To Be Continued: Where Did All the Stand-Alone Episodes Go?

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Did you see Game of Thrones this week? How about Mad Men? No? Well then, you’d better park yourself in front of your Tivo, my friend, ‘cause you need this week’s context to make sense of next week’s episode.

I love serial television, but following some of the best dramas has begun to take up an insane amount of time. Gone are the days when we could pop in and out of a series at will. Now, only police procedurals and a select set of reality shows expect viewers to watch single, self-contained episodes. If you want in on Once Upon a Time or Revolution, get ready to gorge on whole seasons just to catch up. Although the current obsession with giving continuity to every episode has resulted in some great shows, it has also had negative consequences for series that don’t fit the mold.

One-and-done episode-based shows can do great things. Sometimes, a story only needs 45 (or 22) minutes to feel complete. See early episodes of M*A*S*H (like “Tuttle,” a Season 1 episode in which Hawkeye and Trapper invent a fake officer to get extra medical supplies). Today, that storyline might have played out over an entire season. But, as it was written, we get a succinct reaction from every single character, and a tight, well-constructed story. Star Trek: The Next Generation has the incredible one-off “The Inner Light,” in which Captain Picard lives a lifetime in an hour. The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits distill whole universes into tiny parables. We don’t have a good word for this kind of television series, because it used to be called “TV” — stand-alone episodes were the norm. Plotted seasons were the stuff of evening soaps (Dallas). I can’t imagine a producer today pitching a drama without imagining there will be stories that follow from episode to episode. Even American Horror Story, which swaps out cast members and settings, has a serial storyline for each season.

castleSome shows have shoehorned serial stories into their otherwise really good episode-by-episode formats. Castle has suffered significantly since the romance between Castle and Beckett became the primary connective thread of the series. What once was a fun little procedural now feels stilted. Doctor Who feels like a slog this season, every episode dragging on until we finally get to a big reveal about new companion Clara.

While some series were meant to be novels, others were intended to be a collection of short stories. A show like Mad Men has an entire ensemble of rich characters to flesh out over the course of a season; each has his or her own foibles that play out in painful slow motion. If you take a silly character like Castle and try to spread out his issues into several hours, it becomes too easy to see the flaws in the show. In The Walking Dead, some episodes blur together because the key events take place over two or three weeks. I’m not sure that every single beat of that show is even necessary — sometimes it seems that the directors are filling time to make it to the next major turn of events.

Even comedies are trending toward serial stories. Arrested Development has serialization built into its DNA, so it won’t be too surprising when viewers need to consume each new episode in order. But it’s getting harder and harder to watch The Office out of order, as the show becomes more and more of an evening soap. The soapy aspect of New Girl has discouraged me from getting started with it, even though I have friends who say it’s the funniest show on television. Who has the time to care about yet another TV family of friends?

There are a few shows left that don’t require everyone to grow and change from episode to episode, that don’t need my undivided attention every week. Archer episodes usually all stand alone, as do episodes of Happy Endings. As for dramas, I’m still looking for that special show that won’t care if I leave it be for a few weeks, and won’t pester me about all the plot points I missed.

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Comments

  • nik

    Why would you want to watch a show out of order?

  • Mr. Acer

    Say if you’re watching a show that you plan to introduce to someone–if it’s part of an overarching plot, they’ll be confused and forced to backtrack the previous episodes. A done-in-one is like a free sample at a supermarket: if you like it, you’ll want more, and for the times you go on a diet, if you leave it be for a bit, and then come back to eat it after losing weight, it will still taste as good as when you first tried it.

  • Knivesinwest11

    This series of Doctor Who has been far more stand alone-ish and reminiscent of the Davies era than any of the previous Moffat series. The Clara mystery is certainly an undercurrent, but it’s not the main focus of the last 3 episodes.

  • Rubicon

    No mention of Supernatural which offers a great blend of stand alone episodes weaved in a season long story which is also weaved into the 8 season+ long story.

