Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The 5 Levels of Serialization

No, not that kind.

Welcome to the first installment of the one-part series, 'Paul's Pet Theories'. In this one, I talk a little about the structure of tv shows.

Television is the least self-contained of any of any narrative media. If it lasts, a show can easily have twenty hour-long episodes for six or seven years, while a movie series is considered long at four installments. But the way that the showrunners choose to use this time varies wildly. Some have but one long story they want to tell. Others tell a different one every episode, while still others fall somewhere in between. This is the concept of serialization, and, in my opinion it falls into five main categories*. The essential question that I use to figure out where a show falls is this: how much will what happened last episode affect what happens in this one?

(*)Anything that reflects true reality (as opposed to reality television) is not included. I.e. sports and news.

Level 1:
These are the shows that offer the lowest barriers to entry and, as such, are quite popular on networks. A viewer can start watching in season four without having seen it before and understand perfectly what's going on. While no show is ever truly free of continuity, the members of this group try. Many cartoons, whatever their intended age group, fall here. The other most populous level 1 subgroup are the procedurals. A level one crime procedural would, for example, have a new case every week (with perhaps the occasional two-parter) with very little connection between them. We'll learn about the characters' backstories, but they will typically serve only to flesh them out and have little actual bearing on the plot. These shows always have a status quo that, some level of cast change aside, rarely changes. If Kenny can die in one episode and be back the next with no explanation, or just never dies at all unless his character is 'written out' of the show, it's level one. Reality shows, for obvious reasons, are rarely level 1, but most game shows are.

Family Guy, South Park, Futurama, Modern Family, Saturday Night Live, Robot Chicken
Spongebob, Animaniacs
Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, MythBusters, Iron Chef
CSI (LV, NY, & Miami), Law & Order, Cold Case, Without a Trace

Level 2
These shows differ from their L1 counterparts because, while continuity is not all that important, it is there. Most (if not all) episodes are self-contained and easily accessible, but the show also contains references to past events, has some multi-episode plot arcs, and/or has some important recurring characters who influence the plot. Less common but still importantly, they could also have some sort of driving force behind either the series or season that is touched on occasionally, but is only very rarely the main source of an episode's plot. In other words a framing device, or a MacGuffin for those who know the term (the conceit behind 'How I Met Your Mother' is a great example). The presence of one of these guarantees a show is at least L2. Live-action comedies are often in this group, as are procedurals that spend a lot of time on the personal lives of their characters. The basic cable crime dramas from TNT and USA are almost all here, as are the "people in a house" reality shows.

Scrubs, The Office, 30 Rock, Friends, Flight of the Conchords, How I Met Your Mother
Law and Order SVU, Bones, Numb3rs, House
Firefly (although it probably would have become level three had it lived longer)
White Collar, The Closer, In Plain Sight

Level 3
Starting here, there will probably be some evidence of some season-long (or multiseason) plot arcs. However, more frequently expect a series of shorter (but still multi-episode) arcs. Individual episodes of L3 shows are very rarely completely self-contained, but will have some relevance to previous and future events. However, they'll still usually have an individual narrative, and are still comprehensible to someone who hasn't seen the previous episodes. Network dramas that aren't procedurals almost always fall here, as do a few comedies. Almost all reality tv is at this level, simply because of the nature of the medium. A good rule of thumb: any show that has a regular "previously on" segment falls at least to this level.

Arrested Development, Chuck, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Extras
The West Wing, The X-Files, Heroes, Gray's Anatomy, Dr. Who, Glee
American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, The Real World, The Jersey Shore

Level 4
At this level we start to reach the shows that a viewer really can't start watching somewhere other than the beginning. However, there is still some level of narrative cohesion within an installment. A new viewer might not really know what's going on, but there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. Usually. This is the least populated level; very few network shows end up here, instead going the full monty if they get this far. Indeed, it tends to be the cable comedies that most consistently populate this level

Entourage, Weeds, The United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie
Dexter, Big Love, Pushing Daisies, Friday Night Lights, The Tudors*

(*An interesting case in that it clearly wants to be L5, but for a variety of reasons ends up unintentionally feeling far too episodic for that. Though it may get better after the first season, which is all I watched).

Level 5
At this point, the show (or at least an individual season) essentially becomes a very, very long movie broken up into installments. Entering in the middle is out of the question, and each episode cannot be understood outside of the the context of the ones that come before and after. Indeed, this will also be true from season to season as well as episode to episode, if perhaps to a lesser extent. Very, very few comedies reach this level. In fact, I can't think of any.

The Wire, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, Rome, Six Feet Under
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Lost, 24

Obviously, the examples are drawn heavily from shows I've seen or am at least very familiar with, and I'll probably add more as I think of them, see them, or have someone educate me. If anyone reads this, feel free to add examples in the comments. And you might disagree with some of my placements...which might change as I'm persuaded or just change my mind

(and yes, adding the pictures was a transparent ploy to sneak in a subliminal plug for The Wire)


Elliott said...

Those are interesting terms to think of shows in- when I first started reading I assumed I would be more of a 4/5 watcher, but apparently 3 is my perfect level.

Futurama might be a 2- there is fair amount of continuity in it, even if they do a lot of retconning and poking fun at themselves in the process.

Glee is definitely a 3, though, down to the regular 'previously' section.

Elliott said...

Oh and it's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a good 2, 6 Feet Under a 5, and Pushing Daisies is a 4.

Tedd said...

I was torn with Futurama. On the one hand I agree that there is continuity, but as I sort of said in the beginning, I asked myself the question: if there's a major development in an episode, to what degree of certainty can I tell if it will be addressed in the future? It might in Futurama...but it might not too.

For example, there was that episode this season with the Momcorp's mac thing taking over the world. They may never refer to that again, and we wouldn't be surprised/care. So that's why I ultimately put it at 1. But it really is more like a 1.5. I just didn't want to go there.

I'll defer to you on Glee, obviously. I was going with Charlie's description, and I mostly just put it in there because I was trying to think of different genre for that level. It is moved! (And I'll add your other examples too).