Standalone vs. Serial

So it seems that Heroes is killing Lou Anders’ love of episodic television:

What [Heroes is] doing that is making it for me is that it seems to be leaving the episodic nature of television behind completely. Sometimes they’ll run a “To be continued” and this just blows my mind, because in a show where everything seems to be carried forward and thru, I can’t figure out when they decide something is “to be continued” and something isn’t. I think it’s just to give us a break from the horrid voice overs, since the TBC episodes don’t have one at the end and start. What Heroes is doing to me and my wife is showing us the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.

I am actually very disturbed by this.

Because that’s how most television has been written since the medium’s inception.

I always prided myself on not being one of those people who can’t watch black and white film or refuse to watch things because they are old or the special effects aren’t up to today’s standards. My excuse was always that it’s the story that matters, not the set dressings. But Heroes is doing fundamentally different things with story. I know this began with St Elsewhere and Babylon 5 and a dozen other shows over the last decade, but the level of inter-connectivity, non-episodic format is to an entirely new degree. Rome does this too — they are really neck and neck for my affection and it’s probably just that I’m more into comics than history that puts Heroes ahead — but Rome feels just a touch more episodic.

What I’m realizing is that changes in the sophistication of narrative may forever remove me from the garden and I’m not sure I can go back.

To put it mildly, I have some problems with the value judgements being made in this argument. Before I get to them, though, a quick defining of terms: by “episodic”, I am assuming Lou is talking about series in which installments can be treated independently, even if they are embedded in a larger continuity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, was an episodic show, although it became less so as it went on (to its detriment). I’m going to call the non-episodic format “serial”, by which I mean series like 24. You can watch, say, “Band Candy” with minimal knowledge of previous Buffy, and it’ll work fine. You can’t do the same with episode 13 of the fifth season of 24. The term “arc”, I would argue, is somewhat meaningless when applied to a serial show, because in a serial show there is only arc — there’s no “non-arc” for contrast.

Next up, areas of agreement. Television drama — or at least US television drama; British tv has certainly had short self-contained serials for as long as I can remember — evolved primarily as an episodic medium. More recently — again, particularly in the US — there has been a shift away from episodic storytelling and towards serial storytelling, although I don’t agree that Heroes represents anything more than, at most, an incremental advance in this trend. (And believe me, I like Heroes a lot.) I don’t know how long the current absurd practice of an October-to-May “season” punctuated by sweeps months and periods of hiatus has been operating, but you only have to look at the way shows like Buffy would “save up” showpiece episodes and/or big plot developments for November, February and May to see how it’s affected the structure of US shows, to the point where the decision a few years ago to start the season of 24 in January and run straight through — without breaks! — to May felt genuinely radical.

This, not unnaturally, leads to the assumption that a given number of episodes in a season are filler, just there to make up the numbers. I think this is a deeply suspect assumption, but I also get the impression it may be one of the factors that leads to Lou talking about Heroes as an example of narrative sophistication: a series where every episode is essential is obviously superior, right? But that’s not the part that really gets me: what I object to most are the assumptions in the idea that Heroes is an argument against “the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.”

On any given day, my list of favourite Buffy episodes — which of course I’d argue is representative of the best episodes — would include “Lie to Me” or “Earshot”, possibly both; my list of favourite Angel episodes would include “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been”; my list of favourite Farscape episodes would include “…Different Destinations”. My list of favourite West Wing episodes would probably be comprised almost entirely of standalones, because with a couple of exceptions (end of season two) that show didn’t do much serial storytelling. All of the episodes I’ve named start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end. But “Lie to Me” is the finest articulation of Buffy‘s core morality the show ever produced, “Earshot” possibly the finest articulation of the high-school-is-hell theme; “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” is a devastatingly powerful story about, among other things, race in 1950s America; “…Different Destinations” is arguably the best televisual time travel story of the past decade; and The West Wing never failed to deal with whatever issue it chose in a thoughtful and engaging way. Put bluntly, the point is this: an hour (or rather, 45 minutes) is plenty of time to tell an interesting, powerful, self-contained story.

