Early Afternoon Collapsers:
The SERIAL, the EPIC-MINISERIES, and the ANTHOLOGY.
After looking at some recent news, I’m going to go all in on ANTHOLOGY, with a smattering of SERIAL remaining. A few pieces of news turned my thinking in this direction:
These beloved shows underwent/are undergoing some serious WHIPLASH that isn’t entirely their fault; it’s built into the STRUCTURE they’re following. And that STRUCTURE, the WEEKLY TELEVISED LONG-FORM NARRATIVE, is dying.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. A much smarter man than me — MICHAEL TOLKIN — said it on the BRET EASTON ELLIS PODCAST — and he works on SHOWTIME’S RAY DONOVAN, so he actually has a dog in this fight.
So why is the WEEKLY LONG-FORM DYING?
Well I’d argue it’s been gradual, and gone through several mutations, but it’s largely the result of the BINGE-WATCH.
Ironically, when TV was in its infancy, it was in a markedly similar state to today (just tons of PROGRAMMING haphazardly hurled at the VIEWER) because of ADVERTISING. The few NETWORKS that existed gave you LIVE THEATRE, LIVE CONCERTS, VARIETY SHOWS, SYMPHONIES, SOAP OPERAS, EPISODIC SERIES.
Just reams of CONTENT of VARIED DURATION because ADVERTISING was what DICTATED THE NARRATIVE. And as I recently said: THAT RELATIONSHIP HAS TOTALLY FLIPPED. And NARRATIVE OWNERSHIP (CONTENT) is the new ADVERTISING. But i digress…
Once ADVERTISING was more subtly massaged into the VIEWING EXPERIENCE, you ended up with two basic SERIES TEMPLATES: The SITCOM and the PROCEDURAL. They were FIVE-ACTS, butchered stem-to-sternum to insert ADS.
Then HBO happened. Or let’s be exact —
THE SOPRANOS HAPPENED (Twin Peaks was a one-off, influential, but a cultural flash. And The X-Files mutated the PROCEDURAL FORMAT). And suddenly in SOPRANOS NIRVANA, the TV SHOW had become a WEEKLY SERIALIZED NOVEL (commentators compared the narrative style to Balzac, Zola, hell even a few invoked Dickens and PROUST). But this was a brand-new WAY TO TELL STORIES on TELEVISION. Take the texture of LITERARY DISCOURSE, and give it a limited run for 13 episodes (a nice Malthusian scarcity tactic, which makes me wonder was the electricity in the air that 23 episodes was getting to be too long already?).
So SOPRANOS remained the ambitious story-telling template for the next decade or so. THE WIRE, BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, etc…being it’s offspring.
AND THEN BINGE-WATCHING HAPPENED:
And PEOPLE DIDN’T WANT TO WAIT ANYMORE. Long-form novelistic structure has become a drag, it moves too slow when you’re devouring six or seven episodes at a clip. This is a DURATION MUTATION (that I’ve diagnosed before and will continue to). And just like the TELEVISED SERIAL NOVEL rocked the foundation and may have made redundant the ACTUAL NOVEL, the BINGE-WATCH has destroyed the TELEVISED SERIAL NOVEL.
And when SHOWS are designed for maximum BINGE and a DURATIONALLY MUTATED AUDIENCE who don’t want to follow SIX SEASON ARC’S anymore, what form WORKS:
John Ridley and ABC know this. Their bubble show “American Crime” just got renewed for SEASON TWO as an ANTHOLOGY SHOW. A few original cast members will return in DIFFERENT ROLES. Following in the footsteps of —
Ryan Murphy. He’s got two ANTHOLOGY SHOWS GOING. The game-changing AMERICAN HORROR STORY (which as time goes on will only be more and more influential and recognized as such), which has kept the same cast for multiple SEASONS in different roles. Murphy also has the 10-part EVENT ANTHOLOGY “AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE VERSUS O.J. SIMPSON”.
Fargo knows this. It’s going to excavate backstory from the FIRST SEASON and spin it is a separate ANTHOLOGY for the SECOND SEASON. Few original cast members will return.
But the most EXTREME ANTHOLOGY EXAMPLE is HBO’S TRUE DETECTIVE, about to enter SEASON TWO, wherein literally nothing but the TONE and GENRE are set in stone. Even Fargo is at least exploring BACKSTORY from SEASON ONE. TRUE DETECTIVE is literally retaining MOOD. And the showrunner NIC PIZZOLATTO.
And that’s the strength of the ANTHOLOGY.
It requires so few of the prior season’s narrative and characteristic antecedents to keep going. So it’s cost beneficial to the NETWORK, but more importantly — it’s hard for PEOPLE TO GET BORED while BINGE-WATCHING when you CHANGE THE RULES EVERY SEASON.
The SERIAL FORMAT will survive wherever there are SHOWS based on COMICS, because half of them are all interrelated in a shared universe, and they can do CROSS-OVER’S etc…
But the future of LONG-FORM DRAMA will likely be the ANTHOLOGY. We have exhausted the LONG-FORM TELEVISED NOVEL.
And a total SIDE-NOTE: The only form more DEAD than LONG-FORM NOVELISTIC TELEVISED DRAMA is REALITY TV. You can’t BINGE-WATCH IT, and if anything was designed to SELL ADS that was it. And for proof of it’s demise — AMAZON isn’t buying the syndication anymore.
We’ve passed REALITY TV and are MUTATING LONG-FORM DRAMA…Stay tuned for what comes…