In the Poetics, Aristotle devotes significant attention to two modes of storytelling: tragedy and epic. The former is a self-contained, naturally unfolding story, which Aristotle views as the best form of narrative art. He is so fascinated with tragedy, in fact, that he claims that epic is basically trying but failing to be what tragedy is — it wants to be telling such a taut, immersive story, but it gets distracted by a need to bulk out the text with inessential episodes.
In my view, Aristotle misconstrues what epic is trying to do. The episodes aren’t a distraction, they’re the whole point. The overarching story provides a narrative and thematic frame for the episodes, allowing multiple stories to come together into a larger, cohesive whole. The frame narrative is necessarily sparse and even boring, as Aristotle’s famous reductive summary of the Odyssey illustrates, but it’s necessary to keep the episodes from being purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments.
At its best, binge-watchable serial drama is trying to be an epic. Within each season, we have an overarching plot that makes room for several narratively and thematically related episodes. The story of Don Draper’s secret identity gives us a window into the worlds of Peggy and all the other beloved supporting cast, just as Tony Soprano’s quest to become the undisputed boss opens up a narrative world full of fascinating characters.
I’ve written before about Main Character Syndrome, the phenomenon of viewers becoming bored and even resentful of the main character of the framing narrative, and I believe that the fundamentally epic structure of binge-watchable serial drama explains why that is such a constant pitfall. It’s a difficult balance to keep the framing narrative thin enough to allow for rich episodic side-trips but compelling enough that you don’t get impatient with it. Arguably even Homer fails on this point — once it comes time to settle accounts with the primary story of Odysseus coming home to claim what’s his (the beginning of book 13), it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room.
The balance is easier to strike within a single season, as the Mad Men and Sopranos examples make clear. As the narrative is indefinitely extended, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain tension and interest in the framing device, and the whole enterprise threatens to devolve into a soap opera — a sequence of purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments. Even in the best case, each season must perform a “retcon” to reopen the completed stories of the previous seasons and make the new larger whole feel cohesive. In my opinion, Mad Men was more successful at this than The Sopranos, but the seams are always going to show to some extent. Again, we could see Homer as falling victim to this same problem with his attempt at a sequel to the Iliad — a problem that becomes all the more difficult when Virgil steps in as the show-runner for the third season.
In short, then, binge-watchable serial drama is not a new narrative genre. When it’s done well, it’s epic, and when it’s done poorly, it’s a soap opera. An epic show may devolve into a soap opera, and I suppose it’s conceivable that a formless soap opera could really get its act together and pull off an epic season. I can’t think of an example of the latter, though the former is well-attested.
What’s increasingly getting lost, however, is the art of the self-contained episode — all the moreso now that movies are trying to reinvent the wheel of serialized TV drama instead of sticking to their more natural competency of self-contained stories that at their best reach the coherence and dramatic tension of tragedy.