With the recent ending of some of my favorite shows, and seasons ending for others, I have been thinking a lot about the state of television storytelling. I think one of the main problems that a lot of shows that go on for more than a season or two have is that they can’t go back to where they started.
Most good shows start at a slow pace, take their time introducing who the characters are and their motivations, and then build to an important, but not too complicated climax at the end of season one. They hit the ground running in season two, and since the climax at the end of season one wasn’t too huge, they can play out the majority of season two much the same as the first season. There usually haven’t been any huge earth shattering events yet, and the characters are still much the same as they were in the beginning, just better, since the producers, writers, and actors are all in the groove. There is a big climax, usually with something dramatic, sad, and story altering. This is a good thing, and it’s the reason we watch good TV. Examples of this progression are Buffy, Veronica Mars and Alias, although most arc driven shows have the same issues, if not on exactly the same timetable. The problem comes with how to deal with this in the third season and beyond. There has been drama, betrayal, and possibly death, so how do you go back to the slower lighthearted pace of the beginning, that made the show great? The answer is, you can’t, at least not in the same way with the same characters. It’s just the nature of good drama to get darker as it progresses. Characters mature, get emotional scars, and change, they are damaged. Even if they were already damaged at the beginning of the show, this is different, because we saw the damage happen and it changes how we look at them. The story as a whole is usually darker and more serious too, it’s difficult to go on like normal when the world was almost destroyed, someone important died, or some other season finale level event happened. This is where shows usually start losing some fans, because they don’t like the new tone, or their favorite character took a turn they didn’t like.
There a few different directions a show can take at this point. Some shows like Buffy just crank everything up another notch and use the same cycle again, just bigger and better. Others, like Alias try the reboot option where they push everything off the table and put some of it back, just in different places to try and re-create the feel of earlier seasons. Other dial everything back, and hope nobody notices. This is the first big test of a good show, because it can break even the best of shows, since something has to change. The first option can work for a season or two, Buffy pulled it off flawlessly for season three. Rebooting has a very hit and miss record, The O.C. effectively rebooted for season four, and got it’s best season, far better than two and three. On the other hand, after a very successful reboot in the middle of season two, Alias started rebooting like a computer with a bad video driver, to the point you had no idea who was a bad guy from week to week. Smallville takes the award for just dialing it down. Something earth shattering would happen, then there would be a lot of amnesia, and everybody would go back to business as usual, it’s a horrible way to run a show. It also makes for a boring show, because characters tend to stay the same and not change.
Once a show pulls off one of the transitions, it’s not free and clear, because they have to do it again next season. I can’t think of a show that didn’t flounder for at least one major transition, or get canceled before they had the chance to. Buffy, and Angel after it got dark, really dark. Season four of Angel is probably the darkest season of TV I have seen. What used to be a humorous drama turned into a dark drama, and lost a lot of what made it great. The same thing happened in season six of Buffy, and while they were both still great shows, they weren’t the same as they were. In their last seasons, they both tried a reboot, to try and get back to where they started and it kind of worked, for a while, but you just can’t rollback the damage you have done to characters.
So, what should a show do to stay great throughout it’s run? I think there are three things.
One, they need to have their main story arc and character arcs planned out, at least to the point of knowing what will happen to who in what part of what season. Without this planning, pacing always suffers, witness Battlestar Galactica. It’s also critical that the character arcs are planned so that one character doesn’t get used up and have to be thrown away unintentionally. This happened in Angel to Cordelia, and in The O.C. to Marissa. I don’t think there was a plan to do what they did to those characters, they just realized one day that to move the show forward, they had to go. That was the right choice in both cases, but it should have never gotten to that point. Overall arc planning can even bring a mediocre show up to greatness. Look at Babylon 5, the acting was mediocre, the dialog was passable, the production quality was just above cheesy, but the overall arc made it far better than the sum of it’s parts. The best example of modern arc planning is Veronica Mars in seasons one and two, almost every detail and throwaway character ended up having a purpose, and produced two of the most solid seasons of TV ever made.
Two, a newer method that seems to be gaining in popularity is time compression. The story of season three of Battlestar Galactica started three years after season two ended. If Veronica Mars is renewed for a fourth season it will jump four years into the future. Alias was the first in recent memory to do it in one of it’s reboots, and had great potential even though they wasted it. It’s a way to reboot the show in a believable way, and get rid of a lot of the darkness and tension that builds up. Jump ahead a few years and characters will have healed some, situations will have changed, and you can get back some of that feel the earlier seasons had. I hope we see more of it, since it’s a better way to have things get back to a slower pace than contriving strange plot turns, or having characters act contrary to normal human behavior.
Third, change up the main characters. New characters or promoted secondary characters can bring new life to a show. New characters means you can spend more time on character development, where you already used up most everything for the main characters. New characters also means that you can break love triangles and other relationships that are stuck in a rut. I can’t count the number of show that have characters with on/off/on/off relationships far past the point where normal people would have moved on. This is usually the easiest way to create some easy drama, but it gets old really quickly. Kill someone off, or make them leave, and bring in some new people. The O.C. was getting really stale until the casting changes that happened at the beginning of the fourth season. Buffy was also good with this, as Joss is probably the creator most willing to kill off main characters and bring new people in, almost always to good effect.
The point of this whole thing is, shows can’t go back to where they started, so they need to have a plan for where they are going to go, and they need to not get caught off guard like so many shows seem to do. TV is still an evolving art form, so I have no doubt we will keep getting better TV as more writers and producers start realizing what works, and what doesn’t.