by Jay Johansen | Jan 12, 2014
Most of what you see on TV is in the series format.
Some kinds of stories work well as a series. Consider a story about a detective. Each episode he can solve another crime. This seems quite natural. We would expect a detective to solve many crimes in his career. A story about a doctor can also work well as a series. Each episode he encounters another patient. Again, doctors deal with many patients in their lives.
But most stories do not work well as a series. Think of books that you have read and liked. How many would work as a series? I recently read a novel where the hero leads a revolution against a tyrant and ultimately overthrows the government. How could this be made into a series? If he overthrows the tyrant and sets up a new government in the first episode, what will he do in the second episode? I suppose he could discover that the new government is even more corrupt and start a revolution against them. But then in the third episode does he start yet another revolution? We might accept a second revolution as a clever plot twist: the people he thought were freedom-loving patriots, who he helped place in power, turn out to be just as bad the tyrant they replaced. But if this happens to him a second time, we would start to think him less a hero and more a gullible fool. A third time would strain all plausibility.
How about a romance story? The heroine meets a handsome stranger, they fall in love, overcome various obstancles, and then live happily ever after. Then in the second episode, what?, she dumps him for a new man? Okay, I'm sure a good writer could put together a story where this works. But if in episode three she dumps the second man to run off with a third, and in the fourth episode she dumps him to run off with yet another fellow, we're quickly going to doubt that this is true love, and we will probably lose interest in such a fickle heroine.
There was a movie a few years back called "The Night Stalker". The hero, a reporter, runs into a vampire. Of course his editor isn't going to print that sort of nonsense and the police aren't going to arrest someone on the charge of being a vampire. I thought it was a good story: I've often thought that in most horror movies, the people accept the idea of vampires or ghosts or whatever much too easily. In "The Night Stalker" the people react more like people would in real life: looking for rational explanations or simply dismissing the claims of strange events. But then they tried to make it into a series. In the first few episodes this same reporter just happens to run into another vampire, a werewolf, a zombie, Jack the Ripper, a shape-shifting monster, aliens, ... Like wow, this guy must be a magnet for the supernatural! It got completely ridiculous.
You might say I'm exagerrating. The hero doesn't have to overthrow the government every week. Each episode could be about one plot, one political intrigue, or one battle. We work up to the final victory over many weeks. But ... sooner or later he has to win, at which point the series is over. Or the struggle drags on forever and he never accomplishes anything, which would make all his victories along the way seem rather hollow.
The heroine's romance could be stretched out over many episodes. But eventually she has to marry her true love (or given the nature of our times, maybe just move in with him and declare that they have a committed relationsip), or it starts to look like she's a pathetic loser hanging on to this guy desperately waiting for something that's never going to happen.
Indeed, in most TV series, not only does the story go on in cycles forever, but every episode ends up exactly where it began. Hollywood producers apparently keep in mind that they're going to be re-running some episodes in the summer, and maybe in syndication, so they often decide that the episodes have to make sense even if seen out of order. If, say, the rebel hero's best friend betrays him in one episode and joins the storm troopers, this would be a real problem if episodes are watched out of order. One episode he's a good guy, the next two he's a villain, then he's back to being a good guy? Or if the hero and heroine marry, one episode they're married, the next they're not, then they are again? So instead, nothing with long term impact can ever happen.
This works for some stories. In the family comedy, for example, there is some conflict, the characters discover that it was all a misunderstanding, then everybody makes up and everybody is happy again. Family relations have been restored and we're back where we started. Or in the police drama, the detective solves the crime, the villain goes to jail and is out of the picture, and we're back where we started.
Perhaps this is why TV series are all pretty much the same. How many kinds of stories work in such a format? A policeman (or superhero or some other amateur crimefighter) solves a series of crimes, a doctor treats a series of patients, a family goes through a series of relationship crises, a man being chased goes through a series of captures and escapes, a spaceship visits a series of strange planets. Those five ideas probably cover 90% of what you see on TV.
This is a big part of why TV is so unimaginitive. It is difficult enough to be original when you have a broad range of subjects and styles available to you. But when you are limited to such a narrow range, even a truly creative person will have difficulty coming up with new ideas that fit the formula.
© 2014 by Jay Johansen
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