Delicious Serial: Longform Storytelling on the Tube

Television has grown up in the last few years. It’s not a stretch to say that we’re living in a ‘Golden Age’ of sorts, in terms of quality TV. Almost every facet of production has risen to a level rivaling that of major motion pictures. After all, big thoughts require big wallets.

The writing of ‘The Sopranos’ bested the writing of any weekly film release. Zoic Studios crafted CGI eye candy for ‘Battlestar Galactica’ that was on par with any Hollywood action film. The darkly delightful ‘Dexter’ continues to amaze with tales of a serial killer as the main protagonist. It’s a show that pushes the standards of what can be shown on television and continually moves its main character through a world where he might be the most sane individual. In terms of general production values, ABC’s ‘LOST’ dwarfed any show of its day with a pilot rumored to have cost roughly 14 million dollars. It was shot on 35mm Panavision (the standard for feature films) and, over its six-year run, had an ensemble cast of over 20 actors.

But what am I getting at? Well, all of these shows obviously pushed the boundaries of television, but they also have something else in common. It’s a little thing called ‘serialized storytelling.’ You know what I’m talking about: episodes are rarely self-contained, the locales are constantly changing and plot points and characters evolve over the course of a season…or an entire series. Plain and simple, it’s story-telling on a grand scale. More importantly, it’s crept into probably every type of scripted show that you have locked away in your DVR right now.

Are you a fan of hour-long procedurals like Castle, the Mentalist and House? Well, you’re watching shows with a fair amount of long-form storytelling in their TV DNA. Think about the breakdown of each episode and it’s apparent. The A-PLOT of every episode is the ‘case of the week.’ You know, a circus clown is found murdered by his tricycle, the local baker is found dead in his own oven or a lawyer falls ill with a disease that mysteriously makes her scream the name of every person she’s successfully put behind bars. The B-PLOT is the little background, character-specific tale that runs through the episode or entire series/season. It’s the search for the killer of Beckett’s mother, the identity of Red John and the evolution of the ‘Huddy’ relationship that sets hearts a flutter.

I could go on and discuss the influence of serialized storytelling on musical dramedies such as Glee and straight-up comedies like The Office but I don’t want to give myself a hand cramp. Typing that much just isn’t worth it. Suffice to say, embracing serialization is a comforting thought. Our lives aren’t neatly broken down into 30 minutes of hilarity or an hour of drama that always ends well for us and our families. Life goes on…and so do the storylines of our favorite shows.

So let’s turn the lights down and take it slow. Let’s talk about the two most heavily serialized shows currently on broadcast television: Fringe and The Event. Touted by NBC as ‘Lost meets 24’, The Event is an ambitious series that tracks a conspiracy that involves a young computer programmer on the run, a president under siege and a group of prisoners who aren’t quite human. In its first three episodes we’ve seen everything from a presidential assassination attempt to an FBI shootout. All the while, it’s still unclear as to what is really going on; but I guess that’s the point. Regardless, it’s shaping up to be a show that touches on the imagery and topics of the current climate of global terrorism and distrust of government. It’s a slow burn that I’m hoping is going to start a house fire.

Pyromaniacal euphemisms aside, the reigning champ of heavily serialized shows is also my favorite show airing on broadcast television. Fringe is a sci-fi procedural heavy on ideas AND characterization. Some call it a rehash of The X-Files but I like to think of it as the Fantastic Four by way of The Twilight Zone. Take a mad scientist, his shady son, and damaged FBI agent; add a dash of alternate realities & mutant beasties and you get what I’m talking about. Thus far it’s explored family issues, technology run amok and unchecked experimentation to great effect. This season is off to a fun start and picks up on the plot threads established over the last two seasons. The least of which are an interesting mediation on relationships and some background ‘easter eggs’ that hint at some very interesting ‘nature versus nurture’-type ideas.

So if the concept of serialized storytelling is something you’re into, I’ll see you back here next time for some in-depth thoughts on Fringe and The Event. In the meantime, if you have any comments or recommendations, lay ‘em on me.

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