“A new form of entertainment television has emerged over the past two decades to both critical and popular acclaim. This model of television storytelling is distinct for its use of narrative complexity as an alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception” – Jason Mittell, Narrative Complexity in American Television.
We’re living the third golden age of television. Game of Thrones, Mad Men, House of Cards, True Detective and a slew of other, high quality, complex narratives that run for an only limited amount of time. Thirteen was the cry of Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome, and thirteen is the amount of episodes that many of these series aim for.
The reasons here are not narrative so much as they are financial. Conventional shows are on conventional networks, and need to make money selling ads, whereas the narratively complex model that Mittell speaks of is often found on premium networks, such as HBO so operate without advertising. However, some shows are bucking this trend.
Mittell’s point is that shows that HBO is known for, shows that follow this shorter season trend offer greater narrative complexity than episodic shows, such as case of the week dramas, can offer.
I half agree. Shorter seasons generally mean less fat around the edges of the main story that drives the season forward. All that happens is necessary, all that happens helps the story and characters keep on target. This allows for better story-telling, the key point in film and TV.
However, it’s not always the case and therefore not fair to say that one mode is better suited to story telling than the other. As evidence I submit the first five, episodic seasons of the TV show Supernatural.
For the better part of the show’s run, Supernatural is largely procedural, with most episodes being case-of-the-week (monster-of-the-week in this case), whodunnit episodes with the main, overarching plot being taken care of in other episodes or in small moments here and there. While some of these episodes are fairly generic and don’t do much to further the direct plot or character development, I’d say they’re still important to the overarching narrative.
This case-of-the-week adventures are experience, they make veterans of us and the characters. We understand them better in smaller ways, we see what they go through and are better able to sympathize. The heart of the show can be found in the case-of-the-week episodes.
And despite the episodic format, it would be wrong to say that Supernatural is devoid of narrative complexity. I’d argue that it is the prime example of how to manage episodic television (again, I stress this is relevant for the first five seasons). Each season has a clear driving arc which cleanly leads into the next. There’s a gradual rise in danger and tension, and growth in the characters, eventually all wrapping up in the appropriately titled “Swan song”, the final episode of season 5 and what was intended to be the end of the show. If one were to look at the show over a five season plan, it would be clear how smoothly the narrative progressed, even at 22 episodes a season.
Because a show is conventional does not mean that it is without narrative complexity or strength. Shorter seasons can have their benefits but also their setbacks. Less time means, well, less time. Less moments, less drama, less character. This is by no means a bad thing, less is more after all.
But let’s be honest here. You’d rather have too much than too little.