The Droodification of TV

by John Holbo on September 14, 2007

By general acclaim, it’s a fairly Golden age for TV. Thanks to HBO, but also for other reasons. Mostly it has to do with improved story-telling, due to whole season or multi-season story arcs, made possible largely by the DVD market, I suppose. Shows are being made to be sold as season-length packages. The effect on quality is salutary, but there are two risks. First, the show runs too long. A good story is undone – the early promise retroactively debased – by writers forced to drag it out; keep the golden goose laying past her prime. Second, a good show may be canceled, leaving the audience unable to finish the damn story.

Example: Invasion (2005) – which I’m considering buying for the typical Holbonic reason that it’s marked down 60%. (As a purchaser, I am indifferent – swayed neither in favor or against – by the consideration that it is written/produced by former teen idol Shaun Cassidy.) Who here has watched it? Any good? It seems to have won a solid fan-base, but not enough to stave off cancellation – supposedly due to a slow start, and being about a hurricane at the time of Katrina.

I like a good SF yarn. I don’t really like the thought of a cliffhanger with no resolution. But these sorts of no-end productions are actually becoming more common – the Edwin Droodification of TV, if you will. Which reminds me. I happened to catch a bit of a memorable Doctor Who episode a year ago – which I now learn is “The Unquiet Dead”. Charles Dickens is in it, and – inspired by the creepy, gaseous Gelth he has met – he promises to finish Drood, making the murderer a ‘blue elemental’. Maybe it could turn out, conversely, that there is a somewhat hypocritical family of Victorian snobs from Cloisterham under the water (!). Or something.

Let us discuss the state of TV, the long story arc, the advantages and risks that accrue thereto.

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Crooked Timber » » Lost
09.17.07 at 1:35 am



joel turnipseed 09.14.07 at 7:15 am

Dammit, John, I was just heading off to bed…

But I’ll bite.

TV will just never, ever, even at its best, approach prose narrative for power and flexibility. It won’t.

There’s also something to be said for the two or three hour experience: whether it’s Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, or William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or, more contemporaneously, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labrynth (or many dozens of other classic and contemporary examples), there’s a lot to be said for the immersive, one-shot experience of sitting down with brilliance and having it blow your mind in fourteen different directions in one discrete experience.

That said, I more or less agree with your basic premise: the long-form TV drama is in fine form. The HBO shows (and, man, they must be scrambling just now) like The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and even the one-off Band of Brothers are amazing narratives. Very few contemporary novels can compete with them. Even basic cable shows like Battlestar Gallactica or broadcast shows like Lost or Heroes have fantastic writing, vivid characters, engaging plots the like of which are just not to be found in the novel these days.

I suppose this is partly due to budgets: there’s a lot of Ivy League (and, more generally speaking, young writing) talent that rushes off to Hollywood to exercise its gifts, with compensation that the big publishing companies can only dream of offering to as many writers. There have never been so many film and theater and narrative literate people as exist today, and there’s a lot of money being tossed around to put it to work. With the slicks now out of the short fiction business (for the most part), if you’re a young writer, you head for the Hollywood hills (unless you manage an increasingly hard-to-find tenure track position in an MFA program).

There’s also the luxury of second and third season development. Has any show sucked as much as the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation? But by the second and third seasons, it had become a pretty damned good show. No one writer, cranking out a one-off novel, is going to be able to take the same advantage of actors and writers, directors and producers incorporating the continuous feedback that a TV series provides. I’m told Saul Bellow, when he used to find one of his novels around at a friend’s house, would annotate the hell out of it with corrections, long after it had been published. I don’t know any novelist friend who thinks differently, if they bring themselves to think about their past work at all…

All of which brings me to: The Biggest Fuck-Up in the History of Long-Form Narrative, Namely, Peter Weir’s Adaptation of Patrick O’Brien’s Novels in Master and Commander. I’ve read all the Fleming novels a couple times through. Ditto the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I’ve read a couple, but not all, of Herbert’s Dune novels. But nothing blew my mind the way Patrick O’Brien’s series did when I read it over a four or five month period a couple years ago. Wow. Now there’s a long-form narrative that still has no peer, whether in film, TV, or books. If there’s a just God (well, no, HE doesn’t exist)… If there’s a smart production executive at a major film studio or at HBO, they’ll put the $500M to $1B required to make it happen to work to produce a 3-to-4-hour episode for each of the 20 completed Aubrey-Maturin novels as a film. Done right, it would eclipse, as O’Brien’s novels did, every serial done before it.

