Friday, October 01, 2010

The long and the short of Television Series Dramas: a Medium Rob debate

Medium Rob's Question of the Week has spawned an extensive debate about the differences and merits of US vs UK television drama series formats.

One of the examples much quoted in the discussions has been Buffy - a series which long-term readers will know is close to my heart, not least because it was the impetus to the name I adopted here. Willow Rosenberg: shy and kooky, emotional and tough; when addicted, she is dangerous, but she's smart and cool ("nerds are still in, right?") and a redhead. Lisa Rullsenberg isn't a natural redhead, but she's a redhead by temperament and adoption. I HEART Willow.

ANYWAY: Buffy started as a mid-season replacement of 12 episodes and eventually ran for 7 series. A mighty 144 episodes. Were they all of equal quality? Don't be ridiculous. But for me, I can find something good, wonderful, true, emotional, and/or funny in every episode. Even 'Beer Bad'.(1)

As Rob rightly notes, even 'filler' episodes contributed value -

Didn't they explore the characters or move on story arcs a bit, something you might not want to do in other episodes because it would have diluted their focus?
Why was this possible? And is it related to the length of series?

My suspicion is that the writing, directing, scheduling and broadcast structure of American TV works differently to in the UK.

In the UK, work isn't ongoing DURING broadcast - leastways, not for the current season. Things may be in flux until filming happens, with writing and changes and new scripts being brought in etc (the RTD seat-of-pants DW 2005 season strategy) ... but things tend to be - special effects aside - 'in the can' by the time the series starts to air. This is probably a chicken and egg thing: because UK series are generally shorter, they tend to be 'done' before broadcast; because US series are longer, things will unfold and change over the course of a season whilst it is still being made.

What are the benefits of a longer season? Simply, more time. This can be both a blessing and a curse depending on the writing set-up. With a long series you are forced to develop longer, more complex and layered narratives. That isn't to say short series cannot do that, but there will be inevitable limitations of what you can do in 3 hours (essentially a 'play' structure) and in 13 hours or 22 hours (allowing for ads: a topic I'll pick up in a moment).

I always say to students, think about how LONG this has to be before you start gathering too much. Tailor at least some of your research or development of the narrative you want to tell to the length required: because writing something shorter that contains the same breadth as something longer --- and doing it justice (getting depth) --- is bloody hard and most writers can't make it work. Something has to give: detail, clarity of structure, range of materials covered, context.

So it simply becomes impossible for most TV writers to make something that is intended to be 6 episodes work over 22 episodes without a substantial re-think. So substantial that it can barely be the same thing. Being Human was the example given by Craig Grannell and it seems a fair point. It isn't that you can't make a good series on a similar premise but the shape makes the dynamic different: it also generates a different audience relationship.

There was a good battle in the comments between SK and Rob about the role of advertising and channels in the US (that is, differences with the subscription model). The thing is the UK is different from HBO etc, even if both have a lack of 'need' for ads. It's always interesting to see how UK TV transfers to the US (when the eps need cutting, restructuring; when the ad breaks appear and for how long). By and large, home-grown UK drama builds itself for its environment - whatever that may be.

In the US, the stretched out runs of mainstream coast-to-coast channels, with re-runs, season-breaks - not forgetting the sweeps process of course - all both generate and respond to audiences dipping in and out of long-running, attractive narratives.

And sweeps play a vital role for many TV series in the US. Almost without fail, I've picked up when a US series airing in the UK was hitting a sweeps point in its narrative (besides the obvious 'heading to season finale' thing).

So what can work about a shorter series? Punch. Focus. Attention to a smaller range of detail. That won't necessarily mean a smaller story, but it fits the shape given.

What happens when the shape changes? Well, sometimes you can end up with The Bill, which has probably tried as many formats as Doctor Who over the years (and not all successfully - in both programme's cases).

Rob remarks that
...Paul Abbott's argument isn't about quality - and the latest series of Shameless have been 16 episodes a throw, remember, so clearly he knows a thing about maintaining a certain degree of quality in long running shows. It's about familiarity.
Unfortunately, my response to that would be 'and is Shameless as good as when it started?' (2)

ANYWAY: what I'm saying is that I don't mind WHICH model is used as long as it works for what is being done (narratively). The shape itself doesn't have to be a problem as long as narratively the format works for whatever it is. Torchwood was a bit batty, and patchy, too often uncertain of its audience or purpose, but 13-eps in its first two seasons was fine by me. Restructured to 5 -- and screened appropriately (over 5 nights) -- it was a revelation of brilliance.

Some things are just a narrative that works perfectly over 6 episodes. Some want, need, should have 13. Or 21. Should we dismiss the usefulness of commissioning longer series? Not if that is what the great narrative a TV writer proposes deserves. Besides, has no-one ever heard of cancelled series? And a cancelled series doesn't have to mean it doesn't work - look at how Firefly revived sufficiently to generate a MOVIE for goodness sake from its cancelled/DVD sales.

Anyway - those are my thoughts.

(1) FYI I just howled with laughter reading this gem about Beer Bad from Wikipedia.
This plot was written with the plan to take advantage of funds from the Office of National Drug Control Policy available to shows that promoted an anti-drug message.[8] Funding was rejected for the episode because "[d]rugs were an issue, but ... [it] was otherworldly nonsense, very abstract and not like real-life kids taking drugs. Viewers wouldn't make the link to [the ONDCP's] message."[9]

(2) Mind, I have never really subscribed to the 'OMG-Shameless-is-BRILLIANT!' brigade. Not funny. Not weirdly heart-warming. Even if Abbott is writing from personal observation/experience as his starting point (though that was quite some way back now - Shameless has been running since 2004), the show has long since become a comfortable form of pornography about working-class life.

If people are bothered, I can probably expect some abuse about those remarks.


JoeinVegas said...

And the beer episode was nominated for "Outstanding Hairstyling in a Series"

Our series are longer just because that is what we've gotten used to after 50 years of tv series. There is a definite season, and episodes have to be supplied because people expect them. Only recently have some series been fewer episodes, I think they started out a long time ago with 30 per year, and then started decreasing because shows became more complex and expensive.
You guys are putting more into the background than is there.

Raj said...

Great blog! Long live Buffy, X Files and His Dark Materials!

If you have some free time:

There's also an essay I wrote on Philip Pullman's beautiful trilogy.

Best wishes!