We’re in the era of “Peak TV” – handsomely-produced, limited-run series shown on cable or on streaming platforms. These shows are extremely popular with both critics and audiences. Many people feel they represent a new Golden Age of television writing, production, and viewing. Everybody loves them.
Well, almost everyone.
As I do about many things, I have mixed feelings about Peak TV. On the positive side, I love that there is so much opportunity for writers and other TV makers to get their material produced. And the production values on many of the shows are quite impressive. I also like the variety and daring of some of the subject matter. On the other hand, I find most of them to be an absolute slog to watch.
It all boils down to story structure.
For TV’s first thirty years, most series (apart from daytime soap operas) were episodic. The shows would have a continuing cast of characters, but each episode would tell a complete, self-contained story with a clearly-defined beginning, middle, and end. Things started to change in the 1980s with the success of nighttime soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty, as well as the introduction of serialized plot strands into popular prime time dramas such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law. Gradually more and more shows began adopting an ongoing approach to storytelling until today, almost all of the dramas and many of the comedies on television are serialized. So now, when we tune in to watch an episode of a popular series, we no longer experience a single, self-contained narrative. Instead, we experience just a few snippets of several ongoing narrative strands. In order to experience the entire story, we must commit to watching an entire season of the show (we can’t miss a single episode or else we run the risk of becoming hopelessly lost, since we will miss significant chunks of quite a few subplots). And this requires a major time commitment.
Streaming and the practice of binge-watching that has come out of it has somewhat alleviated this problem, as has a trend toward shorter and shorter series – in TV’s early days, a season usually consisted of 39 episodes. In the middle era a season ran 24-26 episodes (and still does for many network shows). These days, most cable and stream shows run 8, 10, or 13 episodes). Still, even eight hours is pretty big-time commitment. Personally, I’m willing to make that commitment if a particular show really grabs me, but most of them just don’t.
And this is due to the other big change in how television shows are conceptualized – a change that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as serialization, but that I think has had an even more significant impact on the type of stories that are being chosen for serialized presentation.
In the pre-Peak era, a good premise for a TV show was one that created an interesting but relatively general situation from which many individual stories could then be generated. In the Peak era, the premise for most shows is the same as the premise for a feature film – a high-concept idea meant to generate a single specific dramatic narrative that begins with an inciting incident and builds steadily towards a satisfying climax that pays off the premise.
The problem with this is that a well-conceived dramatic premise can be developed into a narrative that can run strongly for somewhere between ninety minutes and three hours, but not much beyond that. It’s just not the nature of the beast. But when a series runs for 8 or 10 or 13 hours, that means the narrative needs to be stretched out for far longer than the core material justifies.
That stretching is usually accomplished in several ways:
· The first is by dragging out the first and second acts of the narrative to interminable lengths (you can’t really drag out the third act because it’s the end of the story. So instead you have to delay getting to the third act as long as possible). The first act of the recent Star Trek: Picard series took three full 45-55-minute episodes to play out – longer than the length of an average three-act feature film – and it became painful waiting for the story to finally kick into gear.
· Another other way the narratives in these shows are extended is through extensive padding – by the addition of numerous subplots and B and C stories, flashbacks, and fantasy sequences, most of which add nothing of value to the main narrative.
· The third way many of these shows stretch out their narratives is by withholding key pieces of exposition that a regular-size narrative would deliver in the normal course of the story in order to create a false sense of mystery – stringing the audience along by teasing big reveals that, when they finally come, aren’t all that big or revealing (or even all that interesting) after all.
All of this stretching and padding and withholding and dragging out is antithetical to many of the core principles of effective dramatic storytelling – crisp pacing, narrative focus and clarity, and the elimination of any element that does not directly advance the narrative. And the end result is that – even when the premises for these shows are compelling and the casts, production values, and direction are strong – I find many of them tedious, if not downright boring, to watch.
The problem is then compounded when the narrative never actually comes to an end. The ending is the most important part of a dramatic narrative – its where the story resolves, where the characters transform, where the thematic points are made. The purpose of the first act is to set up the premise of a dramatic narrative and the purpose of the second act is to then advance the narrative toward an ending that will pay off the premise, the themes, and the characters in a satisfying way. The point of the third act is to deliver that payoff.
However, the makers of a series want the show to go on and on – that’s how they make their money. In a show based on a high concept premise, this means they need to delay getting to the third act for as long as possible. Therefore, instead of bringing the story to a proper close, the makers of many of these shows instead opt to end their seasons on a cliffhanger – on a non-resolution that will hopefully entice the audience to come back for more when the next season drops. That may be the theory, but in narrative terms it means we are forever stuck in the second act, which as every writer of dramatic stories knows, is always the most tedious part of the narrative. In some of these shows, the second act can churn on for two or three or even five seasons.
Some people may not mind this much second act, but I find it incredibly frustrating. If I’m going to invest myself in a dramatic narrative, then I want it to pay off. When I don’t get that payoff, I first become annoyed and then very quickly lose interest and stop caring.
So, how can these problems as solved? I have a few suggestions:
· If you’ve decided to create a series, consider going back to the old episodic model – devise a premise that will generate a series of individual stories featuring the same characters. At this point, it has been so long since this sort of television was the norm that it might have a certain retro appeal. I know I’m not alone in my sentiments, so I imagine there’s a sizable audience out there looking for a show they can watch without investing a significant portion of their life to doing so.
· Consider too creating a show in the middle period mode – with each episode telling an individual story, but threading some ongoing storylines through the series that you can then resolve at season’s end.
· However, if you do choose to create a series based on a high-concept, cinematic premise, be very careful as to how you choose to extend the narrative.
To begin with, don’t stretch things out – let the first act play out at the same length it would play out in a traditional dramatic narrative (a movie or play). Avoid all padding – all unnecessary subplots, story beats, flashbacks, and A,B,C,D, and E stories (and, to be clear, unnecessary means any element that does not directly advance the primary narrative). And please – no fake mystery. Explain things when they need to be explained and don’t mistake confusion for genuine intrigue (if you really want to tell a mystery story, then construct one from the get-go, don’t just toss in some “mystery” because you can’t figure out any other way to extend your storyline).
If you’re going to develop your premise into an 8 or 10- or 13-hour story, then you will really need to develop it – come up with enough plot points that it will actually take that amount of time to tell your tale. Incorporate sequences of action, suspense, and surprise, but be sure that all such elements grow out of the storyline (rather than imposing them on it) and be sure that all such elements continually advance the narrative. You can include subplots in your narrative, but not too many and be sure that any subplots you do include clearly connect back to the primary narrative and always move it forward.
End your story. Make sure that your second act leads to a clearly-defined third act – that the third act pays off your premise and your narrative in a sizable and satisfying way.
Do not end your story on a cliffhanger. If you’re telling a story based on a cinematic premise, then you must bring it to an end in one season. If you wish to continue the series, then you can add a set-up for a new story at the end of your last episode, but only after you have clearly ended the story you have been telling for the past 8, 10, or 13 hours. If you want to do another season, devise an all new story featuring the same characters rather than extending the first story endlessly. Think of any additional season as a sequel rather than a continuation.
If you can’t develop your premise along these lines, then it’s probably not a suitable one for a TV series and you should consider writing it as movie instead. One of the great things about the current era is there’s a format for every story, no matter what shape it takes.
Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton
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