We live in the age of serialization. It continues to be a trend for TV creators to refer to their creations as not a TV show but “more of a 10/13/22/60-hour movie”. With binge-viewing still the de facto method of indulgence, the individual television episode continues to depreciate in value. What matters is having a giant block of content (ugh) to be inhaled as quickly as possible before the next giant block of content gets rolled out. The individual episode is increasingly viewed as nothing more than an arbitrary unit of the whole.
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with serialization. Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the genre-TV game forever with its commitment to both season-long arcs, almost always organized around a Big Bad villain who would require 22 episodes to be defeated, and to ongoing character evolution throughout its run. Characters on Buffy grew and changed, fell in love and out of love, won stunning victories and suffered agonizing defeats, and the consequences of these changes played out over years and years of accumulated emotional and narrative power, giving Buffy a potency that is definitely missing from those shows where the status quo is reset at the end of each episode and characters remain locked in factory setting status for the duration.
But the emphasis on serialization is effectively using the medium in the least effective way possible. The television episode is an incredibly elastic format and structure that can be deployed to virtually limitless ends. Let’s talk about one of the most played out, cliched, fantastic subgenres of television episodes that’s getting subsumed by this rush to treat every TV show like a 10-20 hour slab of shit happening.
Let’s talk about monsters.
The television episode was first developed in the 1950s as an extension of the radio dramas and movie serials of-
Nah, I’m just screwing with you, man. We’ll proceed from the understanding that you don’t need “TV series” explained to you.
Suffice to say that the “monster of the week” is a time-honored tradition. Either your hero wanders into a new town every week and finds some sort of supernatural problem, or your hero occupies a town and every week a new supernatural problem arrives. Either way, by the time the end credits hit that problem is going to be deciphered, explained, and ended in full. Scooby and the gang were going to pull a rubber mask off whatever realtor got waaaaay too elaborate with their insurance fraud, Doctor Who was going to drive the latest alien invader off of Earth, and the Power Rangers were going to wait until the very last minute to create Mega-Zord when they could have just done that in the first fucking place and stepped on whatever monster Rita Repulsa sent that week, I mean, YOU ARE NOT UTILIZING YOUR ZORDS IN A VERY EFFECTIVE WAY- but I digress.
The big innovation of programs like your Buffys or your X-Files..es was the combination of these monster of the week stories with longer arcs that played out over multiple episodes, if not entire seasons. So, sure, most every week saw Mulder and Scully investigating a new X-file (oooooh, so that’s why they called it that) but there were also larger mysteries that played out incrementally episode by episode, including Mulder’s quest to learn the truth about his vanished (abducted?) sister and the larger government conspiracy about UFOs. I’ve already mentioned Buffy’s pioneering of Big Bad season arcs, but it really can’t be overstated how massively influential that show has been on TV in general but genre TV in specific. It’s a formula that TV writers can’t seem to quit.
The trick with serialization is that when you make it clear that your story is moving towards a singular climax, anything that doesn’t immediately relate to that climax seems like a waste of time. Why the hell should we care about whether or not our heroes will stake one vampire or expel one ghost when there’s a full-blown apocalypse brewing nearby?
My beloved Supernatural was a huge offender in this respect for many of its seasons, each season teeing up a new cosmic conflict that promised the extinction of the human race and the destruction of Earth…only to mostly relegate that material to the first and closing minutes of a given episode while the meat of the thing was dominated by the Winchesters ignoring all that so they could instead focus on getting rid of one (1) poltergeist that was bothering a family or something.
Watching these shows live week to week, this doling out of the meta-narratives can be frustrating. Because the serialized aspects seem to be so much more important than the formulaic monster of the week material, you want the show to hurry up and get to the big confrontation that’s been teased for weeks and months. You want the characters to stop wasting time with small fry horseshit and get to the really juicy, high stakes action of the serialized arc. Who cares about busting one measly ghost when the whole planet is in jeopardy?
Here’s the thing though: That’s only the case for the first viewing.
But for any other visit to these worlds, the monster of the week episodes are so much more inviting than the mythology=heavy ones. Those are episodes where the dynamics and interplay between characters are given the most breathing room and time to develop, where characters are able to grow from broad archetypes serving a specific function and become fully formed, individualized people that we can build real affection for. If a show is solely focused on advancing the plot scene after scene after scene, it doesn’t allow for that sort of refinement and depth.
(There’s also the simple fact that most stories don’t actually have 13-22-hours’ worth of plot to fill up a season, so if you don’t have these sort of one-offs sprinkled throughout the run you run the high probability of spending much of the season just spinning your wheels and stalling out story progression.)
Sticking with Supernatural, I may every once in a while want to do a longer revisit of the more expansive arcs, but more often than not if I want to spend time with Sam and Dean Winchester again, I’m going to fire up a standalone. Like the time they got sucked into a TV, or that time they attended their own fan convention, or that time they got sucked into a TV again (look the show ran fifteen fucking seasons, they were bound to repeat themselves sometimes). These are the episodes where a show becomes alive and expansive in a way that is unique to the medium of television.
While the monster of the week formula can indeed be repetitive (as can almost all narrative structures if over-used) that formula can be messed with to all kinds of interesting ends. Two of Buffy’s finest hours are “Hush” and “Once More with Feeling”, both episodes that follow the monster of the week structure to a T: A new monster comes to town, stirs up trouble, Buffy and the gang figure out how to defeat it, then they defeat it. But the respective gimmick of each episode (“Hush” is silent, “Once” is a musical extravaganza) makes them stand out from the rest of the line-up, and each episode cannily furthers the ongoing seasonal story within a one-off story.
And then there’s something like the Doctor Who episode “Hush”, which is not only a self-contained monster of the week story, but is self-contained even within the confines of Doctor Who. The Doctor is barely present throughout the episode and a newcomer would require only the most rudimentary context before being able to watch. Otherwise, “Hush” is simply a gloriously nerve-shredding hour of horror storytelling that stands completely independent from the larger franchise in which it takes place.
All of this is just me making the same point over and over again: The big arc/mythology episodes may be where a show’s story lies, but the monster of the week episodes are where its heart can best be found.
As I mentioned right at the beginning, serialization is not the problem. Emphasizing continuity has served to make TV shows richer and deeper, whether your flavor is The Wire or Adventure Time. My hope is simply that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Stories should be designed to use their medium for maximum effect. The monster of the week episode, far from being a hoary old relic, still presents good creatives with limitless possibilities to play with.
It is my fervent hope that more creatives will decide they want to play.