What’s Next for TV? I Hope Something Is

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.



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36 thoughts on “What’s Next for TV? I Hope Something Is”

  1. What I admired most about Friends was the Chandler-Monica relationship. It was rocky, but the writers never felt the need to end it. In an ensemble show, you can and should have one solid couple. In Firefly’s very unstable universe, a few things needed to be secure, and one of those was the marriage of Wash and Zoe.

    Anyone who thinks it can’t be done needs to rewatch The Thin Man.

  2. I dunno how to get past it if what you’ve constructed is a “drama of longing”. If what you’re selling is people fighting to get closer to each other (and why not, it’s an easy sell, universally relatable and generally seen as inherently noble), then once they’re as close as our culture understands to be possible, your product is gone. They can switch to fighting to keep what they have, which isn’t nearly as saleable a product, or theoretically they could do like in real life and start fighting to get away from each other, but nobody wants to see that. Or they can be driven apart to restart the dynamic, but once people are sufficiently close most of the mechanics of that involve moral choices that make somebody into an unsympathetic character. So we get contrived external factors that keep them from ever getting that close, i.e. Castle.

    I’m not sure this is actually what drove Joss’s choices in Buffy, because I don’t feel like any of the drama-of-longing elements were ever what drove the show, even Buffy/Angel. The central relationship that could never be consummated there was Buffy’s unrequited crush on Regular Life Where You Get To Survive Past Twenty. I kinda read Joss there as being almost disturbingly driven to present the standard relationship-escalator narrative as a cruel lie from as many angles as he could manage.

  3. After reading Will’s comment, I immediately spotted The Rock that I have in my current project. It’s the thing that I establish as always there, and with no threat of ever going away. Now I feel like smashing it just to see what happens.

  4. Ryan, like all rules, smashing the shit out of that one can be a good thing. The best use of it that I remember off-hand was in Buffy Season Five, when the Buffy-Riley relationship broke and Xander gave one of TV’s best-ever commitment speeches to Anya. Hmm. Which, I guess, means break one rock, but figure out what the next one is.

    Oh! Good example of that: Casablanca. You end with a relationship that you believe, and never expected.

  5. Skzb, I’d add NCIS and NCIS LA to the list of shows with character development. Sandy likes Rizzoli and Isles.

    Too many cop shows on TV though, it seems.

  6. David: There are no shortage of shows with character development. In fact, almost every show these days has character development. That isn’t the issue.

  7. I think we’re entering the ‘anybody can die’ era. Game of Thrones is by far the leader to date.

    If used in the TV dramatic series vis a vis love interest/tension ‘anybody can die’ should allow writers to reach resolution, then use the new relationship for a time, and then kill one of them off – so they can be replaced by a new love interest and renewed tension.
    Or you don’t have to literally kill them: marry them, divorce them, and create more complications including a new love interest or a pair of new love interests.

  8. I don’t watch much TV, but I’ve been generally pleased by White Collar, and the evolution of the trust and partnership between Neal & Peter. I think this upcoming season has probably concluded that they need a different seasonal reversal to wring tension out of, so the question is – how many seasons’ worth of such twists can they keep coming without making it feel forced and artificial?

  9. In terms of the solutin: Mexican TV has that – the “Telanovella”, which is basically a multi-season mini-series. A series with an end either planned from the beginning or at least where the length is pre-set from the beginning. The problem with bring it to Amercan: Amer\ican networks won’t commit in advance to keeping a series alive for N seasons, not even conditionally (as in if you make this rating by the sixth episode you get the next season). .

  10. I have a recommendation about character development.

    There’s this awesome book series that I cannot remember the name of. Something about an asshole human living as a hitman/wiseguy in an empire of long living 7-8 foot tall “elves”. He’s picked fights with his bosses, the empire’s rulers, the gods and the makers of gods with the help of his flying lizards. He has married, separated, lost a finger and now has the challenges of fatherhood.

    If somebody can remind me of the name of the series and the author they should refer them to HBO. Its a race between him and George RR Martin finishing their respective series.

  11. Matt: Oh, right! *White Collar* is another example of doing it right (although I’m behind a season or so). But what you said, and also, Peter’s relationship with his wife seems stable, solid, and healthy.

