Periscope Depth

you see the face on the TV screen, coming at you every sunday

When I called the Internet out last week, asking for the one season of Buffy I had to watch, I took a little flak for the following comment:

“Oh, but you really have to watch these episodes from Season X-1 in order to get Season X.” If that’s true, then Whedon fails as a writer and everything I’ve ever said about him is true. Network television is episodic – it uses a formula to fill a structure. A viewer should be able to pick up any episode of a good TV show and follow along. I might laugh a little more at recent episodes of (say) The Office if I knew that Dwight and Angela used to sleep together, but the episode should still work as a story if I don’t know that.

So now, a series of retractions and clarifications.

First, this probably isn’t something Whedon is guilty of. Whedon’s a master of the sitcom art, capable of making memorable (if not interesting) characters and putting them in situations that escalate at a good clip. He has a season-wide arc as well as an episode-length arc, and that’s fine. But he doesn’t script boring episodes up front and save the interesting characterization for later (Dollhouse being the apparent exception).

However, I am not making the above quote up. People say that to defend TV shows all the time. Babylon 5, for instance: every time someone recommends that I watch that show, I remind them that the dialogue is terrible, the acting pretty mediocre, the plots ridiculous, and even the setting’s a bit of a laugh (the good guys are “the Rangers”; the bad guys are “the Shadow”; got it). And the funny thing is, the show’s staunchest defenders agree with all this. But they insist I try the show anyway because “Stracynzski has such a complete vision. If you watch the whole thing, you’ll see what he was getting at.” I’m sure. But I’m not going to give up 88 hours of my life just to sit back at the end with a reflective “Huh.”

Furthermore, some folks tried to defend that ridiculous proposition. “You wouldn’t say each chapter in a novel has to stand alone,” someone said. Well, no. Nobody does. A chapter is not meant to stand alone. The chapter division of novels is largely artificial – a holdover from serialization, a method of introducing suspense and delineating plot points. But each chapter is not meant to have its own arc. This analogy fails because novels and episodic television are different things, and you can’t evaluate one medium by the standards of another.

That being said, this requirement that each episode in a TV series stand on its own merits belongs primarily to network TV. Cable television doesn’t have to worry about this as much – premium channels, like HBO or Showtime, even less. It’s a function of how advertisers pay for airtime and track a show’s success on a week-by-week scale. That’s a limit on the medium, sure, and it’d be silly to confine a medium to its established limits. But it’d also be silly to expect a show to succeed which blatantly ignores those limits.

I don’t know why I spent so many pixels defending a proposition that doesn’t apply to Whedon (as far as Buffy is concerned). But I like explaining myself.