With the current discontent with the final season of Game of Thrones, there has been lots of talk about how to structure and write a satisfying TV show. I talk about how this might explain my issues with 22-episode shows.
Plotter vs. Pantser
Methods of writing are, of course, up to the writer involved. Is there any definite “one way” to ensure quality? No. There are pros and cons to both of these methods, but it’s worth considering, especially when doing an procedural vs. serialised television programme which of the camps you fall into.
The concepts of being a “plotter” writer vs. a “pantser” writer isn’t exactly new, but it’s been thrown into a bit more prominence of late as a response to the latest Game of Thrones episode, in which people are contrasting the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’ writing technique to George R. R. Martin’s. GRRM is somewhat famous for not really plotting out his novels, which is why it is filled with such ludicrous amounts of details as his characters wander around random locations falling into situations. For a world as complex as Game of Thrones, this is perhaps slightly stressful, as a resolution to this large warfare is hardly going to be easy, but perhaps it is best to muddle through it from within, and this is certainly best for character development and realistic choices. Meanwhile, Benioff and Weiss – no doubt from the immense pressure that comes along with making a TV programme with time deadlines and huge fan expectation (in contrast to a book which can take a relatively long amount of time to produce) seem to be plotters. That is, that they know there are certain plot points that they need to hit in order to work their way towards that ending. The journey of the past two seasons of Thrones are therefore geared towards certain setpieces. They would know that they wanted the end of Season 7 to be the fall of the Wall in the North through Viserion’s reanimation, and how/when certain characters will die and who will be left standing at the end. The in between moments, therefore, are about filling in those gaps, which can sometimes lead to characters making decisions that aren’t necessarily in keeping with their character and disposition.
Does Netflix factor into this difference in writing techniques?
I have commented before about the need to banish the 22-episode format from TV screens and that it simply does not work with the increasing attempts to make episodic shows more serialised in their content. Even writing this down stresses me out anew as to the pratfalls of this mode of storytelling, but I think part of it also comes down to the writing methods employed by the writing teams behind them.
I have compared Netflix/On Demand shows compared to American Network shows before. Broadly, Netflix/On Demand series (as well as many British series, and indeed Game of Thrones) benefit from being written and filmed in their entirety before broadcast. On Netflix, most series have one overarching story even if there are different circumstances within each episode. Each episode serves to propel the characters towards the end goal, some more successfully than others. While this does work recently for some programmes like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, it was less successful on the Netflix Marvel series, because the “plan” that was created at the outset meant that there was little to keep the watcher engaged at the beginning. Mostly, TV on Netflix trends towards being one continuous story told over the course of the season, though it is worth noting that each episode should serve as a “chapter” to that story. In the same way that a chapter in a book must be entertaining to watch, so too must a chapter in a TV programme. You need to strike the balance between character and plot development, as the two are certainly not mutually exclusive.
What Netflix have that network television does not have, however, is time. That is, the ability to take the time to write and guarantee the quality of their work before putting it on the platform, making sure that the arc of the story makes sense and is not convoluted or drags on too long. Admittedly, this does not always work as I have mentioned before, but there is a reason that lots of people go crazy over Stranger Things or more intricately plotted scenarios such as Orphan Black – because the writers have a clear idea over where the plot is going for the entire season before they accidentally write any of their characters into a hole they can’t easily get out of.
Besides, story arcs needs to be planned beforehand if you want them to have payoff for the audience. Obviously, in real life we run from one situation to another situation, but if you want a meaningful character development to get a character to an end point, this needs to be earned. The journey of the musical Bombshell and the character of Karen in the first season of Smash was an example of this working well. It was serialised, and each episode brought with it a subtle new problem for the characters to confront. It was very character led in the decision making process that everybody made, in a similar vein to how The Bold Type builds on a weekly basis. Story arcs in Doctor Who, for example, are also planned out for a payoff at the end of the series, even though the show is episodic in nature.
