Monday, December 18, 2006

What American TV Needs

Noah posts some interesting comments in the entry on Lost. Basically, the idea is that word on the nets is that I shouldn't waste my time with Lost because it, like most "plot-arc" series on American TV, ends up suffering from what I like to call X-Files syndrome. What I mean by that: X-Files was a brilliant show for the first 2-3 seasons when the major storyline was still in the background and you could believe they were going somewhere with it. Once they brough it to the fore, though, it became instantly obvious that the writers just didn't know what they were doing. Which isn't to say there weren't good episodes in seasons 4, 5, 6 and 7 - just that they tended to be the ones that didn't involve "the plot."

I've recently watched Ron Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica suffer the same fate. What a brilliant show it was when it started! Easily the best thing on TV in years. But then it went on hiatus halfway through season two - and when it came back it was crap. There were some bright spots here and there where it looked like it would pull through, but eventually it was no longer worth the time investment, and I stopped watching. The problem, like with so many other shows these days, is that it relied on a larger plot arc for interest, but the writers never bothered to plan it. It eventually dawns on you that they're stalling - and killing the continuity in the meantime.

When I stop to think about it, the only real exceptions to this "lifespan" rule I know are Bablyon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Babylon 5, of course, was meticulously planned before it was ever filmed (which leaves mysterious why the first 5 episodes were so awful, and the pilot the worst I've ever seen, but I digress...). The only "gotcha" here is that season 5 was unexpected, so it was sort of improv'd - and it definitely showed. Seasons 1-4, though, were flawless as far as plot was concerned. (What Straczynski has in plot he makes up for by sucking at dialogue, though, so there's a tradeoff for sure where Bab5 is concerned.) As for Buffy - I guess what saved it was that there wasn't a cross-seasonal arc so much. There are hints throughout (esp. in season 6) that something else entirely is going on - but they're never more than hints (unless you take this episode at face value, I mean. For the record : I do.) - and certainly never very explicit, so you don't know if they mean it. The only story coherence between seasons, really, is that the characters develop and events are not forgotten. Within individual seasons, there's an "arc," but they wisely leave it mostly alone until about halfway through the season. It dominates the second half, but not the first.

Which brings me to my main point: 13 episodes seems to be about the natural limit for explicit plot arcs. You can fudge a bit the way Buffy does - by keeping the arc mainly in the second half of the season and comingling non-arc episodes with it in the first. Or else you can just plan the whole damn thing years in advance like Straczynski did with Babylon 5. But otherwise, 13 episodes seems to be about right for carrying the weight of a coherent story. Any shorter than that and you'll be rushed. Too much longer and things will get incoherent - or else you'll start contradicting yourself.

In Japan, pretty much ALL shows have plot arcs, and they rarely last longer than 13 episodes. There are two seasons per year, and "dorama" shows are not expected to outlast the season. (There are some exceptions, but it's rare.) I think this is a format that US TV should consider adopting. Maybe not for sitcoms, but for dramas and scifi for sure. The one real obstacle, I guess, is that Americans tend to watch shows more for the characters than the show itself. We don't get attached to the story so much as the characters in the story - so even when the story has run its course we want to know what's happening to the people who were involved. So it's not so easy to just cancel a show on Americans like you can in Japan or Britain or whereever else. So that's a bit of an obstacle to changing format, I admit - but I think, as I said before, that Buffy found a good workaround. Whatever your main "story" is, it shouldn't be the actual basis for the whole show, and it shouldn't last longer than a season, and it probably shouldn't even dominate that season entirely, at least not until a third to half of the way through. Just hint at it for the first 5-6 episodes and really get in to it later.

On the whole, I prefer shows with arcs to the "reset button" kinds of series that were popular for most of TV history in this country. So I applaud TV's drift in this direction. But audiences here are still getting used to them, and so our "arc" shows have a tendency to ramble and get caught in contradiction. We've shot bullseye a couple of times, but for the most part, American arc shows still have a tendency to overstay their welcome. If Noah's links are right, then Lost is no exception, and maybe I shouldn't waste time with it.

Whatever will come of it, I don't know - but for now it's interesting and highly entertaining. I'm really enjoying it, even though I can tell it's not "great" (like Twin Peaks, Buffy or Battlestar). I was pleased to see Nick Tate (Alan Carter on Space: 1999) in a bit role as the Australian farmer who turns Kate in to pay his mortgage. Also, Evangeline Lilly, who plays Kate herself, is smokin' hot, which helps a lot! And the character "Locke" is getting a bit interesting. He's kind of annoying in a lot of ways - but I like the idea of the geek who's a giant in his imagination actually being able to do the things he brags about. There was a similar theme with Colonel Tigh back in (the reimagined) Battlestar's good days. Tigh's presented as a failure looking for a break, and when disaster strikes he gets the chance to start over (though he flubs it, which Locke, thankfully, has not so far). So I'm not inclined to give up on it just yet - even though I can't say I have high expectations for its future. Tweedy says it will stay good most of the way through the second season. I can live with that.


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