Why your TV show doesn’t have to be a novel: In defense of the episode

While messaging a friend last week about a show whose pacing was much too slow, I wrote, “I’m getting frustrated with how the plog is moving.” “Plog” was a typo, but it accidentally captured the feeling I have about too many shows right now where the plots are a slog to get through, and where the experience of watching individual episodes feels less and less satisfying.

On Friday, Netflix released the first season of its latest Marvel series, “Jessica Jones,” and while I liked it a lot, I also found myself frustrated at times by the show’s structure, which largely treated all 13 hours as one big chunk of story, with little to distinguish each installment from the next, and with not quite enough material to fill that many episodes.

As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff has written, writers who create shows for the different streaming services are increasingly choosing to – or in some cases, asked to – view the season itself as the new storytelling model, rather than worrying about each episode(*). While interviewing “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway for a story about the Amazon dramedy’s upcoming second season, she told me that she’s started to look at the individual episodes as almost interchangeable in terms of where she can place scenes, and that they think of the whole season as a five-hour movie.

(*) One of the reasons Netflix’s “Master of None” stood out from a lot of recent streaming releases was that it went back and forth between a romantic story arc and isolated episodic stories– and even made sure each installment of the romance functioned as a satisfying half-hour unto itself.

“We really feel like we’re inventing an art form,” she told me, referring to this whole wave of streaming shows.

When the material is interesting enough, and there’s enough story to comfortably stretch out over however many episodes and hours, this isn’t an issue. (Spoiler for my “Transparent” season 2 review: it’s still great.) But when the story’s not quite there, then those formless blobs intended as episodes become a real drag: necessary viewing to understand the overall plot, but not interesting viewing in the meantime, even as part of a day-long binge.

This isn’t a phenomenon limited to Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu shows, though. More and more – particularly on cable, but now even on many broadcast shows – dramas are being structured for marathon viewing, rather than the weekly schedule in which they originally air. Serialization was once a dirty word in network television, where researchers used to claim that even a show’s most devoted fans watched one out of every four episodes on average, and where the president of entertainment at FOX had to lie to her bosses that “24” would have self-contained episodes in order to get a greenlight. Now that DVRs are commonplace, almost nobody airs reruns anymore, and the big aftermarket isn’t in syndicated repeats but selling shows to the streaming outlets, serialization is not only accepted, but in many cases preferred.

The phenomenon reminds me of what happened in comics about 15 years ago, starting with Brian Michael Bendis’ “Ultimate Spider-Man” series. This was a modernized retelling of Spidey’s early days, and it was told in what came to be called a decompressed storytelling style, with Bendis taking plot elements that had squeezed into a single issue back in 1962 and stretching them out across six issues. This gave a lot of those scenes greater heft as drama or comedy or action, particularly when all six issues were collected in a trade paperback edition, but it left each individual comic book feeling awfully thin. Pretty soon, half the comics industry started following the Bendis model, and the phrase “writing for the trade” came into vogue. (It was around this point that I, like a lot of fans, began waiting for the trade, rather than buying the regular issues.) The comics were still sold monthly, but fewer and fewer were meant to be read that way.

Now, intensely-serialized dramas are my favorite kind of television show. “The Wire,” which was a trailblazer in the idea of treating episodes of a season as chapters in a big book, did this masterfully – but as with so many things about “The Wire,” it’s hard for any other show to hit that level. (“Boardwalk Empire” had a similar “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” design, but it suffered from ploggy mid-season episodes more regularly.) But even with my deep affection for this kind of show, it feels like the industry is going too far in an all-serialized direction. It ignores not only the fact that most shows are still consumed weekly by their audience, but that even in a binge, an hour of TV crafted to exist independently of the chapters before and after it still has enormous appeal.

