Ryan McGee argues that the success of HBO’s drama series has come with an unexpected cost:
The Sopranos took a patient approach that rewarded sustained viewing. The promise that payoffs down the line would be that much sweeter for the journey didn’t originate with the HBO mob drama, but the series turned into the boilerplate for what passes as critically relevant television.
But is this a good thing? The Sopranos opened up what was possible on television. But it also limited it. It seems silly to state that the addition of ambition to the medium has somehow hindered its growth, but making HBO the gold standard against which quality programming is judged has hurt television more than it’s helped it.
By focussing on series arcs rather than individual episodes, today’s acclaimed series don’t reward the traditional once-a-week viewer. Any given hour — McGee calls them “installments” rather than “episodes” — is judged primarily on how it moves along the bigger storyline.
The single episode has taken a backseat in importance to the season, which itself is subservient to the series. Rather than take stock of what has just transpired, eyes get cast immediately toward that which is still unseen. In other words, what just aired gets mixed into what we’ve already seen in order to formulate opinions about the unknown future. After all, if we measure quality by the gold standard of HBO, then by definition, the best element of the show has yet to actually air.
McGee’s thesis is that by focussing so much attention and praise on the long-arc sagas, we’re discounting and discouraging the goal of writing great episodes every week.
I share his opinion, up to a point. Finding the balance between long-arc saga and the needs of any given episode is tricky. Few series do it well.
But on the whole, I’m happy with our current crop of ambitious dramas that spill beyond the margins of their assigned hours.
If I’m going to watch a show, I’m going to watch every episode. Yes, that means there are certain shows I still haven’t watched because I haven’t been able to commit to watching the whole thing. But that’s okay.
These series are out there waiting for me when or if I have time. They exist as unified pieces of entertainment the way CBS procedurals never will.
I can’t blame showrunners for writing novels rather than short stories.
(Speaking of which, thanks to @Josh_Friedman for the link.)