Whedon terms) and some great episodic stories. 'Dexter' nails it perfectly.

Dan said...

I'd argue that the UK should actually be more amenable to serialized TV, because we have shorter runs. I can understand the issues behind keeping audiences enagaged from beginning to end of a 24-episode season, but 8-13 episodes isn't so bad.

Maybe this is one reason why Mad Men, Dexter and Breaking Bad work so well as 13-ep seasons on cable in the US, whereas there's been significant drops on network shows like Heroes and even Lost. It's easier for people to set aside 2-3 months with no interruptions than it is 8-9 months with hiatuses and breaks all the time.

Adaddinsane said...

I almost made that point about the UK and serials, yes we should be more amenable ... the person giving me the blank look was American.

David Bishop said...

I'd suggest there's a key difference between US and UK drama.

Here we have series [which tend to be episodic, but with serialised story strands and returning characters], and serials - complete stories told in chapters [one a week, or one a night for event TV like Criminal Justice, Collision].

Before 24, US network TV drama had stayed away from serials. [Witness the ratings failures of Murder One, for example.] Having 22 episodes a season made the serial format very problematic. 24 overcame that, thanks to a breathless thriller format and its real time conceit.

Witness a plethora of heavily serialised shows, such as Lost. Most of those on US networks crashed and burned.

Cable channels like AMC and HBO overcome this via shorter runs, generally 13 eps a season - Mad Men, The Wire.

It's been interesting to watch Merlin adding more and more serial elements to its format in the current series.

Sorry, I'm sure there was a point to all of that, but I've forgotten what it was. Hmm. I'll get me coat.

Neil said...

Great insights, people - thanks!

So I suppose the question now we stand a better chance pitching a serial show (which we've established would probably run for 6-13 episodes) or a full-on episodic series with anything from 12-24 episodes?

On another note - what do people prefer to *watch*? I enjoy the short series that are very serialised (such as 'Generation Kill' and 'Dexter') but my TV-viewing days stem from more episodic shows such as 'Buffy' and 'Angel'. I still love that format!