Monday, 30 December 2019

The shows that rinse and repeat

Who watches the Watchmen? I will, but only if you can assure me that the story is properly wrapped up in one season. I've seen too many TV shows that throw a bunch of plates in the air, keep them spinning for a dozen episodes, adding more until it looks like they'll all come down either in a triumphant flourish or a crash of broken crockery -- only for the season finale to tie up no loose ends whatsoever; merely saying, in effect: "Come back next year for more of the same."

I know why writers do it. Well, yes, there's the lure of another payday, obviously. That's not nothing. But also it's because bringing a story together is hard. The job is so much easier in the early stages where you can throw everything in. The only limit is the writer's imagination. But then, around the midway point, the terrible hectoring inner voice can be heard that speaks up for the craft. Things that have been set up must pay off. Threats must be faced and dealt with. Promises that have been tacitly made with the viewer must be kept. If you're lazy, you tune that out and try to keep the throw-everything-in stage going forever.

Serious offenders include The Fall, whose first series followed a nail-biting cat-&-mouse between the detective heroine and a serial killer. How would she catch him? And what would the personal cost be? As it turned out, she wouldn't catch him. Rather than dream up a new adversary for season two, the writer just had him slip away so that the high jinks could resume next time. Nothing was resolved.

Likewise with Killing Eve, where after a season of queasy death-wish teasing between the antagonists, the psycho we're meant to like slips away with a knife-wound in her side. "Go after her!" I wanted to yell at the heroine (the eponymous Eve; the show's title was another promise never kept) who could even then have brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. "She's literally ten seconds ahead of you and she's bleeding out." But no. Somebody else comes in and says, "It's too late. She's gone." And you can almost hear Eve thinking it will go on and on, this chase, like the plot of The Worm Ouroboros, only in this case not because of an elegant reflection of the story's underlying themes but just to ensure ongoing pay packets for those concerned and an endlessly interrupted coitus of spy-porn wankery.

Oh, and Westworld. Great first season. But by the finale they clearly have nowhere interesting left to go, so it ends with the gnawing sense that new rails will be laid in front of the engine forever. It even looks like it's ending on a cliffhanger. That's the worst crime for any ongoing series, if the cliffhanger comes simply as a break in the ongoing plot rather than being a new threat emerging after old strands have been tied up. The show's writers are saying, in effect, that the whole season you thought was going to have a beginning, middle and end has in fact been just the bringing together of pieces so that the real party could begin in season two. Aristotle would punch 'em in the kisser.

But look. It can be done well. Vinyl built up over ten episodes as multiple narrative trains hurtled towards collision. The finale brought all the immediate threats to a conclusion while setting up the basis for another season. Instead of just breaking at the end of the season as though it were just another episode, there is closure there and in the closure the seeds of a new direction. Unfortunately Vinyl never got a second season while less carefully crafted shows hurtle on and on towards the eventual heat death of the medium.

A conscientious writer (Alan Garner, for example; or arguably J Michael Straczynski) won't start until they have the end of the story planned. As Andrew Stanton explains below, it's "knowing your punchline, making sure that everything... is leading to a singular goal". That's why I'd ask every show creator about their ending in the first pitch meeting. If you have a destination in mind, the journey will be much more enjoyable -- and, if the Fates are kind and it turns out the dollars are there for another trip, you'll have satisfied customers queuing up to go again.


  1. Postscript: I'm talking here about modern TV drama, which in the streaming era can effectively be 12+ hour movies. On Facebook, Raven Black made a point about old-style story-of-the-week TV series which is worth repeating here:

    "A good never-ending story never ends because it's lots of small stories that did end. The modern way is a story that never ends because it never goes anywhere."

    It doesn't have to be like that, of course. Even in a season-long story arc, ideally there should be a proper ending (unexpected yet satisfying, of course) at season finale, as well as mini-closure in each episode (which on some level need to be self-contained even if only on one thread). Stories are fractal, and even an individual scene needs a beginning, middle and end.

  2. Enjoyed vinyl and the fully agree about the destination free viewing. Annoying when the plot nuggets are laid down in a circle.

  3. Boy howdy, did Killing Eve fall apart in the second season.

    For a truly marvellous one-season show which is one of the most underrated pieces of TV in the last few years, check out The Terror.

    1. That one is definitely on my list. Jared Harris *and* Ian Hart -- even if the script isn't great (and I hope it is) those guys are always worth watching.

    2. They're both magnificent in it. Jared Harris I'd never actually seen in anything before The Terror, but now I'm a die-hard fan of his.

    3. I first came across him in Fringe. It was only much later I realized he's Richard Harris's son. You've seen Chernobyl, I hope?

    4. Yup, loved it, although it was more of an "event" piece rather than a character-driven story. The Terror (despite its premise) is a very strong character piece about male friendship and, from the officers' perspective, leadership and responsibility. Harris' character goes from being a bitter, cynical captain who doesn't want to be there to a captain I'd proudly follow into hell. Tobias Menzies has a similarly brilliant arc. (I forgot he was in Game of Thrones and was peeved when they brought his character back in the finale only to make him comic relief - he's a brilliant actor and deserves better.)

      If I was still in the habit of blogging and reviewing I probably would have written a really long piece on it. It's just great on so many levels, there's too much to gush about. Criminally underrated!

    5. You're making me more and more keen to see it!

      I must have given up on GoT before Tobias Menzies appeared -- though given what you say about the finale, maybe I'll just stick to my fonder memories of the early seasons.