The Perils Of Serialization, Part One
By and large I try not to pay much attention to the on-line grumblings of TV fans, because one of the worst things about the internet is the way that it encourages moment-to-moment analysis of–as opposed to a big-picture perspective on– everything from global affairs to sporting events to episodic television. One bad poll and a politician's done. One bad pitch and a baseball team's done. One bad episode and well, you get the idea.
Still, I can see where the Gilmore-doubters are coming from, even though I think they're ultimately off-base. I came late to the show, and watched pretty much the whole series in one-a-day doses this past summer, and I think the problem is less that the characters aren't behaving right–for the most part, they're not so different from what they were seasons ago–but that the storylines seem to be going in circles. Paris becomes a tyrant at the Yale paper and strains her friendship with Rory. Didn't the same thing happen when she ran the student council at Chilton? Rory has a stormy relationship with a rich kid. Whatever happened to that bratty Chilton dude? Lorelei can't make it to the altar. Again?
But the biggest sore spot for Gilmore Girls' critics seems to be Luke's long-lost daughter, which is actually an example of what the show continues to do right. It may seem like a plot contrivance, to keep the couple apart–and I still contend that they belong together, even if the writers and the actors don't agree–but it's really another wrinkle in the show's extended thematic tapestry. It's significant that the mother of Luke's daughter is, essentially, another Lorelei: an independent-minded single mom raising a genius. If the writers can ever get back around to exploring that character and her relationship with her kid, it'll give another angle on how mothers and daughters relate to each other, and how even the most strong-willed woman ends up becoming like her mom, in often terrifying ways. (See also: Lorelei and Emily, Emily and her mother-in-law, Lane and Mrs. Kim, Mrs. Kim and her mom, ad infinitum.)
That the writers haven't done enough with Luke's daughter yet is symptomatic of TV's biggest artistic stumbling block, and the thing that keeps TV from being better than movies or books, no matter what some cultural critics contend. If you saw the title of this blog entry, you know where I'm heading. The grind of serialization–of producing anywhere from 6 to 13 to 24 episodes a season, on a near-weekly basis, for as long as a show is profitable–tends to steamroll such dramatic niceties as steady characterizations and tight plotting. In the case of Gilmore Girls, when you watch the whole run of the series, you can see the plotlines that didn't develop and were abandoned, like that geeky Yale kid that Rory found naked in her hallway a couple of seasons ago, who was clearly was meant to be Logan's romantic foil until the creators' minds changed. Even Logan himself (an unfairly maligned character in my opinion) seems to be playing out stories that might've happened with that snobby Chilton boy from season one, if the show hadn't become a big enough hit that the Palladinos could afford to wait a while before throwing Rory and a rich kid together–an inevitable and necessary plot point.
Even more than writers trying out characters and stories that don't go anywhere, the biggest problem with serialization is how success changes plans. Consider the cases of the following shows that have been hampered one way or another by the TV format itself:
Veronica Mars The first season was one of the best in TV history, with a gripping, surprising mystery teased out across well-crafted, usually standalone individual episodes, each with their own mini-mystery, and each designed to examine how the high school caste system and real-world class warfare mirror each other. But the second season has been, for all its virtues, a bit of a muddle. It's still one of the best-written, best-acted shows on television, graced by a heroine who's both intellectually sharp and emotionally vulnerable, but now that the threat of imminent cancellation has been removed, Veronica Mars' writers have stretched out and piled mystery on mystery, resulting in a gnarled master plot that's increasingly hard to follow. The clean narrative line of season one–and its satisfying conclusion–has been replaced by what's angling to be a big cliffhanger, leaving most of this season's questions unanswered. And if I'm wrong, and the finale does wrap up this season's multiple mysteries, it's bound to feel a little rushed. (Though the recent "bus dreams" episode helped matters considerably, recapping the season to date without sacrificing entertainment.)
