On average I watch about five hours worth of TV a week, distributed across a select few shows. This isn’t a value judgement on my part (one of the of the reasons I limit my exposure to TV so much is that I used to find myself losing entire nights where I’d watch trashy TV)it’s just designed to show that I watch TV for specific shows rather than just watching to have something on. I watch TV shows because I think the medium of TV is fantastic for the conveyance of characterisation, even completely off the wall comedies like 30 Rock end up with the kind of consistent characterisation that movies (partially to their shortened length) can’t compete with.
At its best TV can present grand ideas and fantastic characters in a way that would feel cluttered and messy within the confines of a films three act structure. The Wire is a fantastic piece of entertainment because it unfurls and expands over the course of its five seasons, using its thirteen episodes each season to extend its narrative. The Wire is gifted with the time to breath and expand and because of this even as its scope broadens it still feels vital and intimate, by the end of Season Five the Wire is covering four major strands across four major institutions (the police, the drug runners, city hall and a newspaper) whilst also servicing its extended cast. It is slow burn TV at it’s finest and it’s a reason I love the medium.
As such I’m always surprised when I find people complaining about TV shows ‘spinning their wheels’. It’s an issue I can understand but can’t empathise with, because to me the ‘spinning of the wheels’ is often the part of a show I like the best. Over the last decade TV has undergone something of a change in the way it deals with narrative. Shows like Lost, Chuck, Supernatural, and The Wire all now operate primarily as modern day serials. Where the individual episodes all form together to form a part of a larger arc. Of course there are different ways of dealing with this.
With something like The Wire the arc is the key to the entire thing, it’s the thematic core of the show and as such the arc is in essence one large whole. A show like Lost operates on a similar level, where every episode is part of the arc, but unlike The Wire the arc of Lost is all about resolution. So whereas the arc of The Wire is about the thematic texture of the show, the arc of a show like Lost becomes the very heart of the show. As such when you’re watching Lost it feels like you’re chasing resolution, chasing the finale, rather than experiencing the here and now. Shows like Supernatural and Doctor Who also tend to work with season long arcs, but unlike Lost and The Wire the arcs in Doctor Who and Supernatural are usually background flavour to most episodes and the meta-narrative only comes to the foreground in key ‘mythology’ episodes.
This move towards Arc based storytelling has some definite advantages, but it’s also designed to cause discontent within its fan base.
Humans are multifaceted beasts and as such it’s hard to pin certain characteristics to as a whole, however there are dominant traits and personality types which tend to be very common. Humans are generally speaking inquisitive, and competitive, and inpatient. This can spell disaster for long term arcs. For shows where the arc is built on a central mystery (Bad Wolf in Lost, the Cylon’s Plan in Battlestar Galactica, the entirety of Lost, whatever the hell Fringe is about)the natural human compulsion is going to be to try and solve the mystery. It’s why we take satisfaction in Murder Mysteries; it’s less a viewing experience and more a gigantic jigsaw. You generally don’t read an Agatha Christie novel for her prose, you read it to soak yourself in the detail and try and work out whodunit. It’s a human compulsion and it ties into the dominant traits of inquisitiveness and competitiveness.
The problem is when the third trait, impatience, comes into play. When you start to view a narrative as a puzzle to be solved, a challenge to be overcome, you start to race for the conclusion. With a novel you’re in control of the pace and with a film you have close onto instant gratification to the central mystery, with TV however you’ve got to wait for months to find your answer. As such a special brand of impatience rears its head where fans of a show start to accuse shows of ‘spinning their wheels’. The problem is that TV shows have to naturally build to a conclusion and have to maintain the audience interest. If you compromise your main mystery too early you risk not only losing your audience (who have solved your problem and moved on) but also losing momentum. Twin Peaks is a perfect example of what happens when you prematurely solve your central arc.
The other issue with having central arcs predicated on a mystery is that if you invite your audience to solve a problem you’re inevitably going to get fan theories and speculations which are either bang on the money or more audacious and interesting than what we end up with. Lost is suffering from this right now, where it’s big reveals are actually confirmation of information we already know. In fact Lost has pretty much solved a great deal of its original mysteries, but because we’d spent six years trying to parse information from every frame of the show the sometimes rather mundane explanations feel oddly flat. This is a situation kind of unique to Lost, where it essentially asked people to pay attention to minute details and then used these details for thematic texture which just isn’t apparent in the show itself. It’s like watching a show with an over eager Theology/Philosophy student who chuckles to himself and explains that “John Locke was TOTALLY an English Philosopher” every now and then. These elements of Lost almost feel masturbatory in that they don’t actually add up to much other than to make the people who got the literary references (or wikipedia’d and THEN got the
literary references) feel smart.
When shows like Lost spin their wheels you often get some of the best, most satisfying episodes. The episodes in Lost which don’t drive the plot forward often feel the most overall satisfying in terms of character and conclusion, whilst the mythology heavy episodes of Lost tend to be fast paced but ultimately a little hollow. We’re into the final season of Lost now and we’re stuck watching these great characters we grew to love over the course of fives years trundling around in the jungle at the behest of a bunch of characters who’ve either only just shown up or who’ve been plucked from the sidelines to be the big players. At times like this I kind of wish the show would stop and spin its wheels and allow us to connect with the real reason we tune in, the characters, rather than throwing information at us.