For the love of God, please bring back episodic drama

In the Poetics, Aristotle identifies two basic forms of storytelling — tight and focused (tragedy) and loose and episodic (epic) — and I always tell my students that it broadly maps onto film vs. television. And in that context, I suggest that his assessment that tragedy is “better” doesn’t make much sense. Which is better, I ask, The Sopranos or The Godfather? They’re just different genres.

The problem with contemporary storytelling is that every epic (TV show) thinks it’s a tragedy (a fourteen-hour movie), and every tragedy (film) thinks it’s part of an epic (franchise universes). Neither really works or makes sense.

People try to pay contemporary serialized TV a compliment by calling it a 14-hour movie, but an actual 14-hour movie would be completely miserable. Not just because of sheer length, but because the length is incompatible with the focus film demands. I think we’re all familiar with the mid-season doldrums on a heavily serialized show, where they just keep spinning their wheels on the same problem because they haven’t given themselves any room for episodes or side plots. They’re trying to maintain the focus and tension too long, and it backfires and becomes tedious and repetitive.

We’ve been doing heavily serialized TV for a long time now, and I think we need to accept that it’s never going to get better. It’s an inherently flawed model. Episodes are the only way to organize narratives beyond around 3 hours. It doesn’t have to be pure “reset button” episodic. Writers had mastered maintaining continuity and keeping long-running plots on the back burner by the late 90s. But TV just cannot go on like this. The 14-hour movie concept needs to die. It’s unwatchable. It’s a waste of time.

But it won’t, because the real reasons behind it are not artistic but commercial. It appeals to fans, because fans like the heavily serialized format because it rewards knowledge and creates barriers to entry. Hence there is a kind of pride among Star Trek fans that Deep Space 9 arguably anticipated heavier serialization — forgetting, of course, that the final 11-episode arc that ties up all the plotlines is pretty hard to watch…. Given that all of pop culture is increasingly organized around fandom and expanded universes, we are probably doomed to get more and more of this kind of storytelling. And then of course there is the addictive binge-watching behavior that streaming services unaccountably want to cultivate.

Everything is converging on a model of storytelling that tries to “hook” us so that we either watch obsessively, spending a whole day or weekend on a story that could have taken 2 hours, or else puts us “on the hook” for keeping up with everything that comes out within a given fictional universe. That’s not storytelling, though, that’s drug pushing — or, at best, marketing.