In Praise of the Episode

Or, Why Your Television Show Will Never Compare to a Novel, and Shouldn't Even Try

It is conventional wisdom that we’re now living in a ‘golden age’ of Television. Dozens of fantastic, challenging series have risen from an increasingly fragmented media landscape, buoyed by the censorship-free ethos of cable and guided by impassioned showrunners. They have transformed what we expect from television. When we reach for a comparison for this new generation of on-screen storytelling, with its series-spanning story arcs and rich depth of character, we inevitably alight on novels. “Television today is better than the movies!” we trumpet. Perhaps – just maybe – it’s even as good as a book.

Yet, beyond the obvious fallacy of trying to build a hierarchy of art forms, I feel there’s something reductive about this line of thinking. As I caught up on Homeland this week, it occurred to me that this comparison often blinds us to the strengths and very real limitations of television as a medium.

Homeland has the flavour of a high-octane Le Carre novel, with a hint of Graham Green, and each of its two seasons have endeavoured to tell their own, reasonably complete, story. Season 2 offered up an ending of sorts – a grisly clearing house of the cast, and the conclusion of the hunt for Abu Nazir. The boldness of this last episode, for all of the second season’s missteps, had me excited about the future.

However, the showrunners of Homeland don’t have the freedom of John Le Carre. Le Carre could put George Smiley at the forefront of one novel in his Karla series (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and place him in the background of another (The Honourable Schoolboy). He can jettison any character and conjure them back at will, or shift the action to Hong Kong. But even at the risk of contrivance, how can Alex Gansa drop an Emmy-winning leading man like Damian Lewis, or abandon the expensive sets and contracted supporting cast? The man with the million-dollar budgets can only dream of the freedom of the author alone behind his typewriter. While I would love to see a season of Homeland that put Saul at its centre, followed Carrie as a Station Chief in Asia or kept Brody in hiding, it may be a risk too far.

Despite how dramatically the television form has opened up in recent years, it has its limitations. The way television is made won’t allow for a second draft. We brandish Dickens’ serialised stories as a model, but even Dickens would edit his works before they were collected and published as novels (which is the form they’ve been handed down to us in today). ‘First Draft Syndrome’ has struck at almost every series that has attempted ambitious, multi-season story arcs, especially those trafficking in mysteries. Homeland’s once-tight plotting swung headlong into wild implausibilities its latest season, whilst the ever-expanding mythologies of Lost and Battlestar Galactica sprang leaks and soon ran aground on audience expectations.

“Making things up as they go along” is often deployed as a criticism, especially by scorned fanbases, but it also reflects the reality of making television. It isn’t born of laziness, but necessity. Too many elements are in play for the writers, even the greatest auteurs, to set a story in stone before the cameras have rolled without the series suffering. To reject it is to reject the highly collaborative nature of the medium. The input of directors, cinematographers, designers and actors will inevitably transform what’s on the page. A fascinating performance by guest star, like Michael Emerson in Lost, can spin a story in an entirely new direction. Michael Slovis’ cinematic vistas plunged Breaking Bad headlong into the territory of a modern-day Leone western, and the writing staff followed. By the same token, life can happen – key cast or crew may depart the series or pass away (ala Nancy Marchand in Season 3 of The Sopranos), upending carefully-wrought plans. And sometimes a plot or character just doesn’t play with audiences, or collapses in the execution.

Whereas viewers expect sitcom writers to retool away, as with the miraculous reinvention of Parks and Recreation after a dismal first season, it’s doubly difficult for drama writers to right plots already well in motion. Not every show can pull a Walking Dead and set ravenous zombies on redundant cast members.

By nature, then, television can be slipshod. It’s almost impossible to avoid a bad episode, failed plotline or go-nowhere character. And yet the ability to see what works, retool and draw on a huge creative team lends good television a vivacity that’s missing from a slick and polished film or novel. While the feel of art-in-progress can sometimes be a storytelling weakness, it’s also part of the medium’s strength.

