I turned 40 last year, and I think it’s starting to affect me: I’m beginning to feel the urge to rant about kids these days and how everything was better when I was young. So be warned, there is some curmudgeonliness ahead, but I do have a point here.
I’ve been thinking lately about why I find a lot of contemporary tv so unsatisfying. It’s not that tv shows are bad now. It’s been aptly said that we live in a golden age of television. Freed from the constraints of syndication and network time slots, modern shows have dared to tell bigger, more complicated stories. The proliferation of cable channels and online services producing their own original content has meant a chance for a wider range of productions, from big-budget crowd-winners to oddball side projects. All of this is to the good.
At the same time, we’ve lost something in the modern approach to tv-making: episodes. It used to be that a season of a tv show was one or two dozen short stories, each told over the course of an hour or half hour (or twenty to forty minutes, on commercial television). Nowadays, a season of television is a ten-hour movie with arbitrary breaks for theme music. Stories are not told in an episode but slosh over to the next hour or two before there’s any resolution; meanwhile, another story has started going at the same time and continues to slosh forward on its own. Every tv drama has now become a soap opera.
I miss shows that had actual episodes, each a story unto itself with a beginning, rising action, climax, and denouement all in one sitting. As much as that format could sometimes be limiting, it also had its artistic virtues. It forced the action to move along at a brisk pace. It created a sense of urgency that shaped the storytelling. There was a feeling of satisfaction that came with watching the problem of the episode be resolved. Modern shows tend to wallow in characters’ unresolved feelings, pad their running time with filler, and dive down narrative dead ends, much of which would have been cut short in properly episodic television.
Of course, lack of satisfaction is the point. Now that we can stream any show we want any time we want, the economic pressures have changed. Rather than keep us coming back every week to see more commercials, the business imperative of tv is now to keep us from clicking away to another streaming service. While new content models have freed tv from some artistic constraints, they have imposed new ones that are just as limiting. It is now tv’s job to never give us satisfying endings lest we wander off to do something else.
I do appreciate tv shows that have continuity and ongoing stories. I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when the end of an episode meant a complete reset back to status quo ante, but continuity can coexist with episodes. Shows of the 1990s like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, X-Files, and Stargate pulled it off. In these shows, episodes mostly told self-contained stories, but they also remembered what had happened in previous episodes. Characters grew and changed, major plot twists had ongoing consequences, and big multi-season arcs played out a piece at a time, and yet when the credits rolled at the end of an episode, you still had the satisfaction of a resolution.
I wish we had more shows like that these days.
Here there be opinions!