In 1981, Hill Street Blues went on the air, and the soap opera met the drama and nothing was the same again. The difference was the story arc: TV dramas no longer automatically reset to zero at the end of an episode. Now, in fact, I get impatient and annoyed any time I’m watching something that resets to zero–I expect, demand, that there is movement during the season.
But there are a few things that came along with this change. One of the big ones is the romance tease–will these two characters become involved? How long can we stretch it before we give you an answer? Sometimes it is timed well (I think Burn Notice did a good job with that). Sometimes, not so much. I rather like Castle, but by the end of the, I don’t, 90th season where the characters failed to get together, I found myself rolling my eyes and saying, “Oh, come on.”
Additionally, when it does happen, there is a fear among the writing staff that so much dramatic tension will be lost that you can actually see the writers straining to invent a problem between the characters (The West Wing Season 5, is an especially egregious example, along with the current season of Burn Notice). Joss Whedon, probably the best writer/show runner working in US Television today, had this problem all through Buffy,and Angel. Much as I loved the shows, it got irritating–even the love among secondary characters had to be prevented at all costs, for fear of losing dramatic tension; as if romance were the only place tension could come from. Willow and Oz? Xander walks out on his wedding day? Tara gets shot? Oh, come on. (Firefly didn’t have this problem, though I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if it had continued). Now, me, I love the “Thin Man” movies–a well adjusted couple solves crime while enjoying booze and repartee and the relationship between them is never an issue. But you can’t do that on TV, because . . .well, let’s look at that.
There is no end.
In a book, you get to the end, you get closure, you get the satisfaction of turning the last page with your life a little changed, with a sense of resolution and satisfaction. But TV is episodic, like an open-ended series. There has to be dramatic tension. There doesn’t have to be romance, but, at least in the opinion of the writers, if there is, it must always be threatening or threatened. Because if you lose tension, you lose the viewer, then you lose the series, then you lose a whole lot of money (if you’re the writer, you don’t lose that much money, but you do lose your job).
I am not saying that romances may never be threatened or torn apart; anyone who knows my books knows I don’t believe that. But any problems between characters needs to come from within, from the story, from the characters. It needs, if you will, to be organic. The feeling that it was artificially introduced is just irritating, and makes us think about the writing at a moment when we should be lost in the story.
It isn’t just romance, of course. That’s the most obvious, but, well, you’ve created the character arc, now you must live with it; characters cannot reach a true resolution, or they’re done. In life, people do reach resolutions; while change never entirely stops, growth happens, and a new being is established, and the person moves on. This can’t be done in open-ended episodic television.
We all know what the solution is: just like a series, you write toward a resolution and then stop; this frees you up artistically to concentrate on making it good. Or maybe you close each season with a satisfying resolution in case you don’t get renewed. Leverage and The Wire are stunning examples of doing it right. But most TV can’t or won’t do that, so, however good it is, at some point the viewer finds himself rolling his eyes and saying, “Oh, come on.”
Maybe this is inevitable. Where money is the thing that drives art, there may be no way around it. But, until Steven Bochco came in in 1981, we all just figured that character growth in episodic TV was impossible. So I wonder if something will change. I wonder if some genius will come up with something. Maybe a show in which characters vanish and are replaced? More likely something that hasn’t occurred to me. But there is just enough TV doing it right, that I can’t help but hope someone comes up with something.