Can’t wait to see what the rest of the Timberites have to say… when I wake up in the morning.


Flapple 09.14.07 at 7:44 am

This golden age of TV has crept up on us, but you are right John, the long form TV show is starting to eclipse much of the pap we see on our Cinema Screens. If only I could regularly go to the movie and see shows of the same Calibre of Arrested Development or Batalstar Galactica. All I get is the Bourne Utimatum, which is tired and worn out by the third episode.

Regarding Invasion, it was passable. Inspired maybe by Lost (disclosure: I don’t think Lost is very good), there is a lurking evil and many Clues.

The reason I don’t think Lost is very good is related to the points you make about the success and failure of the long form TV genre. Lost lack internal consistency, and in addition it does poorly on the “reveal”, the slow release of information over time.

Invasion has some of this as well. By episode 10 you had picked up a few more factoids, but are no closer to revealing an overall picture or even the left corner of an overall picture.


James Wimberley 09.14.07 at 8:25 am

I wonder why the French are so bad at the TV serial form. They can’t even do a hospital soap, the most basic and easiest version of the genre. There is one half-way decent cop series, Navarro, but there the episodes are self-contained; no story lines are left hanging. Hypothesis: it’s the long arm of Racine and the classical dramatic doctrines of unity of place, time, and action. So there’s some deep inhibition against the mediaeval romance form, where the story never really ends; and the romance is the template for the TV serial.


Clive 09.14.07 at 9:34 am

Please let’s not forget Buffy.


tadhgin 09.14.07 at 9:40 am

Invasion: Very catchy at first but ultimately boring (and yes, probably the same problems as lost)

But I gotta disagree with Joel about Master and Commander.. it is an excellent film, but I understand that it only got one outing because of different receptions on the two sides of the Atlantic, with your side being more negative (even after the story was somewhat balderdised so as not to offend American sensibilities)


Clive 09.14.07 at 11:13 am

On the two or three hour experience:

A feature of this long-form TV drama, obviously, is that many people, like me, often wait for a season to come out on DVD and then watch the whole thing – sometimes, literally (pretty much) back to back. One weekend I watched the entire of seasons 3 and 4 of The Sopranos (with resultant nightmares, inability to speak except as if threatening to kill people’s loved ones, etc).

I simply cannot imagine watching a film that was 24 hours long. I mean, I wouldn’t even start to. I would only rarely watch a film I knew to be three hours long, unless I was very confident about it. But I think nothing of watching three hours of this kind of high quality TV drama.

Partly, that’s simply because it’s so good. It must also be partly something to do with the nature of TV drama, as opposed to film – that is, about the nature of the different forms of narrative as such. I have some half thoughts about that. But what do people think?


stuart 09.14.07 at 11:27 am

I think the difference is that 24 one hour episodes had to originally work as one hour episodes, so each of them tends to be fairly tightly plotted. While there are plenty of good 3ish hour movies, there are also a large number that just didn’t have any discipline in the editing room and so are left with an extra hour of fluff in them that makes the entire thing seem to drag on.


Andromeda 09.14.07 at 11:41 am

The big advantage I see to long story arcs is community building. When there’s an overarching plot and each episode tells you a little more about it, there’s a universe of fans who all have their own theories, who want to talk about those theories with other people, and who want to bounce ideas off other people about what the new information means. Add the internet and bam, instant obsession!


Clive 09.14.07 at 11:54 am

@ Stuart

Not sure that is the difference (and it wouldn’t be just an edit room problem, surely). It isn’t in principle harder to plot tightly over 3 hours than 1; the interesting thing about the dramas we’re discussing is how tightly plotted they are over 12 or even 22 hours; and some of these shows – The Wire and Deadwood at the most extreme – barely have an episodic structure, and certainly don’t have a ‘story of the week’. The Sopranos often has a sub-plot as its story of the week.

I think there is something to do with how well we get to know the characters. I think we know Tony Soprano, or Buffy, etc, after a season or two, better than you will ever know Jason Bourne… And maybe that’s connected to Andromeda’s point about community.

