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.

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