Lost the plot: has the television serial run out of creative lebensraum?

This week, I’ve mostly been feeling like the only person in the world who’s never seen an episode of Lost. That said, observing the reactions to the final episode has been an enjoyable people-watching spectacle; as an outsider, I can only conclude that, while Lost‘s ending has annoyed quite a few people, it satisfied many others, and compared to the scathing vitriol directed against the closing episode of Battlestar Galactica, the whole business has been fairly civilised.

As a writer and critic who doesn’t watch much television (I don’t actually own one, and haven’t for over a decade), it’s interesting to watch the debate around popular serials for emerging commonalities… and in the more science fictional franchises especially, much discussion is given to the matter of endings, and their frequent failure to fully satisfy the logical and sf-nal mechanics of the plot as well as the need for emotional closure. (It’s worth noting that these complaints are rarely heard outside the sf community, at least in my experience; this is presumably because the genre field has a canon of works which obey the unwritten rules of extrapolation and explanation to draw on for comparison, and because sf tropes are now seen as a convenient toolkit for adding weirdness to TV serials – a toolkit with which the average watcher isn’t yet sufficiently familiar to be able to call cliche or deus ex machina when they see it.*)

But enough of my hypotheses; n+1 Magazine has an interesting and timely article about “how the television serial achieved the status of art“… and how that achievement may mark the end of its creative trajectory [via MetaFilter]. To put it another way: the format may have run out of ways to raise its game and wow the viewers.

It’s quite a long piece, so I’m just going to pull two quotes – though it’s well worth taking the time to read the whole thing. The first makes the point that serial storytelling is actually an old and very successful format from the era before television, and one that helped define what we think of as the canon of classic novels:

Today, we study nineteenth century novels as whole texts, and as a result we don’t think about how they were originally read and written. Novelists, for one thing, wrote on deadline. When Dickens produced The Pickwick Papers in thirty-two page installments, it wasn’t because he preferred thirty-two pages to thirty-one or thirty-three, but because that’s how many pages the Fourdrinier cylindrical paper-making machine could impress at once. Serialization also came to shape plot itself: the end of chapter cliff-hanger (which could be called the “to be continued” effect) was invented to ensure that today’s readers would be tomorrow’s readers as well.

Hold that thought. Now, skip to near the end of the article:

This is the final season of Lost, and while new dramas will continue to find both enthusiastic fans and critical acclaim, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something important is winding down. After all, the great dramas of the last decade are great precisely because they found certain limits of the form, because they figured out what it was possible to do with the available tools. That leaves future shows with few places to go, even when they are excellent (Breaking Bad) or promising (Treme). There just isn’t much new ground available. Mad Men is our current would-be aspirant to television greatness, but that show looks to me like a Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together from bits of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, dressed up and staggering around in a Banana Republic suit. We will someday be embarrassed by the amount of attention paid to that show during its run; perhaps we already are.

Now I’m going to bring on Peter Watts, a man renowned for calling it how he sees it; here, he repeats something that I (and doubtless many others) have been saying for years about television serials.

You know what the creators of epic, multiyear-arc television shows need? They need a novelist or two on staff. Or a playwright. Somebody who understands that an epic tale needs to be planned in advance, that plot is not something you work out after you’ve already written 90% of the story, that you can’t just throw a bunch of kicks and clues into individual chapters unless you have some idea what they fucking mean. It doesn’t matter how gobsmacking your twists are, or how effectively they entice your viewers to tune in next week: the reason we come back is because we want to see how all these intrigues fit together, what the payoff is. These guys can be absolute geniuses when it comes to microwriting: why haven’t they figured out that you gotta use that arsenal you’ve assembled on the mantelpiece, sometime before the end of the tale?

My guess is that they’ve never learned to because there’s never been a need for them to do so. And I find it interesting that the two TV serials I’ve enjoyed enough to really engage with in recent years were not written in response to the production schedule: Dexter, for instance, was based on the novels of Jeff Lindsay, and – despite its initially ridiculous premise – blew me away with its narrative tightness, and Sons Of Anarchy – which has some lumpy moments and clunky cliches, but otherwise moves very smoothly – is on many levels a retelling of Hamlet.

