I watched a lot of episodes of Supernatural on vacation because that’s what TNT had on while I was writing the morning posts for Pajiba. It’s the sort of show that you can just drop in on and watch random episodes of. Which is lucky for me, since I’d never seen any of them before. It reminded me a lot of The X-Files from the nineties, which is probably heresy to half the readers here.
See what made X-Files really stand the test of time wasn’t the big myth arc that made the show famous. Twenty years on (gods, numbers like that make you feel old, don’t they?), I have less recollections of those long burn stories than I do have the random monster of the week episodes. Of Tooms, and the Lone Gunmen, and Flukeman, and Mulder throwing down a gauntlet at the nightmare HOA, and “her name is Bambi?”, and of course the glorious Peacock family.
But what makes the shows remind me of each other is the monster-of-the-week set up, of the fact that we’ve got a set of characters and we drop them in a new story at the start of each episode. And more, it’s a vehicle for telling genre stories that otherwise will never get told at all. Want twenty-two horror movies with different premises? Good luck getting that budget and the audiences to support them. But that’s what episodic television gives us: a continuous stream of short stories.
What makes episodic television great is that it sets up the characters and context for us so that it can set about telling the short story. No need for an hour of character introductions and motivations, just drop a body in the first scene and bring in the squad. We know their names, we know their tics, get to the particular story at hand.
It’s something I trip over on occasion, especially with procedurals and their ilk. I watched an episode of Castle the other night, one from sometime in the middle of last season in which Ryan and Zito are trapped in the basement of the arsonist’s booby-trapped building. There’s the obligatory commercial cut when it explodes so that we’re left to think that they’ve died, and of course us savvy watchers roll our eyes, because of course the two main not-main characters aren’t going to die off-screen at the second commercial break of a random episode of the show. Silly people who watch shows like this, how can you actually buy any of this? Then our brain starts down the litany of great television, the Breaking Bad and Wire logical circuits.
But even those shows have truly great episodes that are fundamentally just monster-of-the-week in a different guise. Remember the episode of Breaking Bad with the fly? It’s a fantastic episode. And it amounts to a short story that works because we’ve already got the context of the characters from the rest of the show. Episodic television is the same principle applied to each episode.
It’s not a matter of shutting your brain off or limiting suspension of disbelief to put up with lower quality. It’s about a different perspective of the story being told. It’s about the distinction between a long story and a short story. And the same thing applies to the written word.
I’ve got an entire shelf of old short story collections of science fiction from the sixties and seventies. Even got one signed by China Miéville when I didn’t have anything else in my backpack at the time. I have something on the order of 200 Star Trek paperbacks as well, most of them battered relics of library book sales and used book stores, all reeking that particular dusty must of old book shelves, and some dating all the way back to the early seventies.
Do you think there’s any real tension over whether Spock is going to die on page 197 of the seventy-eighth Star Trek novel? Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point is that the characters don’t exist in order to move forward and evolve as characters do in great long form fiction. They exist in order to be the drop-in set up for telling a short story that would otherwise need burdened by a bunch of other text to set up characters and a world. There’s a start-up cost to that, and I don’t mean in terms of budgets but in the time of both readers and writers. A lot of stories don’t need that investment, and a world and characters that have already been set up make it possible for those stories to be told when otherwise they would wither on the vine.
The great complaint about episodic television in particular is that nothing ever changes. But that’s the point in a sense, isn’t it? If the world and characters changed much, it would destroy the vehicle that’s been designed to tell those short stories.
Short story collections are gradually going the way of the Dodo, but their spirit still exists in every episodic television show.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.