The deeper television moves in to hyper-serialization — the trend where individual seasons are essentially the episodic building blocks of a series, as opposed to the episodes themselves — the more the best shows are plagued by a fairly consistent problem: When you plan out a series arc, you really only have room to plan out two seasons. (Obviously, this shifts if you’re adapting a book series.) But instead of planning out the first two seasons, too many shows plan out their first and last seasons, a move that often leaves them stymied when trying to get from point A to point B.
I understand this impulse from my own work. Now that we are two seasons in to Arden, we have a much better idea of whatever our eventual final season might look like than any intervening seasons (though we have some pretty firm ideas about what a season three would look like, to be sure). Beginnings are tough, and endings are tougher. But neither is as tough as a good, strong middle.
The more I watch Babylon Berlin — which, granted, is based on a book series but one that the showrunners appear to be somewhat freely adapting — the more I think just having a strong plan for a first and second season is what most TV shows need. (Honestly, just keeping your eyes on your paper and limiting yourself to the first season is probably enough, but no writer can successfully keep their eyes on their paper.)
I do love Dolores. (Credit: HBO)
I could point to numerous examples of other shows where the attempt to adhere to some sort of plan allowed for exciting season ones — because the series was introducing its big ideas and conflicts — that then led to dull season twos. But let’s point to one: Westworld. The show’s first season had plenty of problems, but the longer it ran, the more the clever way the series told stories became clear. It was a relatively well-planned season of television, pacing out its reveals very well, and it ended in perhaps the best reveal of all: that the Hosts’ struggle for freedom was all part of a pre-planned storyline.
The second season had its eye, always, on where the series needed to go to, rather than where the season needed to go. This is not to say that it was without its pleasures — the episode delving into one character’s particular history and closing up a lot of seeming plot holes remains perhaps the best hour of the series’ run thus far — but it is to say that if you were looking for forward momentum, it had almost none. (For nearly half the season, Thandie Newton’s character was sidelined on an operating table, because the show couldn’t let her get to the end game too quickly.)
Now that I know that those first two seasons were viewed as a kind of couplet, leading to where the series went in its third season, it’s all the more baffling that the show didn’t spend more time focusing specifically on making those two a satisfying unit as a whole, thus making season two part of an entertaining whole. (This is what Babylon Berlin did, more or less, though it then also shot seasons one and two back-to-back, creating a cohesive nature most American TV shows couldn’t manage.)
I dearly, deeply love long-running TV shows that keep going forever for seemingly no good reason. (I wrote way more about this here.) It tickles me pink that Homeland is currently rocketing through an eighth season long after the zeitgeist forgot about the show. Are most shows better early in their runs? Of course. Are there plenty of shows that would benefit from a truncated run, especially serialized ones? Probably.
But to my mind, this isn’t really an argument for more short TV shows but fewer hyper-serialized TV shows. There should definitely be short, concise hyper-serialized shows that tell their stories across 30 episodes or less (ideally less). But that shouldn’t be the primary TV diet we’re consuming.
The trick to making a serialized show that can run for five seasons or more, then, tends to involve planning ahead only as far as you dare and being willing to leave those plans in the dust when the time comes. The best shows of the streaming era tend to be series that have extremely loose plans but will leave them behind at the drop of a hat. Halt and Catch Fire had a very different plan for where it was supposed to go, one that the creators abandoned about midway through season one when it was clear that they needed to shake up the show in a big way.
These are the kinds of lessons that we frequently say more TV shows should learn, but all too often, we don’t realize how hard it can be to throw out something you’ve worked so hard on that you have a multi-season plan. Thus, another benefit of focusing just on the first two seasons in a plan is that your lens becomes narrower. Throwing out work doesn’t mean junking an entire planned show. It just means pivoting for what the first couple of seasons are going to mean.
The chief virtue of TV storytelling is time. If a show lasts seven seasons, you’re going to watch it across seven years of your life. Your life will change as it runs, and it will change, too. And like life, TV is often best when shows don’t try to look too far ahead but tackle only the problems directly in front of themselves. Yes, networks want to know that you have an idea where this is all going, but the more you can keep that vague, the better you’ll be able to let go of those ideas when you need to most.
What I’ve been up to: I’ve been so busy with work that I didn’t have time for a longer newsletter this week. But if you haven’t read my Vox work this week, you’re in for a treat! First, I chatted with my boss’s 4.5-year-old daughter about the motion picture Trolls World Tour, in a new feature called Critic-at-Large/Critic-at-Small. (Response was so positive that I hope we can do another chat, the two of us.) And then, I wrote about why the new Fiona Apple album is so brilliant.
Perhaps Apple’s first major entry into the larger mainstream beyond fans of alternative music came in 1997, when she won an MTV Video Music Award for the now-iconic, very ’90s video for “Criminal” (still her biggest hit). Taking the stage to give a speech, she said, “Everybody that’s watching this world? This world is bullshit.” Her use of the word “bullshit” in a program that children could theoretically be watching got more attention than her ultimate message (which was about staying true to your own inner muse), but in 2020, it’s hard to say she was wrong.
I’m so mad, all of the time, and I no longer precisely know who to be mad at. The sources of the pain so many of my fellow humans are forced to suffer seem at once obvious and older than any of us who are still alive. Nothing makes sense, the world is going through the first act of several dozen post-apocalyptic movies at once, and we live in a country with a leadership that does not seem to care about anything other than consolidating power for itself. We are governed by greedy, gluttonous children who are threatened by the mere suggestion that they might be greedy, gluttonous children, and here I am, stuck inside, with no power to do anything about it. What am I going to do? Vote to incrementally dismantle the entire fucking system?
Read me: My wonderful friend Cassie LaBelle came out to the entire world a few weeks ago, and then she published this amazing blog post about why it’s so hard to peg gender dysphoria for so many of us until we’re made to recognize that dysphoria often manifests in very different ways for all of us. (I am almost certainly going to write an embarrassing newsletter about Cassie sooner, rather than later, so get on board train LaBelle.)
Every once in a while, a member of the trans community decides to re-litigate the question of whether or not gender dysphoria should be a required prerequisite for calling yourself transgender.
It’s a stupid debate. I firmly reject the idea that my identity as a trans woman can only be understood through suffering, and gatekeeping is a rotten thing to do regardless. Telling a trans person that they aren’t trans — or aren’t “trans enough” — serves no purpose other than cruelty. I believe that anyone can transition for any reason, and all “levels” of transitions are valid.
The other problem with adopting a “you must have dysphoria to be trans” ideology is that a lot of unhatched or newly-hatched trans people suffer from gender dysphoria without actually realizing it. Not only did I fail to recognize my own gender dysphoria when I first started looking into it on that hot summer night almost three years ago, I still naively believed that I didn’t actually have much dysphoria when I began coming out to myself last spring. Instead, I took my relative lack of gender dysphoria to be a flashing neon sign that I was wrong to even start looking into transitioning.
If I’d been told that gender dysphoria was a requirement for being trans, I might never have actually realized the truth: I’ve been suffering from gender dysphoria my entire life without understanding what was actually going on.
Watch me: I never quite got around to writing about this stunning YouTube video essay on the film Contagion by Dan Olson at Vox, a thing I always intended to do, so let me recommend it here. It’s the rare video essay where the form is as important as the content, and I’ll say no more than that.
And another thing… I have decided to give up my snobbery and embrace allrecipes dot com in this time of trial, and guess what: allrecipes dot com is fucking great. I made this lasagna tonight, and it was amazing. And I have been making this lemon vinaigrette all the time to support my salad eating adventures.
This week’s reading music: “Wandering” by Ben Folds