Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Friday, February 12, 2021
So, I've been trying to keep up with television more lately. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't; I'm a lot of seasons behinds that I really should get to.... (Someday, I'll finish a season of "Ozark"; I swear) One I finished watching lately was the new HBO series, "The Flight Attendant".
It's kinda hard to describe without giving too much away, but I liked it a lot. I don't know if I loved it; I was actually confused by it for awhile, 'cause I didn't quite know for certain, while watching it, whether it was a miniseries or a regular comedy series. I kinda had a similar issue with "Russian Doll", which is very good, but it's also actually way more, intended as a comedy series that's really meant to only be a one-season series, which, eh, I'm of two minds on that, but generally I don't like it. I don't like gimmick shows where the idea is to follow this one long particular story over the course of a season, or the series in general. Like, television shows, (Excluding miniseries) shouldn't really be that narrow; you can run into some real issues down the line by doing that. This is one of the reasons that I still think "Lost" is pure shit, but they're not alone in that by any means. "The Killing", remember that series? No? Exactly.
Actually, that's not fair, there's some good series that understand that you can have some major mystery in the center of it, for awhile, but not be beholden to that initial narrative thread. "Desperate Housewives" off-the-top-of-my-head, did this surprisingly well for four years, and that was after the initial mystery at the center of the series wore off. (They did jump forward in time five years and that was stupid and unnecessary.) One of the reasons I'm recommending "The Flight Attendant" is that I think it has potential to be a show like this, even after the first season narrative thread is gone, you can see the potential for how to keep it going into at least a few more seasons without having it's main character regress too much from what she's been through so far and keep the series going strong. Still though, I can't help but notice that, a lot of these series, especially the ones on cable and streaming that basically have, not even ten episodes a season, more like eight or nine or so; somewhere between 6 and 10, 12 at the very most, they-um, they're starting to blend together too much structurally for me, and not in a good way necessarily.
People always talk about how the traditional three-camera network sitcoms are full of cliches and other such tropes, like how most of the time, you can watch a random episode of say "The Big Bang Theory" and not have too much advancement from the original condition, how there's no continuous story arc that we're progressing towards? That's both true and misleading, misleading because almost all 22 episodes/year of shows like that. It's not really that they have filler episodes, it's that they have more time to tell their stories, at a much more paced and slower way, through incremental changes over the course of, sometimes several seasons, as opposed to well, a lot suddenly happening to our main characters, in like eight episodes....
It's not terribly weird; I know when I pitched a TV series idea, I have an idea for how that series, at least over a first season would progress the narrative over say a 7-episode season and a 22-episode season. I'm starting to notice, that some of these series, even the good ones have kind of developed an odd structure to them, these eight-or-ten or seven-episode seasons, and it goes across all genres. I just watched "Carmen Sandiego"'s finale season as well, and some of their seasons are guilty of this as well, so this isn't specifically a genre issue.
Basically, you still get, those so-called "filler episodes", only they do slightly more obviously progress the narrative incrimentally over the season run. but you get like, three or four of those of these episodes per season. First there's the first of pilot episode, depending on the season and that sets everything in motion, and then like, the next few episodes are those modified filler episodes, and then, there's the last few episodes of the seasons, which nowadays can seem just, all action and plot-based no matter what's going on, 'cause it's the end and we're chasing the ending.
The first time I really recognized this strange idea for a narrative season format, and kinda getting frustrated with it, was-eh, "Eastbound and Down" actually.
I only watched a couple seasons of "Eastbound and Down", it was okay, but the main thing was that the first episode of the season set up a condition, and then, there's three or four episodes of filler random absurd shit that has little effect on the total narrative, maybe incrimental character advancement at most, and then the last few episodes, got really heavy on the show's main story, they did that for two the two seasons I watched and that's all I remember. I don't remember any of the details from those filler episodes, I only really remembered those last episodes that were heavy on suddenly advancing the story of Kenny Powers, former major league pitcher turned drunken recluse. In fact, I remember that's kinda why I stopped watching it and didn't bother with the third season, because I thought the whiplash was too off-putting, and frankly I feel like there's a lot of shows like this, even really good shows.