Nor is the difference between the individual episode and the serial one of sophistication, any more than the difference between a short story and a novel is one of sophistication. That’s an imperfect comparison, but the basic point is easily demonstrated: probably my favourite Firefly episode is “Out of Gas”, which has a narrative that weaves between three time-frames with an almost breathtaking economy and grace. It is, by any measure, a sophisticated narrative. Heroes hasn’t produced an episode to match it yet — even “Company Man”. I would go so far as to say that Heroes taken as a whole doesn’t match it yet. Certainly serial storytelling has qualities that episodic storytelling can’t replicate: an accumulation of detail, a more sustained period of engagement with the tale. But consider Battlestar Galactica, which has been alternating unevenly between periods of serial storytelling and periods of episodic storytelling since its inception. The serial episodes are, almost without exception, the better episodes of the show (the creative peak is probably the start of season two), but — though I’ve seen the suggestion made several times — the disparity has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the two types of storytelling. Serial is no easier or harder to get right than episodic; they’re different skill sets. So the problem with Galactica is not that it’s turning out standalone episodes, it’s that it’s turning out bad standalone episodes — ones that do offer too-easy answers, that rely heavily on melodrama, convenience and cliche. Serial storytelling is just as easy to do badly: look at Lost. If I wanted to, in fact, I’m pretty sure I could construct an argument that the pleasures of serials are often ultimately simplistic, familiar, consolatory pleasures — but I don’t want to, because that would be just as much a misrepresentation as the idea that a serial is more “sophisticated” than a standalone.

I feel a little weary typing all this, because I’ve been coming across variations of Lou’s argument more or less since I came online. One of the most succinct rebuttals I’ve seen in that time is, perhaps not surprisingly, by David Hines, from his review of the Angel episode “Through the Looking Glass” (the penultimate episode of the second season, while they’re in Pylea). As it happens, I think “Through the Looking Glass” is an odd choice to use as a defence of the principle, since it’s part of a mini-serial, just a mini-serial that appeared less related to the show’s larger continuity than many people would have liked. But on that principle, I think Hines is dead right.

Did I enjoy the Darla/Dru arc? You betcha. Have the writers stepped away from that a bit for more standalone-ish episodes? Yeah. Is there anything wrong with that? Nope. I enjoy story arcs as much as the next guy. But there’s something more important than story arcs — and that’s telling *good stories.* I don’t care what ANGEL tells stories about, as long as the show tells good stories. If the writers felt inclined to make season three an all-standalone year, that would be fine by me; many of ANGEL’s very best episodes (even this season) have been standalones, and I’ll take a story like “Untouched” over one like “Redefinition” any day of the week. Other shows, including one from Mutant Enemy, have gone story-arc crazy and suffered. Give me a good tale well-told any day.

29 thoughts on “Standalone vs. Serial

  1. Heroes is doing fundamentally different things with story.

    I’m a bit confused. Does Anders think Heroes is the first non-episodic TV programme?

    I won’t agree about the “absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end” but I would say that one of television’s great strengths as a medium is the ability to do serials. I love the full season arc of something like The Wire and I think I would probably prefered to have seen a better arc imposed on shows like Buffy. Of course, this does not mean that a standalone episode cannot be brilliant. My favourite X-Files episodes were always the ones that did something different rather than string us along on some bullshit all encompassing conspiracy.

  2. I think that, at least in part, the denigration of standalone storytelling is rooted in the perception that standalone == formula. For shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Stargate: SG-1, the standalone format is an excuse to hit the reset button at the end of every episode, thus avoiding meaningful consequences for either the characters or their universe. Individual episodes might be quite fine, but the series as a whole takes on a plasticity that serial storytelling, with its emphasis on change, can easily avoid (which, by the way, is where your novels/short stories analogy goes a little wonky – authors, after all, rarely return to the universe of a short story, whereas television writers might tells dozens or even hundreds of stories set in the same universe).

