December 14, 2017

The strong and the soft of arcs

When it comes to narrative arcs in television dramas, the strong arc requires a soft arc but not necessarily visa-versa.

Most anime series have fairly strong arc storylines. A typical cour runs 13 or so 30-minute episodes, so can be digested in a couple of binge-viewing sessions. Beyond the Boundary ran 11 episodes, at least two episodes too few. Eureka 7 ran a strong arc through 50 episodes, twice as many as needed.

Narrative disasters occur when a dramatic arc expected to last a season or two proves more popular than its creators expected. They then drag out the premise the series began with. The result is that nothing gets resolved and all kinds of nonsensical reasons have to be concocted to keep them from getting resolved.

(On the other hand, Detective Conan has run so long I wonder if anybody remembers the weird premise it began with or expects it to ever get resolved.)

Eventually, the writers run out of things to write about and fall back on melodrama. That's when I stop watching. Nothing is more frustrating than a enjoyable genre series that runs out of material and resorts to characters screwing up their lives with angsty self-involvement and rank stupidity.

I might have watched more than ten cumulative minutes of Friends if Ross and Rachel got hit by an asteroid at the end of the first season so we could focus on Monica and Chandler, whose relationship actually matures. The relationship between Niles and Daphne progressed on Frasier, though took too long getting there.

Big Bang Theory is not only funnier but more entertaining when the characters grow and develop in positive ways, not slip and fall on the same banana peel week after week.

I suspect that soft arcs often harden because the writers worry about running out of story material. Afraid of repeating themselves, they resort to what Kate calls the compulsion to "CHANGE, SHOCK, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!" But the result isn't "something different." It's endless reruns of Groundhog Day.

Sure, Groundhog Day is amusing for two hours. Year after interminable year, it would define an inner circle of hell. But as Groundhog Day points out, breaking free of this perdition doesn't involve dramatic gestures so much as it requires steady personal growth, mostly ordinary characters improving on being ordinary.

Working with the full knowledge that there is nothing new under the sun is much more liberating. As Kate points out, Agatha Christie built a successful career out of being obvious and doing the "same old thing" over and again.

What makes Christie so great is the simplicity of her story ideas. Story often comes down to one idea. The telling may be elaborate (red herrings plus more red herrings plus more red herrings), but the ultimate denouement is not complicated at all.

Overextended strong arcs are bad enough. When the Decima Technologies arc derailed the premise of Person of Interest, it mutated from a series into an updated version of the Saturday morning serial. Individual episodes simply served to chop an increasingly implausible plot into digestible pieces.

That's unfortunately what also happened with the Ori arc on Stargate.

Watching the first season of 24 cured me of the desire to watch any of the sequels. At this point, we're in telenovela territory. Most live-action Japanese dramas are compact versions of the telenovela, with a single cour lasting around 10 episodes. Except for the Asadora, I usually give them a pass too.

Ten hours of conflict and angst is bad enough. When it's the exact same conflict and angst (and no resolution) week after week (until the last episode), it's unbearable. (Though a series like I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper can win me over with unique characters, episodic plotting, and a touch of magical realism.)

Or the exact same crime, as in police procedurals that take a single mystery and stretch it out over a dozen hours. No, I am not going to wait that long to find out whodunit, not when Columbo can figure the whole thing out in ninety minutes.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
12/15/2017 6:35 AM   
I've been rewatching the first seasons of Person of Interest (I still haven't gotten to the last season; although I admire the show, I did start to lose interest when Decima got too silly). What impresses me is how the writers were able to divvy up the arcs of the first two seasons without (1) stretching out a tiny bit of information to the point where the viewer wants to tear her hair out--a la Supernatural (oh, just TELL her already!); (2) pushing so much information into a single season that the next season has nowhere to go.

The first season does precisely what it should: establish the parameters (who the characters are, how they work together, who the threat is). It gives us John's background story and Elias. The second season gives us Harold's background story, more about the Machine, and the best final episode ever written: "God Mode." It is perfectly divided and paced.

The show didn't keep up the excellent division and pacing, but it still deserves major kudos for such a strong foundation. (And it didn't fail as much as other shows do, precisely because it started out so strong.)

By the way, according to something I read recently, Monica and Chandler's romance saved Friends--keeping it going for at least 3 more seasons. This is a good example of how doing too much with characters (Ross and Rachel) can backfire: eventually, the viewers' empathy has been sucked dry.
# posted by Blogger Matthew
12/16/2017 5:25 PM   
One about episodic television is that if there is one bad episode; there's ONE bad episode. You don't have to endure an entire awful arc. Of course, you have a problem with episodes that should impact a characters entire life is never mention again. An episode were a character's family is murdered is never mentioned again.