Of course, this could just be me grafting my own preference (for novel-like plots that tie everything up neatly) onto a market where that preference isn’t a prime factor in audience satisfaction. But I think it’s fair to suggest that the microwriting approach to serial television makes the unsatisfying or cop-out ending an inevitability; a novelist can wrap up the tale and then go back an make sure everything fits before the audience sees it, but if you start releasing the story before you know how it’s going to end (or even how long it’s going to run), you’re forced to do things by the seat of your narrative pants.

We keep being told the novel is dying, and that the television networks are struggling to fund good serials. Maybe it’s time the two forms started to meet in the middle?

[ * Though it may sound like it, this isn’t meant as special pleading for sf readers; rather than describing genre fans as an elite, I’m trying to describe them as veterans from the early stages of a culture war that has started to conscript a much wider and less experienced audience. ]

11 thoughts on “Lost the plot: has the television serial run out of creative lebensraum?”

  1. The Wire is kind of the series that proves Watts’ rule given that George Pelecanos – an acclaimed crime novelist in his own right before The Wire – wrote and story-edited a number of episodes.

  2. I suspect The Wire works more because of David Simon’s overall vision, and not because he brought in a fine crime novelist to do some of the writing. Great series television needs to work on both the overall season (and series) arc, and on the individual episode level. The Wire does. So does pretty much anything Joss Whedon does. (I still bemoan the fact that we didn’t get 5 or 6 years worth of Firefly.)

  3. Dexter is a good example of how to do serial storytelling right, but not because it’s based on a novel series. Only the first season follows the plot of Lindsay’s novels. The remainder of the series has deviated from them quite considerably. The difference, presumably, is that the show’s seasons are planned in advance as a single block of story (which is easier to do, I suppose, with 12 episodes than with 22), and though these individual stories feed into and affect each other, there’s no overarching plot as omnipresent as there was in Lost or Battlestar Galactica. Buffy, incidentally, took much the same approach – each season was focused on a particular challenge and culminated with the fight against a particular villain, and there were overarching themes to the show’s entire run, but not a single plot from beginning to end. I think this is a much stronger model for television writing than the purely serialized one, and its origins are not in novels but in comic books, a medium that’s much closer to television in its abilities and strengths than any other.

  4. I think the economics of American serial TV kind of mitigates against the big, pre-planned arc. No point planning a five series arc if you don’t know if it’ll run for more than one. The Wire got around this by treating the initial couple of series as self-contained, but you can see the thinking change in series three, where character arcs, in particular, opened up a lot.

    I think series like Lost and (although perhaps less so) BSG are more about the journey than the destination. The tension and suspense generated by odd cliff hangers and confounding plot twists is the meat of it. Those things come with the expectation of resolution, and I can totally understand why people get frustrated when it’s not met… I’m trying to avoid sexual metaphors, but I guess you can see what that might look like.

    The evolution described in the n+ article is very reminiscent of the evolution of super hero comics continuity in the 60s, which has Fantastic Four as its starting point, and comics are now going through their own narrative evolution driven by the demands of the trade paper-back market.

    It’s happening all over! Just wait until computer games develop a way of delivering a level a week… (actually, thinking about it, this is kind of already happening in MMOGs).

  5. We keep being told the novel is dying, and that the television networks are struggling to fund good serials. Maybe it’s time the two forms started to meet in the middle?

    How about a hybrid writing style that blends the screenplay and novel. Something that reads much faster online.

    Click http://boscutti.com to see.

  6. Remember that the producers of a TV show aren’t the only ones who control its content or its fate. The network that shows it (though often the ultimate producer, as in the one who fronts the money, the network is not the entity that does the day-to-day creation and production of the script) has the final say on whether the show will be on the broadcast schedule. And the viewing public has an indirect effect by controlling the ratings (modulo the accuracy of the ratings in reflecting actual viewership, but don’t get me started on that one). So the producers have to satisfy the networks, and the networks have to satisfy the viewers. Of course, they try to predict in advance what will give satisfaction, often using models of the intended audience that are massively broken, so mistakes are constantly being made. Also, the criteria used for evaluating success when the show is broadcast are usually pretty broken (some of the most popular shows in TV history have been very slow starters in the ratings).

