No, The Sopranos Didn’t Ruin Television

21Feb12

Over the past day, the internet – well, at least the corner of the internet that chatters and Twitters about television – blew up around Ryan McGee’s essay on The A.V. Club, provocatively titled “Did The Sopranos do more harm than good?: HBO and the decline of the episode.” It’s a must-read for people who are interested in television’s narrative structure, raising many crucial points and ideas, but coming to precisely the wrong conclusions. Given that I’m knee-deep in writing about television’s narrative structure, I felt compelled to reply.

McGee’s main argument is that The Sopranos and the HBO model of serialized drama has undermined the individual episode as a stand-alone unit that “contributes to the whole, but works on top of that as a singular, stand-alone hour of televised entertainment as well.” Instead he says that a novelistic approach to television emphasizes season and series arcs over individual episodes, treating them as “installments” without its own payoffs and pleasures, rather than episodes. (I’m not sure why he doesn’t extend the novel metaphor to call them “chapters” instead of “installments,” which I think is actually more apt.) As he writes, “An episode functions unto itself as a piece of entertainment, one that has an ebb and flow that can be enjoyed on its own terms. An installment serves the über-story of that season without regard for accomplishing anything substantial during its running time.”

I think his analysis of many specific shows is spot-on, especially in his praise of how Justified and Breaking Bad achieve this balance. I quibble with his nomination of The Sopranos as the cause of this phenomenon – within the main HBO canon, Sopranos is actually the least novelistic show, as individual episodes were (as David Chase has said a number of times) structured more like short stories in a thematic collection rather than chapters in a single novel. I’ve read a great (forthcoming) essay by Sean O’Sullivan that explores this point, highlighting how two of the show’s most acclaimed episodes, “College” and “Pine Barrens,” are highly stand-alone entries, and as a whole, the show is far less serialized than most other acclaimed 21st century dramas.

The Wire is a much better culprit in McGee’s scenario, as its episodes offer almost no self-contained plotlines – it’s nearly impossible for new viewers to watch a random episode of the show out-of-context and make sense of it, aside from season premieres. (I’ve written at length about why the novelistic metaphor fails for The Wire elsewhere, but focusing on different issues.) But does that mean that each episode doesn’t “accomplish anything substantial” or lacks its own internal structure and logic? Hell no. The Wire‘s approach to episodes is less about plot structure, and more about thematic and tonal parallels – episodes early in a season are less unified by any one plotline providing narrative satisfaction, but the pleasures of how they bounce off one another and raise thematic issues about the show’s portrait of urban America. They are undoubtedly installments or chapters in a greater whole, but also highly satisfying and effective hours of television.

But my main gripe with McGee’s argument is that he falls into a common trap for critics trying to chronicle a problematic trend: find a few examples that seem to fit his claims, then extrapolate on why those failures point to a larger problem. Yet there are many other counter-examples that run against that trend by successfully balancing the episodic/serial elements - The Good WifeDoctor WhoHomeland, and Revenge all come to mind as currently airing shows, with older examples like LostTerriersBattlestar Galactica, Pushing Daisies, and all the Joss Whedon shows.

The shows he picks out as demonstrating this problem all can be explained as suffering from different problems: Flash Forward failed in part because it had too much plotting (which I’d argue was not trying to mimic The Sopranos but Lost, which itself always aimed for that arc/episodic balance), but also because the plot was ludicrous and counter to effective dramatic suspense. Plus it changed showrunners three times in a single-season, and had an awful lead actor in Joseph Fiennes. He mentions The Killing, but I’d say it doesn’t fit the case at all – the show’s dramatic momentum stalls precisely because it tries to create more self-contained dramatic arcs that end up functioning as red herrings. The Walking Dead, which I’ve only watched the first season of, seems not particularly interested in long-arcs – zombies! run away! – but fails to find any investment in the characters’ survival aside from the visceral fear of evisceration. (He leads the essay with Luck, which I haven’t seen yet so I cannot comment.)