  12. This is why I’m enjoying BBC shows that haven’t been “Americanized” – I just started Luther, but the idea that you don’t need 24-26 episodes so that every episode and move all of the plots, and isn’t just a filler episode you can have character development, I love.

    Literature-wise Modessitt has always done this well, the protagonist generally has relationships that build them up and support them rather than add superfluous drama to their lives. I’m okay with stress happening due to stressful situation, but not “will he/won’t she” for the sake of it.

  13. Here in Denmark, most danish tv – shows are developed for the national public broadcasting channel DR, because they have most of the resources. They typical have a lead writer as the showrunner, and if the show succeed, they run mostly one or two seasons more.
    Some of the new shows, that have gotten some success abroad are two crime show and a political show:

    “Forbrydelsen” ran three season and there are a US Remake called “The Killing”
    “Broen” with yet another us remake is called “The Brigde”
    “Borgen no remake developed yet, but it’s running on an us-channel and Av club are reviewing it. Borgen are a about social liberal politician (in the European sense) rise to prime minster, and what she has to do to keep the power, and what that cost it have on her politically and personally.

  14. @Kevin O’Neil:

    I find the “marry them, divorce them” approach to be very problematic. There’s no point in finally resolving the romantic tension if “relationship issues” are going to be the linchpin of the next season’s conflict. The result is the formerly likable characters that you’ve rooted for because unpleasant parodies of themselves.

    Obviously, it’s unrealistic to have no relationship issues, but I’ve seen many shows where the the “relationship” features in every episode, either as the A or the B plot for the next season. If the show isn’t NewsRadio, that season is almost certainly going to suck. I’d much rather see four or five episodes focusing on relationship conflicts arising naturally from the writing, and then for the rest of the season the relationship is just background to be mined for character moments or laughs, while other conflicts drive the plot.

  15. You can pretty easily have a healthy, stable romantic relationship on a TV show as long as the relationship already existed when the characters were introduced. Do we have any examples of characters going from not-together to together-healthy-and-stable without the show ending or being destroyed?

  16. Yeah. Peter & Elizabeth’s relationship is definitely one of the Rocks the show is built on.

    Another one that someone pointed out to me was that Neal will lie to Peter, but in terms of larger actions, except during the one or two eps a season where their trust is lowest, he won’t directly disobey him. Another blogger once pointed out that it was nice to see a functional dom/sub relationship depicted on television, even if ti wasn’t sexual… now I can’t unsee it.

  17. /*delurks*/

    “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.”

    Can’t it, though? Are we (“we” being American TV viewers in general) really so emotionally mired in high school that we can’t conceive of anybody being worth our attention once they’re in an established relationship? Surely there are interesting, dramatic, even exciting stories to be told either as part of that moving-on process, or with moving-on as a backdrop. Yes, it would require the show itself growing and changing, or more probably not being (or being perceived by its own writers) as a one-trick-pony to start with, but that sounds to me like a goal rather than an obstacle.

    Arguably I’m an outlier, but I for one would love to see a show where characters eventually get together, and somehow manage to have interesting lives *after* they’ve sorted out their romantic situation. To borrow someone else’s metaphor, where the story doesn’t stop as soon as the Count’s daughter gets married.

  18. “Do we have any examples of characters going from not-together to together-healthy-and-stable without the show ending or being destroyed?”

    There’s Castle, kind of.

  19. If the point is to name a TV show that does not re-set to zero, I would suggest Continuum. The whole point (it does have a lot of character development and evolution) is that time travelers are deliberately causing change to hopefully affect a new future to avoid a disastrous future which already happened (??).

  20. David: Um, you can’t turn on your television without tripping over scores of TV shows that do not re-set to zero; the point is to explore some consequences of that.

  21. Chaos: I’m currently catching up on Downton Abbey (oh god, I was supposed to watch that with you, I’m a total heel, I’m sorry) and the answer to your question is yes.

  22. In the case of Continuum, the premise (deliberately altering the future) forces a direction to the plot, it must move toward the goal(s). The viewer knows the primary goal(s) (two of which conflict), but it is not apparent how goals can be reached or if it makes sense (time travel paradoxes and such). Several main characters, who one thought were essential, are killed off as the story goes on, throwing in changes in direction. So now it seems the direction may be at right angles to the original, though the goals (two conflicting groups of time travelers, make that three) remain the same. Though the goal of the third group remains unclear.