It is not therefore easy to say that Netflix has a “better” technique for writing shows, as each output does vary in its quality. One writing team employing a particular method for their show might not be effective for a different show. Perhaps it’s a matter of the focus that each particular series has on focusing upon its characters or upon spectacle and a different villain of the week.
Serialised vs. episodic
Most of the TV programmes I watch follow the premise that each season tells a particular story. For example, the current season of Charmed has focussed upon the rising of the Source. Some series are wise and split their seasons further into distinct parts, such as Once Upon a Time or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The tricky balance is how much weight to put towards the furthering of the grand plot, or the plot for that particular week.
What I consider to be a good model for the CW superhero shows is Doctor Who, especially in its early revival outings. Series 1 through 5 focussed upon a different adventure each week, with slight plot hints that would eventually be resolved in the series finale. The character’s premise also resets to zero between each episode, so that they bounce from adventure to adventure pretty much unchanged, though you do see subtle advancements in the characters each week. Except when they visit their families, the lives of the principal characters are focussed upon the adventure they are having at that moment and how to solve it, which makes each week more engaging. The issue that I have with Supergirl, The Flash and Arrow is the focus upon the end result often detracts from the fight within the current episode, with weakly written enemies and often this villain getting in the way of the team is currently doing. In amongst balancing the main villain plot and their machinations, the series tries to balance following the lives of each of their characters which, for the most part, take place away from the superhero team. In contrast to the comics, in which the principal focus is upon the superhero alter egos, the TV shows try to give focus to more ordinary characters, which can be less than successful. The slow furthering of the “main” plot is given precedence over an engaging weekly outing, almost as if the writers are focussing upon the bullet point that they need to cover before the season finale. This is probably worsened by the fact that they have 22 weeks to cover, and by the end of the season are only a couple of weeks ahead of production when they are filming the episodes. This kind of scheduling is not conducive to making good TV, certainly – which is why it’s welcome news that Arrow is ending with a reduced-episode final season.
What is more successful from the CW’s superhero shows is Legends of Tomorrow, which focuses more upon the characters and their dynamics with each other. There is less focus outside of the team, though I have disapproved of the split focus between the Waverider and Time Bureau this season. It means that, though there are hanging over plotlines between episodes (especially late in the season as we reach the finale), the focus is much more upon the focus of the adventure and the premise that they have set up initially: that they need to recover the magical creatures that they accidentally set loose. What’s also winning about it is that the characters do not really interact with anybody other than each other and their interactions are delightful. As they are all separated from their lives, we do not see the same dramas that pervade the existence of Supergirl, The Flash and Arrow, which are a little far removed from the expectations of a superhero show.
It’s a balance that Legends manages to pull off because of the engaging characters that they have created, something which The Bold Type also benefits from. The success of these shows rest upon the character development, so that The Bold Type has very small progression from episode to episode, but it’s about seeing how the characters over come this little obstacle within their lives before continuing on and learning a lesson from it.
I suppose what it comes down to is that with a Netflix show – or any show that is written and conceived pretty much in its entirety before filming and release, there is more scope to be flexible than when you end up in the hamster wheel that is American television broadcasting. The problem with lots of the shows is that they get the broad strokes down as to where they want it to head by the end, but in the process of writing their way through, new plot elements get introduced that they need to tie up, and characters get lost in their journey and end up not progressing for multiple episodes, just waiting for a particular development.