    What all this means is that there is a strong pressure to evaluate shows in the short-term, which tends to disfavor shows written with long-term story arcs, despite that many such shows have become very popular. Add that to the tendency among TV and film executives to favor concept over story (because it makes for easy elevator pitches), and you can see how well-written shows with long story arcs will often suffer from prejudice against them.

  7. I agree with Patrick that Lost was more about the journey. Having said that: I loved the entire series, including the ending; JJ Abrams said he had a clear vision of the start and end and point of the story.

    The bonkers plot twists to Lost that some people complained about as “making it up as they go along” were part of the fun. Even if they had a chance to edit the series at the end they could well still have been left in.

  8. For the record, I enjoyed Lost’s final episode and thought it was much more about the journey than it was answering questions, but our culture these days doesn’t like mysteries without solid answers (Who really screwed up in the Gulf regarding the oil rig explosion?). That said, I believe that if the Lost producers had an overall plan, then it was messed up big time by first, the writer’s strike, and second, ABC giving the Lost producers only a certain number of episodes to finish out the story. I have a sneaking suspicion that those two elements threw a major monkey wrench into any plan that the Lost producers had in mind. Also, I agree with what was said in the piece about the changing landscape, such as extending the Ben storyline, also threw curve balls (boy am I writing in cliches this evening)into whatever plan was initially envisioned. The author also makes a very good point about long story arcs and I think we are seeing more of those types of stories either on cable or premium channels. The era of network drama is just about over. Remember when the miniseries were kings? I think that’s one way network television can make a difference, but the large media companies that own them seem unwilling, or unable, to make the financial commitment of a miniseries. Yet supposedly cash-strapped cable companies (SYFY) still seem able to find the funding. I also believe that online components will make for interesting dimensions in the near future.
    Overall a lot of good things to think about, much like the Lost finale.


  9. HEROES is an excellent example of a plot-arc series in desperate need of a novelist. Most unpublished novelists, and I’ve read hundreds as a writing teacher, have a better sense of logical plot than the writers of that dismal series.

    The plot-arc series definitely hasn’t run out of steam or creativity. It’s the execution, not the simple components of this kind of storytelling, that matters. If it lacks that, we only see the tired pattern.

  10. “I suspect The Wire works more because of David Simon’s overall vision, and not because he brought in a fine crime novelist to do some of the writing.”

    Yes, exactly. Indeed, George Pelacanos is far from the only crime novelist he brought in to write on the Wire – Dennis Lehane and Richard Price are the other two big ones. So, yeah. I’m afraid the first commentor is kind of barking up the wrong tree by trying to credit so much of the Wire’s success to Pelecanos.

  11. “I believe that if the Lost producers had an overall plan, then it was messed up big time by first, the writer’s strike, and second, ABC giving the Lost producers only a certain number of episodes to finish out the story. I have a sneaking suspicion that those two elements threw a major monkey wrench into any plan that the Lost producers had in mind.”

    Half-right. The strike did affect the story because, as I recall, they lost a couple of episodes from season five, which meant they had to re-jig the story somewhat to still get the season to the same end-point. This is, I believe, the main reason cited for why Charlotte’s character never seemed to go anywhere.

    However, the idea that the producers were thrown by ABC telling them they only had a certain number of episodes to finish the show is so far off the mark that it’s quite funny. It’s actually the opposite that happened – ABC wanted to keep the duration of the show open-ended, but after suffering a fan backlash over several awful filler episodes (Hurley’s van, Jack’s tattoos, to name but two), the producers went to the network and negotiated for a final end date that they could write towards. To be clear – they WANTED the limit, they were very happy to get it, and so it was about as far from a monkey wrench in the works as anything could be.

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