(For instance – I think this is related: I orginally got Sky to watch Buffy, when none of my friends had cable. Every Thursday night was a party – food, etc – to watch Buffy and Angel. Started to do that with the last few eps of The Sopranos.)


John Quiggin 09.14.07 at 12:31 pm

Talking of Dr Who, the most recent episode aired in Oz included the line “The end of the universe and you two are … blogging!”


Keith 09.14.07 at 1:03 pm

I agree with Flapple about Lost. I think that show served as a prototype of what can be done with long term serial drama but that the show itself hasn’t followed through with the story in any meaningful way.

I rabidly watched the first two seasons, expecting a nice tight ending for the third and instead they decided to pad the whole story out for what is it, three more seasons? This led to enigma overdose; there’s simply no way they can explain all the weird shit happening on that island without some major hand waving and/or green rock magic.

I like what they’re doing with the new Doctor Who where each season has a closed arc with one or two stand alone episodes (the episode, Blink is probably the best piece of sci-fi TV since the glory days of The Twilight Zone).

Still, the idea of a tightly plotted multi season story is audacious and other creative teams seem to be doing it justice; I’m really looking froward to Season 4 of BSG.


Eszter 09.14.07 at 1:17 pm

Then there are shows that become too popular for their own good. I won’t even name names, because at this point I’m almost embarrassed to admit I used to watch such-and-such a show. So popularity isn’t always good.

I think Clive is right that some of these are really fun to watch back-to-back. That’s what I did with the first season of 24. I think I watched it in two days (so not literally in 24 hours). I never got hooked though, because the idea of waiting a week for the next episode seemed very unappealing.

The arc wasn’t quite so strong in Sex and The City until the end, but that show certainly went through a lot of transformations since its first season. (In fact, when I lend people the entire show, I feel like I have to tell them not to get turned off by the first few episodes since it changes considerably.) That’s another one of those that people will stay up until 4-5am to finish watching a season.


abb1 09.14.07 at 1:22 pm

Isn’t it just a question of talent? Seems to me the big Hollywood movie studios have almost no talent left there anymore, it’s all nepotism; TV studios – not so much yet. But don’t worry, they’ll get there.


Mikey in Plano 09.14.07 at 2:22 pm

The first long-story-arc TV show I got into was Star Blazers(Space Battleship Yamato). It was pretty groundbreaking for the time, especially compared to the after school/Saturday morning cartoons and brothers Krofft shows prevalent in the late ’70s.

I imagine that serial-style storytelling is easier in genre shows — sci-fi/fantasy, romance, and now superhero and gangster — in part because the fan base, at least of the first 3, is already used to it from literature or comic media.

I also suspect that one of the reasons that cop, lawyer, and doctor shows are such prime time staples is that they lend themselves to episodic storytelling very easily.


Jeff 09.14.07 at 2:28 pm

The TV sci-fi series Babylon 5 (~1993-98) is another example which worked fairly well.


HK 09.14.07 at 3:04 pm

“Mostly it has to do with improved story-telling, due to whole season or multi-season story arcs, made possible largely by the DVD market, I suppose.”

Blakes 7 had at least a two season arc back in 1978-79 and has, I believe, been cited as an influence on J. Michael Straczynski of Bablyon 5 fame. Likewise Dr Who was doing multi-serial stories with the ‘Key To Time’ sequence in the early 70s, and the Davison era was characterised by maintaining links between stories and character progression based on the adventures of previous serials.

Both examples relied more heavily on linkages between stand-alones than today’s arcs, perhaps, but there was certainly a long-term goal and a reward for tuning in week after week, if only to see Blake change from an idealist into a vengeful maniac.

It always surprises me how strongly arced many of the shows I watched in my childhood were. When people will argue that grown-up audiences have too short an attention span for multi-part shows, I have to wonder how ‘Mysterious Cities of Gold’, ‘Gargoyles’ and ‘Pirates of Darkwater’ ever got made.


Paul Currion 09.14.07 at 3:11 pm

This thread could easily turn into a long list of TV shows that we like, couldn’t it? The reverse is sometimes true as well – there are programs which completely fail when judged on an episode basis, but succeed brilliantly in the long form. In my tastes, Carnivale springs to mind, but since a lot of people think it sucks, I think 24 is a better example.