The achilles heel of all three of these shows is not the failure to create effective episodes, it’s the failure to create effective characters – we’ll happily spend time watching McNulty put together an Ikea bunkbed, or Walter White cleaning the superlab, not because we care about what is happening, but about who is doing the mundane action. Many great shows offer a central pleasure of hanging out with people who are enjoyable to spend time with, whether it’s the struggling musicians in Treme or wacky judges in The Good Wife. It is true that many of these shows’ opening episodes play better in retrospect rather than in the moment, as the characters need time to grow on us and allow us to discover their complexities and relationships.

Clearly the shows McGee laments didn’t create such people and environments (at least yet), but I don’t think that’s due to an over-reliance on arcing plots over episodic structure, nor are The Sopranos or The Wire to blame. We always need to remember that most new television shows fail, either commercially or creatively (or both) – whether it’s a complex long-arc drama or a light family sitcom, television programs always fall apart more frequently than they succeed. Such failures cannot be summed up in a trend that blames successful innovators for imitations that fall short. Failure is because of the most insightful and truthful sentence in McGee’s piece: “Creating a layered, lengthy narrative is really fucking hard.” Indeed.

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19 Responses to “No, The Sopranos Didn’t Ruin Television”

  1. 1 Devan Joneson

    The Sopranos sparked an increase in serialized television, but we’re still in an era where the largest audiences tend to be drawn to mostly episodic procedural television. The CSI and NCIS type shows have been aggressively competent, but arguably they demonstrate the limitations of an episodic model in their inability to achieve the quality of characterization seen in better serialized dramas.

    McGee somewhat touches on this with the awful way in which Burn Notice attempts partial serialization, but that model is essentially the model for most episodic television, where even procedural shows accumulate story and character change gradually. In Burn Notice they focus on the conspiracy story, but in many crime procedurals the “mythology” scenes are the glimpses into the personal lives of the characters.

    I think he’s got a somewhat successful argument about HBO and The Sopranos leading to an unhealthy *critical* response to serialized programming buried under the rest of the essay, but he’s definitely unsuccessful in his assertion that experiments with episodic storytelling and narrative arcs are to blame for examples of bad serialization.

  2. 2 Jonathan

    Ryan McGee is a massive tool from his desperate attempts to be noticed through his Glee live tweeting and moronic articles like his one this week. Meanwhile, I thought this response was fantastic. Kudos.

  3. 3 Lindsey Kempton

    Serialized TV has come a long way since shows like Hill Street Blues (Milch has come a long way too!) and The X-Files pioneered the format, but, like you mention, viewers forgive these shows’ missteps because we enjoy hanging out with the characters. I would watch Mulder and Scully banter about pretty much anything.

    You say “…failures cannot be summed up in a trend that blames successful innovators for imitations that fall short,” and I agree that you can’t blame the successful innovators. But what about the ones that aren’t so successful and yet still pioneer a structural model?

    For example, Lost made quite an impact with it’s mythological format, but, in my opinion, it lost sight of its goal and failed to deliver satisfactorily. Despite this, it set a new standard in many ways, largely for network shows, and most have failed miserably trying to duplicate it.

    I’m a student of narrative structure and I would love your input on my piece, if you have a minute: Unsatisfying TV: The JJ Abrams Model (http://lindseykempton.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/unsatisfying-tv-the-j-j-abrams-model/)

  4. Agreed that Ryan McGee is a tool looking for attention – his reviews of Fringe this year have degenerated into one long masturbatory whine. (“Fringe cannot work any more because…”)

  5. I agree that it’s all about the execution vs. the attempted structure, and that The Sopranos wasn’t exactly what he described. But that’s the crux of the issue: loads of people who should have been paying attention (TV critics, TV writer-producers, TV network execs, and more than a few TV scholars) made the same mistake. Thus, it wasn’t so much what The Sopranos did that was influential, but rather what influential people thought it did, and proceeded to copy. You can replicate what you think The Beatles were, but that doesn’t mean you get the next Beatles.