Take, for example, Rachel Berry in Glee. The death of Cory Monteith was arguably a cause of this problem, but it was obvious from the start that Rachel was destined for stardom. She ended up in drama school, and the show really struggled with working out how to navigate her career. Instead of showing her as a budding ingenue working from the bottom up, Rachel instead landed the role of Fanny Brice on Broadway in Season 5 – long before the actual end of the series. This necessitated her leaving Broadway after about a month in order to star in a TV show, which failed, meaning she had to end up back in Ohio. Glee really struggled with navigating both character service, as well as maintaining its premise of the Glee Club. Really, Glee should have relied upon following the careers of the previous Glee characters when they graduated, if they were going to at all. It made the characterisation flimsy, as well as the finale becoming unsatisfying. We endured a time jump, where we saw where characters ended up, but lots of this felt unearned as we had not witnessed it. It would have been far more satisfying had we seen Rachel gaining roles in chorus productions and then working her way upwards through hard work, and similarly seeing Kurt do the same with his fashion job, had Glee had the courage to properly follow its characters through. You could tell that there were vague ideas fleshed out and beats that they needed to hit in Season 6, but it did not do the characters any justice – take, for example, the case of Sam and Rachel’s relationship in the final season. Ultimately, it went nowhere, and Rachel ended up with Jesse. Artie and Tina ended up together, despite not having interacted in a satisfactory way in a while. Lots of it had the sense of being planned out in broad strokes, but pretty much otherwise made up as they went along – except the impetus was hardly character development, but rather random ideas that they floated around to do with Glee Club.
Ultimately, it’s obvious that American shows feel the pressure of scheduling. Within a 22-episode season they have an idea of where to get to and how the finale will broadly play out and certain character beats they want to hit over the course and put this out on their board, but over the course of the production, certain things have to be created as they go. How characters get from A to B is sometimes rushed and not planned out thoroughly, which would probably also be the case if 22 episodes were planned out in their entirety. Why is this? Because 22 episodes is a ridiculous number of episodes to maintain one story, and a huge amount of content to be making in a year, especially if you want it to be a certain quality. Personally, and I have said it before, I believe that American TV could learn a great lesson from English TV models, but failing this, shows really need to reassess how much stock they pay to these enduring ideas and character beats. I believe that plotting out the progression of a villain does make sense throughout a season, but if you are doing the kind of show that is based upon a comic and a weekly spectacle, you need to put more energy into making it a compelling villain in each episode instead of just the whole season. This means fresh ideas and fresh problems for our characters, as well as making sure all of these characters are well fleshed out and realised in relation to that episode’s plot. If a character does have a side plot, then it might make sense for that side plot to then have an important ramification either on the main plot or on the season going forwards, but often this is just a way to use up characters within an episode so they don’t look too much like a talking prop.
While weekly spectacle and ongoing plot points are not mutually exclusive, it is important to work out how much time you want to dedicate to each idea. More successful programmes, like Doctor Who or The Bold Type focus upon one or the other. Some programs, like Charmed and Legends of Tomorrow, find time for both, but the ratio tends to flip to what is focussed upon. The Bold Type, for example, has a weekly premise that can be summarised in a sentence and is pretty much always focussed upon something that is happening in the ladies’ lives. It isn’t something dramatic or traumatic every week, in contrast to some shows like Once Upon a Time, in which everybody ends up being cursed or with a new tragic backstory with each instalment.
The plotter vs. pantser technique helps very little in determining my exact problems with certain TV programmes. It’s unrealistic, when there’s an expectation to have a dramatic finale each year, that this will not have to be planned to some degree. I think lots of the problem lies with the fact that it’s impossible to completely plan, leading to characters making poor decisions and some plot lines introduced that ultimately get dropped or forgotten about as scheduling gets the better of certain programmes. With a 22-episode format, it makes sense to focus more upon an episodic caper, while surreptitiously sewing the seeds of future danger, without this becoming a major narrative driving force. The problem of these programmes is dedicating too much time to these ongoing plot points and not enough focus upon an engaging weekly outing. I suppose it’s also tricky to give the characters relatable problems, considering their work is something far removed from our own, and most problems come from issues outside the workplace, leading to unnecessary and sometimes frustrating plotlines. While I personally suggest that 22 episode series are completely removed, should they continue to exist, more of a “planster” idea should be followed, where they sketch out the important things and the steps to achieving these, and then reconciling the fact that they needn’t compete with the Netflix way of storytelling, as they are simply ill-equipped to narratively achieve this.