Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Macro-Series

I should edit my last post as there are some connections that I forgot to make and such.

Or I should look up other critical writings on this subject first so I don't retread something someone has already said.

I'm not going to do either, too lazy. Hopefully I'll at least follow up.

I mentioned briefly in the last post about the 'macro-series,' and I wanted to go into that trend in television as of late.

The television series, traditionally (and I know everyone knows this, I just don't know where to start) has been an open ended serial with a central premise, being newlyweds, or an entertainer married to busy body or a detective with a lazy eye and an odd method of questioning.

Then came the mini-series. This site has an interesting history and analysis of what makes up that. That's also a site I just now discovered, so thats something.

Lately we've seen the rise to new addition, a serialized show that while having complete and multiple seasons has a finite end to it. There is a difference between these shows and shows that have the appearance of a finite end, such as an angel that has to save a fixed number of souls, or a man who has to complete or prevent something before the millinium. In those serialized shows the task is a repetitive device that fuels the drama of each episode. Sam can jump as many times as the show remains relevant, lists can be added and rules changed to maintain the length of the series so that a show about a war can last longer than the war itself.

I don't know if it is the first, but the first instance I became aware of this new narrative, what I've been calling 'the macro-series,' with Babylon 5, which was promoted on the notion that the writer, J. Michael Straczynski, had a five year story arch in mind for his show.

This is an interesting approach to the high concept television show, which traditionally has a short shelf life anyway. It gives the narrative a chance to be a closed loop, for the story to work itself to and end rather than being a series of interconnected events that just stops at some point. It has been one of the major advantages that film has had, that it could tell a complete story. The mini-series managed this dissandvantage into and advantage in that it can be even larger in scope, the macro-series magnifies this even further. Now it can tell a complete story with nearly the narrative depth of the written word.

Now I should be careful and say that while it can, I don't know that it has yet.

But the macro-series does have a pitfall, and thats its own success. Kiefer Sutherland said of 24 essentially, "How many bad days can one guy have?" And that was before the beginning of the 3rd season. Lost struggles to continue the story to keep it on the air.

There are some easy reasons that might contribute to the rise of the macro-series. First there is the aforementioned short shelf life of high concept series. But I think probably the biggest contributer is the rising sales of DVDs of television series.

Time was that a show was sold to the network for 90% of what it took to produce it and the producers hoped to reach a watershed number of episodes, 100 for the longest time, that would allow it to be sold in syndication. Changes in the amount of programing a station can own itself has made it more difficult for shows to reach that watershed (as well given rise to the reality show). But with DVD sales of series a show has another method to make up production costs. A macro-series can then sell itself as a complete story divided into series and then episodes. It is a complete project, not one you can skip a season or two. With a show like The Simpsons you can choose maybe only your favorite seasons, but miss a season of Lost and you will be.

I'm actually a fan of this new development. I've always felt that while it would be interesting to develop a character over time, having to commit to an open ended story, stuck pivoting on one premise was a limiting element in television that inevitably lends itself to shark jumping moments like 'evil amnesia Sonny Crocket.'What happens is, no matter how dynamic the premise their entire existence isn't going to be interesting, only a particular moment or moments. Now the strength of a series, such as a character developing over time, can meet with an actual story arch.

Of course now it's being used for people breaking out of prison and illegal cross country road races, but just because some of the execution leaves something to be desired doesn't mean the format doesn't have promise.

I'll probably find a better article on this later and feel silly. Ah well.

1 comment:

  1. I've long thought--and this dates back to my early teens and perhaps pre-teens--that the inherent flaw of film adaptations of novels is that they have to cut stuff just to make a film watchable, and often it was the stuff that I found, if not crucial to the plot, then at least important. The mini-series had the potential to change that, and it did when I was a kid--hell, it practically made Richard Chamberlain's career between The Thornbirds and Shogun.

    But they were up against the limits of broadcast tv censorship and broadcast quality. It's hard to make epic stuff fit onto a 13 inch tv with a set of vise-grips hanging off the place where the channel changing knob used to be.

    But today, what with home theater and HD cable, that's also less of an issue, and I think tv show makers are really experimenting with the genre, especially on HBO. I still maintain that The Wire is the best written show of all time--every season is a novel, and a good one, one that doesn't insult your intelligence. Other shows are hit and miss, like the new BSG--they began, I believe, thinking they had a limited shelf life and then found themselves extended and didn't know what to do. But they have to know that next season is it, so they should wrap it up well, hopefully.

    And don't tell me about any other shows; I watch too uch tv as it is.