Very few shows strike the right balance, but maybe we’re not even thinking about this the right way. We don’t expect all text-based entertainment to meet the same requirements – short stories and novels are completely different beasts. Maybe DVDs are just giving us the opportunity for new televisual forms, but both creators and viewers are having to learn a new language?


DonBoy 09.14.07 at 3:59 pm

(As a purchaser, I am indifferent – swayed neither in favor or against – by the consideration that it is written/produced by former teen idol Shaun Cassidy.)

It should be “in favor”, but Invasion is probably Shaun Cassidy’s worst show. Check out American Gothic and the lesser-known oddities Roar (Celtic/Christian legendry with Heath Ledger) and Cover Me, about an entire family of deep-cover FBI agents, kids and all.


Justin 09.14.07 at 5:07 pm

The thing about 3 hour movies isn’t that they’re impossible to plot right. But if everyone is aiming for a 90-150 minute movie, probability suggests that the 180 minute movie was just one where they didn’t do a good job editing/pacing it.

Back to TV, I wonder if it’s a problem that these new long form TV shows require a lot of upfront investment. I no longer think about just watching an episode of a show unless I’m at a friend’s place. Instead, I think “do I want to potentially commit to watching a season of this?” Netflix makes that a bit easier, but a multi-disc season will always take a long time in the queue. As such, the only shows I’ve looked at recently are Arrested Development and Lost. A few others are 100 movies down in the queue.


Clive 09.14.07 at 5:28 pm

I agree – I’ve certainly tended, with my favourite shows, to wait for the DVD, because otherwise it’s just so complicated organising your time, worrying about missing an episode, etc. Sky+/Virgn+ (is Netflix the same thing? You can record without all the farting about you used to need with video…) is maybe changing this. (I’ve got most of Dexter to watch without getting the DVD).

But it does seem to me that the HBO shows in particular are developing a new narrative style, distinct from old television drama. If you compare something like The Shield – it’s edgy and frenetic, but its story telling is really quite traditional (A stories, B stories, etc) – with a ‘through story’, for sure, but with a lot of episodic stuff. The Wire, on the other hand, seems to me entirely different – on one level more like a soap (lots of characters, story unfolding over a long time) – except of course there is a single story arc for each 12 ep season.

British television drama is still way behind, incidentally – partly, I think, because series tend to be much shorter, so there’s less room to play with.


Katherine F. 09.14.07 at 5:45 pm

I simply cannot imagine watching a film that was 24 hours long. I mean, I wouldn’t even start to. I would only rarely watch a film I knew to be three hours long, unless I was very confident about it. But I think nothing of watching three hours of this kind of high quality TV drama.

Surely that’s down to the pacing? If you watch, say, an entire season of 24 in one or two sittings (which is probably the best way to watch 24, since you get through it quickly enough that you don’t notice the plotholes), then there are numerous slow-downs and gaps and quiet moments: the three-second gap on either side of the commercial breaks, the “previouslies” at the beginning, the credits at the end. Even HBO shows have built-in quiet moments at the beginning and end of each episode. These break-points make the experience less tiring and a lot less overwhelming than watching a 3-hour film, since films are intended to hold your entire attention from beginning to end; there’s no rest.

I’ve found that the new Doctor Who is a bit tiring in that way, because of course there are no ad breaks, and the action is pretty relentless from start to finish. I usually come away from an episode of Doctor Who feeling like I need to lie down and have a rest.

The TV sci-fi series Babylon 5 (~1993-98) is another example which worked fairly well.

Fairly well, but not perfectly, mostly for economic reasons (the series was intended to last five years, but the creator was told the series was going to be cancelled after four, which prompted him to telescope the main plot in the fourth season… but then the show got renewed anyway, so that he had an extra season to fill and nothing to fill it with), but see also Abigail Nussbaum on the series; she makes some good points about weaknesses of the show that fans don’t often acknowledge.