  • brownbear64

    I don’t know what your smoking cause Castle has been great this season……plus if Caskett didn’t happen by this season I would have been pissed (a show can only tease for so long before its time to cut bait). And I don’t get how Castle is your go to example for forced multi-episode plots, there’s only been one plot line that took 2 episodes and 1 recurring villain who again was in only 2 episodes (well technically two I guess with xyz killer but he’s only been in one episode this season so I won’t count him). I get the point you’re trying to make, but you picked such a ill-fitting go to example that it takes away from your argument.

  • Thirty

    Sure. Americans who want to pay less attention than they already do.

    Great.

  • Kiel Phegley

    I still feel like a lot of these serialized shows have a strong theme and solo arc to each of their episodes though. In other words, they may not present a full story out of context, but they usually present a fully realized hour of television/complete unit of story. Game of Thrones in particular.

  • BeastieRunner

    Burn Notice has a lot of one and done for the most part with tiny bits of the overarching story to reward the long-term fan.

    I miss when comics did this as well.

  • SEindorf

    House did it all the time. Fringe and other shows. After seeing shows with no importance to the main plot one feels it has been wasted time, simply a filler. if you don’t like it why don’t you watch movies instead?

  • LightningBug

    I totally disagree about Doctor Who feeling like a “slog” this season. Yes there is some connective tissue between episodes with the Clara mystery, but by and large this season has felt like a return to “one and done” episodes when compared to Matt Smith’s first two seasons in the Tardis. In fact, I really miss the sense of continuity that seasons five and six had, despite the fact that who-fandom at large seems to prefer monster-of-the-week style stories.

  • http://twitter.com/tomdaylight tom w huxley

    Odd to link Doctor Who into this. Almost every episode since the 2005 revival has been pretty much stand-alone, and this year that uniquely applies to every single one. The Clara mystery is just something threaded through the background (of about four individual episodes), although I doubt it’ll be resolved until the finale.

  • kalorama

    Not this “one.” And who said standalone episodes “have no importance to the main plot”? It’s possible for an episode to stand on its own merits an still tie into a larger thread. It all depends on how tightly woven and deeply ingrained the underlying/overarching plot arc is. The problem with a show like X-Files, Lost and Heroes is that it got to the point where every episode was so tightly woven into every other one that there was no room to breathe. A better approach is for a show to have a unifying theme/mystery/question that’s addressed over the course of a season in a way that allows individual episodes to have self-contained main stories, while presenting the clues to and advancement of the main story as a B-plot to the individual episodes. That way, the information adds up in smaller chunks over the course of a season. When enough info has been parceled out, then do an episode that focuses on the underlying mystery–recaps what e know, answers some questions, poses some new ones–to advance the big story. Lather, rinse, repeat until you get to the end of the season and start to tie it all together.

    That’s pretty much how Fringe worked. The Mentalist also takes a similar approach with the identity of Red John.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tony.kelsey.7 Tony Kelsey

    The main point is that stand alone episodes were the norm before people had the ability to instantly get the previous episodes. you can even plot the fact that storylines become more interconnected the easier it becomes to be able to get those past episodes. its why there is now more adaptations of books and comics into Tv series because you can just get those episodes somewhere online and the source material is more interconnected itself. its why the first season has the most stand alone epsiodes to aquire the maximum amount of viewers through out and later seasons don’t because world building and story arcs take the focus. its not a complicated subject, older shows did not have that instant catch up ability, while the new shows do

  • j

    The New Girl is terribly unfunny, and the lines are just as predicatable as 2 Broke Girls. Should get some new friends.

  • vpuik

    Syndication?

  • http://twitter.com/Mothpete The Shark Knight

    Serialisation isn’t too new to sitcom when you consider some of the arcs within seinfeld.

  • B

    Considering commercial airtime is up to 30% for shows, one and done episodes leave little time for story. Doctor Who episodes seem rushed to me with little character development or storytelling. I miss the old serial episodes that gave you between two and three hours of story over multiple shows. It really allowed the writers to introduce the characters, set up the story, tell it, then wrap it up without it feeling rushed. Now it seems like every DW show needs some deus ex machina for it to conclude on time.