Today’s post is an examination of two approaches to TV writing, the way all TV episodes used to be written and a trend that began sometime after the birth of the mini-series. And what’s fascinating is that the longest-running TV series in history adheres to the old school method.
Back when television was new, every episode of every show was written in such a way that by the end, everything was back to square one for the characters. The main character had the same job, the same friends, the same family, and the same goal(s) in life.
This is the old-school episodic approach to TV writing. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll call this the Baseline Scenario.
The advantages to this approach were:
- writers didn’t have to know anything outside the Baseline Scenario before they started a script,
- the entire season didn’t have to be mapped out in minute detail before the first script was written,
- writers and show runners, knowing the characters and environments they had to work with, didn’t have to do new research, and
- episodes could air in any order.
Did Dad’s friend Biff go to jail in Episode 9? Did Mom run off with the postman in Episode 12? No one cared because at the end of those episodes, Biff was free and Mom was back home. And Dad had shaken hands with the postman and forgiven everyone.
The disadvantages of working with a Baseline Scenario were:
- every event leading the characters away from the show’s baseline had to be resolved by the end of that episode which wasn’t always easy,
- in the overall scheme of things, nothing ever changed for the characters which lead to…
- the storehouse of baseline story ideas being exhausted rather quickly which lead to…
- the show got boring and died.
The television mini-series had a big impact on viewing habits and in its wake, more and more TV shows turned to unresolved plot points to keep audiences coming back next week. Show runners, inspired by theatrical serials from the 40s and 50s, left characters dangling from one week to the next, hooked on the horns of dilemmas.
The Season Arc
This extension of serialization involved laying out a game plan for entire seasons before any episode was written. The show runner has to know circumstances for each character at:
- the beginning of each episode,
- the end of each episode,
- the beginning of the season,
- the end of the season, and by implication,
- where next season will start.
The advantages of serialization and season arcs are:
- shows are more dynamic (the audience doesn’t know where the characters might end up by episode’s end or season’s end) and this means…
- audiences are more likely to tune in next week to see what happens, and
- tune in next season.
The disadvantages are:
- the season arc has to be laid out well in advance which is a lot more work than writing a baseline show bible,
- if writers stray too far from the plan, they end up in rewrite hell and episodes take longer to write,
- a weak series premise can be disguised as a good one, and
- the season arc can take over from the episodic goal/solution mechanism, turning the show into something the audience didn’t sign on for.
This is an example of a weak premise disguised as a strong one. It had a great first season wherein the premise was: the most unqualified person in Washington ends up as President of the United States and has to fight to bring honesty to the White House. By the end of the season, he succeeds despite a few lapses into dishonesty.
But where does it go for season two? The premise played out 100% in season one. The lame duck President is now a political veteran, (but, we assume) a mostly-honest guy with the support of the people and his staff. He’s earned his place, so anything he does from here on is going to be off-premise.
At the beginning of season two, not even the series title applies any more because from here on, he’s going to be just another President doing his best to stay honest, serve the people and get a second term. It’s turned into a rehash of The West Wing.
This show had a strong episodic flavor with its murder of the week, but it also crammed in a season arc following Castle’s investigation into Beckett’s mother’s murder. This season arc quickly escalated into a series arc (an arc that lasts the entire lifetime of the show) and it brought in some hair-raising cliffhangers for both tune-in-next-week as well as tune-in-next-season events.
On the surface, this season/series arc seemed like a good idea, but it created two big problems:
- it distracted from solving the murder mysteries, the bread-n-butter of the show, and
- it turned a dramatic comedy into an action/thriller, defeating the original premise altogether.
I don’t know how much Castle’s ratings picked up because of season arcs, but I’m sure the audience it played to in its final season was not the same one drawn in by the pilot.
Castle lasted eight seasons, but it could have done that by presenting compelling mysteries instead of working so hard at shocking us out of a good night’s sleep.
This is the longest-running series in television history I mentioned at the beginning of this post and it’s old school all the way… except for the deaths of Maude Flanders and Ms. Crabapple. Homer still works at the nuclear power plant, he still has 2.5 kids and Marge is still his wife. He still lives on Evergreen Terrace, has Ned as a neighbor, and drinks at Moe’s.
There have been hiccups along the way as there are in any series. Last season (#28) had some lame episodes and I was convinced the show was finally dying. But this season, perhaps they rehired all the good writers they let go last year (I really don’t know), but it’s back on form.
Of course with it being animation, it’s easy to keep rewinding. Everyone is still the same age and after fudging details of the world outside of Springfield (whether it’s Keifer Sutherland or Martin Sheen in the White House) the rewind to square one works every week.
A large number of TV shows these days depend on shock and awe in their season arcs to draw in an audience, but it may not be necessary. Sticking to a single, strong premise might go just as far in creating a long-running series that satisfies its original intended market.
We can only hope that Hollywood eventually figures this out.