    But of course, and as you point out, the equivalence between standalone and formula is a false one, and the meaningful yardstick isn’t format, but the writers’ willingness and ability to step outside their formula and allow the consequences of their stories – standalone or serial – to flourish. Buffy is a perfect example – the characters on that show did grow and change, as did their world. Lost, on the other hand, has been in stasis for the last two years.

  3. Martin: the full season arc and indeed the ongoing arcs across three and more seasons in The Wire show just how feeble the supposed arcs of B5 and Buffy really were.

  4. I may be talking through my hat here … but I’ve always assumed that the difference between British and American televsion in the way they approach the ‘serial’, or even the ‘arc’, derives from the different markets they initally aimed at. US television, at least in terms of the dramatic series that came out of Hollywood, seems to me to have been based around syndication as an object. Towards this end, US television in the 50s, 60s and 70s, was based around the notion of being able to sell a number of episodes to local stations, who could then show them in any order they liked, without having to worry about it. Ideally, this should work not only within a season, but across seasons. So you can show a season 3 episode of Star Trek straight after a season 1 episode, and not see any significant difference other than the presence of Chekov and a catastrophic decline in the script quality. This approach leaves no room for serials or even arcs, and means that objectives are sought for but never obtained (Smith and Jones never did get their amnesty, David Banner never does find a cure) and continuing characters rarely get killed – it’s confusing for their audience if they then turn up alive next episode. Of course there are exceptions – M*A*S*H killed off a major character, Lost In Space ended each episode with a lead into the next, Richard Kimball actually found the one-armed man – but they are rare. And in that context there’s nothing really ‘absurd’ about showing episodes continually through the October to May season, slipping in new product as it becomes available.

    The model in Britain was different – British shows were made to be seen once. As a result, each week’s episode could refer back to what had gone before, characters could develop over time, or die, and lengthier story arcs could be told. For example, compare Callan, which regularly killed off major supporting characters, with Mission: Impossible, which never did (in its original incarnation). The only exceptions to this approach were British programmes made primarily for the US market, such as the output of Lew Grade’s ITC.

    There was one type of American drama that worked to the same model as most British tv – the daily soap opera. These have always been episodes that once seen, are not broadcast again (because the next episode is ready) – so each episode can build on what has gone before.

    My view of what happened to change US television is that MTM Productions brought a number of aspects of the soap, including the serial nature, and imported them into one-hour prime time dramas, beginning with Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere (they had already done this in the comedy arena with shows like Rhoda, though I’m not sure how pioneering that was; I think shows like Happy Days already had progression). Now each epsidoe built on the last, characters remembered what had happened in previous episodes, and leads could even die. These shows were hits, and their influence could soon be seen across US television. It’s instructive to compare the first season of Cagney & Lacey, which is a female Starsky and Hutch, with the second, which is a Hill St knock-off.

    These changes took a while to get into sf television – Star Trek: The Next Generation takes its ensemble cast from the MTM style, and occasionally kills off continuing characters, but you can still pretty much show the episodes in any order, at least within season. The big change in sf tv is, of course, Babylon 5, which tried (and by and large succeeded) in maintaining the viewers’ attention on the story, despite new episodes being interrupted by reruns. From that flowed the later, much improved, seasons of DS9, Buffy, BSG and everything since. Now, practically every US series, even things like CSI and Without A Trace, which once would have firmly pressed the reset button at the end of each episode, have continuity from show to show.

    The result, of course, is that the October to May season, not intended for this sort of television, is looking more and more absurd. When episodes need to be shown in the right order, slipping reruns in does break the viewer’s concentration, and causes confusion. Hence the networks trumpet when they have new episodes (risking a drop off in audience when the episode isn’t new). Hence the gradual conglomeration of new episodes into lumps, as happened this year with Lost and (I think) BSG. In the end, I think a January-May season is the only way to go – which will result in an additional September-December season to fill the schedules, and a greater demand for product from the US networks.

    That could be good or bad.

  5. Abigail: I think your point about formula is exactly right. And it is a false distinction — a serial like 24 has a strong formulaic element as well, by this point in its lifespan — both on the episode level and on the season level.

