Episodes: Standalone episodes versus serialization


(Don't worry. I still plan on doing some Halloween type stuff this week. Just promised some people I'd get this one out sooner, rather than later.)

As part of my ongoing quest to redefine the terms via which we discuss television in the most self-aggrandizing manner possible, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the idea of "episodic storytelling" versus "serialized storytelling," particularly after a discussion of this tweet kicked off a bunch of conversation around just how serialized Netflix shows really are.

The problem with all of this is that we view "standalone" and "serialized" as a binary. Really, the conversation hasn't advanced much past the days of X-Files arguments about whether the "monster of the week" or "mythology" episodes were better. (Monster of the week, by the way.) There's a firm line drawn between mostly episodic crime procedurals and "sophisticated" cable dramas, one that is unforgiving to the former and sometimes overpraises the latter.

But this isn't really a binary! In terms of structure, shows approach the question of "how much serialization" like a cook might approach seasoning. Really, there aren't any shows on TV right now without some element of serialization. Even NCIS has continuing character dynamics alongside the case of the week. The war on the very close-ended, episodic shows that began in 1981 with Hill Street Blues has... mostly been won by serialization.

But, again, not everybody approaches this question the same way. So here's an attempt to break TV into seven tiers. Most shows move pretty freely between the tier they're usually in and the ones right next to them on either side. You may disagree with some of my classifications, and that's fine. Pinning shows down is ultimately a critical judgment, which is opinion-driven. And, crucially, this is not an attempt to be an arbiter of quality but, rather, form. There are good shows of all forms and bad shows of all forms.

So here we go. They're ordered from least serialized to most serialized.

Pure anthology: Really, the only major current example of this is Black Mirror. There are no continuing elements from episode to episode. Even the characters are new with every episode. Ongoing storytelling is nonexistent for that reason. Examples: Black Mirror, The Twilight Zone.

Pure episodic: TV has few examples of this any more. Think '70s cop dramas, where the characters stayed the same, but the show essentially reset with every week, so they could solve a new mystery. They might have relationships, but they were fixed. Boss and employee, parent and child, etc. Examples: Columbo, The Rockford Files, early Louie.

Mostly episodic: The focus is primarily on the case or monster or what-have-you of the week, but the characters have ongoing connections to each other and relationships that must be managed. If it's a sci-fi show, there's probably a mythology that gets parceled out in dribs and drabs in between killing the monster. If it's a sitcom (and most sitcoms fit here), the relationships are trotted out for maximum storytelling impact in sweeps months. Examples: NCIS, The Big Bang Theory, Bones.

Procedural world-building: The default mode of a lot of sci-fi and fantasy shows in their early going, procedural world-building involves a slightly more complicated version of the "mostly episodic" structure, wherein episodes are standalone, mostly, but information the characters learn about the world contributes to a growing sense of a larger mythos. It's rare for a show to stay on this tier, but some have done it. Examples: Most Joss Whedon, early Sleepy Hollow, early Fringe, Community, Orange Is the New Black.

The short story show: The most popular mode of storytelling in the 2000s, the short story show is also probably the toughest structure to pull off. It's a kind of "mostly episodic" riff, but one that is much more attuned to its characters' inner workings. It's a close cousin of procedural world-building (indeed, a show I classify under this I believe most people would classify as the former), but it's much more intricately focused on character than setting. I call it the "short story" show, because it most resembles a short story collection set among a group of continuing characters. Each piece is separate unto itself and can be examined apart from the whole, but the whole is ultimately greater than the sum of the parts. Examples: The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men, BoJack Horseman.

Mostly serialized: This is probably the most popular storytelling mode of right now. The most important story is the overarching one, but there's still an attempt to have a standalone story in each episode. The best example is probably Breaking Bad. In every episode, Walt has some goal he must achieve in order to keep his plan moving forward. If he fails, all will be ruin, but he succeeds, which moves him along to the next phase of his plan, which makes up the next episode. The mostly serialized show, done well, is more exciting than just about anything on TV, because it creates irresistible forward momentum. Everything is moving toward a climax at an astonishing rate. Examples: The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Americans, a lot of Parks and Rec, weirdly.

Pure serialization: This seems like a new storytelling form to a lot of people, but what it really is is a high-gloss variation on that old standby, the soap opera. Individual scenes may tell a story, or a character may get a story arc in an episode, but for the most part, stories stop and start because the episode has to be a certain length. Episodes don't really matter, so much as individual moments that make you say, "Holy shit!" do. That's what will keep you watching. The best shows of this type attempt thematic unity within episodes. The worst are just kinda there. Examples: Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Bloodline, really most of HBO and Netflix's drama output in the last few years.

So there you have it. Which tiers am I missing? Should I give some of these better names? I feel like I should give some of these better names.

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.