In the current television landscape, serial storytelling has become commonplace. That is, television shows often stretch story arcs over an entire season (or longer), instead of the episodic storytelling found on most sitcoms and crime procedurals. With more flexibility in the scheduling and length of seasons, not to mention the rise of delayed viewing with DVR or streaming services, TV creators have the freedom to tell a wider variety of stories. Serialized dramas are my favorite result of this shift.
How many times has your favorite TV show gone into a creative slump or pursued a storyline that you don’t find interesting? I propose that some of these missteps came from attempts to fit a narrative into the traditional 20 to 24 episode format. Maybe it doesn’t belong there! My favorite serial dramas are in mini-series form, clocking in somewhere between three and eight episodes. In terms of depth and complexity, you find yourself somewhere between a movie and a full-length series. That level of focus seems to produce some of the most interesting and satisfying stories that I’ve encountered in recent years.
The British series Broadchurch is a wonderful example. Two detectives work to solve a murder in a picturesque seaside town. Olivia Colman provides realism and heart in her performance, while David Tennant makes me realize why people are so obsessed with him. (I’m not a Doctor Who viewer, so I only had his brief role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to gauge his talent.) When I rewatched the first series recently, I was struck by how cinematic Broadchurch is. The sets and locations feel like film-quality, and the shots are beautifully framed. I don’t know the details of production, but it seems that an eight-episode schedule would provide time and energy to make a series visually impressive.
Another popular example is True Detective. I resisted watching the first season for at least a year, mostly because I’ve never been a big Matthew McConaughey fan. Well, here I stand corrected. In the role of Rust Cohle, he is spectacular. A good detective duo is usually a surefire formula, and McConaughey and Woody Harrelson make a dynamically flawed team. The Southern Gothic aesthetic is one that I enjoy, reminiscent of Gillian Flynn novels from a deeper South prospective. Rust Cohle circa 1995 is my personal favorite incarnation with his corduroy jackets and veiled emotional turmoil.
Broadchurch returned for a second season in 2015, which was nerve-racking as a fan. Thankfully there were enough loose ends from the first season to make the second feel interesting instead of superfluous. Since True Detective is planned as an anthology series with brand new characters every season, its return is a completely different animal. I can’t speak from my own viewing experience, but the reactions so far have been dubious. On the plus side, when each season is its own entity, a decline doesn’t taint the viewers’ enjoyment of a previous season.
I haven’t even touched on some of my favorite series (like Sherlock!), but I think I’ve made a case for the serial drama as seriously addictive entertainment.