“That story sense — the Completed Circle That Is Not Quite Round — is necessary for television episodic shows, of course, since no radical change can take place without doing damage to the show’s basic concept. The characters in M*A*S*H don’t leave Korea or go beyond the time period of the Korean War; Lucy never moves out of the suburban home we came to memorise the floor plan and furniture of; Homer Simpson never leaves his job at the nuclear power plant; Seinfeld always lives in his apartment and keeps his job as a stand-up comedian.
Television requires that comfort zone of the predictable within which small surprises and changes can take place over time.”
- Andrew Horton, “Laughing Out Loud” (2000)
That was the trademark of 20th century television full of reset buttons and status quos. Because syndication requires the audience to be comfortable with the random episodes that would pop up out of order, the main plot simply couldn’t proceed in any radical ways that would leave new viewers asking, “Hey, what did I miss?” Late ’90s television like Buffy the Vampire Slayer would gradually change that, literally revolutionizing the TV landscape, and soon after, cable TV would build upon that with HBO’s Oz and The Sopranos. It’s noteworthy that one of the earliest pioneers would be Chris Carter and The X-Files. However, the famous “mythology arc” that was the first form of serialized storytelling would prove to be problematic and challenging, and that characteristic of network TV would still plague the show as Mulder and Scully would still be reset to status quo every season: they simply couldn’t just “quit” pursuing the paranormal and do something else more meaningful with their lives. The show would constantly think of new and contrived ways to bring them back to that questionable department of the FBI again. Mulder couldn’t find his sister (that soon), and Scully couldn’t pursue a career in medicine.
I think that on a personal level, myself and a large number of people would much prefer serialized storytelling. It was a welcoming change for those older than me who have lived through the tepid formula of procedurals repeating the same gag over and over again, while for myself, other Millennials and even Zoomers, it was our only experience of storytelling, and whenever a newer show decided to use the procedural format, it would seem incredibly odd and impractical, such as the likes of CSI and Criminal Minds. Those were shows that never really caught my interest.
I think one of the most frustrating forms of the “reset button” for myself occurred in, ironically enough, a serialized TV series where events of the Angel season 1 episode, I Will Remember You, was (kinda) invalidated when Buffy’s memories in her guest appearance were erased, leaving only Angel to remember what happened. It’s a poignant form of storytelling, yet it also informs me just how unsatisfying I feel towards procedural trappings, where important events are treated like they never occurred, or that they’re of little importance. It’s the reason why many pre-Daniel Craig James Bond movies never had a large impact for me because none of it really mattered in the large scheme of things — it’s all just a standalone event. Procedural drama, whether it’s TV or movies, just isn’t my cup of tea, clearly.
Of course, serialized storytelling can have its own sets of problems. Writers of Once Upon A Time made the radical decision of resolving the first season’s conflict by the end of it, thus writing themselves into a corner and forced to come up with new and brilliant conflicts in the future, but the result was something more artificial and contrived instead. Sometimes, repetitive plots that could last over several seasons could be an effective tool for writers.
But what about yourself? Do you still find appeal in procedural drama? Do you think it could still work in the 21st Century of television? What flaws in procedural storytelling are you most frustrated by? Could you think of any other examples where such flaws exist?
And most of all, why do we enjoy serialized storytelling so much? What is it about progression in the lives of fictional characters that appeal to us so much as opposed to the familiarity we could revisit over and over again in procedural storytelling? Is it because of its reflection on the progression in our own lives, such that Ash Ketchum never having grown an age since we watched him as 10-year-olds turns Pokémon into an irrelevant piece of entertainment once we’ve gotten older, thus being unable to relate to him? Is it because we yearn for accomplishments as humans and would very much like fictional characters to reflect the same accomplishments in an escapism manner, progressing through life that we never could?
Or perhaps it’s something simpler, that human impatience for the formulaic and the routine, such that anything repetitive becomes “old” and “tiresome,” thus we’d always have this need for the exciting, fresh and the novel. For myself, this is decidedly true as I’m always on the hunt for new shows with new ideas I’ve never seen done before in either movies or television. My thirst for the revolutionary and the innovative would continue just to quench that boredom of mine. I could never settle for something repetitive or generic (unless it’s for a good reason like an OCD need to complete a television series like The Simpsons).