You Want Answers with that Mystery?: The Series-long Arc in Genre TV

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Over the years, serialized television has become increasingly more prominent. Condensed-time and arc-based series are the dramatic norm, on cable at least, with the most culturally significant and critically acclaimed series falling into this category. With television viewership dwindling, niche shows are increasingly sustainable, making cult, new-viewer-unfriendly programming less of a risk for struggling networks. As season-long arcs become more mainstream, there is greater interest in and patience for programs with series-long arcs, shows that are conceived with a set beginning, middle, and end. This is not a new idea- J. Michael Straczynski pioneered the concept in the mid-‘90s with Babylon 5 and, when it’s worked, this format has given viewers some of the best genre programming of the past 10 years.

There are several benefits to a long-form structure. A creator with a clear vision can plan out a complicated and interesting story, with great specificity to both plot and character. Knowing where the story will end allows a writer to forge ahead with greater certainty, baby-stepping the characters along a particular path and making even the most dramatic or unexpected transformations utterly organic and believable. It also allows the writer more narrative devices, including years-early foreshadowing or symbolism. Such advance planning allows writers to set up seemingly insignificant moments that can pay off to great effect years down the line. These moments can be reverse-engineered in shows with less preplanning, but they are far more difficult to achieve and, often, far less convincing. Finally, building a show around a central mystery, journey, or quest also provides an interactive experience for fans. Speculation and discussion are, for many, the highlight of genre fandom and this element of modern viewership is what takes a series from being an interesting diversion to a cult phenomenon.

Each of these benefits come with strong negatives. What a show gains from planning it often loses in flexibility. It’s easy for writers to feel boxed in to storylines that they decide too late aren’t working or to squander an opportunity if it doesn’t sync with the planned arc. The realities of filming also pop up- actors become unavailable, budgets get slashed, and networks get bought out. It is crucial that creators maintain spontaneity and balance “the plan” with any new developments. While complex and intricate storylines can be more interesting to regular viewers, it’s easy for a show to become utterly inaccessible to fresh eyes. Often series will create jump-on points, episodes that ease new audience members in to the show, but in this business, with its hard bottom line, a dwindling audience with little potential for new blood is often a recipe for cancellation. Even the cult fandom of hard core viewers is a two-edged blade- fans have gotten smarter over the years, with more exposure to this type of storytelling. When people spend hours upon hours theorizing on the mysteries of a show, someone is bound to figure it out ahead of time or, worse yet, come up with better answers.

Babylon 5 is a case study for what can go wrong, and right, in these situations. The lead actor had to be replaced after the first season, creating some difficulties in the mythology of the show. The clear five-year plan of creator Straczynski had to be completely rejiggered when the show was all but cancelled towards the end of its fourth season. Then, due to a ratings uptick, it was brought back for a fifth season, but the storyline for the fifth season had been hastily added to the end of the fourth season. Despite these difficulties, Babylon 5 manages to succeed in its format and to tell an interesting, epic story that holds up far better than its admittedly dodgy CGI.

The 2003 remake of Battlestar Galactica is another show to embrace the long-arc format. Centered around the search for Earth, the series takes detours here and there, but always returns to its central theme and journey. As in B5, this unity of narrative purpose and epic scope allows for geopolitical allegory and social commentary, something science fiction as a genre is better at than perhaps any other.  Rather than the cancellation woes of B5, Battlestar Galactica had its own struggles, mostly with network notes pushing for more stand-alone episodes, which were received poorly by critics and fans alike. BSG also experienced not-uncommon series finale backlash from fans who didn’t like where the series ended up going.

Another show to experience this was LOST. After investing so fully in these long-form shows, it’s easy for fans to feel cheated if they either don’t like the answers given to the series-driving mysteries, or feel they haven’t been given enough of them. LOST also had some personnel issues that honestly the creators should have seen coming as well as a writers’ strike to contend with, but more than anything, its reputation has been left in question due to its finale. Series-long arc-based storytelling is a high-risk high-reward venture and, in this particular case, fans seem split on whether the investment of their time was worth it.