Lost Depending on who you ask, this second season has either been painfully slow and stingy in comparison with the first, or crammed with so many potential "answers" that the show's now further away from the finish line than it was at the end of last season. Personally I think the show's simmering along just fine, though it does go through stretches where it seems to be really getting somewhere (like the recent run, featuring the elusive Henry Gale, and that great Locke backstory episode), and then stretches where it seems to be merely rearranging the pieces on the board. Everyone seems to agree that for a show like this to work, the creators need to decide how many seasons they need to tell the story and then to start building slowly to the end, but while Lost's brain trust insists that they know where they're headed, they're unwilling to say how long it's going to take to get there, and there have been hints in some of their statements that they may really be just making it all up as they go along. Which, if true, could lead to a real disaster in a season or two, when they look over the heap of characters and subplots they've introduced and then try to figure out how to make them fit into a completed puzzle. The core problem with Lost is its structure, which balances the intimate flashback stories with the heightened conflict and weirdness on the island. Because of the jumping back-and-forth, the pacing sometimes seems out of whack, plus the big blueprint of everything keeps getting bigger with each flashback, with more to follow. The way things are going, it's going to take about ten seasons to bring everything to a logical conclusion and I don't know if I want to wait that long.
Prison Break I'm not sure what the hell happened to this show, outside of a failure of nerve. When it debuted, the Prison Break creators talked about how they have a two-season plan, and know exactly what's going to happen once the heroes escape. They even implied that the break was going to happen by mid-season, and the show's fast-paced plot seemed to promise just that. Then came the mid-season hiatus and no escape. Just more contrivances to keep the inmates in the asylum. And those of us who previously admired how well-planned-out everything was have to wonder if there's any master plan at all.
The Shield Even this show, which has been better than just about any other at telling one long story without losing its way, has at times turned down blind alleys (mainly via characters who seem like they're going to play a major role in the plot, right before they disappear for good). The Shield just wrapped its best season–or half-season according to creator Shawn Ryan, who says that the 10 episodes coming next year are part of one long 20-episode run–but as tense and exciting as the past 10 episodes were, the streamlining of what the show's about has come at the expense of the mini-arcs and single-episode stories that The Shield did so well in the early going. It's not a great loss, because if nothing else, the everything-on-the-table approach of season five has reminded viewers that anti-hero Vic Mackey–seemingly redeemed last year–still has to answer for being a crook and a cop-killer. But one day, if some uninitiated soul sits down and watches the full run of The Shield like it's a movie, the change in focus from season to season might seem a little awkward.
Desperate Housewives Though everyone I know swears they bailed on this show before season one was over, somehow it's still doing well in the ratings, so someone must be sticking around. I'll confess that it's still in my TiVo queue, though I'll also confess that it often takes me weeks to get around to watching what we've got saved. But every time I get ready to delete the show for good, I get interested in one of the plotlines–Bree's drinking, Gabrielle's black market adoption plan–and I decide to hang in a little longer. Like Veronica Mars, Desperate Housewives was built with a one season story in mind, and though some of the second season stories were set up in the first season, the original mystery wrapped neatly long ago, and there's not much tying these characters together anymore. It's really become four separate shows which occasionally overlap, and on any given week, only one or two of those shows is any good. And in a case study of how the nature of TV production can push writers to come up with ideas before they know how to use them, the introduction of Alfre Woodard and her mysterious children at the end of last season has proved fruitless in season two.
So what's Desperate Housewives supposed to do now? Unceremoniously dump the Woodard storyline? Wrap it up quickly and clumsily? Keep it bubbling on the back burner, eating up five or so minutes of precious screen time every week, until they figure out what to do? Or–what seems to be happening now–come up with something shocking and possibly unplanned that brings the Woodard thread back into the main? (And keeps me watching into season three?)
There are some things that television will always do better than movies, like building characters and plots over long stretches of time, and playing out premises in different permutations. But it's still rare to find a TV series that works as a complete, seamless work of art, with no dead spots or false starts. That's a compromise that hardcore TV buffs like me are willing to accept, but we should still be cautious before declaring television superior to artforms that have the advantage of concision, unity, and–above all–consistency.