    In these genres I’m not sure “authors rarely return to the universe of a short story” is as true as we might like it to be, but that’s a whole other discussion …

    Kev: You know, I’ve watched almost all of the first season of The Wire, and I’m enjoying it, but it hasn’t been a religious conversion experience. It strikes me as impeccably put together and not particularly ambitious — at least, I don’t feel that I’m watching anything I haven’t seen before. (And some of the scene-setting is really weird; watching the first episode, I was absolutely certain it was set in the 1980s, due to things like all the cops using typewriters for their reports … but then they go and visit the FBI, and it’s like they travel twenty years into the future. Surely an exaggeration for effect? Except that doesn’t sit with the style of the rest of the show.) I’m going to try to find time for the later seasons, because they do sound a bit more interesting.

  6. One of the things I like about The Wire is that each season feels more like a novel, with the individual episodes more like chapters, than any other TV show I’ve seen. It also feels like a remarkably realistic portrayal of police work (I have no problem believing that the Baltimore PD still uses typewriters), and the investigation remains interesting without relying on any of the short cuts other police dramas use to speed things up.

    Can you say where you feel you’ve seen this before?

  7. Ted’s right; the best telly now is exactly novelistic. In part this registers the different way TV is being watched now.

    Some examples. I recently watched Deadwood: 12 episodes, builds beautifully, not a wasted moment, exquisite dialogue and characterisation and acting, some of the best worldbuilding I’ve ever seen on TV: you believe it all absolutely, you care, it feels three-dimensional and solid despite also being fairly mannered. (Actually, scrub “exquisite dialogue” and substitute “some of the best dialogue I’ve ever seen on the box”). My wife gave me the box set for Christmas, and I’d been meaning to watch it, but committing twelve hours of my life to it seemed to be asking a lot. Then I got flu, and was home for two weeks. I watched the whole thing over a few days: no need to wait a week for the next episode. If I wanted to (as with a novel) I could just carry on. And, mostly, I did.

    DVDs, and more to the point SkyPlus (or ‘Tivo’ I believe it’s called in the States), mean that we watch telly much more like this. We set the pace, not the schedulers. It means that cliffhangers have less narrative purchase (nothing lamer than a feeble cliffhanger that is resolved straight away by simply cueing up the next episode), and it puts much more emphasis on the architectonics of the whole.

    Two other shows I’ve watched this way: Dexter, and Heroes, although in the latter case I’ve only seen the first thirteen episodes. And (final point this), the sense in Heroes of a complete text being unfolded before me (rather, as with Lost. the sense that things are being made up as the series goes along) was so strong, that when the Christopher Ecclestone character appears and is then retconned into the congressman’s brother’s future-visions it was extraordinarily jarring. I was, like, ‘where’s this guy come from suddenly?’ It felt as if Ecclestine had been integrated into the story arc after filming had started, and the arc was so tight that this inevitably pinched the seams a little.

    Final final point. Rome (which, like Lou, I rate insanely highly) had one advantage: it’s story arc was predetermined by, like, history; that gives the scriptwriters the chance to stretch individual episodes in certain ways. Although, having said that, the core friendship of the show, wholly fictional, works because it is built slowly across many episodes.

  8. I agree with all that’s been said about The Wire. I know what Niall means about it not being particularly groundbreaking in certain ways, but I think it’s easy to lose sight of just how pervasive the standard tropes of TV storytelling have become – never more so than in the cop genre – and the miracle of The Wire is that it almost entirely sidesteps every cliche you’ve ever seen. So you end up with a show which is, on one level, Just Another Tale of Cops and Robbers, but which in practise plays out in an unnervingly naturalistic, almost documentary fashion which makes it far less predictable and more intellectually engaging. The thing I most admire about the show, other than its ability to transcend cliche, is that it tells a story based on the authors’ real experiences which feels almost entirely naturalistic and yet in fact is layered with themes in a way which requires great artifice.

