Wednesday, January 17, 2007

To Arc or Not to Arc?

The TV series of today seems to constantly have to struggle between the concept of standalone episodes and the serial arc. The serial arc seems to be in vogue at the moment, even though several shows with very strong serial structures have bombed heartily this season (Day Break, The Nine, Vanished). How does a show find the balance here? Is one approach truly better storytelling than the other? Or does it just depend on the show?

There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to each approach. With a show that depends largely on standalone episodes, a new viewer can drop in at any time and still be able to get the gist of the show. However, that show loses an opportunity for deeper, more complex storylines and longer character development arcs. On the other hand, a show that depends on serial arcs can easily lose a new viewer, thus reducing its chances of building its audience in later seasons. Several of my favorite shows have fallen into this conundrum, including Farscapeand Angel, both of which had developed very complex arcs by the third and fourth seasons. Angel addressed this by retooling the show in Season Five to be a bit more standalone; Farscape just got cancelled.

Some shows manage to find a good balance between these two approaches. The X-Files used standalone stories through most of the season, with an underlying story arc that they revisited during sweeps. (If it's February, there must be black oil.) Supernatural seems to be following a similar pattern—not unexpected given the preponderance of X-Files alumni on their writing/production staff, though they seem to also be focusing more on their story arc during the second half of the season. This gives the audience a chance to orient themselves to the general premise of the show before plunging into the full-on arc. It seems to work—I came into the show three episodes from the end of last season and had no trouble figuring out what was going on. Bones presents the case of the week as a standalone story, but there are other subplots playing out in the background which are strongly character oriented, such as the Jack/Angela romance and the mystery of Brennan's parents. Just about any episode of House can be viewed as a standalone, but they also throw in an occasional arc, such as the Tritter storyline from this season.

Other shows seem to be pulling in strong audience numbers in spite of—or perhaps because of—their complex arcs. Lost is still doing well in its third season, and Heroes has taken off with a bang. Both these shows are strongly driven by a complex and layered story structure. In the case of Lost, though, some of the audience seems to be tiring of a storyline that seems to become more and more convoluted as it develops, with few answers to be had (see my post here for news on how Abrams and Lindelof, et al may be planning to handle that). Heroes has yet to prove if its complicated storyline will sustain a long-term audience, but so far so good.

I think some shows are simply better suited to story arcs than others. Angel's first season, when they used a more standalone structure, wasn't nearly as strong as the later seasons, when they headed into serialized plotlines. And in Season Five, they tried to do more standalone episodes, but quickly moved back into the serial structure, completely giving up on the standalone concept the minute they found out they'd been canceled, much to the show's benefit. Superatural's arc/standalone alternation seems to be working out quite well, as does Bones' mostly standalone structure. On the other hand, House seems to me to be more enjoyable when they're concentrating on the case of the week, rather than on a background story, especially when that storyline goes on for several episodes.

I have to admit to a preference for shows with a strong story arc. In spite of that, they tend to make me nervous. First, because the new ones so often don't last. Second, because when they do work, pressure to keep the story going becomes such that the storylines tend to get bloated and out of control just to sustain the storyline so the show can continue. This seems to be happening with Lost—it'll be interesting to see if the growing complexity of the storyline, intended to keep the show going, instead leads to ratings loss and eventual cancellation. It seems to me that a better approach is the one taken by shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel—a strong story arc, but with major storylines that are wrapped up within the course of a single season. And with shows like Bones or House, strong standalone stories seasoned with less involved story arcs that play out more or less in the background.