I still don’t feel any show has co-opted the unique tool set of television like The Sopranos. David Chase’s seminal family saga embraces serialisation, yet resembles less a set of novels than collections of short stories. Many of the most loved episodes – ‘College’, ‘Pine Barrens’, ‘Employee of the Month’ – tell their own contained story, even as they enrich the wider world of the series. The Sopranos is rarely plot-heavy, instead letting the character’s day-to-day interactions and misunderstandings drive the storytelling. Time marches forward and the status quo can shift, but ultimately each episode of the series is built around its own thematic point – from parental betrayal to addictive behaviour to, hell, that one about boredom. Chase uses the repetitiveness of the form – the repeated settings, the stable cast – to drive the overarching ideas of mid-life and middle-American malaise and the inability, or unwillingness, of people to change.

We end up spending more time with the lead characters in a long-running television series than we do with the protagonist of even the thickest Russian novels. What this time buys us, most of all, is a chance to observe character. The plot of Homeland may have disintegrated, but the season was consistently a compelling portrait of the unmoored Sgt. Nicholas Brody. Similarly, it’s common to find that fans who lamented the Church-bound finale of Lost or Starbuck’s vanishing act in Battlestar were still largely satisfied with the emotional journey for the characters they’d stuck with throughout all that uneven plotting.

A great writer can use that time to test and grow characters in hundreds of unexpected, compelling ways. Joss Whedon, like Chase, is a master of using the looseness of the form to play. Buffy could sustain a musical episode (or a silent one) and Angel could see its cast transformed into muppets, just as Chase could strand Tony Soprano in an episode-long dream. And they can do it without sacrificing the whole – something a show as intensely serialised Game of Thrones or The Wire can’t.

Games of Thrones and The Wire do, however, make for an important counterpoint.

The Wire is something of a miracle. Whereas every other series on television offers a dozen illustrations of why the rich plotting of a novel cannot be replicated on television, David Simon and Ed Burns somehow do just that. I could type until my fingers bleed about all the wonders of this series, but I’ll try to encapsulate the ‘how’ in a few words – they play it smart. The series embraces a genre – the crime story – which allows each episode to organically feature its own goal (be it as simple as a stake-out or running down a lead). There is rarely a ‘mystery’ to speak of – the storytelling tension instead is born from process, as characters build steadily towards conflicting goals, steeped in the conventions of well-telegraphed tragedy. Each season tells a new story, linking to new settings and characters (whereas Homeland is unlikely to spare Damian Lewis, The Wire boldly jettisoned its leading man for most of the fourth season in favour of a quartet of street kids). Simon and Burns also took advantage of the HBO development timetable, which in the latter seasons allowed each episode to be completed as a block prior to airing, giving space to retool the whole.

Games of Thrones is unique in being an extraordinarily faithful adapted work, lending it a spine (and bypassing those ‘first draft’ issues) that other series lack. However, the series took some time to find its footing. In Season 1, episodes flit haphazardly between story threads and end about as elegantly as a bookmark thrust between the pages as you dart for the train door. The structure is well-suited to DVD binge-viewing (and detracts very little once the plot has caught fire in latter episodes), but it sacrifices some of the individual power of the television episode. This is part of why I believe Season 2 is often stronger (even as the forking plotlines made it more and more unwieldy), as the writers became more willing to diverge from the books and line up events episode to episode thematically, rather than being wedded to George R.R. Martin’s chapter order. ‘Blackwater’, junked the chapter-based structure entirely to tell a single story, and was indisputably the season’s highlight.

To ask television to be like a novel ignores the fact that we still consume novels and television in vastly different ways. The gap may be closing, with the increased consumption of DVD box sets and on demand viewing, but the episode, given individual form by its opening credits, ‘previously on’ and end titles, still matters. The limitations of the episode – to give viewers a chunk of storytelling that can both stand on its own and satisfy as part of a whole – has encouraged today’s writers to do some amazing, out of the box work.

But the times may be a-changing. Netflix, in particular, is trying out a new model with House of Cards where each episode has been released in one dump. Watch as you will – no wait, no weekly installments. One story, and it either works, or it doesn’t. The same model will be used for the upcoming Season 4 of Arrested Development. Binge on the Bluths from Day 1. It’s not television as we know it – indeed, it could be the start of a new form altogether. That’s exciting, and it’s a model that some series, like Homeland, could benefit from. We shouldn’t forget, however, that this exceptional era of television didn’t come about because the form changed – it exists because hundreds of talented creatives discovered that the medium’s limitations don’t have to be limitations at all. Television shows aren’t novels, and we’re better for it.

First Published 2 February 2013 at We Professional Liars