    It’s also unflinchingly even-handed, drawing consistent and sometimes subtle parallels between the world of the cops and the world of the criminals. The ‘good guys’ can be brutal, unfair, selfish, jobsworth or lazy, and the criminals can be noble, and moral. Both are just getting by, and inextricably trapped by circumstance. It’s the rare individuals on both sides who mage to claw their way out of the straitjackets placed on them by upbringing, expectation and bureaucracy. I also admire the series for having the courage to have almost nothing happen at the start of the season as it moves its pieces into position.

    Rome I enjoy but consider a much lesser show simply because it’s so sensationalistic, and also so awkward in the way it juggles the episodic and the epic. However when it transcends its limitations (as for example in the first season finale) it’s remarkably good.

    In general I think everyone makes good points about the merits of arc and standaone episodes. Both forms have the potential for artistry and emotional impact. When done well I slightly prefer the longer arc, but ironically in almost every instance when an arc is truly powerful it’s because a single extraordinary episode, tightly structured and complete in itself, is able to inherit additional resonance from the groundwork laid by preceding episodes. That groundwork is vital, but so is the ability to create a single well-written episode which encapsulates one pivotal set of events. ‘Company Man’ is a great example, not least because it largely abandons the show’s ensemble format in favour of a tight focus on a small group of characters. I agree with Niall that in total Heroes has not equalled the heights of some standalone episodes in past series, but ‘Company Man’ comes close.

  9. Adam, are you aware that Vorenus and Pullo are not fictional characters, as often assumed (and I confess I at first though this that they were)? Of course, most of their adventures are fictionalized, as is the nature of their relationship (and Pullo has been demoted for dramatic effect), but there they are, two rival centurions, in Caesar’s Gallic Wars (5.44).

  10. Tony, yes, I knew that. But they are barely mentioned in Caesar. They’re rivals (‘they had continual quarrels together which was to stand first in battle’), and strive to outdo one another in a fight against the Nervii; and ‘in the eagerness of their rivalry fortune so handled the two that for all their mutual hostility, the one helped and saved the other and it was impossible to decidewhich should be considered the better man in valour’. That’s all. Everything else about them, including the improbable fact that Vorenus has a family at home in Rome (something forbidden to soldiers), is fictional.

  11. Incidentally, on the same subject, Deadwood also mixed fictional with historical characters, treating the latter (Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane) with interesting licence.

  12. Adam, fair enough. When the series first came out, a lot of people didn’t realize that they were historical. Most of the Classics blogosphere, myself included, weren’t that familiar with obscure passages of the Gallic Wars (and Classicists who were either weren’t on the blogosphere or weren’t watching the show), and assumed that these two individuals had been invented to provide the view from the cheap seats. So it was something of a revelation when word spread that they were real. Though, as you note, the versions in Rome share little with those in Caesar, save their names, serving in Caesar’s legions, a connection between them, and, in Vorenus’ case, his rank.

    Interestingly, there’s a bit of dialogue explaining why Vorenus has a family when he shouldn’t, rather than it just being passed over (the dialogue may have been excised in the UK version, edited down “because British viewers didn’t need the background”, i.e. because someone thought it was taking too long to get from one bit of violence or nudity to the next). I think it’s indicative of the slightly schizophrenic nature of modern filmed historical fiction that attention is paid to such a detail, whilst traducing the character of Atia.

    Al Swearengen’s real as well, isn’t he? Though sufficiently obscure in the folklore of the Old West that there’s a lot of license to present whatever version the producers want.

  13. Going back a bit, here. Tony:

    US television in the 50s, 60s and 70s, was based around the notion of being able to sell a number of episodes to local stations, who could then show them in any order they liked, without having to worry about it.

    There still is this pressure, isn’t there? At least to some extent for some shows; I remember that it was a big thing for Buffy and Angel to reach 100 episodes, since that was the magic number for syndication deals. (You have to wonder how something like Angel S4 would come across in syndication, admittedly.) Your comment about British tv being made to be “seen once” also seems important — with the prevalence of DVD, what we now have is a different pressure to make something that can be watched more than once, and it’s in direct opposition to the sort of pressure exerted by aiming for syndication.

    On running blocks of episodes:

    Hence the gradual conglomeration of new episodes into lumps, as happened this year with Lost and (I think) BSG.

