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Why We Should All Want More (And Better) Episodic Television Shows

Cowboy Bebop/Sunrise Inc

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I started watching Cowboy Bebop in the last few months. I’m not yet through the series, and I’ve enjoyed it so far, but something that has caught my attention since I began watching it has been the conversations I’ve had surrounding it.

 

“I started Cowboy Bebop last night.”

“Oh, nice! I like that show. It doesn’t really have an overarching story but it’s still pretty good.”

 

“I can’t hang today, I’m watching Cowboy Bebop right now.”

“Oh, I watched that but it’s pretty episodic.”

 

Why does the quality of this show seem to come with a disclaimer that it’s episodic?

Cowboy Bebop/Sunrise Inc

Serialization has taken over television in the past two decades and is fairly synonymous with the rise of the Golden Age of TV. With this rise in serialization, episodic television started to crumble; specifically the dissolution of how episodic television is perceived.

The word “episodic,” in many cases, is currently seen as an automatic con. The word “procedural” makes some TV fans run away in disgust, rushing to their favorite show to cleanse their minds with some sweet serialization. What is it about serialization that is so great? And what about episodic that is so wrong?

Episodic television provides singular stories within each episode that often don’t connect to each other in any significant way. Whether that’s solving a new mystery each week or getting into a new crazy situation with the gang, each episode stands alone. Due to their bite-sized nature and adherence to a status quo, major plot lines don’t move forward very quickly, if there are even any at all. Common complaints towards episodic television are its repetitiveness and lack of build to any major climax – two issues that serialization can solve quite nicely.

Serialization provides an opportunity for consistent character development, multiple intriguing plots, and major changes in the status quo – all ingredients to create an engrossing story from start to finish. It’s easier to get sucked into the story because each episode plays as a chapter within a larger plot, begging you to hit play on the next episode to find out what happens next. Cliff hangers and plot twists galore! Now THAT’s entertainment. They also provide something that episodic television shows don’t get to benefit from – a crutch.

Serialized television means that the story doesn’t end at the conclusion of an episode. This promise of a continued story lures viewers into watching the next episode based on what might happen, instead of being solely dependent on the quality of previous episodes. Serialized shows can lean on this crutch to help carry their stories and audiences with them throughout the series. You have to watch them all because each episode matters by its relation to what’s come before and what will happen next.

Episodic television doesn’t have this crutch. Instead, they have to go through the difficult process of making each episode matter on its own terms. Creating meaning for singular episodes is not easy, but when done correctly episodic television shows can provide a wider (and in some ways deeper) exploration of character and themes.

Lost Discussion 10 Years Post-Finale: What Worked, What Didn’t, and What Should’ve

To highlight the power of episodic television, let’s once again turn to my favorite beautiful mess of a series: Lost. Viewers got hooked on Lost due to its intriguing characters and tantalizing mysteries, and many fans stuck with the series until the end just to see how it all ended, despite falling out of love with the show long before. Each season ended with a massive cliffhanger that kept viewers checking their calendars for the return of the show, and even today encourages binge-watching with its serialized “find out what happens next” format.

And yet the series’ most acclaimed episode, “The Constant,” is one of the most stand-alone episodes of the series. It uses characters and plot threads from previously established episodes, sure, but the story of a man hopping back and forth through time and reconnecting with his long lost love is very self-contained. The logistics of the plot-line are all explained and concluded within the episode, and the love story is told in a way that first-time viewers can immediately identify with. The contained story also helps keep this potentially convoluted time-hopping plot clean and centered, forcing the story to be as lean as possible and not giving it a chance to overstay its welcome.

Lost/ABC

When episodic television is taken full advantage of, wild and risky story-telling techniques can be attempted without threatening to derail the series. As episode counts for seasons get shorter, I fear that these riskier episodes will be tossed aside in favor of consistent storytelling for a long-form narrative. An episode like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s brilliant “Hush” doesn’t seem as likely to be green-lit if that means 10% of the season is going to be dialogue-less. Episodes like Breaking Bad’s “Fly” will become less and less acceptable the further we get from episodic storytelling, and you don’t have to go much further than the split reaction to that episode to understand why.