    (N.B. I do not think The Sopranos are The Beatles of television, or vice versa.)

    To give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, I think he’s primarily lamenting the loss of the truly stand-alone episode in drama series, or at least the unwarranted loss of its status. Bloggers gripe when episodes don’t “advance the arc,” and producers respond by avoiding stand-alones as if they were risky detours on a road trip. Some times a show might want to take a side trip or stop for coffee, but it seems most of the blogging/tweeting TViterati want to stay on the interstate. Ron Moore was eviscerated over BSG’s “Unfinished Business,” despite it being a particularly arc-y non-arc episode.

    But the best pre-Sopranos dramas (and more than a few since then: The Good Wife and Doctor Who in particular, as you mention) are remembered more for their stand-alone moments than for their overall arcs. Sure, The X-Files was an amazing ride for the most part, but I’ll take “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Szyzgy,” “Beyond The Sea,” “Home,” and especially “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” over any “mythology” episode. Same with the Star Trek series, which attempted arcs (most successfully in DS9′s Dominion War), but excelled in individual episodes (e.g., TNG’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “The Inner Light,” “Remember Me,” “The Most Toys,” “Tapestry”).

    So maybe Ryan could have been more precise in its critique (i.e., it was the perception of The Sopranos rather than the series itself), but I share his wish for a more diverse approach to TV narrative!

    • Right, and the suggestion that Burn Notice started (or even popularized) the episode cum myth arc is bizarre given shows like The X-Files or Buffy. MOTW (and its non-monster equivalents) only really make sense against the backdrop of a longer story arc.

      In fact, I’d say The Good Wife scenario is more popular these days than the L&O one (even among the L&O spin offs, incidentally), with personal growth and character developments somewhat demanding consistent and ordered viewing. And all of these at the same time offer the episodic satisfaction that McGee mourns…

      • Great point about the larger story arc as a “backdrop.” I made the same argument about CSI in my book, and there the backdrop is even further from the surface. Still, you can watch Sara/Grissom subtly develop for years.

        However, there’s still something nice about being able to pluck an episode out of a run on its own merits. While you need to know the basics of what Mulder and Scully do, and how they relate to each other, to really “get” all the X-Files episodes I mentioned, you can certainly watch them out of order. Same with a good chunk of contemporary (and nearly all of classic) Doctor Who, outside the explicitly arc-y episodes.

  6. Yeah, Derek has sort of captured my position on this issue – while I don’t necessarily agree with Ryan’s examples, nor do I necessarily believe that the problem is as widespread as he suggests, I do think that we need to evaluate how the runaway critical success of shows like The Sopranos has been filtered through the television industry at levels of both production and consumption.

    I was a little surprised, actually, that Lost didn’t play a more prominent role in the argument for that reason. There, for me, is the perfect example of a show that was always committed to telling clearly episodic stories (in the segmented flashback structure) despite being part of what was identified as a mythology-driven serial. Regardless of how people felt that serial storyline evolved (I’ve heard rumors that some people were dissatisfied? Huh!), the show was always committed to creating clear episodes that we can clearly identify as contained, thematic segments. However, those came into conflict with the expectations for a LESS episodic plot structure, those who believe that “great” drama should never stop advancing its central plot structure for wacky “character development.”

    In other words, I do think that a defense needs to be mounted for the value of episodic storytelling – I just tend to believe that the problem is less within the HBO series that started this trend and more within how we’ve refracted and institutionalized those practices. The problem is process, not product, in other words.

  7. 9 Euskadi

    Great response. I thought McGee got his conclusions precisely wrong, but was addressing such an interesting topic that I’ve been happy to see the more informed and thoughtful rebuttals that his piece engendered. The basic fallacy he makes is ignoring Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) and trying to indict HBO’s long-arc successes with the failures of their kinda, sorta imitators. The second major frustration I had with his piece–which your response and the other comments highlight–is that he seems ignorant of much of modern TV history prior to currently airing dramas. Even Luck needs to be seen in the context of the critical failure of John from Cincinnati more than the success of Deadwood.

