Thursday, October 22, 2009

Story Arcs vs. Stand-Alone Episodes

There's a joke floating around about how there are two types of people in the world: those who put people in categories and those who don't. The categories du jour for this post are people who prefer story arcs in TV shows versus those who prefer stand-alone episodes.

If a gun was put to my head and I was absolutely forced to make a choice, I would take stand-alone episodes over story arcs, simply because long, dreadful story arcs can be absolutely excruciating to try to sit through. (For example, Season 4 of Angel where we had to suffer through Connor, The Beast, Bad Cordelia and finally Jasmine). With bad stand-alone episodes, at least they're over in 30 minutes or an hour.

What inspired me to write this post is I've observed that whenever there is a series that has story arcs, (or a significant percentage of the audience feels like it should have story arcs, like Dollhouse), and the network airs a stand-alone episode, the Story Arc Nazis come out in full force on the message boards and complain about how the episode doesn't fit in with the overall structure of the series. Perhaps I'm being a little paranoid and overly sensitive about the subject, but I have the distinct feeling that the story arc fanatics feel they are of superior intelligence to those who can tolerate (or heaven forbid, even prefer) stand-alone episodes. I would compare it to how 2nd graders who read chapter books are considered to be superior readers to those who prefer picture books.

My next made-up categories are the different types of loyal viewers attracted to a TV series. Tier I loyal viewers watch every episode at the original air time if possible, and will definitely record the ones they miss. Regardless, they will probably record all of the episodes so they can review them later on at their leisure. I was definitely a Tier I viewer with Angel reruns on TNT.

Tier II viewers will make every effort to watch an episode, will perhaps record the ones they miss, but won't sweat it if they just flat out forget about the show during the week. I'm a Tier II viewer for Dollhouse, except for for the Alexis Denisof episodes. Tier III viewers enjoy a show and will sit and watch it if they happen to be in front of the TV, but it has not become an ingrained habit to sit down and watch the show at the same time every single week. I fit into this category for Ghost Whisperer.

Tier I viewers are the most loyal viewers, while Tier II and III viewers tend to pay the bills for the networks. In other words, casual viewers are not to be taken lightly.

Presumably, the more loyal a fan you are to a series, the more likely you are to enjoy story arcs. If that is a genuine rule, than I would be an exception. I tend to like TV series in spite of their story arcs rather than because of them. For whatever reason, I'm hard-wired to prefer a beginning, a middle and an end to every single TV show. If the episode doesn't have a clear-cut conclusion, I tend to feel as though I've just wasted one hour of my valuable time. Angel was an exception for me, but when I first started watching the series, I was watching 12 - 14 episodes per week. If I didn't see a conclusion one day, chances are I only had to wait one or two more days for the story arc to wrap up.

My preference for stand-alone episodes more than explains my high regard (in comparison to a lot of other people) for Season 1 of Angel, and, to a certain extent, Season 5. Season 1 in particular started off with a lot of stand-alone episodes until the producers decided to switch gears and start the story arcs. I've written before that it would have been intriguing if Angel had become an anthology-type series somewhat on the order of Naked City from the early 1960's. However, it doesn't take too much internet research to find out that TV anthology series perform abysmally in the ratings systems.

Another criticism I have of story arcs is that a lot of times they are too heavy-handed, where nothing much happens while the show slowly crawls toward a conclusion, sort of like ocean slime oozing across a beach front. Sometimes I'll watch one show, then tune in a month later and find out that the storyline hasn't noticeably progressed very much during my absence. A good story arc will have lots of exciting events occurring throughout, and will even introduce little mini subplots that peak and come to a conclusion within each single episode. For me, the worst thing that can happen is when a story arc should logically wrap up within a certain episode, but improbable events are plopped in to drag things out even further. For example, when The Beast was killed in Season 4 of Angel, Cordelia was revealed to be the Beast Master, who then proceeded to put Angelus under her control.

At certain times, stand-alone episodes that are tossed into the mix are welcome respites from grim ongoing story arcs. Some examples I can think of from Angel are Season 3's "Double or Nothing", and "The Price" where viewers were able to recover from Wesley's tragic kidnapping of Connor, and Season 4's "The House Always Wins", where we took somewhat of a break from the "Where's Cordelia?" game. Of course the story arcs weren't completely abandoned within these episodes, but that didn't stop the naysayers from coming out with their complaints.

I also noticed that Season 5 of Angel had a much more subtle story arc in the earlier episodes, which really didn't become apparent until we started realizing later on that the series was setting the stage for the final countdown with the Senior Partners. While Angel et al were floundering early on in the season like fish out of water, there was a method to the madness. The crew was busy finding their footing and eventually realized, to their horror, that they had been duped and needed to drastically start changing their ways.

I tend to be a more casual type of TV viewer. Again, Angel is my obvious exception, which is why I'm blogging about the series. Otherwise, I just don't have time to get hooked on any other TV shows. There are certain shows that are so story arc-y, like Lost, I don't even bother to tune in. For most series, I tend to feel annoyed when things aren't tidied up at the end of an episode since I know I probably won't be able to tune in the next week to see the conclusion.

I recognize that fans look for many different things in a TV series. A lot of people adored Season 4 of Angel for the very reasons that I hated it. I'm equally as guilty of accusing series producers of destroying a series by making horribly rash decisions, when in reality, they came up with their ideas after a lot of careful and thoughtful consideration. It can be a real juggling act for series creators to try to please everyone, and to try to not alienate a crucial percentage of their fan base by offering a mix of viewing experiences.

Idle Thoughts. Both story arcs and stand-alone episodes have the potential to delve deep into the characters' motivations and psyche, and carefully examine all of the moral issues surrounding the issues at hand. (Which would probably fit some people's definition of "slow and excruciating".) In fact, a lot of times we learn a lot more about individual characters during the stand-alone episodes, which helps us understand them better when the story arcs resume.

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