“Fly” is the most unique episode of Breaking Bad for many reasons. Its plot-line is razor-thin, its cinematography is much more experimental, and it doesn’t move the main plot along at all. But this experiment allows us an in-depth look at Walt’s mental state and the thematic resonance the fly represents to his world. The changes to the usual structure of Breaking Bad proved to be too much of a departure for many fans, though. This wasn’t the Breaking Bad they had signed up for.

This is ironic because, as I stated before, one of the biggest criticisms of episodic television is its repetitive nature and adherence to a status quo. Tune in, solve a mystery with your favorite characters, and see you next week, folks! It’s almost like comfort food (which in some circles is somehow seen as a bad thing).

I’d argue that serialized formatting encourages the “comfort food” idea even more, despite its ability to change its characters and status quos, because serialization requires consistency – consistency in writing, direction, character choices, musical score, etc. The world and characters may change each episode, but the structure normally does not.

Episodic television doesn’t have this limit. It allows for structural changes. Characters can be explored not just through varying situations, but through varying storytelling techniques. You can look at an apple with the naked eye, but you’ll see it differently under the lens of a microscope, or through a window, or in a mirror. This is what episodic television can provide when taken advantage of – completely different approaches to the story and characters, or perhaps even completely different characters!

Yet today the format is ignored by many outside of comedies. For some reason, singular episodes are just fine for providing us laughs, but not for drama. Perhaps this is a result of too many episodic shows resting on their laurels and just repeating what works, or maybe it’s the result of some of the greatest dramas ever created pushing serialization to its finest peaks.

Columbo/NBC Universal

However, I hope the conversation around episodic television changes, and instead of dismissing the format audiences instead begin pushing for series that actually take full advantage of what an episode structure can provide in terms of storytelling. Some of the most inspirational series ever created were episodic (The Twilight Zone, Columbo, The X-Files), and I hope the format lives on, both on its own and within serialized stories, and receives the respect it deserves.

What do you all think of episodic television versus serialized? Am I totally out of touch and all of your friends love episodic TV and hate serialization? Let us know in the comments below!

(As I was editing this article, I came about this quote from an interview on IO9 about Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop remake: “Another reason for making tweaks to Bebop’s story is that the team behind the show wanted to broaden out Spike’s story into a longer narrative in and of itself…”

So it seems as though even the episodic show that inspired this article will be remade to be more serialized. Take that as you will!)

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    Chicago Med

    Did Dr. Zola Ahmad Leave ‘Chicago Med’ Already?

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    Did Dr. Zola Ahmad Leave 'Chicago Med' Already?

    Chicago Med introduced a new third-year resident to the fold in season 9—Zola Ahmad played by The Wilds’ Sophia Ali.

    Ahmad’s character was initially described as “impulsive” and a troublemaker who tends to cause “headaches” for her Gaffney Medical fellows, which we saw play out in real-time when her unconventional approaches rubbed Crockett Marcel (Dominic Rains) the wrong way.

    Marcel tried to give Ahmad the benefit of the doubt on numerous occasions, and Sharon Goodwin (S. Epatha Merkerson) even acknowledged that she was taking a big chance by hiring her on a prohibitionary basis given her track record with previous hospitals—but ultimately, Ahmad’s behavior and decisions to overstep and not follow protocol got the best of her.

    When Ahmad decided to declare a patient—letting the fact that he wasn’t a good man dictate her reasoning—dead prematurely (and then attempted to justify it), nearly killing him, Dr. Archer (Steven Weber) chose to suspend her. It was very obviously a fireable offense, so it’s a good thing that the series writers held her accountable. Plus, it seemed like the perfect chance for a teachable moment and a redemption arc, not to mention, there was definitely some chemistry with Ahmad and Crockett that could’ve been explored down the line. She had potential as a character at Med, if she just reeled it in a little bit—and that would’ve been interesting to explore on a more granular level.

    However, by Chicago PD Season 9 Episode 9, it was over for Ahmad. 

    Did Dr. Zola Ahmad Leave 'Chicago Med' Already?

    CHICAGO MED — “A Penny for your Thoughts, Dollar for your Dreams” Episode 9008 — Pictured: (l-r) Sophia Ali as Dr. Zola Ahmad, Dominic Rains as Dr. Crockett Marcel — (Photo by: George Burns Jr/NBC)

    The series seemingly listened to the Chi-Hards fanbase as Ahmad paid the ultimate price for her reckless decision; Goodwin very briefly (and in passing) informed Crockett that Ahmad was let go, something he called a “shame.”