JakeB 09.14.07 at 5:48 pm

Some of it (that is, the high quality of a lot of TV vs. the crappitude of films) is owing to the problems of accounting, isn’t it? One of the reasons that big-budget movies tend to so frequently be (I apologize in advance for this) the filmic equivalent of turds the size of the Ross Ice Shelf is because they’re so expensive, hence require selling 30 or 40 million tickets worth of viewing, hence appeal to the lowest common denominator, patati patata. Although I don’t know exactly why tv series seem to be so different– the costs can be distributed over a longer period of time perhaps? Or tv talent rates are less than movies, at least until you get several seasons in (didn’t the Friends clique get some preposterous amount of money per show near the end?)? Since we keep hearing that one of the other reasons that movies tend to be so much crappier than they need be is because so many people are allowed to have “creative” input, is one of the reasons for the greater quality of some TV shows much tighter control? I don’t know, just asking.

Joel–have you read Dorothy Dunnett? I love her series nearly as much as O’Brian’s.


joel turnipseed 09.14.07 at 5:52 pm

Justin – Well, you know: a couple of hardcover novels will set you back $50 bucks… or about what an expensive season of TV will cost you. Around here, we cut our cable back to the super-basic, not-even-set-top-boxes cable (those DVR and HD options just killed me when I looked at our bill, and besides: there’s a bar in St. Paul where I can go see Arsenal v. Liverpool). By doing so, we’re saving around… $50 a month. Where does that go? TV boxed sets.

re: Master and Commander: it’s not that the movie was a disaster–it was all right, but rather: what a blown opportunity. You know, if we can have multi-boxed sets of twelve bazillion episodes of Sharpe, in which Sean Bean is great but the budget about 12 cents an episode, you sort of think–with increasing ire: why couldn’t someone have done the O’Brien novels right? HBO spent $120M on Band of Brothers and it shows: the acting’s good, the cinematography and effects are good… just all-around well done. And HBO has done very well with that investment. I think they could do the same with the Aubrey-Maturin novels, honestly (though if they try: please don’t screw it up as badly as HBO/BBC did with Rome–a complete disaster).

Finally, whoever it was said about Aristotle v. the Romance is right-on. The long, meandering serial has a long and lustrous history: Odysseus: Escape from Troy ran for 24 wondrous episodes and is there a more popular fantasy series than The Amazing Adventures of Jesus? In his intro to this years’ Best American Essays, David Foster Wallace writes:

the quantity of available information and products and art and opinions and choices and all the complications and ramifications thereof expands at roughly the rate of Moore’s Law.

The best TV shows, like the great old epics and romances, are about all we have to cut through this clutter, mythologize its essentials, explain or dramatize its complications. I’m thinking, in particular, of The Wire, which wraps up next spring. What novel does a better job at not only entertaining, but cutting to the heart of American–hell, human, life?


nick s 09.14.07 at 6:00 pm

Let us discuss the state of TV, the long story arc, the advantages and risks that accrue thereto.

And let us cast bile at JJ Abrams, a man who creates sprawling backstories and interconnections only to get bored after two seasons and bugger off. He’s like a musician who can only do intros and the first verse.


Clive 09.14.07 at 6:30 pm

katherine f: “Surely that’s down to pacing?”

Could be. But I think it’s something to do with television drama as such, as opposed to film; or rather, our (or my, anyway) relationship to a television drama, as opposed to a film. I am apprehensive about a long film even before I watch it, before knowing how well it’s paced. I’m not sure exactly what it *is* that’s different, but my instinct is that it’s more than just technical differences between individual films or TV shows. If that makes sense.


Dave Maier 09.14.07 at 6:32 pm

Oh goody, a TV thread. Now I can learn something useful.

1. Good point about the twin risks. The best case is when the writer knows in advance when the end is near so he can tie it all up in advance. Of course that can backfire, as in Babylon 5, which was a damn shame, both for the telescoped 4th season and the empty 5th one. BTW who could deny the flaws in that show? The acting was excruciating, for one thing (I mean, Walter Koenig??).

2. While I really like The Wire, it is indeed simply a long serial rather than a series. I actually prefer a happy medium, between that one the one hand, and just a succession of episodes with little or no arc, on the other. B5 was exemplary in this regard, and I think it helped a lot that the overall arc (like Rowlings’) was planned out completely in advance.

3. No, no show has ever sucked as much as the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s a thought: what if Firefly had improved in its (hypothetical) subsequent seasons as much as ST:TNG did?