There are currently several series on the air that fit into this category. Supernatural is a rare example of a show outliving its planned arc. Creator Erik Kripke went in to season one with a five-season story to tell, but the show was renewed beyond that; Supernatural wrapped up its intended arc in its fifth season finale and has been a bit lost since then. Fringe is another example, with a clear trajectory that has only become apparent in the past couple of seasons. Game of Thrones also shows promise as an excellent entry to the long-form storytelling tradition. Do these series mark the end of a bubble of interest or the beginning of a trend that will reach out into the mainstream, continuing televisions’ constant evolution? The answer, as ever, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Kate Kulzick

Follow me on Twitter @theteleverse to let me know how wrong I am for loving the LOST and BSG finales

  1. Vlad N says

    I find that generally a story arc that lasts longer then a series is hard to maintain. In an average show of 45min episodes with some 13 episode seasons that means that the writers have nearly 12h of of storytelling available to them. Now assume that you give the show 5 seasons that is 60 hours to tell one story. In the 50’s the Russians made a full cover to cover adaptation of War & Piece, it ran for something like 12-13h. I don’t think any one has 60 hours of top notch storytelling in them. I find I grow bored or weary of a show that doesn’t resolve its problems.

    Generally I like the concept of a story ark it gives you a reason to keep watching and hooks you in, but I feel if you can’t tell your story in 12hour you probably need some editing. The trend to making stories last longer and longer is a growing disease in science fiction/fantasy writing and movies in general. Every author now writes a trilogy at the least or an unspecified polylogy, which they often become in danger of not finishing or taking so long to finish that even the author looses site of the goal.

    Brevity, and editing are key to good story telling. I say yay for series arc, but boo to more than 2 seasons of such series. If the show is a hit. Just have the writer, write you an new show.

  2. Kate Kulzick says

    Good point about soaps, Bill. I tend to think of them as in a different category because they don’t have a set end, but they do love the arc over there.

    I find it interesting that mainstream primetime series have been so greatly influenced by soap operas, shows as diverse as Law and Order: SVU (Benson/Stabler, anyone?) and Community (Annie’s evil twin). Any thoughts? Honestly, most dramas have at least one major aspect to the show that is straight out of soaps.

    Corey and Dan- I’m right there with you with the arcs, particularly if I can mainline a show on DVD.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I’m not sure any story arc that runs more than a few episodes doesn’t, at some point, veer into soap opera territory. I’m not sure they can help it.
      But, here’s another angle on the impact of soap opera long-form storytelling on prime time drama:
      When HBO was still running OZ, a drama set in a maximum security prison, they found that the audience was surprisingly heavy with women. They hadn’t thought that a story with a cast 99% male with brutal violence, male-on-male sexual abuse and oppression would have ANY appeal to women. So, they did a little research.
      To break down the results into overly simplistic terms, they found men generally liked action: people shooting each other, things blowing up, etc.
      Women, they found, were more engaged by character and personal drama, both of which were strong in OZ. They also found (or concluded), that conditioned by the continuing story arcs of soaps (which largely appealed to women), that women viewers of OZ — once engaged by the characters and drama — had more than enough patience to commit to the series’ long-running arcs.
      Compare that to complaints the service received from male fans of THE SOPRANOS which, as the series became more drama-driven after the first season, generally fell along the lines of, “They’re not killing enough people.”

  3. Bill Mesce says

    Soap operas had been doing long-form storytelling back to the days of radio, but the shows I recall popularizing it in prime time dramatic programming were HILL STREET BLUES and ST. ELSEWHERE (both of which, I believe, were from the same people).
    To add to the downsides to long-form arcs is the problem they cause in syndication. Stations tend to prefer shows made up of stand-alone episodes. Syndicated long-forms present the same problems they do during their network airing — viewers who don’t plug into the series early never quite connect with the show and drop out.

  4. Dan Heaton says

    I’m a big fan of shows with serial arcs and agree with Corey about the benefits of development in the characters and story. When done right like with BSG, the early seasons of Alias, the Wire, the first season of Twin Peaks, and many more, it can lead to gripping storytelling. The problem is with shows like FlashForward and The Event that create long arcs but have dull characters. In that case, I’d rather have great characters and an episodic story than this alternative. I’m worn out by all the Lost and BSG hate for their finales. In both cases, the creators took a chance and didn’t completely succeed, but they gave it a shot. A great example of paying off a serial well is the finale of The Shield, which is nearly perfect and believably connects all the way back to the first episode.

  5. Corey Atad says

    To me, an arc is great because it’s a sign of development. Watching characters go through the same mysteries over and over without ever developing is not all that interesting. Granted, even the most episodic shows have their characters change subtly over time, but if a show serializes itself, there is at least the promise that this sort of development is an aim of the show. That promise makes for a good hook. Whether it gets paid off effectively is a different matter, but I prefer to see a show take the chance and fail than see mildy entertaining, interchangeable episodic stories.

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