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