The Culture Beat

March 29, 2009

Television Storytelling with the End in Mind

Filed under: Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 10:19 pm

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How many times have you experienced the long slow decline of a favorite television show as it runs out of steam, drifting into low ratings, its beloved characters fading into ghosts of their once vibrant selves? The nature of network programming, set up to keeping popular shows on the treadmill till they die of creative exhaustion, usually insures that we will see such sad spectacles rather than the rarer cases of a show that goes out strong.

Long ago I wrote an article entitled, “The Titan Who Eats His Children,” about this problem of network series. Saturn was, in Greek mythology, one of the titans that gave birth to the gods of Mt. Olympus. Fearing they would overcome him and rule in his place, Saturn would devour this children as they were born. His wife finally gave him a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes allowing Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek nomenclature) to grow and defeat him, banishing the old Titan and allowing the flourishing of Olympian rule.

Television executives need programs that consistently bring in a certain audiences both in numbers and types of viewers, the number between 18 to 49 being a preferred demographic. Thus each fall they launch a new slate of shows, most of which don’t survive the season. Those that succeed must continue to draw their viewers to the ads placed on the series’ which is of course where the networks get their revenue. A network will stick with promising or strong shows, the happiest outcome being warhorses like the Law & Order and CSI franchise that go for many years. But pity the poor show that falters as the writing staff begins running out of ideas. Whether this happens in the fourth season or tenth, producers can hear the chimes at midnight tolling their imminent demise and will often resort to stunt plots to excite viewers with weddings, deaths of ongoing characters, births or other attention-getting events. But when the audience starts feeling the show is stale, their attachment to a once strong cast of characters wanes and the ratings numbers drop–the best hope at this point is for a show to know the date of its last episode to wrap up any dangling plot threads and depart gracefully for the afterlife of syndication and/or DVD releases of each season.

Happy is the program whose producers negotiate an exit strategy that allows the faithful audience the closure of a farewell. Comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H*, and Everybody Loves Raymond had happy endings, and perhaps the first drama to quit while it was ahead was the The Fugitive, running, literally, from 1963 to 1967’s big event conclusion where Richard Kimble (David Janssen), finally caught up with the one-armed man. Similarly, other shows were able to end their runs without abrupt cancellation, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation (and the other series in the Trek franchise), and as I recently noted, the recent end of Battlestar Galactica. It’s particularly fortunate for fans when such epic-sized series are able to bring their stories to an end. Crime-oriented shows like The Sopranos and The Shield were able to do notorious or acclaimed finales as well.
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The announcement two years ago that Lost would run three more abbreviated seasons put fresh fire back into a show that was clearly running in place since the producers were uncertain when they would need to finally begin paying off all the clues and mysteries they had concocted and thus agreeing with the network on an endpoint revived the show’s energy and my own engagement with the unique series.

Last week’s Entertainment Weekly addressed the question of whether is was time for networks to start conceiving of shows with a serial storytelling format and deep mythological backstory, like Lost, as a sort of maxi-series with a pre-determined endpoint–in other words, like a real, complete story with a beginning, middle and end. This is similar to what the British television has done for years with limited run, just like a novel or play, so that audience attrition, with some viewers tiring of myriad detailed plot points, doesn’t doom a show before its denouement.

The challenge for network executives is that this would be a radical departure from the model of dependably long-running shows to base strategic programming decisions around. They would have to think in two modes–episodic programs, such as the CSI shows, and serial storytelling, with strong creator control of a complete series’ execution. The result would a sort of “maxi-novel” for television that could allow a new form to emerge, capable of complex narratives able to surpass feature films in their multiple storylines and characters and thus gain the potential for greater artistic achievement. Think what J. K. Rowling achieved with her Harry Potter series, always intended as a seven-book epic, and imagine how that might greatly widen the storytelling boundaries for television. (Of course this has been happening for years on soapy Latin American telenovelas.) As television network and cable executive work to solve the challenge of declining revenues during the recession, it may be a good time to rethink the way television tells its stories.

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