Back in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, TV drama episodes were like the monographs in these columns – each one had a beginning, middle and an end. Three acts, if you will.
But then, in the Eighties, all that changed. Suddenly, Hollywood’s lowest form of life – its writers – became PRODUCERS. And they TOOK OVER.
Starting with “Moonlighting”, series began to EVOLVE. No longer were the episodes interchangeable – now story arcs developed that encompassed first several episodes, then whole seasons, then beyond (foreign stations now had to look at the EPISODE NUMBERS on the tapes!)
And if the writers found they were running out of ideas for a character, they would KILL THEM OFF – if a character’s life was becoming pointless, the writers made damn sure their DEATH would not be.
This formula continued through shows like “ER”, “Twin Peaks”, “24″ and “House” to today’s fare – like “Fringe” and “Dexter”.
And now there’s a new boy in town. “The Blacklist” has taken a leaf out of a book begun by “Homeland” – a series where not ONLY is it not known who will live, who will die, where they are going and why – but we do not even know who these people ARE.
I mean, traditionally you knew who the heroes and villains were – but now, even this basic fact is being withheld from the viewer. It is WONDERFULLY confusing!
However, it is not all plain sailing here. At the top of this piece, I stated that in the old days, individual episodes had complete stories. Thus they ended as they had begun – and could be run in any order.
Therefore, both the writers and viewers had a SAFETY-NET. You knew where the hell you were.
And WITHOUT that net, DISASTER could result. Shows that evolved right down BLIND ALLEYS included the afore-mentioned “Moonlighting” and “Twin Peaks”.
The problem was, while it is easy to FRAME a story for just one episode, a short arc – or even, at a pinch, a whole season – you cannot do so for several YEARS.
Furthermore, it is not always possible to know when a show is going to END.
Meaning that while a series might travel along interesting twists and turns – and feature countless cliff-hangers – the day might come when a TV exec, unhappy with ratings, decides to pull the PLUG.
Leaving all of the viewers up in the AIR.
Sometimes the same exec will green-light a one-off TV movie to tie up those loose ends – knowing enough past and present fans will tune in to justify the outlay.
And sometimes not.
Although far better a series crashes and burns – but THRILLS you along the way – than lumbers over the same damn ground, week after INTERMINABLE week, as they did in the old days.
So let’s HEAR it for those writers – they wrested control from the TV execs and RAN with it. Then, often having NO idea where they were going, risked ALL to ENTERTAIN us.
And in this uncertain age, where TV’s audience has dwindled (thanks to THIS medium) while budgets have done likewise (thanks to Wall Street’s robber-barons) they continue to do so.
But at least now they – and we – can have FUN!