Not Until Season Ten

Adam Sternbergh has reached the same conclusion I did about shows like Lost:

Change the format, or at least reimagine it. When it so-called arc shows, we need something between a mini-series and an open-ended run. We need the TV equivalent of a novella: the limited-run show. Series driven by a central mystery (Twin Peaks, The X-Files) peter out precisely because they have indefinite life spans. The writers are forced to serve up red herrings until the shows choke on their own plot twists.

[…] Now let’s imagine an alternate reality in which, say, Lost was designed to run for only two seasons. Rather than getting an increasingly tedious shaggy-dog story, we’d get 48 episodes of tightly plotted, expertly interwoven suspense. Viewers would be both more willing to sign on at the beginning (knowing their investment will pay off) and more inclined to buy DVDs later (either as catch-up for newbies or as a satisfying boxed set). Sure, the show won’t syndicate well, but shows like Lost don’t syndicate well anyway. And the series finale would be huge—the kind of event TV network executives drool over.

Shows like Lost or The X-Files or Battlestar Galactica work because they are complex, challenging and, at their heart, have a mystery that can be solved. But it’s the refusal to solve anything that ultimately kills them. The X-Files should have ended in Season 5. They had a second chance in Season 7. When did it end? 3 years later with season 10, after replacing the main characters because the initial characters (and actors) that made the premise work were tired of never finding an answer. But the Executives and producers didn’t care. they just saw an opportunity to squeeze a few more bucks at the expense of the audience’s credulity. A mystery cannot go on forever. Stories need to end and in a timely manner.

Imagine if movies did the same thing. Indie never finds the Ark of the Covenant, just an endless parade of tombs and Nazis with increasingly ludicrous cliff hangers. The fellowship keeps walking up Mount Doom, but never gets to the top. There were people who complained that after the nine hours of the three movies, they just didn’t care anymore who won the blessed war or what happened to that damn hobbit and his ring. Now imagine that it kept going on for five more movies with no resolution.

This is what happened to the X-files and what is happening to Lost. They had a good idea but have let it flounder for too long. It no longer matters why the polar bear, or what the numbers mean. Two seasons equals roughly 20 hours (minus commercial breaks) of feignts, dodges and cliffhangers. That’s the equivalent of 10 movies. Imagine watching a 10 movie series and still having no idea what these people are doing or why any of this is happening. You wouldn’t because no studio in their right mind would green light a 10 picture series that never had even a momentary resolution.*

I’d really love to see the American networks switch to the BBC style of drama series. One season of 13 episodes to tell your story. if it’s popular, they’ll do another season, but each season has a story arc. Something is achieved in 13 episodes and it’s over, with a possibility of a continuation. Even the idea floated above, of a limit of two seasons, forces the writers to weed out the ideas that kinda work (but not really) and get to the stuff that shines. There’d be no silly one off episodes where everyone breaks into song. Just tight plotting and storytelling honed down to a razor’s edge.

For all the griping about Firefly being cancelled too soon, at least it didn’t peter out like Buffy did, turning to cheep gimmicks in season 7 to stay interesting. And my fondest hope is that Ronald Moore and the gang at Battlestar Galactica have an end planned for the rag tag fleet, and soon. I’d love it if they find Earth at the end of season 3, fight over it with the Cylons in season 4 and then call it the end. Because they have a wonderful, compelling drama with interesting characters, but if left to wander around the universe in their current state for five or six more seasons, the show will just become monotonous and uninteresting. And no one wants to see that.

* I’m curious to see how many Spider Man films Sony will let Sam Raimi make. My guess is one more, but only if Spider Man 3 does really well.