Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode
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On last night’s episode of HBO’s Luck, there was a hypnotic horse race approximately halfway through the hour. For a brief moment, all of the elements that had been in disparate play throughout David Milch’s newest endeavor coalesced in a haunting, nonverbal sequence in which the race itself united the denizens of the Santa Anita racetrack. It was thrilling. It was emotional. And it was basically the first thing to happen in the show’s short run.
HBO justly gets credit for pushing the medium of television forward. Broadly speaking, you can pinpoint the start of the modern TV era with The Sopranos, a show wildly hailed for taking a novelistic approach to the small screen. Back then, the word “novelistic” was used in a metaphorical sense. It wasn’t that David Chase literally applied the techniques used to construct a novel to his show. Rather, The Sopranos took a patient approach that rewarded sustained viewing. The promise that payoffs down the line would be that much sweeter for the journey didn’t originate with the HBO mob drama, but the series turned into the boilerplate for what passes as critically relevant television.
But is this a good thing? The Sopranos opened up what was possible on television. But it also limited it. It seems silly to state that the addition of ambition to the medium has somehow hindered its growth, but making HBO the gold standard against which quality programming is judged has hurt television more than it’s helped it. The A.V. Club’s TV editor Todd VanDerWerff started pointing out the change in HBO’s approach when, speaking of Game Of Thrones, he noted something that had been in the back of my mind but not fully formulated until I heard him say it: HBO isn’t in the business of producing episodes in the traditional manner. Rather, it airs equal slices of an overall story over a fixed series of weeks. If I may put words into his mouth: HBO doesn’t air episodes of television, it airs installments.
This isn’t merely a semantic difference that paints lipstick on the same pig. It’s a fundamentally different way of viewing the function of an individual building block of a season, or series, of television. Calling The Sopranos a novelistic approach to the medium means praising both its new approach to television and its long-form storytelling. But HBO has shifted its model to produce televised novels, in which chapters unfold as part and parcel of a larger whole rather than serving the individual piece itself. Here’s the problem: A television show is not a novel. That’s not to put one above the other. It’s simply meant to illuminate that each piece of art has to accomplish different things. HBO’s apparent lack of awareness of this difference has filtered into its product, and also filtered into the product of nearly every other network as well.
Why is treating an episode as an installment a problem? An episode functions unto itself as a piece of entertainment, one that has an ebb and flow that can be enjoyed on its own terms. An installment serves the über-story of that season without regard for accomplishing anything substantial during its running time. The first three and a half hours of Luck are installments in the nine-hour story that is that show. Events happen, but they are shaped to the season first and the episode second. It’s one thing to have a goal toward which everything is progressing. But episodes need to have goals as well. It’s the difference between making people anticipate where the show is going, and making them wait for it.
HBO isn’t solely to blame for this trend. It’s been accelerated not by internal mandate, but by viewer consumption. It’s easy to blur the line between “episode” and “installment” if you’re blowing through an entire season of Breaking Bad over a single weekend. When doing this, thinking about how a certain episode works on its own becomes less relevant. Simply getting through the virtual stack of content becomes paramount, with the next episode literally moments away from appearing on your screen. Plowing through a single season in two or three sittings may feel thrilling, but it’s also shifted the importance of a single episode in terms of the overall experience.
How about those who sit at home on the night of initial airing and obsessively analyze that week’s episode in order to discuss it at length online or at the water cooler? Such a viewing model should put an emphasis on the episode as a discrete piece of the overall pie. And yet the critical praise heaped upon HBO has infected the way we look at that discrete piece. The single episode has taken a backseat in importance to the season, which itself is subservient to the series. Rather than take stock of what has just transpired, eyes get cast immediately toward that which is still unseen. In other words, what just aired gets mixed into what we’ve already seen in order to formulate opinions about the unknown future. After all, if we measure quality by the gold standard of HBO, then by definition, the best element of the show has yet to actually air. In talking about modern television greatness, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood are often offered up as the prime examples. Such an assignation has merit, but has established a benchmark against which other programs simply can’t compare.
Often shows try to appease both types of viewers: those who watch on a weekly basis and those who binge after the initial airings. But too few are capable of accomplishing this lofty, if not downright impossible, goal. Some, such as AMC’s The Killing and The Walking Dead, try to stretch out mysteries over a prolonged period. In reality, both shows are little more than exercises in stall tactics, with periodic bursts of action or forward momentum only creating the illusion of progress. Their failings reveal what should be obvious: Creating a layered, lengthy narrative is really fucking hard. There’s no shame in failing in the attempt. Not all showrunners have the equivalent of a concept record in them. But the perception exists that the only way to be a critical hit is to write the equivalent of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.