    It seems a little deus ex Machina (the sudden appearance of a third group), but the roots for this had been established well in advance, so it was a bit of an aha, as it explained some things.

    I also liked Fringe for similar reasons. And their courage to wrap it all up at the end.

    That type of thing?

  23. Babylon 5 is almost a perfect example of an arc structure, but…Most modern anime (since at least the late seventies) has had it, Mr. Brust–it’s really not a new thing for Japan. Couple this with the fact that TV anime is nowadays _only_ funded in half-seasons of thirteen episodes (“cours,” they call them) and you tend to get some rather tight story arcs–though you still have many shows that drag a bit in the middle and wrap things up too quickly (or worse, leave some plot holes open in hopes of funding a second season–some of my favorite shows ended up being like this).

    There are rare exceptions to this, though–Legend of the Galactic Heroes was something over a hundred episodes, all direct-to-video and funded by preorders. (It’s also another fantastic example of a story arc–something like the Japanese equivalent of The Winds of War–and I highly recommend watching it.) But again, they’re rare.

  24. Jen: It’s all good. :) Okay, so from that example we can infer that one of the conditions where you can make it work is when a show always has a lot of balls in the air and no one source of dramatic tension is indispensable to its success. Might still be problems for shows where a significant portion of viewers only tune in for the will-they-get-together plot, but Downton manages to keep people interested in multiple things, I think.

    Compare and contrast with The Office, which always has a lot of things going on, but the only one that ever presented any dramatic tension was the “when will Jim and Pam get together” plot, resolution of which is claimed to have made the show pointless.

  25. Burn Notice does it’s last episode Thursday (today, I guess). This will wrap up the series. It is not apparent at this point what the conclusion will be. They’ve kept all possible options open.

    I liked the series as it was clever (solutions to difficult problems, kind of clever). Always several balls in the air. The romantic action has flipped several times (on / off, love / hate). Michael (Ex CIA, now freelance CIA) and his girlfriend, Fiona (ex- IRA), and friends have all been trapped in a spiral around Michael wanting to go back to the CIA for real. Now Michael may have been converted to a terrorist cause where he had been put undercover for the CIA. Lots of twists.

    It’s getting kind of chaotic and less believable at the end. I don’t know if that is sloppy/lazy writing or if it is intentional to keep tension/action going to the end for a big bang effect.

    One good thing is it shows the personal compromises and sacrifices (social, moral, family) that come with being a spy; how it affects you and those around you, especially if you are not a full blown sociopath.

    The series started out a little more gritty and technical, but has gotten more touchy/feely as the series developed.

    It’s also fun to see things get blown up.

  26. @chaos — Yes, more balls in the air makes it possible. Doesn’t always work, but it can. Ensemble cast FTW over “two leads with glancing support” model.

  27. I think it is difficult to apply the “story arc” to writing TV shows. You only have one season at a time. So shows tend to plateau and repeat until the series ends.

    Fringe did a good job of a story arc and resolution at the end. Burn Notice had a big increase in complexity and action in this last season. An arc at the end? It will resolve in less than an hour.

  28. “I think it is difficult to apply the “story arc” to writing TV shows” I might be misinformed, but my understanding is, that’s where the term comes from. In any case, yes, there are all kinds of story arcs (and character arcs, and sub-story arcs) in damn near every current show.

  29. I’d written a longer post earlier, which didn’t post for some reason, but it made my point clearer. TV shows have typically a 13 week season. The writers don’t know if there will be a next season in many cases. So no over all arc can be planned. It may not even be the same writers next season.

    I would think it is easier to plan an over-all arc to writing a book rather than a TV show. Maybe if you have the horsepower and support, you can do it for the season. I’m just considering the practical aspects of being a writer for TV.

    Each show may have an arc (nearly all do), but I didn’t think that is what you were talking about.

  30. One of the things I admired about the West Wing was the patience of the Donna-Josh relationship. It wasn’t like Castle, where they were constantly not getting together, it just put the tension out there, referred to it every so often but not constantly, and then resolved it in the final season. I see other shows trying to do that, but then either fall into the Castle trap or just solve it in the first 4 shows.

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