4. I enjoyed Master & Commander, but I can well believe that the books are better (and that a series would rock). But I’ve never read any. Does it matter where one begins (i.e. are they in order?). If not, where should one begin?

5. I also prefer, for the shows in question, to watch them on DVD. I can’t imagine watching 24 on the broadcast schedule – that would be maddening. Of course the decision is made for me for most shows, because I don’t have cable. This means I’m still waiting for season *3* of Battlestar Galactica.

6. I saw The Kingdom (the first one) on the big screen, all at once, and it was great. But there are only 4 eps of that one. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work on DVD too. I understand Berlin Alexanderplatz, which some people swear by (i.e. as to be seen in the theater) is soon out on DVD as well.

7. Consider bile cast at JJ Abrams from this quarter as well. I gave up on Alias and never even started Lost, which looks ridiculous.

8. Joel mentioned (the book/series) Dune. This is not really a series, but a classic novel with a billion poorly thought out sequels. Stop after the first, it’s not worth it.


Russell Arben Fox 09.14.07 at 6:35 pm

please don’t screw it up as badly as HBO/BBC did with Rome—a complete disaster

Excuse me, Joel? A “complete disaster”? I vigorously dissent.


jaywalker 09.14.07 at 6:50 pm

James Wimberley, for a The Wire-like French series, have a look at p.j. police judiciaire. Set in St. Martin, a run down district of Paris, it follows the fortunes of a quirky set of police officers. Unfortunately, the 100+ episodes DVD set price is a rip-off. You can watch clips at PJ France 2.


Miriam 09.14.07 at 6:56 pm


But I’ve never read any. Does it matter where one begins (i.e. are they in order?). If not, where should one begin?

Absolutely begin at the beginning. I think you can make a case that the series is just one long novel, cut into volumes. (As those who have read them will recall, the novels don’t wrap up at the end; they just…stop.)


JakeB 09.14.07 at 7:11 pm

Also, some people think that the books really hit their stride at about number 5. So if the first few aren’t the cat’s pajamas in your opinion, it’s probably worth continuing on a bit to make sure. But since it’s basically one big novel, you need the first few in any case (not to mention that you don’t want to miss the first instance of the dog-watch joke in Post Captain, which is retold all through the series).


notsneaky 09.14.07 at 7:34 pm

“If there’s a just God (well, no, HE doesn’t exist)… If there’s a smart production executive at a major film studio or at HBO, they’ll put the $500M to $1B required to make it happen to work to produce a 3-to-4-hour episode for each of the 20 completed Aubrey-Maturin novels as a film.”

Well, that definitely made me drool but I don’t think you’d need 3 to 4 hours for each episode. 1.5 would probably do. Even though the books are awesome there is a lot of filler in them. Actually there’s also a lot of filler in the novels themselves and you could probably skip one or two without missing much of the overall story. Once you get to The Wine Dark Sea or so it does become quite repetitive. There’s only so many ways you can describe a battle at sea and O’Brian’s done them all well. Also, by that point we all know Aubrey gets himself into – mostly financial – trouble when he stays on land for too long. The Maturin as spy theme from a couple of these can be simply moved intertemporally to a different episode. So something like 20 1.5 hr episodes over two seasons could work great.
I vaguely remember however from watching the commentary on the M&C DVD that there’s some issue over the movie rights to these novels and even getting permission to make M&C was tricky.

Also, more shows should do what Dan Simon did with the Wire; commit to a given number of seasons/episodes a priori. 5 seasons of 12 (about) episodes is plenty of time to tell a great story and the hanging ending will stop you from doing goofy Lost-type stuff. This also highlights the different incentives at work for novelists and show makers. If you’re a novelist your publisher will try to shorten your book to make it more accessible to a wider audience (also to cut out self serving crap that don’t need to be in there). But if you’re a show writer/director they’ll want you to stretch the damn thing out as long as possible to maximize the dollars. On the other hand the same incentive is there to produce a “series” of novels – you know, the “Volume IIIIXCCG in the Quest for Dragon’s Balls Series”, which is why most Fantasy and SciFi sucks so bad. Well, one of the reasons why it sucks so bad.


joel turnipseed 09.14.07 at 7:40 pm

Yes, start the Aubrey-Maturin series at the beginning. I actually bristled at the Jane Austen-like, all-land, all-domestic drama of the second book–but eventually came to enjoy O’Brien’s retreats back to the country. As the others have said: you get through the first couple (and they’re not long & the “nautical babble” complaint is way over-played–there’s just not that much of it and most of it is expertly done as dialogue between Aubrey and Maturin), and you’re hooked.

