December 07, 2017

To be continued . . .

Rewatching the early seasons of The X-Files, I'm impressed how effective it is when doing one-off mysteries. Granted, the big conspiracy stuff is fun because it has that classic noir look (with great supporting actors). But think about it for five seconds and it's awfully silly and ages awfully fast, very much a product of the times.

Stargate has the same issue with the Goa'uld and the Replicators, and I got too bored with the Ori to keep watching. The Stargate producers purposely set up each arc with a Big Bad at the center of the ongoing drama. It's a reliable formula, but one that eventually poisons its own well.

Still, the standalone episodes of Stargate are often flat-out fantastic.

This is a persistent problem with "strong arc" storylines, wherein the setup and resolution of each episode depends on the preceding episode and dictates the substance of the one that follows. I think removing the need to maintain the episodic continuity of the arc can free writers to wax more creative.

The original Star Trek holds up well because there pretty much is no arc, making it easy to ignore the mediocre shows and feast on the great ones. I recent saw "Arena" again, and despite the Gorn captain looking like he'd just strolled off the set of a Godzilla movie, boy, does it make for a great short story.

Same with "A Taste of Armageddon" and "Errand of Mercy" and "City on the Edge of Forever." Knowing nothing about the Star Trek universe would not diminish the viewer's ability to grasp the entire point of these stories.

But especially in longer series with relatively stable casts, expectations of some sort of plausible continuity and evolution in the "soft arc" must be met (unless, like The Simpsons, the expectation is established early on that the show will reset after each episode).

Star Trek didn't run long enough to worry about the Starfleet org chart. But Star Trek: TNG took too long to explain what Riker's problem was. As a military history like The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, King makes clear, no serious military man turns down a promotion (he maneuvers for the one he wants).

Giving Riker a sketchy past from the start would have created a more interesting dynamic between him and Picard (I blame Roddenberry's obsession with utopianism).

I agree with Kate that Bones gets it mostly right. Castle wades too far into soap opera territory for my tastes, but then rescues itself by poking fun at its own outrageousness, like having Castle travel to an alternate universe to solve a crime and deal with his personal issues.

Blue Bloods does a good job of changing things as naturally as the screenwriters can manage, which in the early seasons mostly had Danny and Jamie getting new partners and Frank dealing with a new mayor. Amy Carlson left before the start of this season. But each season arc rarely overwhelms the individual episodes.

Jack O'Neill and Samantha Carter get promoted on Stargate and, true to their characters, end up together with a minimum of histrionics. General Hammond retires. Even Michael Shanks leaving the show for a season appears mostly seamless in retrospect. Equipment evolves, weapons evolve, including how Teal'c outfits himself.

Done right, the "small stuff"—big emphasis on "small"—of natural character development can strengthen episodic dramas. Done wrong, it results in eye-rolling soap operas.

Speaking of Michael Shanks, Saving Hope gets it mostly wrong. I like the medical dramas and the supernatural stories that feature Shanks. But the season-long arcs are soapy to the the point of becoming unwatchable. This is even true of House in the later seasons, and it remains one of the best television dramas ever.

Cable series seem to be all about the strong arc, one of many reasons why I don't watch cable television dramas. But anime is all about the strong arc too. More about that next week.

To be continued . . .

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# posted by Blogger Matthew
12/08/2017 11:33 AM   
Comic books tend to have a similar problem where you have to know a lot about continuity to understand everything. X-men is infamous for this. When the movies came out people who picked up the comic for the first time were confused.

Even Hellboy and it's related books which are overseen by the original creator can be chore. They came out with a companion book and by the time it was published it was out of date. That said, like the X-files, there's a lot of one-shots that person can pick up without and enjoy without knowing every detail. These include some of the best stories like The Corpse which a really minor character later became important to the series.