    And that was that. There was no further mention of it, nor is there any indication that she’ll return anytime in the future. Her final episode of the season was listed as Chicago Med Season 9 Episode 8—and it seems like she’ll just be a blip on the radar of the show’s long-running tenure. 

    It’s a drastic decision for the series, especially after hyping up Ali’s character at the beginning of the season. Why wouldn’t they give her arc a proper conclusion? Many of the complaints from the fan base were that her character was written inconsistently—her intentions were good most of the time, it was the execution that suffered—and crammed into an already shortened season due to COVID, so they weren’t able to build her character up in a way that would’ve given her the necessary nuance; her portrayal was overly negative and it was hard to defend her actions or keep her around when each week, she was pushing buttons and creating unnecessary issues without having the tenure to excuse them or back her up, like her predecessors Will Will (Nick Gehlfuss) and Natalie (Torrey Devitto). When those two acted irrationally back in the day, they had a history with Med and Goodwin that allowed them to stir the pot. 

    It seems that the writing was on the wall for Ahmad from the get-go—the lack of good character development in the writing sealed her fate prematurely and gave fans whiplash with her quick arrival and departure. 

    Would you like to see her return to the series?

    Vanessa Morgan Is Finally Getting the Recognition She Deserves With ‘Wild Cards’

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    Editorials

    Walker Season 4 Premiere Review – The Quiet

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    Walker Season 4 Premiere Review - The Quiet

    Walker returned to The CW for its 4th, and, likely final, season. 

    Despite a 5-month time jump, the focus remained on serial killer Jackal, whom Walker and Trey were pursuing at the end of season 3, and the suspect that previously drove Cap. Larry James into a tailspin, effectively ending his marriage to Kelly before fate gave them another shot. 

    Only this time around, Larry’s wife, Kelly, asks Cordell not to drag her husband down this road again—a promise he intends to upkeep, though, knowing Larry, he’ll figure out that his rangers are up to something and have no other choice but to get involved, especially since Trey’s tip for a detective reveals that Jackal, whose trail previously went cold for several months, is gearing up for “something big.”

    This will be the overarching mystery of the season, while other weekly cases will also see our rangers getting into plenty of shenanigans, as they did with their pursuit of the Delmonico brothers. Also, props to all of them for taking part in a steak-eating competition and then jumping into a raid. It was bold of them, but it’s how Cordell wanted to spend his birthday, so I’m glad that despite the best-laid plans being uprooted, he was still able to feel the love from those around him.

    A lot seems to have changed in the past five months, as evidenced by Walker and Geri’s steamy hook-up. Even when everything is going wrong, we can have faith in their love being a constant, which is what fans have been hoping for since season 1. 

    There’s also Cassie, who blows back into town after taking a lengthy leave to go work for the FBI. She’s back with a newfound confidence about her abilities on the job, but she’s also struggling with a personal decision as she’s been offered a spot at Quantico, which means further uprooting her life and leaving behind her loved ones, er, Trey. 

    Yeah, Trey and Cassie kind of addressed the elephant in the room—their feelings for each other—but neither of them was honest about it, so we’ll likely get something more truthful and heartfelt in the near future. 

    Another lingering storyline is the break-in at Geri’s place that rattled Stella to her core. She hasn’t been the same since shooting and killing Witt, and it’s likely because she also lied to the police about having met him before. The officer who called her and Liam in over a “breakthrough in the case” said that the case was closed due to lack of resources, but the way he watched Stella sign the paperwork (and questioned if that’s “all she knew”) makes me uneasy—there’s definitely more to this storyline. What does he know that he’s not letting on?

    As for change, I think that in the midst of all the “I’m Walker, Texas Ranger, you’re under arrest” in case you needed the reminder, we’re also continuing to see Cordell as a flawed human and a father coming to terms with the fact that he’s about to be an empty nester. It’s the next phase of his life—and one that brings about plenty of concern over the “quiet” that will allow his dark thoughts to flourish. Hopefully, Geri will be the light to cut through all of that. 

