Until the Last Word, Part 5 ~ From Episodic to SerialThis section was supposed to be a short explanation, but it kept growing as I thought of a number of examples...mostly for procedural because they kind of annoy me now. So many don't strive for great storytelling and character development the way they should. Of course, I found a better, much, much shorter one after I had already written everything below. Perfect if you want to save some reading time.
Episodics are like short stories that wrap up each week and then start anew. Many I've seen are predictable, hardly changing year upon year. Though I have loved a number of that type of show, experience tells me that they will start feeling repetitive and not often go very deep. Once an episode is over I may not give it a second thought until the next one, even if it's regularly enjoyable, and I won't miss much if I skip an episode unless it's the season finale. Main character personalities are pieced together over a long period, and backstories are sparing until there's a case that affects them more than usual and it's revealed that something terrible happened to them that was never hinted at before. If you suddenly get a lot of backstory for seemingly no reason, it means this is probably the last time you'll see them and the writers are setting it up to manipulate you into feeling sad when they're gone. If they are in peril, it really isn't all that exciting or tragic to me most of the time. These characters just aren't important enough because I don't really know them. There are exceptions, of course, like Warrick's death or Nick being buried alive on CSI. The show had been on for a while by then, so I'd grown to love them.
That's not to say I don't adore a few episodics right now that know how to keep the interest of the audience and never get stale. Psych is really an hour-long comedy, like Monk before it, and the ensemble cast is hilarious. Opportunities for treating us to wonderful silliness having to do with Shawn and Gus' addiction to pop culture, food, and each other are never wasted. Castle is terrific fun, engaging, and well-written. Personalities take center stage, and there was instant chemistry and a lot of humor, so warming up to them didn't take long at all. And The Mentalist is a must watch for me because of Jane's light-hearted gleefulness in outsmarting everyone, but always with an undercurrent of grief and rage you can see in his sad eyes and fake smiles.
But that's certainly not the norm. The shows that never deviate from their formulas (original Law & Order), I really don't care all that much about. They too often focus on the guest stars and cases, victims and suspects, the medical mystery of the week, devoting little time to relationships, remaining stubbornly impersonal. I can stop watching at any time and not miss them much. To stay interested, I need to know the regulars. If that won't happen then at least the writing and guest stars better be spectacular, but that also is quite uncommon. I care very little for someone I've known less than an hour and who has no relationship to a larger story, unless they can actually deliver an unforgettable performance, like Ray Liotta in ER's "Time of Death" or Vincent D'Onofrio in Homicide's "The Subway." As I'm writing this, CSI: New York is on their third music montage of the episode, which is where I zone out. Usually the music is annoying and I really don't care about the latest crime-solving gadget anymore, so there's nothing to keep my attention. I still like the CSIs, but not nearly as much as I did before Fringe reminded me that television could be staggeringly brilliant.
Recently I read someone's comment about how they could write their own episode of whatever procedural they were talking about. I'm sure I could do the same with at least outlining a typical episode of House. Though it was a terrific show full of emotional turmoil and great performances, and there were a few spectacular, breakout episodes every year, such as "Help Me" and "House's Head/Wilson's Heart" (three of the saddest hours of procedural television I've ever seen), it was highly structured. Pick any episode at random and you will see House emphasizing that people always lie, behaving immaturely, caring about the disease but not the patient, everyone complaining about his antics and trying to one-up him, and Wilson trying to keep House out of trouble, all the while crossing diseases off the list of possibilities until they finally find the right answer...except it's wrong and the correct diagnosis, sometimes too little too late, is made within the last seven minutes.
A serial (Lost) is like a long novel where each week is a chapter, all adding up to one cohesive story, hopefully. It's all about a continuing arc over the season or entire run of the show. Character development is a priority, so viewers get to know the cast more each week, and the audience relationship with them can be more meaningful. Every interaction has the goal of furthering the storyline or our understanding of a character and their choices. The death of a character, even one who hasn't been around for long, can have a true impact. If you're a casual viewer who doesn't watch every episode or you tend to watch out of sequence, you will likely be confused and bored. You wouldn't read chapters of a novel out of order and you should never do that with a serial.
There is another kind of storytelling that incorporates elements of both, the episodic serial. Cases are solved in an episode, but they may have parallels to the characters that help them to understand more about themselves or the world, and every action and consequence carries over. Fringe was a perfect fusion of this for much of its run. It started off as a procedural with a lot of character and a secret very much ingrained in the show. Self-contained episodes were never wholly self-contained but always tied to the larger story. There was a suggestion that something may have been wrong with Peter from the pilot episode, which was revealed in bits and pieces over over time. He was an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. He WAS the puzzle.
There are varying degrees of these elements in any show, but what matters, what holds them up, are the characters. Without well-written and real people, you'll have a pretty package empty of substance. To contrast with episodics, feeling for the guest stars on Fringe is a given. In fact, it's not often that I don't. There is sympathy for almost everyone. Most people aren't truly bad, but doing the wrong things for the right reasons. I've had many emotions during any given episode of Fringe, but what I've never felt was indifference. The personal side is half the reason I kept tuning in week after week when it first started. There were plenty of investigations to flesh out the world, but Fringe was always obviously as much about humanity as it was each new oddity, and it was all beautifully intertwined. To me, this is the most effective way any story has ever been told.