Tuesday, November 30, 2004

What makes a TV show work?

Over the past couple of years, I've gotten really into watching long form TV shows on DVD. The late 90s into the 2000s has been an unprecedented time of quality on TV. There've been a huge number of series that I'd qualify as great literature. What makes a series great?

The most important thing for me is great characters who develop and change. The thing that most people don't get is that if you make interesting enough characters, you could have them sitting around a room for an hour and it would still be riveting. Seinfeld took advantage of this to some extent, as did Buffy in season six. The episode Entropy features very little plot development, but is the culmination of a host of character threads that had been developing over the season. The Buffy/Spike relationship is exposed to her friends, Tara and Willow reconcile, and Xander suffers the fallout of leaving Anya the altar. Not too much happens, and to a new viewer it would probably be a really boring episode, but becuase the characters are so interesting at that point, the plot is irrelevant, we're watching for them. The best shows don't make you want to know what happens next in the plot, though that certainly doesn't hurt, they make you need to see where the characters will go. The Office is an entirely character based series, very little actually happens, but all the comedy and drama come from seeing the characters interact and change.

Another thing that's needed for a great series is a respect for continuity. The X-Files has some phenomenal episodes, and probably the best concept of any TV show in history, but ultimately, I can't consider it a successful series becuase it has no respect for the viewer, and does not work as an overarching story. Probably the best example of series continuity is The Sopranos, which not only maintains character and plot arcs, single lines from an episode are crucial to explaining what's going on, and the writers never forget anything that happens to Tony. The character has come about because of what's happened to him in the past five years, each episode clearly follows the next, and there's no aritifical conclusions. Buffy also does continuity brilliantly, and the character development is perfectly executed throughout the series. Even on a show like Cowboy Bebop, most of the episodes are standalone, but you can tell that the events that happen do change the characters, and everything pays off at the end.

While I'm more inclined to like a sci-fi show, any show that respects its characters and continuity can appeal to me. Six Feet Under is basically a soap opera, but it's so well made, and the characters so well developed, the premise doesn't matter. The hook of Buffy is the supernatural world, but I don't think anyone who's a big fan of the show was actually watching to see her slay vampires, it's all about the characters interacting. That's the thing that TV has over film. You can make a great character in a movie, and they can change, but not that much. TV characters can have many more layers and go through more subtle evolution. You'll get more specific artistry watching a movie, becuase more time can be spent on each shot, but TV can give you the big picture better, and there's really no experience like watching the culmination of a five year story arc that pays off beautifully.

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