The Serial's the Prize Fall TV Season Tests Commitment Issues

The Serial's the Prize Fall TV Season Tests Commitment Issues
Fans of blockbuster sci-fi flicks like War of the Worlds and Independence Day know exactly how the aliens are gonna attack — with giant ships or tripods and a vulnerability to viruses of both the bacterial and Apple computer varieties — and that they’ll be defeated within a couple of hours.

But that’s not how Invasion played out. Launching last fall in ABC’s highly coveted post-Lost timeslot, the sci-fi serial about a hurricane-ravaged Florida town with something unearthly in the everglades boasted a seriously slow-burning storyline, as creator and former teen pinup Shaun Cassidy methodically parcelled out plot points over 22 eerily atmospheric episodes.

Though the critically lauded series eventually picked up the pace and kept fighting until the end of its first season, distraught fans were nonetheless left with a cliffhanger ending and a misnamed Complete Series DVD set. Then again, they should be happy they weren‘t fans of 2005’s similarly structured newbie shows Threshold, Surface, Heist and Reunion, all of which were axed before resolving their stories.

But despite creating audience distrust, this season is filled with even more serials — each one angling to addict enough viewers to become the next Lost, Prison Break or Battlestar Galactica (aka "the best show on television”).

Television has always been, by nature, a repetitive medium. To fill out the 20-plus episodes comprising a season, producers stuck to variations on a theme, with sitcom crises wrapping up neatly before the credits rolled, while procedurals featuring doctors, lawyers, cops, mystery writers and private dicks tackled a new case every week. Viewers seemed content that criminals could be arrested and prosecuted within an hour even if we were never given the answer to that existential question Who’s the Boss?

The Law & Orders, CSIs and According to Jims still haunt the airwaves, but with Lost and 24 winning the best drama Emmys for the past two years, Battlestar’s Peabody Award and this season’s heavy reliance on serialised storytelling, TV has fundamentally changed.

For most if its existence, television was cinema’s retarded cousin — unappreciated because it was free and, as the saying goes, existed to sell soap. To be fair, TV’s "boob tube” title was well earned, as its lowest common denominator programming paled in comparison to the movies. TV simply couldn’t attract the same calibre of stars, writers and producers.

But eventually people realised the medium was being wasted with one-off episodes — that the biggest benefit TV had over film was the opportunity to tell a story in 22 hours (less time for commercials) or even over multiple seasons. This new narrative style takes its time subtly developing characters, planting clever clues, rolling out multiple plot threads and rewarding regular viewing. Some studies suggest serialised television has become so complex and demanding that it’s actually good for your brain.

Of course, soap operas have always used this format for silly superficial purposes and even something spectacular like Twin Peaks, the godfather of the current craze, flamed out in the second season after the Laura Palmer mystery was solved, while The X-Files interspersed so few of its "mythology” arcs amongst monster-of-the-week episodes that fans eventually tuned out.

Historically, network execs avoided serials like the plague despite their cult followings because they must be watched in order, repeat poorly in syndication, are difficult to tune into midway and risk abandonment if too many episodes have been missed.

Joss Whedon’s late, lamented Angel turned its third and fourth season into a single operatic arc, but existed before digital video recorders, iTunes and bit torrent made catching up easier. Angel’s network demanded more one-offs for its fifth season, making what could have been its best year yet wildly uneven, and then cancelled it anyway a mere six months before Lost took off. A similar mandate for stand-alones doomed Alias to sub-par fourth and fifth seasons.

In fact, execs are already talking about going back to self-contained episodics for the 2007/2008 season, but that’s just the pendulum swinging back a bit after this season’s new serials, which reach double digits (see sidebar).

Most will crash and burn because the TV business is all about throwing shit at the screen to see what sticks, but a few will join the must-see ranks and hopefully persevere.

Like many, I missed a few episodes of Invasion and waited to catch up on DVD. If the box set sells well, then maybe network execs might give these new shows time to find their footing in hopes of cashing in on DVD sales. Maybe eventually shows with small but fervent fan bases might even go direct to DVD.
But in the meantime, choose your new serials with crossed fingers and don’t wait to watch Veronica Mars.



Choose Now or Risk Falling Behind

YAY!

Jericho (CBS/City/Space)
Skeet Ulrich is stranded in small-town Kansas after a (possibly) apocalyptic nuclear attack and isn’t sure which is worse. (Debuted Sept. 20)

Heroes (NBC/Global)
Ordinary folks start developing extraordinary powers, like The X-Men but without the fancy aliases and outfits. Yet. (Debuted Sept. 25)

The Nine (ABC/CTV)
The title is the number of hostages in a bank heist gone wrong. Exactly how wrong will be slowly revealed via flashback. (Debuts Oct. 4)

Day Break (ABC/Global)
Taye Diggs is an innocent cop accused of murder stuck Groundhog Day-ing it until he can clear his name. (Debuts Nov. 15)

Knights of Prosperity (ABC/CTV)
A sitcom about some working class kids with one of the best-ever get-rich-quick schemes — robbing Mick Jagger. (Debuts Oct. 17)


MEH!

Six Degrees (ABC/Global)
Lost/Alias creator JJ Abrams uses the Kevin Bacon principle to too-conveniently connect a bunch of boring New Yorkers. (Debuted Sept. 21)

Kidnapped (NBC/Global)
Rich kid gets ’napped. That’s about it.
(Debuted Sept. 20)

Vanished (Fox/Global)
That slutty ad dude from Queer as Folk tries to save a senator’s wife from a vast, Da Vinci-type conspiracy. (Debuted Aug. 21)

Runaway (CW/CH)
Family man (and Old Kid on the Block) Donnie Wahlberg is accused of murder. He, uh, runs away. (Debuted Sept. 25)

Big Day (ABC/Global)
This sitcom about the longest wedding day ever is the opposite of 24. (Debuts in November)