It’s not a coincidence that “Jessica Jones” hits its emotional peak in its eighth and ninth hours, which are the two that have the clearest individual structures. Both move the larger story along and have cliffhanger endings like all the others, but each hours tells a specific story-within-the-story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and both are much more enjoyable than the ones that are just 58 minutes of whatever happens next thrown together in chronological order. Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle,” released the same day (I haven’t finished it yet), is also playing the long game across its season, but because its characters and conflicts aren’t as intrinsically compelling as the ones on “Jessica Jones,” the amorphousness of each hour stands out even more.

When you look back over the last 16-odd years of TV’s current golden age of drama, you’ll find plenty of great serialized shows, but most of them, regardless of where they originally aired, had no problem generating terrific episodes that stood alone – whether in plot, structure, or both – from the rest of a given season. That kind of storytelling hasn’t gone extinct – last week’s riveting “Fargo” expertly carved out a piece of the season’s gang warfare arc and placed it in a siege plotline that was resolved by the hour’s end(**), and this week’s crazy “The Leftovers” found a way to pay off an ongoing character arc with an episode that had its own very specific form, unlike anything the series had done before – but it’s becoming much rarer than it should.

(**) In last night’s episode, Jean Smart’s Floyd observed that people’s stories used to be simpler: “This, then, that. And now, I don’t know where it starts or how it ends.” A commentary on society, but also bit of a meta-comment about cable storytelling itself.

There’s an art to making an episode of television, whether it’s one with a story that’s completely standalone, somewhat tied to past and future developments, or just one piece of a bigger puzzle. And while Soloway and other streaming producers are creating their new art form, I don’t want them to lose all of the many things that were great about the old one, and that can still very easily apply.

With that in mind, I picked out 13 hours of TV – some from cable, some from network – that illustrate the value of standalone episodic storytelling, not only for the viewer, but at times (like “The Good Wife” example included below) for the people making the show.

The Sopranos, “Pine Barrens”

Even when it was airing, “The Sopranos” had more of a reputation for serialization than was evident in the content of each season. David Chase had come out of decades on network TV, and while he rejected many of the medium’s conventions, he largely preferred to construct episodes that were complete entities unto themselves, linking the various plots by theme and bringing most of the issues to a close by hour’s end, even if some bit of Family (or family) unrest continued over several weeks or months. Perhaps the most famous “Sopranos” standalone — and, in some fan corners, infamous for the fact that its story didn’t continue — is season 3’s “Pine Barrens,” which primarily deals with Paulie Walnuts and
Christopher getting lost in New Jersey’s famous woodland after a botched attempt to murder a Russian gangster. Fans assumed the Russian would emerge from the trees in a later episode and cause a war between his crew and Tony’s, but Chase had no interest in that. (As he told me years later, his response to the fan outcry at the time was, “Who gives a shit about this Russian? We already did that show!”) But if you go in understanding that it’s a close-ended story, “Pine Barrens” is a marvelous black comic exercise in a Coen brothers key.

Breaking Bad, “4 Days Out”

Another tale of criminals trapped in the wilderness, “4 Days Out” was part of a series that was much more serialized than “The Sopranos,” but still had to deal with the realities of TV production. In this case, “4 Days Out” was designed as a bottle episode, to be filmed largely inside Walt and Jesse’s RV as they tried to cook all of their remaining methylamine while Walt (convinced by a glimpse of a PET scan that his cancer had majorly advanced) was still healthy enough to make meth, to save money that needed to be spent on other installments. Instead, director Michelle MacLaren kept pushing more and more of the action out into the desert, which defeated the practical purpose of the outing, but made it one of the show’s most gorgeous and memorable tales ever.

Justified, “Long in the Tooth”

In its early days, “Justified” waxed and waned between serialized episodes and standalone ones, which seemed fitting for a show whose hero had been featured in both novels and short stories by Elmore Leonard. Eventually, the fans clamored for more and more arc-driven storytelling, which was a treat when that season’s villain was vibrant (Mags Bennett, Robert Quarles), but problematic when the show was stuck following a less compelling foe (Daryl Crowe). “Long in the Tooth” borrows elements from a couple of Leonard stories (but primarily the novel “Pronto”) as Raylan and Rachel pursue a wiseguy-turned-dentist as he tries to cross the border into Mexico before the marshals or killers from his old crew can track him down. It has nothing to do with Raylan’s concerns about the Crowder family (season 1 had more standalone episodes than most in part because Walton Goggins was working on a movie for half the season), but it’s a wonderful showcase for Raylan as a smart, funny, quick-drawing hero.

