We live in the new Golden Age of long format television. With Game of Thrones starting its penultimate season without a net so to speak, it’s a good time to review. What lessons have we gleaned in hindsight from the era of the Telenovel?
The format began in the Nineties. Proto-epics like Twin Peaks, Babylon 5, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and The West Wing set the stage. It entered its Golden Age in the early Aughts as Lost and Battlestar: Galactica started, even as many of the older shows remained on air.
There are only a few shows worth discussing, since most never finished. It pains me not to include a show like Carnivale, for instance, but without an ending, we cannot judge it. Discounting shows like Walking Dead with no end in sight: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, Battlestar: Galactica, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Justified, Game of Thrones, and soon, The Leftovers.
Of the shows that got to end, few did so well. Babylon 5, The West Wing, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Breaking Bad, Dollhouse, and Justified had the highest level of viewer satisfaction, give or take. Of that lot, The Wire and Breaking Bad fared best. Those two caused the least bickering over their endings, and thus their entire runs. Top contenders for most frustrating are Lost, Twin Peaks, and The Sopranos, with X-Files & Battlestar a distant fourth & fifth.
So, what lessons can we learn from the successes and failures in the medium to better construct future long form television?
6. Rewatch Your Own Show
This one is simple. Before a finale — and before a last season or even an important death — the writers’ room should binge watch their own show. Watch your own show like a viewer. Take notes. Are there any dangling plot threads? Any plot holes? Writers should see these as opportunities. Closing them with your ending can make you look like a genius. Whedon’s programs are good at tying up loose ends in the final seasons. A dangling frustration like a lie a character tells or a simple case of an actor playing two parts transform into amusing pay-offs. What are the recurring themes, even if unintended? What are your characters’ tragic flaws? Their saving graces? A writer may think he knows these things because he designed them a certain way, but between performance, your own subconscious, and the audience, things aren’t so simple. Check the message boards. See if there are theories cooler or more sensical than your plan. Consider altering course. Speaking of…
5. Don’t Change Your Twist Because a Fan Guesses It
Lost, like many of these shows, had a fervent fanbase who shared theories on the Internet. With so many people sharing information, someone’s bound to stumble into a theory about Jon Snow or Libby’s past that actually lines up. There were several instances, like on Treme or the film Terminator: Salvation where a guess or a leak made them change the plot. First, if your plot isn’t more important than its surprises, it needs a rewrite anyway. Second, don’t be spiteful with your most loyal fans. They’ve paid close attention. Your story makes sense to them. Nothing will be more pleasing to this personality type than being right. Besides, your new ending is likely to be worse than the one you wrote first (unless it isn’t… if you come up with something better, then run with it).
4. Know the Point So You Don’t Miss It
Does your show have a point? It needs one. Seriously. This isn’t a sitcom or a Spider-man comic where the point is to never end. Epics should know they will one day end (hell, all TV shows should as long as we’re using real actors who age and die). Even Seinfeld got shit for its ending, and it was about nothing.
An epic, meanwhile, needs an epic point. Something not Philosophy 101 or something you picked up from your Yoga instructor. You know, do some research on the higher end. Have something to say. And then, and please, for the love of god and all that is holy — say it. You don’t have to make a character say it out loud. The theme should have been recurring, even if it wasn’t planned.
Despite the abrupt stop of Whedon’s Angel, its last scene kept the theme the show had repeated for five years: evil is eternal, but only wins when good stops fighting. So it ends with Angel continuing to fight. It ends with him saying “Let’s go to work.” For that matter, each of your characters has a point: a recurring theme to their behavior and motivations that should have a finale of its own.
In Babylon 5, Straczynski solidified these points with literal promotions. If a character was an attache, a character ended the show an ambassador; if an ambassador, an emperor. In B5 and West Wing, the shows also end giving us the impression that another epic is only just beginning. All while giving us glimpses of the larger ramifications of our characters actions. The point of us watching.
