Thursday, June 17, 2010

Serialized vs. Episodic TV.

Blog reader and friend Ryan Wynns posted a comment on today’s “serialized” format for hour-long TV shows vs. the more classic “episodic” format of days gone by, to the post on the series finale of LOST. As this post is nearly a month old as I write this, perhaps you missed the exchange.

I don’t usually cheat like this, but I thought the subject was good enough for a Blog post of its own. So, here are my comments to Ryan, as they appeared in that comment thread. I invite comments of your own…

If ever I were “on the fence” between the episodic and serialized formats for TV series, 2010 would clearly place me on the episodic side!

People will debate the merits (and lack of same) of the finale of LOST for some time to come. And, it will be little more than just “people’s varying opinions”. One thing you CAN say for LOST, is that, regardless of your view of it, it HAD an ending after taking us on a six-year ride.

But, where I’ve recently determined that the serialized format does NOT work, is for series that do not have the luxury of choosing their own “end time”.

Just before NBC dropped everything for the Olympics, HEROES had just set up the storyline for its fifth season. Now, it’s not coming back! Perhaps, if one chooses to purge one’s memory of the final act of the final episode, one could say HEROES had an ending. But, the bad taste of being left unsatisfied after following it for four seasons remains.

ABC was once pushing FLASH FORWARD as the successor-in-interest to LOST. They aired half a season, took a break, released a DVD of that half season to hook people for the return… and wrapped up a great ongoing, weekly mystery series in a way that resolved nothing and made little or no sense – other than to arbitrarily fulfill the plot’s earlier prophesies. There is NO DOUBT that the producers of FLASH FORWARD intended to go into another season – and were forced to cut it off now.

On the other hand, when episodic TV ends with a poor, or at least “less worthy”, final episode, you don’t feel nearly as shortchanged for your investment. Of my pronounced favorites from “days of old”, I’d say STAR TREK (The Original 1960s Series), LOST IN SPACE, THE WILD WILD WEST, TIME TUNNEL, and THE INVADERS all had “average to poor” final episodes – compared to what each series did at its best.

But, on the whole, I don’t much care because the “ride as a whole” was great and (very important point) was NOT dependent on the quality of the final episode!

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA had (what was for its time) a great closing episode, with even a hint of finality to it – or, at the very least, sufficient satisfaction at how it wrapped. They even titled it “No Way Back” for good measure! I’d say that might have been because they knew the show was going to be “retired” at the end of the 1967-1968 season.

THE FUGITIVE is said to have had the greatest such closing episode of the era, but (more’s the pity) I never saw it, and so cannot comment.


UPDATE for 2012: I have since seen the final episode of THE FUGITIVE – and was it ever great… especially for its time! 

The final two episodes of LAND OF THE GIANTS were actually two of the best of the series, but that was probably more a case of “luck of the draw” than design.
     Perhaps the best compromise would be a series like STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION, which walked a fine line between “episodic and serialized”, knew when it was going to end – and had a superb final episode ready for the occasion!

So, what say you all? Do you prefer the “Serialized” approach, with the crushing disappointment of a potentially poor final episode to show for your investment?
Or, are you partial to “Old School Episodic”, with little in the way of week-to-week continuity and cliffhangers to intensify your interest?

Or, some sort of “hybrid” of the two? And, if a hybrid, how many successful ones have there been?

The Comment Section is open all night… Please stop by!


Ryan Wynns said...


I'm glad that you decided to repost this! I had intended to reply to it in its original "comment" form - I can't beleive a month has gone by already! (Grad school starts Thursday. Yes, in June - what can I say, it's a weird school! Been busy getting things in order for that.)

You make a really good case, right on and as sharp as ever at every point! I'd have to say that I still prefer the serialized format, provided the circumstances are ideal - that is, the network doesn't pull the plug prematurely. (So, I can understand why you've come to feel that you prefer an approach that gets around the potential for that by default!) There's just something I like about the whole "grand scheme" conceit. (Blame Gargoyles' presence during a formative time of my life!)

That said, I understand the charm (do I go so far as to say "beauty"? Not sure if that's the word I'm looking for!) in (long-running in particular) series without their last episodes handled knowingly and overtly as "last episodes". I remember throughout the better part of the first decade of my life, I didn't completely realize that shows had "last" episodes. Oh, I knew there was a finite amount of episodes for shows that I saw cycle through their run in syndication a few times over, but I wasn't really aware of the concept of a "series finale". And there's something to that: there being no beginning and end. Think of the way certain comic books have gone on for decades and decades. (And comic strips, too, for that matter ... and, yes, soap operas...) Serialized or episodic, there's just something I find compelling in the very notion of a series.

Joe Torcivia said...


I remain soured by my experiences of 2010, regarding the matter of “Serialized vs. Episodic” television.

Of course there’s good and bad in everything. Sometimes you get LOST. And sometimes you get FLASH FORWARD. And, as I feel at present, I’m no longer willing to invest in another FLASH FORWARD!

I sometimes wonder how LOST would have played out, if it never got out of ITS FIRST SEASON. Just think of all the wondrous things we would never have seen! Would they have found a “way out” of all the mysteries they set up even at the beginning? Smoke Monster, polar bear, Danielle Rousseau, etc.

We would never have known BEN, much less Juliet, Widmore, Faraday, Jacob and The Man In Black. How would they have wrapped it up an “emergency fashion” after 13 or 26 episodes? The mind boggles at what we would have missed out on!

Networks and producers need to make a pact with viewers. Every such continued, unraveling mystery series must come equipped with an ENDING that can be enacted within ONE SEASON, in the event of cancellation. That way we never have FLASH FORWARD again.

It the show succeeds, you can take it in the fantastic directions of LOST. But, if not, the viewers are left with a satisfying and coherent whole, for their time spent watching.

Further, networks and producers must never OPEN A DOOR to a whole new area of continuity; unless they are committed enough to at least nominally resolve same.

I’m speaking to YOU, NBC – about HEROES! HEROES could easily have ended in its final aired episode of early 2010. It reached a point where most of its characters were in a good (or, at least, satisfying) place. But, no… At the very end of that show, Claire had to go reveal her abilities – and, by extension, the existence of other “specials” – to an anxious and startled public… setting up Season Five and opening a door I really would like to have walked through! It was even billed as the next “volume” in the saga.

At the very least, we’re owed a TV movie or special to deal with that bombshell, and put to rest a series that viewers have followed for four years.

Under the old “Episodic Rules”, it didn’t matter much, because the entire life-cycle of a series wasn’t building toward SOMETHING – perhaps “something that would never come”!

If Captain Kirk COMPLETED his “Five Year Mission”, or the Robinson Family returned to Earth, or Tony and Doug were brought back to 1968, or David Vincent revealed the alien “Invaders”, it would have been great… but we expected none of this. We didn’t feel entitled to any of it. These situations and fixes became the “Status Quo” for these series. Not pieces in a puzzle for which there was a greater whole, somewhere out there.

We didn’t expect a resolution, because these series offered NO PROMISE of one – nor any weekly buildup to one. They just provided a good time each week – and for years thereafter in syndication. And I liked it better that way, by cracky!