    One fundamental point that I haven’t seen aired yet, though, is how important the economic/business model is to the various story structure choices. Self-contained episodic TV is great when you have an eye towards eventual syndication. The subscription TV model that doesn’t require attracting X number of eyeballs to each individual time slot, but rather aggregating eyeballs to the channel in general allows for greater risk-taking and expectation of viewer commitment. I fully expect new distribution models like streaming to inspire new forms of TV story-telling. Already, I tend to consume a lot of TV in chunks of full seasons vs. episodes/installments with weeklong breaks in-between. Under that model, I’m not sure why episodes need to all be the same length, for example. Having the length of an episode follow the content being presented would further the ‘novelization’ of TV, potentially with some interesting results.

    • Excellent point about the very different economics of network vs. subscription cable vs. streaming vs. etc. Season length and structure is already starting to break down (at least off the networks). Episode length is trickier, because that requires a full-on negation of the premise of the advertiser-supported timeslot and schedule, something even HBO, with no commercials, is reluctant to blow apart. Sure, the parameters of length of these prestige cable dramas is much more variable than their network counterparts (an hour-ish, rather than 43 minutes on the dot), but it still feels like “an hour of TV.”

  8. Thanks all for the comments, and sorry I haven’t been able to reply until now.

    Some further thoughts:
    Devan – I do think that there are distinct ways that seriality can be pursued within various aspects of storytelling, such as character arcs, relationships, ongoing plotlines, and mythological backstories – I pursue this in more detail in the book I’m writing. I don’t think that we can say that one model is inherent better than another, but what’s important is that any series sets our expectations for what degree & type of continuity to expect. If a show starts by implying massive mythological backstory, and then drops it (sort of what happened in Alias seasons 4-5), it will lead to major frustrations.

    Lindsey – I guess I take a broad view of success, where some innovators fail in the marketplace but still inspire creators & critics to rethink narrative possibilities (My So-Called Life, Twin Peaks, and Freaks & Geeks all fit this category). Other shows become sufficiently popular that their influence comes to matter, even if they don’t perfect their innovations – I’d put How I Met Your Mother here, as it’s not quite figured out how to sustain itself. But even if you feel that Lost’s ending was a let down (and I do not feel that way), there’s no universe that I can view the show as a failure – it popularized an unprecedented narrative model for network television, and accomplished so much against the odds. Personally, I don’t think a mediocre or failed ending can possibly invalidate years of successful & engaging storytelling. But that’s for another essay.

    Derek, Kristina, Myles – you’re all right that the perception of how television shows work is potentially more important (at least for future innovators) than the actual narrative structures. And yes, the balance of episodic/serial forms is much more pervasive than McGee allows for. But as we all know, it’s hard to watch everything & account for such broad, shifting forms. One of the jobs of critics is to try to shift perceptions to match actual analysis!

    Euskadi, Derek – the industrial context is essential, both in economic and formal terms. I think we have seen episode length start to be more variable, as it’s quite commonplace on HBO/Showtime to have the opening or closing episodes in a season be longer, and even the variety between 48-58 minutes on those channels is a huge break from network’s regimented form. The finale of Lost was also an interesting exception – initially granted 2 hours (w ads), the producer couldn’t get it all in & asked ABC if they could have extra time. Amazingly, ABC said yes, allowing the finale to run for around 2:13, cutting into local news time. But again, Lost is a true exception to most network models.

  9. 12 Leg-iron

    I LOVE IT


  1. 1 If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV? | You, Me, and TV
  2. 2 Awake y otros desvelos | Diamantes en serie
  3. 3 Talking about television is not ruining television « TV Surveillance
  4. 4 A Novel Misunderstanding – TV Serialization and the Decline of the Episode | The Awesome Thing
  5. 5 Linkschleuder | Alte Gedanken
  6. 6 HBO, Luck and the narrative strategies of the Bible | City of Jericho
  7. 7 Engordar para morir: el gusto por lo irreversible | Diamantes en serie

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