The Good Wife, “Red Team, Blue Team”

In hindsight, “Red Team, Blue Team” wound up playing an enormous role in a later “Good Wife” arc, but at the time, it was just designed as the kind of filler episode that network dramas have to make at mid-season to ensure they can produce 22 hours a year. Existing largely separate from any ongoing arcs about politics or the firm or Alicia’s love life, it simply pitted Alicia and Cary against Diane and Will in a mock trial exercise, and “Good Wife” creators Robert and Michelle King understandably enjoyed the tension between four of their leads so much that they devised a new story arc where Alicia and Cary, resentful of the behavior of the partners, split off to start up their own firm. What began as a one-off led to the single best stretch “The Good Wife” has ever had, and is a reminder that doing standalone episodes provides room to experiment and stumble upon an element of the show you never realized was there before.

Game of Thrones, “Blackwater”

“Blackwater” isn’t strictly standalone, in that it wraps up the War of the Five Kings arc that had been running through “Game of Thrones” season 2. But the episode is structured differently from every “GoT” hour before it, and most of the ones after it, in that it’s only about the battle between Stannis’ army and the forces Tyrion has assembled to defend King’s Landing, rather than jumping from locale to locale and subplot to subplot. Even though it requires some prior knowledge of the storylines to fully appreciate, it’s more satisfying as a unit than all but a handful of “GoT” chapters (most of those modeled in some way on this structure) because it’s so contained.

Fringe, “White Tulip”

“Fringe” originally tried to model itself after “The X-Files,” delivering a handful of Monster of the Week episodes for every one dealing with the show’s ongoing mythology. But the audience’s attitude had changed enormously in the 15 years between when “X-Files” debuted and when “Fringe” did, and the fans now had little patience for standalone stories, particularly since most of them weren’t being done with the artistry of the best “X-Files.” So “Fringe” went more and more serialized in its later years, dealing with parallel worlds and time travel, and for the most part, the show was much better for it. But it lost the ability to do episodes like “White Tulip” — guest-starring Peter Weller as a scientist who turns his own body into a time machine in a futile attempt to go back and prevent his fiance’s death — that hadlittle to do with the war between universes, but that were as well-crafted and powerful as any “X-Files” standalone.

The Leftovers, “Guest”

In its first season, “The Leftovers” was occasionally guilty of putting out episodes that worked more as a collection of incidents featuring the show’s characters than as cohesive hours of TV. Twice that year, though, the show did episodes told entirely from the point of view of a single character: “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” about the extremes Reverend Matt went through to keep his church open, and “Guest,” where Nora attends a conference about the Sudden Departure and has an emotional breakthrough with the help of one of Holy Wayne’s hugs. These two episodes were the season’s most effective and powerful, with “Guest” being praised even by critics who otherwise hated the series, and it inspired Damon Lindelof and company to model all of the second season episodes the same way, though some of them will be told from the POV of multiple characters within a small group (say, just the Murphy family, or just Erika and Nora). It’s been a shift to the show’s betterment, and has allowed them to do completely crazy and wonderful episodes like this week’s “International Asassin,” which wouldn’t have been one-tenth as good if it kept cutting away from Kevin’s situation to advance the stories of other characters.