Then there are shows that adhere to the USA network’s model of modern-day television “mythology.” These portray themselves as having a larger mystery at play, but really are procedurals covered in breadcrumbs. Shows like Burn Notice popularized this model, which soon spread to other USA shows and to other networks as well. The model: Any particular episode will have roughly 90 percent self-contained story. This works well and counters the trends listed above. But for some reason, these shows also feel the need to have a larger, ongoing story that serves as the spine for a season. Whether it’s Michael Westen seeking out those who burned him in Miami, Nick Burkhardt discovering his past on Grimm, or Rebecca Madsen investigating the reappearance of criminals on Alcatraz, these shows feature long-running arcs that usually harm, not help, their sturdy-if-bland lather/rinse/repeat episode structure. Rather than having the two dovetail, they often work against each other, producing uncomfortable friction as both sides seek to establish the same space.
David Goyer, who created the show Flash Forward, bragged that he and his writing staff had built out the show’s first five seasons before the pilot even aired. But what Goyer and company forgot to do was build five characters the audience could relate to. The idea of having a fixed point toward which a show inevitably builds is fine in theory, but false in practice. There are too many variables at play when producing a television show that slavishly adheres to a predetermined finish line. All those breadcrumbs have to lead somewhere. But what if that destination changes along the way? How can one account for the clues already left behind? Assuming that a superior idea won’t arise later is simply arrogant thinking, and counterintuitive to any collaborative process. A television show is a living, breathing entity that represents a synergy of creative, cultural, and social forces that simply can’t be predicted five weeks out, never mind five years out. It’s not a book that can be rewritten before anyone can read it, or a film that can be reshot/re-edited before it screens in theaters. The cat’s out of the bag, for better or worse. Laying in groundwork for a massive payoff down the line is a terrible risk, one that comes with so little control as to be almost laughable.
What can be controlled is a reaffirmation of the structural and narrative importance of a single episode. You don’t even have to construct a theoretical example of how to balance the needs of an episode with the needs of a season or series. FX’s Justified offers a master class in how to achieve both. Graham Yost and his writing staff have found the sweet spot where an episode has a shape unto itself while informing the larger 13-episode season and the ever-growing series, while at the same time focusing on world-building, something television is fantastic at doing. With a theoretically unlimited amount of episodes to fill, it’s smart to look at the environments in which shows operate and look under rocks and behind corners to see what might exist. Harlan feels three-dimensional, and though it’s self-contained, it also feels limitless in terms of story potential.
The key here is building stories that spin from the character outward into the world, instead of the world imposing stories upon its characters. Breaking Bad works because its actions come from those infected by Walter White’s arrogance, greed, and evil. Show-creator Vince Gilligan planned the overall arc of the show in the broadest strokes possible: the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface. But he’s run a writers’ room in which narrative improvisation fueled the actions seen onscreen. Rather than staying constricted to a heavily planned scheme, Gilligan and company have worked through each episode, looked at the results, and then adjusted accordingly down the line. Breaking Bad has an often-glacial pace, but concrete events still transpire in each episode, events that build upon each other until a sudden burst of violence threatens to tear the entire edifice asunder. Each episode contributes to the whole, but works on top of that as a singular, stand-alone hour of televised entertainment as well.
That’s perhaps the best way to describe what HBO’s success has stunted. A meticulous attention to detail on the part of both those who create television and those who consume it has stymied a desire for the kind of experimentation and exploration working in the microcosm of episodes allows. Focusing on an uncertain, albeit exciting, future can negatively affect the equally unknown, but much more palpable, present. Everyone’s so concerned about getting everything right that they’ve forgotten how much fun mistakes can be. Looking for perfection from a television show is a fool’s errand, and yet picking out its flaws is somewhat of a national pastime at this point. Showrunners are too often trying to fool the audience rather than entertain it. Audience members are too busy trying to solve the show and being disappointed when reality doesn’t line up with theory. Amid all of this, the episode has suffered under the weight of crushing expectation over where a story is going to go as opposed to what it currently is. Shows can’t think about how they’ll fade to black at the end. They need to focus on burning bright in the present.