Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Golden Age of 13

Or 10, 8, or whatever else is needed. The best thing that’s probably come out of the changing ways we view “TV” over the tail end of the last decade combined with the growing numbers of fans who grew up on foreign television shows has been the shift in what both creators and viewers expect when the words “full season” are thrown around.

Among my various geekdoms when growing up was an absolute love of British science fiction, fantasy, and comedy as well as a few that turned out being shows that I only thought were British. Some shows, such as comedies like Are You Being Served, had no clearly defined difference in what a “season” was based on how they were run on American Public Television. Unless you had a sudden change in the cast, the episodes more or less had no discernible seasonal breakpoint. Others, such as the long ago Nickelodeon aired horror Children of the Stones, being one and done deals, came across as no different than an American television miniseries like Shogun. But then there were the other shows, the ones that seemed to be telling a longer story in “chapters” with each season having its own story arc that contributed to the larger story.

Usually the season-long stories being told were fairly tight. Sometimes there was a story here and there that came across as filler, an episode that seemed to not really advance any aspect of the overall plot or character developments, but not too often. A part of how the filler material was kept low was by keeping the number of episodes in a season, or a “series” as I would later hear them referred to, on the lower end. The idea was a simple one. They told the story they wished to tell, and they told it in the number of episodes the story needed.

For the longest time the attitude of most of the mainstream American audiences towards the limited size of these seasons, at least when made aware of these shows, was one of polite curiosity. It was quaint, but it wasn’t a real “season.” American television shows had seasons with 20 or more episodes, and that was how big a season was supposed to be.

If anything came along that deviated from “the norm” of that concept, it was accepted (sometimes perhaps only grudgingly) but there was always grumbling. Why didn’t it have more episodes? Why didn’t it have a real season’s worth of shows? That was a complaint you even heard as recently as the days of the BSG remake.

But that seems to be changing these days, and changing big time. As more and more of our television moves away from the original “rabbit ear” networks, the more we see television and viewer expectations moving away from what most American television viewers used to consider a “real season.” The result of this is that, in many ways, we’re entering a new golden age for storytelling on television.

Drama, action, science fiction, and fantasy concept shows where a creator wishes to tell a long story with seasonal chapters can now be told as tight as they wish to or, more importantly, as they need to. This matters more now than it might have mattered before since we’re in an age where we’ve developed the practicing of binge watching a series.

I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5, but even watching them from week to week there were episodes that felt like filler. Sure, it was good filler and maybe better than the average episode of many other shows, but it still sometimes felt like a placeholder in the seasonal story arc. Once the shows hit home video and/or streaming services and allowed binge viewing, the number of filler episodes became even more obvious. Buffy and Babylon 5 done for today’s television or streaming services would have likely been tighter products.

And today’s shows are certainly taking advantage of this. Sons of Anarchy had a long game plan for its story, but each season had its own story arc to tell. Watched week to week, maybe the stories had few slow spots. Watched in a binge, the stories drove along like a bike on the open highway. Game of Thrones excels at telling chapters of its story in short seasons. Netflix’s recent originals House of Cards and Daredevil, particularly Daredevil to my great surprise, showed extremely well thought out seasonal arc planning.

Some shows even seem to play better once the opportunity to binge watch them becomes available. The Walking Dead gets complaints from some quarters during the season where “nothing happens” in the odd episode, but many of the same people tend to notice that the parts of a season that they complained about “dragging” flow better when they can later binge watch the season.

Not being locked into a network season formula may even have been the solution to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season. If the show had been on cable or a streaming service, there would have been no need to stall the storyline, the perceived waiting period some complained about, as the creative team waited for the Captain America: The Winter Soldier to hit theaters and send the television show into its next phase.   

Entertainment is changing, and it’s changing for the better. More and more we’re seeing cable seasons being determined by creator design, and new formats in “television” along the lines of the various streaming services are proving to be even more flexible. And the more entertainment delivery platforms evolve, the more the medium will reflect these changes.

If you enjoy good storytelling, if you enjoy story driving the series rather than stories having to stretch and mold themselves to an artificial standard, then you should be relishing the next few years of American television’s evolution. Hopefully, we’re coming up on a time when solid, entertaining creators can tell their stories in the manner they most wish to tell them. If that means taking 22 episodes for a season, they’ll get to take 22 episodes. If they just want to use 3 episodes, then that’s what they’ll get.

It’s a bit like reading. Even as we see a decline in book sales, we’re seeing the fan demand for the storytelling principles found in a good book series moving to the new television formats. We’re seeing a growing demand for richer, denser stories told in the television medium, and that’s driving the evolution of what we see and accept as a series.

If you love good storytelling, if you were/are the type to talk about how the book always got it better, television may finally be catching up to you. And me? Well, I for one welcome our new television overlords.

Jerry Chandler like good stories. He also binge watched Daredevil the weekend it came out. If you haven’t done that yet, you really need to.

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