    Galactica is on Sci-Fi, which doesn’t seem to abide by the structure prevalent on other networks (because it’s a subscription channel?). Everything else has now gone on hiatus until April, but Galactica is trucking on towards its season finale. Interestingly, though, the first season-and-a-bit of Galactica has always seemed to me to replicate the network tv structure — you have 14 or so episodes up to “Kobol’s Last Gleaming”, which you could see as February sweeps, then another 6 or 7 until you get to “Home”, which seems like a much more natural end to the “first season” than the actual first season finale.

    Ted:

    Can you say where you feel you’ve seen this before?

    No, it’s just a general feeling of familiarity, I’m afraid. I used to watch quite a few police/crime shows, but they weren’t appointment tv for me (and as a consequence, I now watch almost none). I take the point you made over on Lou’s post about novelistic vs serial storytelling; it may be that because I’ve been watching The Wire over a fairly long period of time, I have’t picked up on the nuances. And it’s partly that one of the big reasons everyone praises the show is what Iain says — that the good guys can be brutal, unfair and selfish, and the bad guys can be noble and moral — and my reaction is “yes, you have actual characters. Well done.” That in itself isn’t enough to recommend the show to me, it’s something I expect as a demonstration of a basic level of competency. As for the typewriters, though, the reason I was thrown off was because nobody complained about them; until they went to the FBI offices, I had no indication that there was anything else available to them.

    Adam: just to cement my philistinism, I’m not bowled over by Deadwood, either — and unlike The Wire, I did try watching that over a fairly short time frame. It just came down to the fact that I was about two-thirds of the way through the season, sat down to watch an episode, and realised I’d rather watch one of about half a dozen other shows I had waiting in the queue. I’m with you on how jarring Eccleston’s appearance on Heroes was, though; there really is a sense that they’ve plotted out the first season, at least, in quite a lot of detail. So many of the revelations are fitting so neatly into place that it can’t all be improvisation. On the larger point, about how the way tv is being watched is changing, I’m in full agreement: heck, I wrote a livejournal post about it three years ago, nearly (although it was tangled up with a whole other bunch of issues about the nature of media fandom). But, you know, I hope it doesn’t wipe out all other forms of storytelling; sometimes I just want to watch a story in an hour.

    Iain:

    That groundwork is vital, but so is the ability to create a single well-written episode which encapsulates one pivotal set of events. ‘Company Man’ is a great example, not least because it largely abandons the show’s ensemble format in favour of a tight focus on a small group of characters. I agree with Niall that in total Heroes has not equalled the heights of some standalone episodes in past series, but ‘Company Man’ comes close.

    There are a bunch of things I admire about “Company Man”, which I may write up at more length at some point. But one is the demonstration that Heroes‘ writers aren’t slavishly wedded to their multiple-thread format, which is good; and the other is the way it works on us as viewers. We go into it knowing all the characters’ different agendas far more than we would do in a more traditionally episodic show — the opening scenes, in particular, are stunning, because we’re used to following one of these characters at a time, and suddenly we’re bouncing back and forth between three or four viewpoints in the same scene.

  14. I remember that it was a big thing for Buffy and Angel to reach 100 episodes, since that was the magic number for syndication deals

    Actually, I think the magic number is 88 or thereabout (the equivalent of four seasons, at any rate). If memory serves, the reasoning is that syndicated shows are aired in blocks of X weeks, five days a week. 88 episodes is enough to fill such a block. The fuss over reaching 100 episodes has, I think, more to do with celebrating a milestone than with financial considerations.

    Galactica is on Sci-Fi, which doesn’t seem to abide by the structure prevalent on other networks (because it’s a subscription channel?).

    Up until this year, Sci Fi’s model seemed to rely on counter-programming. Original content was aired in the summer months and in the midwinter, when network shows went on hiatus. This year everything seems to have gone off-balance because of the decision to air BSG’s third season against network programming (which doesn’t seem to have panned out – the show’s ratings have dropped). Sci Fi doesn’t rely on sweeps ratings to determine its advertising rates (although I’m fairly certain the channel does carry advertisements), which is why BSG hasn’t paused as the network shows have.

