Anyone who keeps up with television to any degree sees a pretty robust landscape. There’s a solid diversity with everything from high drama horror to outright geek humor and everything in-between. It’s really a good time to love TV…if you have hours and hours of free time, that is. When did TV become like the stock market? I can only get a rewarding payoff after investing hour upon hour of viewing. Modern TV commands a demanding upkeep, and if you miss even a single episode you usually miss out on a whole lot. Now, I completely understand the reasoning behind using this method, one I like to call the “Soap Opera Method” of writing: Make the characters interesting, build the overall drama by building off of the character drama, and do it in a way to get Mom back on the couch tomorrow afternoon. While there’s no arguing with the success of the complete overuse of this method in TV today, in some ways it’s holding back creativity, and the audience is missing out.
Building the story around building the characters ultimately leads to two outcomes. The focus of the story is not on the story; rather the players themselves become the story. The Walking Dead, for example, while a great show, is less about the zombie apocalypse and more about how the characters are dealing with the zombie apocalypse. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, but the viewers are more concerned with, for instance, what Rick is thinking and less about what Rick is doing. This is because the viewer already understands how the zombie apocalypse works; it’s been engrained; and the focus has been put on the characters and how they deal with it all. This trend seen in the example of The Walking Dead can be seen in just about every show on TV from HBO dramas to Network comedies. There’s a pigeonholing effect to all this, and the fences become higher as the story itself continues. Of course, there’s still the imagination of the creators to keep things moving along, but the technique still tends to limit the show exponentially as it continues.
This leads to the second outcome, the ultimate letdown as the continuity required to build a world that hangs its hat on its characters makes for such an unwieldy story that it becomes nearly impossible to give viewers a worthwhile payoff. We’ll call this the “LOST Theory” of building continuity. Without a solid foundation, a tower built too high is eventually going to lean and fall, and a continuity built on a foundation of characters, no matter how strong, just isn’t strong enough. What you wind up with is a lot of great characters doing something that became stale after the first 2 or 3 seasons, you just hung on because you liked the characters. Any payoff is simply another part of the overall buildup. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
Sure, getting viewers to love characters has proven a successful method of keeping those viewers in their seats, and maybe it IS all about the journey and not the destination, but surely there’s room for shows on TV that don’t use the “continuity crutch” to attract viewers and tell a solid, encapsulated story in 45 minutes or so, because it’s worked before.
I’m going to ignore the current TV series claiming to be an anthology series, American Horror Story. I’ve seen it, I’ve enjoyed them to a certain degree (mostly because of Tim Minear), but it is not what I think of as an anthology. I’ll give the show credit, it’s on the right track, but there’s still a build up over the length of an entire season. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the honest-to-goodness anthologies of the past, like Amazing Stories, Love, American Style and Tales from the Crypt. Self-contained; 45 minutes or so long; different characters in each episode; the fences of limitation are lowered, and the audience gets a weekly payoff, without the burden of having to keep track of every nuance of each character’s sordid and extended history. Again, don’t get me wrong, I watch a lot of TV, and viewers are getting some great stuff, but everything kind of feels like the same play, with the same characters, only with a different background scene. It’s not that I don’t want to get to know yet another gripping and torn male lead character in a drama, I just feel like I already know him. It would be refreshing to just throw that character at an audience at, what would be considered, “three seasons in” to a modern TV show, and run him through some paces. Audiences aren’t stupid, and writers are better than ever. There’s some great opportunity for networks to dust off some old licenses or create some new ones.
Modern day audiences just get stuff. They can easily move from zombie apocalypse to alien filled suburbs to meth dealing school teacher to bipolar federal agent, all within the span of a week. It’s not a stretch to assume that an audience could get the gist of a compelling yet complex story element without using up tons of screen time. Modern day writers are just as capable in their role, and telling short, concise stories that are still rewarding, and maybe more rewarding, is just as likely to succeed today as it did in decades past. While I’d love to see a reboot of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or the aforementioned Amazing Stories, there’s plenty of traditional and new fodder for the anthology cannon to be shot again. Horror is always a hit; Sci-Fi has always attracted an audience; anyone who has read Max Brooks’ novel World War Z can imagine a hell of an anthology series revolving around a zombie apocalypse; even Marvel and DC could take advantage of telling brief vignettes as buildups for their overall film universes. There are opportunities being missed, and it’s just not the creative kind.
Anthologies can act as a test bed for what an audience may or may not like. Sure, the networks would keep to a certain mold for most of the episodes but, once some success has been found, “filler” episodes become available and viewers get something truly unique and untested on the small screen. Giving a broader audience a chance to support new and different content can lead to great success for a studio down the road, and the investment is minimal. Anthologies also tend to attract writers and creators in two different ways. First, the up-and-comers get a shot on a project that is not much of a risk to the studio producing it. There are no long-term contracts and the pay is relatively low. Once the anthology becomes successful, however, it attracts fans of the show to work on the show, including fans established in the business. Unlike the modern TV show that requires a crew of writers that have to integrally understand each and every minute detail of each and every character, anthologies require no permanent staff writers, leaving open the opportunity for new and creative content from one week to the next. Or it means a really small staff budget, which could be a negative, but also means lower overhead and passionate creators, intangible perks.
I sound like I’m contradicting myself, but as much as I’m enjoying TV each and every week there’s just something so familiar in everything I view, no matter how “different” it claims to be. There’s a certain air of staleness beginning to set in with the whole Soap Opera Method of storytelling, and it’s high time we get back to some decades old, tried and true, non-episodic TV. The investment is minimal, there’s rich and prolific source material out there, and the TV environment is prime for something new and different to appease viewers wanting a rewarding payoff without needing to be heavily invested. I don’t think the modern TV show should go away, but do we have to choose?