A reader quotes Alyssa:
“In a book, you can stay within the medium and flip back and forth if you don’t remember who a character is…” She goes on to contend that you can’t stay within medium with a TV show if you need to “remember” something. I agree to an extent, but people are increasingly moving away from the traditional model of watching a TV show when the network broadcasts it. Because of HBO’s crazy protection of the product, those unwilling to pay for a year of HBO for one series are going online to view Game of Thrones. The medium for those folks is not “television” but rather the Internet, complete with wikis and fan pages, etc. Also, because this particular show is already a popular novel, there is a different medium that is actually inseparable from the TV show.
Novelized TV series on American television are not a new thing. The best example may be Babylon 5, a sci-fi series that ran for five seasons from 1993 to 1998. The show’s writer, J. Michael Straczynski (JMS to the show’s fans), planned it as a five-season show from the start, describing it as a “novel for television” with a defined beginning, middle, and end. It featured the ensemble cast and multiple story arcs that characterize the current generation of novelized TV.
Babylon 5 also pioneered integrating television with what we now call social media. JMS kept up a continuous dialog with viewers through the pre-web USENET, GEnie, and CompuServe forums. More than once JMS wrote jokes, names, or other references from these online discussions into the show as a salute to online fans. It was a very Dish-like participatory atmosphere.
Japanese anime has been doing things this way for decades.
Most anime TV shows (the good ones anyway) shoot for a single season, maybe two or three, and then proceed to tell an overarching story epic, with episodic digressions strategically paced throughout. This allows for a story-driven experience over the whole of the series, instead of each episode being self-contained as in many sitcoms and dramas, and creates the same incentives for binge-watching, including being able to keep track of a sprawling, diverse cast (“Fullmetal Alchemist” is a great example). It also allows the creative minds behind the show to plan ahead for a proper resolution and conclusion to the series, instead of it dying a slow death or being cancelled outright.
Recent American television shows have finally been taking a page from the same book, notably Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” and “Dollhouse,” as well as many of the USA original series, like “Burn Notice” and “White Collar.”
It’s not clear to me that “Game of Thrones” has so path-breaking a model (not to say that it’s not good, it’s just a question of how new it is). Korean prime-time dramas have been doing it this way since the 1990s anyway, with a series lifetime of from 12 to 24 episodes mostly, generally airing two episodes a week. Prime-time historical biodramas may go into the 150-episode ballpark, airing twice a week, but they have a lot of outlay on sets and costumes to make back. Even their “daily dramas”, comparable to US daytime soap operas, don’t go on “forever” – 100 to 150 episodes is about the range. (Although I remember one that went 350 episodes. But still, that’s not a full two years.) All these dramas including the “daily dramas” generally have a clear dramatic arc.
I’m not familiar with Latin American “telenovelas” but I know that they aren’t “endless” either. Actually I suspect that the old U.S. primetime TV ideal with an “endless” series, a static cast and environment, and episodes that could be aired in any order really – like “Perry Mason” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show” – have been pretty much an exception in the world scene.
Furthermore that model was never really been so universal even in U.S. 3-network TV. Daytime serials had histories, and when the format was transplanted into evenings – “Dallas” or, before that, “Peyton Place” – you started to have to follow the action to know what was going on. There were also the World War II-based dramas like “Combat” and “Gallant Men” – the episodes were pretty self-contained, but you knew they couldn’t slog through France and Italy forever the way Marshal Dillon could police a timeless town. Then there were dramas like “The Fugitive” which at least held out the prospect of “dramatic resolution” of the whole series even though there wasn’t much in the way of story development from one episode to the next, barring the finale.
I suggest that the real path-breaker was “Roots” including the “Next Generation”. The only difference between that and our current series arcs was that its “seasons” were each jammed into a week of intense viewing. The miniseries format went on from there. Meanwhile other more conventional dramas, like “St. Elsewhere” and “Hill St. Blues”, and comedies like “Roseanne” and probably some earlier ones I’m missing, incorporated multi-episode plots and season-long story lines involving the personal lives of their characters. With the thirty-nine-episode season for a drama program now down to 22 for broadcast TV and 12 or fewer for cable, the “series” and the “miniseries” have now sort of converged in the middle.