  15. Niall:

    I guess syndication is still an important goal, but the local stations are now expected to show episodes in the crrect order – the growth of first-run syndication (showing a show through syndication first rather than through the networks) may have affected things in this matter. I think US television is in a transitional phose here – the conservative nature of US tv meaning that this transition has lasted 25 years!

    You may be right that the DVD market is another impetus towards the expectation that episodes will be watched in a particular order, rather than the general assumption in the ’60s and ’70s that thwy could be watched in any order (as a non-US example, back in the 60s, the first runs of Gerry Anderson shows varied from ITV region to ITV region).

  16. Abigail — my understanding is that the number varies depending on how valuable the show is; what ratings it will deliver for what cost. In theory I don’t think there’s even a lower limit on the number of episodes. I’m almost certain that Angel‘s magic number (for solo syndication, as opposed to being a package with Buffy) was 100 episodes, though, because I’m sure I remember it being mentioned as one of the factors contributing to getting season 5 commissioned.

  17. Niall: the reason nobody complained about the typewriters in The Wire is simple. They weren’t new. If there were complaints they happened before the viewer joined the scene. Complaints about typewriters would have been the equivalent of an SF character explaining what a spaceship did.
    You point that the show has characters but that’s the least you expect is fair, but for me that is what sets The Wire apart from many other series that I see praised on here. They don’t have that level of characterisation, it is very rare in TV series.

  18. Niall: the reason nobody complained about the typewriters in The Wire is simple. They weren’t new.

    I don’t buy that. People in every office I’ve worked in bitch about their computers all the time, usually precisely because they aren’t new. It becomes a standard source of banter.

  19. The real reason for the typewriters in The Wire, I strongly suspect, is that the experiences of Ed Burns and David Simon on which the show is based took place at least ten years earlier, and they’ve simply duplicated those anachronistic elements in the show’s contemporary setting. I may be wrong, but another such element is the existence of the Baltimore housing blocks which are the hub of the drug dealers in season 1, which had apparently been demolished during the 1990s in real life.

    Niall – I definitely agree that I’ve heard 100 episodes as the magic number for syndication in connection with a couple of series.

    (Company Man) the opening scenes, in particular, are stunning, because we’re used to following one of these characters at a time, and suddenly we’re bouncing back and forth between three or four viewpoints in the same scene.

    Yes, and also the opening gives us a substantively different spin on the start of the hostage situation than the one which the previous cliffhanger implied – one which is more in tune with our understanding Matt Parkman’s characterisation – yet at the same time the original interpretation still stands since this is how the events seem to the Bennett family. In this sense the serialisation of the show adds layers and complexity to an episode which would otherwise have merely been above average standalone television.

  20. Regarding The Wire: in the commentary on one of the first season DVDs, the creator David Simon says the series is primarily about the effect that institutions have on individuals. This, I think, more accurately reflects what’s interesting about the show than saying that the good guys can be selfish and the bad guys can be noble. The detectives in The Wire don’t merely have to contend with bureacracy and red tape; they have to contend with incompetence, apathy, and attempts by their superiors to screw them over for personal reasons. While there is a battle of wits going on between the cops and the criminals, the series is about much more than that. It’s about what being forced to work within a system — whether it’s a police department or a drug organization — ultimately does to a person. The second season introduces a stevedores’ union, the third deals with local politics, and the fourth (which I haven’t seen yet) focuses on public education. I can’t think of another drama that could range so widely and still remain thematically consistent.

  21. The fourth season of The Wire is probably the most extreme example of the “institutional” theme you identify, and is a really strong season. (As are they all).

    I had the most trouble getting “into” the second season because it starts so slowly and is so different from the first season, but by the end I loved it and it’s probably my favourite season now.

  22. To come back a little towards the orignal question of standalone or serial, The Wire takes serial a step further in terms of arc than even its most obvious predecessor Homicide: Life On The Street by having no element of completion within individual episodes in most cases. Other series with a significant story arc still incorporate some elements of the standalone within individual episodes sub-plots. The Wire doesn’t do that.