As for Rome… Russell: Yes, Ciarán Hinds is fantastic. They couldn’t have cast a better Caesar. Some of the other cast are good, too–even excellent. But the cast is the beginning and ending of what’s good about this show. I’ll keep it short, but my complaints are, essentially:

1) The most dynamic, drama-filled period in Roman history and you did what?! with it? Almost nothing. Why not write out a five-season series on the Civil War and pitch that? With an appropriate budget? Yes, I loved the sex and the violence and the intrigues… but compared to what was possible with this show–hell, was actual, Milius, et. al., just totally dropped the ball.

2) This is ROME, and you give me a set that looks like it’s built in, by, and housed at a local community college? Have you never heard of CGI? Isn’t there some still-standing old MGM set on a hill in Italy somewhere? How many times do I need to see the same three, and only three, plebians walking through deserted streets to hear the Herald?

3) A quick specific: Do you know the real story of Cleopatra’s presentation to Caesar? WAY better, more fantastic and dramatic and sexy, than the way she’s presented in the series. Why not just use that?

4) In general, they just didn’t give this series a big enough budget or enough narrative space to do it right. They cherry-picked some salacious scenes and wicked intrigues from the history, then crammed them into an overstuffed suitcase and mailed it parcel post to the world.


Keith 09.14.07 at 8:29 pm

I don’t have cable. This means I’m still waiting for season 3 of Battlestar Galactica.

You can download the whole thing on iTunes or if you want it for free and don’t mind taking the time, you can get it on BitTorrent.

I downloaded Doctor Who Season 3 and Torchwood because I don’t have BBC America and am sick to death of the way Sci-Fi hacks into the middle of a scene for a commercial break, all to advertise ed PILLS or their latest snake/spider/Lou Diamond Phillips movie.


Abigail 09.14.07 at 9:51 pm

I’ve written quite a bit about novelistic television on my blog. I don’t agree with Joel’s assertion that television can’t approach the complexity of prose narratives. In fact, in terms of the medium’s capabilities I think television is inherently suited to novelistic storytelling in a way that film hardly ever approaches (although a closer parallel might be drawn between television and comics).

The problem isn’t with the medium, but with the economic system governing it. Up until a few years ago, television series sought to appeal to the widest possible audience, and therefore to the lowest common denominator. The notion that a series might take a while to grow an audience, or that it might survive with a small but loyal following, was almost unheard of. Even nowadays, with HBO and cable channels seeking to appeal to more sophisticated tastes, the breadth of an audience still matters – witness the (respectively, deserved and undeserved) early deaths of Carnivale and Deadwood. There’s no indie or fringe scene in television, which is one of the reasons that innovation within the medium comes almost exclusively from the outside – on the aesthetic front, from cinema, and on the narrative front, from novels and comics.

The economic issues aside, however, there are still serious issues plaguing the attempt to create true novelistic television. Entries in this field either hide an underlying formula beneath of veneer of novelistic storytelling (Alias, Lost, Battlestar Galactica) or have nothing to offer but a well-structured story (Babylon 5). In some of the recent entries in the sub-genre like Daybreak or the upcoming Journeyman, I’ve noticed an emphasis on story to the exclusion of all other elements, most particularly characters. This puts me in mind of a show like Farscape, which started out formulaic and, at the end of four seasons, was practically inscrutable to the casual viewer. The series was cancelled after the fourth season finale – which ends with the two leads apparently being killed by an unknown assailant – had been filmed, and for several years this stood as the story’s ending. The characters, and the story up until that point, were so strong, however, that fans didn’t really care. They kept plugging the show, buying the DVDs, and recruiting new fans – which is one of the reasons that a wrap-up miniseries was eventually commissioned.