    What did you think of the episode?

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    Wild Cards

    Vanessa Morgan Is Finally Getting the Recognition She Deserves With ‘Wild Cards’

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    Vanessa Morgan Is Finally Getting the Recognition She Deserves With ‘Wild Cards’

    I meant to write this post when Wild Cards first premiered on The CW, but time got away from me, and before I knew it, the season finale of the series was upon us! 

    I’m not a huge fan of The CW’s decision to axe some of our favorite shows in its rebrand, but what does ease the pain of losing the likes of Nancy Drew is the addition of promising shows like Wild Cards

    To be quite frank, Riverdale never did Vanessa Morgan much justice. She amassed a huge number of fans, who were mostly hoping to see her character Toni reunite with on-screen love interest Cheryl (played by Madeleine Petsch) in the later seasons, and while she was seemingly considered one of the “core” characters, she rarely got the storylines she deserved.

    We knew she could act—but Wild Cards shows us the depth of Morgan’s talents. It lets her shine, dominate, lead,  and even carry the series, opposite her on-screen partner and potential future love interest, Giacomo Gianniotti’s Ellis. 

    Morgan delivers with the role of Max, a whip-smart and very charismatic con artist who utilizes her special skillset to help a “down in the dumps” maritime officer get his mojo back—and, spoiler alert if you’ve watched the season finale, his badge and desk back. 

    Despite his initial hesitation with the idea of her joining the force as a consultant, even Ellis comes around, amazed by her abilities and the way she’s able to navigate every crime scene and follow the leads to produce results.&nbsp

    The two grow very close over the course of the season’s 10 episodes, largely due to Morgan’s delightful on-screen persona and presence. Even when it’s not clear whose side she’s really on (is she fully on board with helping the cops or does she have a larger-than-life plan up her sleeve to pull off her greatest con yet and help her dad George—90210‘s Jason Priestley—snag a “get out of jail free” card), you find yourself drawn to her and rooting for her because of her likable personality. 

    Vanessa Morgan Is Finally Getting the Recognition She Deserves With ‘Wild Cards’

    Credit: The CW

    The series not only gets us invested in Max’s character—learning about her past—and what it entails for her future, but we also find ourselves rooting for Max and Ellis to finally get together… or even test the boundaries of that electric chemistry that they share (a moment that is, sadly, ruined when her husband Olivier (Dewshane Williams) blows into town). 

    And it’s the mystery of Max that has all of us begging The CW to renew the series for a second season. We need more Max. We need more Ellis. We need more Morgan and Gianniotti. And we need answers. The good news is that Morgan told TVLine that season 2 of the quirky crime procedural is “very likely,” and trust that we put all our faith in her. 

    As for the answers I mentioned we need, well, we need to know who killed Ellis’ brother, a murder that was the catalyst for him to get knocked down from his detective responsibilities in the first place. When he met Max, he was in a hard place, still trying to pick up the pieces of his brother’s death. And though he’s come a long way, surely, the fact that he can crack this specific mystery is one that he won’t be able to pass up. 

    At the end of the finale—spoiler alert, again—Max convinced the authorities to help her pull off a heist that was two years in the works, hoping to frame her estranged husband Olivier after he steals a $33 million egg (he’s the one who betrayed her dad and landed him in prison), lessen her father’s sentence, and restore Ellis’ badge. However, there was a piece of the plan she didn’t share with Ellis—she swapped the real egg for a fake egg, and hatched a plan to disappear forever alongside Ricky and her millions. 

    She didn’t expect Ellis to figure it out, though, this was one of the weaker points in the episode because she should’ve known him better than that by now, but she figured she’d be halfway across the country and it wouldn’t matter. What she didn’t anticipate in her plan is that Ricky, who was transcribing incriminating recordings from the mob as part of their safety-net policy, would find something on the drive about Ellis’ brother, namely, who murdered him. 

    It’s at this moment that we see the biggest change in Max. She’s not the same person she was when the series first started. Her skills have become more valuable to helping than stealing, and she’s grown to care about someone other than herself and her father. She can’t, in good faith, leave with this knowledge and leave Ellis hanging. 

    And that’s where we leave off—a promising cliffhanger on a promising series with two very promising leads. 

    Your move, The CW.

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