I'm not saying it's bad, but I'm not sure it works either, not for these shorter TV seasons that are prevalent on cable and streaming. Strangely, I think this works better for conventional 22-or-so episode seasons because by the time you actually have gotten to the major plot developments, you feel like they've actually been earned. You've been through and done a lot with these characters and followed them around for awhile, those supposed filler episodes feel like they matter much more. When you only have ten episodes or less for a season, even having one episode that doesn't feel like it's just continuously progressive the long-term narrative, even good shows can feel less good sometimes, and they really shouldn't.
Yet, I also don't love it when a TV show doesn't have these filler episodes, 'cause suddenly plotpoints come and go too quickly. On "The Flight Attendant" there's a friendship between Kaley Cuoco's Cassie and her best friend Ani, played by Zosia Mamet, and then, there's a moment where there relationship basically ends because Cassie almost gets Ani's boyfriend killed. Yet, not even two episodes later, they're basically back to being friends who are working to help Cassie get out of this jam she's in, aka, being a suspect in a murder in Bangkok. That feels, like, not enough time has passed. It's not the first time I've felt like this was too short; I remember watching "Dexter" and that show doing this a few times, and like seeing Angel go from married to divorced to Maria and I barely noticed and remember 'cause he just goes through all the emotions that entails in a couple episodes. (That's a character that seemed to go through a lot of emotions quickly come to think of it.) I guess this is something that we can get away with when we watch series once episode/week but, like how does that play when you're binging series like these? I know I've found it disorienting at times. (I can think of like dozens of examples from "True Blood" for this one; they were really bad at it if you binged it.)
To me, it can seem weird. I can remember, like on the original "Roseanne" seeing it take Dan over a year to fully get over his daughter Becky eloping behind his back, and it felt like a full year. Hell, are there even longterm on-again/off-again romances anymore on cable or streaming series, it doesn't feel like it. Not anymore, when was the last one on a cable or streaming series?
I actually asked that question btw, on a Facebook group and I got two responses and both of them were from network series. Do- do people not know the difference between network and cable and streaming shows anymore, 'cause there's a lot of fucking differences between them and they should be instantly recognizable. Do I have to bring back my TV Viewing 101 blogs to explain this? (Actually, that's not a terrible blogpost idea....) Anyway, I'm not saying that this is a negative in of itself, different formats of series should produce different kinds of series, but it's starting to feel like a lot of these series are beginning to feel a little too familiar to each other, and frankly, even when done well, when every series using the same narrative structure for a season, is eventually gonna get tiring and boring after awhile. That composes a lot of the complaints I hear about network television; they don't like procedurals or sitcoms where conflict gets wrapped up in a half-hour; I can understand those complaints, but I think we're gonna start hearing complaints of cable of series streaming having their own tropes and format structure being repeated over and over again soon.
Although I think the bigger problem I have is that, while I like shows that use this format, I think it's a bad format. I mean, if I told you that, you only had to watch, only certain episodes, to catch the story of the series, and I told you that it was half the season's episode, that's a lot more tolerable when it's a longer twenty-two episodes traditional network sitcom series then it is for an eight or nine epsiodes streaming series. It's actually wasting a lot more of the shorter season, if you partake in the idea that every episode should advance the long-form narrative, which I don't, but you know the less episode/season I get, the more I expect those episodes to matter.
There's positives and negatives to every television format, I know, I recognize that this is nitpicking; if it's a bad show then it's not gonna matter whether the structure works or not. That said, when every show starts seeming the same, it saturates the market quickly and that's when people start complaining about how there's nothing on TV/cable/streaming anymore, and I fear that that's what's gonna happen with this series format if it keeps occurring. It'll be taken over by lesser quality shows too much and too often and it could make actual good or great shows seem like every other show. I don't want either of those things to happen. It's probably inevitable, if it hasn't already, but I don't want to see it.
I don't know entirely what the next move is to stop it or if it even should be stopped, and trying to come up with exact solutions or answers just led me to running through general complaints about certain TV shows and critiques thereof, so I don't think that would be any more or less helpful. I think the main thing for viewers, and the writers/producers/etc. of television series, especially these cable and streaming ones, is to be more conscious and aware of it. You don't have to fix it, or eradicate it somehow, but awareness of the issue is the first step, and that way you can either jump right into the flaws of the format, find new interesting ways to circumvent them in ways that play with the form and media or find ways to work around and eradicate that issue in the future, whatever works best for the show itself.