In Lost, Kate runs and people die because of her, but often goes against her nature because of Jack. Jack is a man refusing to believe in anything. Locke is a man who believes without question. In the end, Locke’s faith gets him killed, Jack must embrace magic, and Kate… runs? In one of the last scenes of Lost, Jack gives Hurley Jacob’s power. Kate and Sawyer then look on as Jack jumps into the magic cave to become the smoke monster (God that sounds awful). Thematically, though, Kate would leap in instead, before he had completed this ceremony. Her love for Jack drives her to act against type, but in the end, she will run, and Jack will have to chase her. In other words, Kate should’ve become the smoke monster, with Jack remaining as Jacob. Sawyer then, as liar, becomes Ben.
3. Worldbuilding, Worldbuilding, Worldbuilding
Know the answers to all the questions about your concept. Michael Straczynski, Aaron Sorkin, Vince Gilligan, or David Simon may plan their series’ every beat ahead of time, but this isn’t necessary. What is necessary is if you ask a question as part of the plot, that you know the answer. Ron Moore had no idea until the start of each season who was going to be a Cylon. While this freed them to make decisions based on drama, it also made the whole thing a house of cards that swayed in the wind toward the end.
The same improv technique holds true of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, though one may forgive Peaks, given that it is the first show of the post-Hill Street Blues era to sport a series long arc. It was unheard of, before Babylon 5 for an American show to even have a long form arc since the shows had to go on indefinitely. Moving forward, though, we see how this cannot go on.
One need not plan every move the characters make through the end, but one should know the concrete realities that are true before your story begins. Realities such as which of your characters are robots, who killed the dead body in your pilot, or what the nature of your island is. If this were a show about drug dealers, it would be poor writing not to know where the main character was born. Why should we hold a science fiction or surrealist tale to a different standard, especially if it is purporting to be more literary?
One of many lessons from J. Michael Straczynski is that of the “trap door” character. This is a character who can fill the role in the larger story of another character should that actor leave. Doing things like this during the story development phase can make it easier to weave a whole story.
2. The Longer It Takes to Answer a Mystery, the Bigger, Weirder, or More Personal the Answer
One of the better lessons of Whedon on Buffy or Straczynski on B5 is that if you bring up a question like, say, what a Vorlon looks like beneath their space suits, the more people bring it up as an unanswered mystery, the weirder it needs to be to be satisfying. Straczynski excelled at this because he already knew the answers, and so knew which ones to hold back.
Whedon excelled at plugging invisible plot holes like who created the Slayers with thematic material. The longer the answer took, the more intimate, the more relevant to the show’s arc, and the more unexpected or strange the answer. In contrast, a show like Lost would hold off on revealing how Locke broke his back, but not answer the question to level at which they’d made us wait.
1. Avoid Shaggy Dogs At All Costs
The biggest fear when watching long form arcs is that one has wasted literal days of one’s life listening to what amounts to a Shaggy Dog Story. For those not familiar, a Shaggy Dog is a long, meandering tale full of details that turn out not to matter, culminating in an anticlimax.
Lost is the prototypical version of this mistake, having gone into deep detail for each of a massive cast, only to end with few of them mattering. Several characters trumpeted to the level of a series keystone came up only in passing by the end. Many plot lines brought up over the series as integral to the show ended up either mundane in solution or unrelated to the larger arc. The ending itself was a cheat. While the entire show was not a dream, the entire last season taking place half in the afterlife is still a waste of the audience’s time. There is no reason to take several hours (let alone the entire series) to arrive at the last minutes of that show. When writers improvise mysteries, they raise questions that are interesting. When they plan them, they are instead withholding interesting answers.
What can we take away from this? All this, in the end, comes down to worldbuilding. When the storyteller knows her world, she can answer mysteries with clarity and import. She can ensure the right characters survive. She knows what to emphasize, but also what to leave out. She doesn’t have to cheat, and she doesn’t leave plot holes. If she does, she knows which character will dive into them.