Lost, “The Constant”

Like a number of episodes mentioned here, “The Constant” isn’t a pure standalone in the vein of your average episode of “Columbo,” in that it helps to know the history of Desmond and Penny’s relationship, and to understand what’s been happening with Desmond’s time travel abilities, Daniel Faraday’s research, etc. But the episode sets up a conflict in the beginning (Desmond is on the verge of insanity, death, or both, as a result of his powers and the island’s strange properties) and resolves it by the end (Desmond brings his past and present selves into sync by communicating with Penny in the past and present), and the execution — particularly in the overlapping Desmond/Penny scenes in the climax — is so perfect and romantic that it still functions as a satisfying hour (and arguably the best “Lost” episode of all). At its heart, this is the story of a man desperately trying to get a woman’s number, and getting it, but with grand, life and death stakes. Would it have been half as effective if they had strung the Desmond story across four or five episodes that were dealing with other stories from that season?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush”

“Buffy,” like “X-Files,” mixed standalone episodes in with episodes about that season’s big bad, but often smartly used the Monster of the Week plots to advance different character arcs. Perhaps the best example of this was season 4’s “Hush,” which was Joss Whedon’s homage to silent movies — complete with the “Nosferatu”-esque villains, the Gentlemen — but which used the plague of silence that fell on Sunnydale as a way to deal with how so many of the characters, but particularly Buffy and her boyfriend Riley, were having so much trouble communicating even when they had the power of speech.

Chuck, “Chuck vs. the Best Friend”

Because “Chuck” lived on the cancellation bubble for most of its run, its second season is the only one that was designed in advance to have the traditional 22 episodes, which meant it was free to use a more
traditional broadcast network seasonal structure, mixing in arc stuff with outings where Chuck went on spy missions that had nothing to do with his father, the Ring, or any other ongoing concern. There are a couple of great ones like that from that season, including “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer,” where Chuck literally prevents a nuclear war by winning a game of Missile Command, and this one, where an argument between Chuck and best friend Morgan becomes more complicated because Morgan’s ex-girlfriend is dating a Triad gangster. It features a bunch of classic “Chuck” moments, including Sarah and a Triad assassin having a fight inside a tiny car, Chuck briefly seeming to be dead when a car he was driving blows up, and, of course, the debut of the “band” known as Jeffster! Because later seasons were designed to be shorter (even if one of them actually wound up being even longer), they tended to focus more on arcs and big bads, even though the show was often better at doing single-episode stories like this.

Scandal, “The Lawn Chair”

“Scandal” started out as a Crisis of the Week show, with White House drama as a background element. Over time, that ratio flipped, and the show can now go several weeks in a row without Olivia Pope and Associates taking on a new client. For the most part (including in this current season), that’s been a smart move, but the show put most of its palace intrigue on hold for this fourth season installment, inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and other young African-American men, where Olivia intercedes with the father of a black teen who was killed by a white cop only four blocks from the White House. It’s such a powerful set-up, and executed so well by all involved, that it actually feels distracting and unnecessary whenever the episode cuts away from Olivia to show Fitz and his staff trying to find a new Vice-President.

Friday Night Lights, “The Son”

Having the football team as the center of the series meant that “Friday Night Lights” never lacked for a distinguishing characteristic for each episode, because there was almost always a different game to be played. Still, some episodes of the series existed more distinctly from others, and none more than season 4’s “The Son,” where Matt Saracen has to process the death of his father from an IED explosion in Iraq. While it’s paying off pre-established material about Matt’s ambivalent feelings about the dad who left him alone to care for senile Grandma Saracen — and also features brief detours to check in on some of the series’ new characters from East Dillon High — it still exists as its own thing because its portrait of grief is written, directed, and played so powerfully by actor Zach Gilford and everyone else involved.

Battlestar Galactica, “Scar”

“Battlestar Galactica” is another show that originally featured more of a mix of arc and one-off episodes, and was designed to feature even more, by occasionally jumping away from the problems on Galactica to show what life was like for other ships in the rag-tag fleet. The problem was that the first episode set largely on another vessel came in so over-budget that producer Ronald D. Moore scrapped the idea entirely, which moved up a lot of the show’s mythology that he had intended to parcel out more slowly. Still, the show managed to pause the larger arcs now and again for riveting episodes like “Scar,” which is essentially an homage to World War II aerial combit movies, as Starbuck gets into a rivalry with cocky young pilot Kat about who’s the real top gun on Galactica, with Kara exorcising several personal demons along the way.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com