I was very excited about the inherent possibilities of novelistic television a few years ago, but since then I’ve grown less enthusiastic – at best, I think novelistic shows don’t have the built-in longevity of formula series. Look at Veronica Mars, which delivered a pitch-perfect noir mystery novel in its first season and then struggled to repeat the accomplishment in its second and third before being cancelled. The future is probably in miniseries.


notsneaky 09.14.07 at 10:06 pm

“widest possible audience, and therefore to the lowest common denominator”

well, actually it’d be the median viewer (who in the matters of taste is still pretty low below sophisticates like me and you) not the lowest common denominator. But otherwise I think you’re right about everything else.


c.l. ball 09.14.07 at 10:53 pm

Long story-arcs are great because they allow for character development. You see character evolve (or devolve) in 22 40min. serials when they are done right (BtVS was a master of this).

That said, it is becoming harder to watch FX or SF network shows with all the promo material popping up at the bottom of the screen, often during climatic scenes.

Otherwise, I agree with the LOST critics and pretty much all of #35.


John Holbo 09.15.07 at 1:34 am

Well, doesn’t sound like “Invasion” is worth it. Oh, well.

Interesting thread. Thanks for all the good comments. I was going to weigh in again, but Abigail pretty much said my piece already, and better than I probably would have.


Phil Wilson 09.15.07 at 10:43 am

And no one has mentioned Edgar Reitz’s Heimat (if you haven’t seen it yet please seek it out) – a story arc with cinematic qualities spread over three widely spaced seasons/film series (now all available on DVD). The spacing was, at least in part, due to financial reasons – limited backing – but in some ways this remakably adds to the epic feel of the series.

The same cannot be said of Firefly; which was aborted mid-arc by the suits without proper consideration, only to been given new life as Serenity – which gave us the Edwin Drood conclusion we wanted in a whirlwind of a film.

Heroes, which brilliantly follows the american comic model of multi-arc story-telling, is a current favorite (and rightly so).

Episodic story telling by arcs, only works if the arc are well planed at the outset or given the space to develop. Like the serial (I’m thinking Dickens) it runs the risk of never quite telling the story it should have (Dickens did okay, and BSG hasn’t jumped the shark yet), or of being messed around (B5), or cancelled (Firefly), on a whim by backers. But when it works it captures the audience like no other medium.

Oh yes, Invasion – it was dreadful.


Daniel 09.16.07 at 6:29 pm

#32: Also, more shows should do what Dan Simon did with the Wire; commit to a given number of seasons/episodes a priori. 5 seasons of 12 (about) episodes is plenty of time to tell a great story and the hanging ending will stop you from doing goofy Lost-type stuff.

See also Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic, which was meant to last 75 installments and, while not totally plotted out from the beginning, was intentionally concluded in a way that doesn’t often happen in mainstream comics or TV. There’s just too much money to be made from drawing out a series indefinitely.

I’ve read that Joss Whedon was so disappointed by the critical and commercial failure of Serenity that no more Firefly stories will be forthcoming. I don’t understand why he doesn’t turn to comics, as he already has done with Buffy Season Eight.

I guess my point is that it’s all about the money, but as audiences get more sophisticated, there’s more money to be found in better storytelling; see Everything Bad Is Good For You.


Morat 09.17.07 at 7:18 pm

I’ve read that Joss Whedon was so disappointed by the critical and commercial failure of Serenity that no more Firefly stories will be forthcoming.

I only recall it vaguelly, but I understand the critic’s response to [i]Serenity[/i] was quite favorable, especially for a sci-fi film. (And doubly so for one that started on TV).

Commercially, I believe they broke even on the big screen and made money once it hit DVDs.

Joss DID do a comic series for Firefly, that bridged the series and the film, and I suspect his real problem is he wants to do Firefly on TV (where he has 16 or so hours a season to play with) rather than on the big screen (where he has 2), but can’t.


EWI 09.18.07 at 11:05 pm


The future is probably in miniseries.

Speaking personally, I’ve found the BSG miniseries the best three hours of television I’ve ever watched – bar none – but the succeeding seasons were weak, due to suits looking for stand alone episodes (a great many of which were dire).

It’s great to see them getting back to a miniseries (“Razor”, coming this November) to kick off the last season – should play once again to the post-apocalyptic storyline, too often relegated in late seasons 2 and 3.

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