    Iain: Season Three makes an issue out of the demolition of the towers and how it changes the drug-dealers operations and the policing of them. As I recall from visiting in 2005 there were still some towers standing (possibly not occupied) in West Baltimore (a few blocks West of Camden Yards, and therefore not that far from Downtown) whereas the corners depicted look much like East Baltimore, Canton and Highlandtown.

    Credit for The Wire obviously goes to David Simon and Ed Burns but don’t neglect the other writers and co-producers, notably George Pelecanos to whose novels the series bears closest resemblance, Richard Price and Raphael Alvarez whose passion for what Baltimore was and its people is also evident throughout.

  23. Tony: I didn’t know that Swearengen is based on a real person. That’s very interesting.

    Niall: I can understand that you don’t like Deadwood; I know several people who don’t like it. It does make, though, I think, an interesting comparison with Rome. They’re both series about the growth of a particular town, and a particular dramatic representation of History. It’s just that Rome is, well, Rome, and Deadwood is a pretty nasty little nowhereville. This is turn is reflected in the sorts of history the series dramatises. If there’s a weakness in Rome (and I do love that show) it’s that its history is always foregrounding History with a capital H. It’s a weakness because it requires odd contortions of plotting to position Pullio in bed with Cleopatra, or have Vorenus meet the defeated Pompey, or be present at the assassination of Caesar. They’re there because these are the Big Events of the period, and the programme makers want to wave them in the viewers’ faces; and as viewer I don’t mind that, although it does tarnish the detailed worldbuilding by giving it this cartoony gloss. But my point is that history is not a glittering string of Big Events, by and large. Most of it is ordinary people doing ordinary things, and accreting history in the three dimensional sense as they do so. And that’s what Deadwood is so good at capturing.

    Not that I’m trying to convert you, though.

  24. David Simon says the series is primarily about the effect that institutions have on individuals.

    I’ve heard this before, which is one of the reasons I started watching it, but I just wasn’t getting that from season one. Probably part of the problem is that the premises of seasons three and four sound much, much more interesting to me, but everyone told me I couldn’t start there.

    (I think this week is going to be a write-off as far as new posts go. Back on Monday, though, I hope.)

  25. An addendum to my point about formula shows: I just finished watching the Stargate: SG-1 series finale. In most formula shows, the finale is an excuse to cut loose – resolve the sexual tension between the leads, kill off major characters, catch up with the one-armed man – but the SG-1 writers were so devoted to their core concept that they even ended their series with a reset button.

    It’s almost awe-inspiring.

  26. Adam: You’ve neatly identified what I find most offputting about Rome, and why, despite professional interest, I’ve not got yet far into the series. It seems unable to decide whether it wants to be I Claudius for the 21st century, relating the big political story, or an ancient Family at War, focussing on ordianry people living through Interesting Times. Because it tries to be both, it has the sort of contrivances you mention, and my first reaction (albeit to the edited UK version) was that I wasn’t suffieicnetly engaged by Vorenus and Pullo to want to spend more time in their company, and they were just holding up the main story, which seemed to get on perfectly well without them.

  27. Tony, yes Rome has its clay-y feet. But the overall spread of it swept me away. Did you get as far as the big gladiatorial scene, where Pullo is to be killed in the arena? In the penultimate episode, I think. One of the most exciting pieces of smallscreen entertainment I can remember in years of watching telly. I mean, crazy in many ways, but very exciting viewing.

  28. Abigail: I see the point about SG-1, but I actually found it quite refreshing that they basically ended the series on a quieter standalone character-based episode rather than a slam-bang overturn-the-applecart one. (And of course the news of cancellation quite possibly came too late in the day for a proper ending.)

    Also one of the perils of the show being a franchise is that the finale isn’t truly a finale. There are two SG-1 TV movies coming up, one of which, the appropriately named “The Arc of Truth” will conclude the Ori story arc: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/31882. And Samantha Carter will apparently be a semi-regular on Atlantis next year. So yet again the commercial realities of TV stifle opportunities for change and development.

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