Finite TV Shows

Watching the final eps of Dollhouse (I wanted to save them up to enjoy them one after the other – I have a strange postponement enjoyment for good tv, which may well form the framework for another blog post) – anyway, watching the last 3 episodes of Dollhouse made me realise just how brilliant a relatively short piece of television can be, all the more so when the producers/writers are pointed towards a fairly clear end date. A story needs to be told, and so the fluff goes out the window, leaving behind a taut plot.

Seasons 5 & 6 of Lost makes me think similar things. A finite end date, a finite number of episodes seems to heighten the sensation of what’s at stake in each episode, certainly at least for viewers. Knowing there is a finality to the narrative – it’s like reading a good book. The further you get through, the more you can see the end approaching, in rapidly dwindling pages.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love some longer serial narratives – part of me wishes that Buffy had gone on for ever, I very happily watch all seven seasons of The West Wing. But what I am starting to see is a position, an opportunity, for US television to start making shows which from the very start have a very specific end point in mind. A narrative which still far exceeds anything which could be told in film or even literature, but which is specifically honed to tell a story.

I would love to see US networks (or perhaps cable networks are the spiritual home of such a venture) taking on specific narrative (possibly cult) series, which from the very start are commissioned only for a single, or for a couple of seasons. Give someone like Joss Whedon 12, 22, 24, 44 episodes in which to tell a story, in which to create a universe, flesh out some characters, give them meaning, purpose, and take them to their conclusion. I would think that a network would be much less hesitant to cancel a show, knowing that there is already a finite end point, and in some ways, it may well give writers a much greater level of narrative freedom.

Of course, there would be a lot of room for transmedia expansion, and in theory, the metaverse created might extend significantly beyond the intial 2 series run, but the idea of that short, concise initial televisual canon is one that I find very exciting.

My thoughts on this are a little scattered… but the idea seems relatively sound.

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3 thoughts on “Finite TV Shows

  1. televisionftw

    Thanks Erika – you touch on a point in your post which I was also thinking of, but which I didn’t really expand on – the economics of shorter series. It definitely seems to be the MO of networks to find a series that works, and then to completely flog it until all possibility has been wrung from it (and then flog it a little more). I think the fact that “jumping the shark” has entered more and more into common parlance might support that theory.

    The question is whether shorter series could be as profitable on an annual basis – and I for one think they could be. A lot of show-runners today have enough of a fanbase that they would bring a core audience to any new product they produced. There would also be the usual after-market income through DVD sales etc. The one question is whether there would be a loss in revenue due to not making enough eps for syndication, an area I know very little about, although I do get the impression that that arena is changing too.

  2. Elisa

    I am watching the x-files series at the moment and just like lost, they really should have quit while they were ahead. Season one had no budget and season two was Carter’s attempt to redo season one but with the money to pull off the special effects. Season 3, 4 ,5 and 6 were the best – the show was at it’s peak, spawning a feature film, an awesome video game and a spinoff series (the lone gunmen). One of the very interesting things about the x-files is that it could keep the story arc going for a longer period of time by interspersing “monster of the week” episodes – which were good one-off, start-to-finish, stand alone episodes (that often involved a bit of humour) that worked for both hard-core story arc fans and the casual viewer. As the series went on, the story arc became more convoluted (just like lost but ya know, with aliens) and then totally jumped when Mulder and Scully (the reasons why the show was so popular) were replaced in an attempt to keep the series going without them. Anyway, they ran the whole thing into the ground and I will never forgive them for that.

    To relate this all back to your post; I think that the x-files shows that what was probably only a 3 season story arc can be extended by including these “monster of the week” style episodes. This might be the perfect way for everyone to get what they want – the series gets extended but the story doesn’t get run into the ground. Networks win, Fans win.

    This also assists the creators/writers in character development. I remember that a lot of Lost season one was dedicated to giving each character a ‘background episode’ and that was argueably the best season of Lost (before it got too story heavy and asked way to many questions without enough answers).

    I think Buffy did a couple of spoof episodes as well, so I guess the practice is quite well established. Plus the fans love that kind of stuff.

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