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

Senior Television Writer
11.24.15 69 Comments

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.

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