When Serialization Goes Bad: 3 Rules to Keep a Series From Falling Flat

By Annie Epstein

Since the days of Scheherazade, a story has been broken into chapters and sequels and cliffhangers, driving audiences to the edge of insanity in anticipation of each new installment. But these days, we rely on television and movies for one thousand and one hours of entertainment.

The silver screen was not always a breeding ground for serials. TV’s evolution from standalone episodes to binge-able series occurred with the help of streaming and DVR services. When episodes were broadcast weekly at a set time, the material needed to make sense to both longtime fans and first-time audiences. But as audiences gained the ability to catch up on their own time, episodes could build on the plots that came before them.

“Producers could not expect that viewers would be able to see every episode of a series, [but] the results could be dramatically frustrating, if not downright weird…These days, the opposite is true for many shows — especially when it comes to prestige cable dramas, where serialization is the norm…Indeed, today’s most complex series don’t just expect that viewers are always watching, they also encourage close viewing from obsessive fans,” writes Peter Suderman.

Suderman credits The X-Files, which featured episodes with a contained plot, but referenced and built upon a larger show-wide plot, as pioneering the serialization of standalone episodes. The structure of The X-Files helped lay the groundwork for the serials of today.

“The series didn’t just feel like a bunch of one-offs built around the same premise; it felt as if it were telling an ongoing story — a story that would, over time, add up to something larger and more powerful, and would eventually give meaning to the experience of watching the series in its entirety,” Suderman continues.

And continue it did. Today’s recipe for success is the ultra-serialized television show and movie, or a genre-bending combination of the two, as Netflix has mastered.

Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told Hitflix, “I think you should think about our serialized shows as a lot more like a 10 to 13 hour movie. And it isn’t as easy to slice and dice into episodes….I think it gives it a much more organic feel and people connect with it better.”

But if it’s that easy, why do so many good shows and movies go bad? The answer: they veer from these three simple rules.

1. Be true.

Be true to your story, to your audience, to your message. If your story has come to the end of its narrative arc, like in Scrubs season eight’s two-part episode “My Finale,” don’t revive it for season nine. Or, if your movie is a runaway hit like Terminator, build a sequel (or prequel) deserving of its association with the original. Critics of Terminator Genisys argue, “The film hasn’t primed audiences for what comes next, nor did it leave them jazzed about a whole new slate of Terminator films.” Be true to the serialization process – don’t make a new installment simply for profit, make it to authentically build the story, and the fans will follow.

2. Take risks.

Success shouldn’t make you scared. Don’t shy away from the growth of your character because it’s easier to have Dexter kill all his would-be problems. Let characters face their problems, see where the story goes, and you’ll end up with a runaway hit, like Breaking Bad.

Don’t give fans a cop-out ending like in Lost just because plot risks and twists weren’t thought out (or do we need to explain that whole be “true thing” again?). And really, really don’t give your character a lead-lined fridge to escape a nuclear bomb, as in Indiana Jones, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Audiences hate that.

3. Show growth.

Take Parks and Recreation – same message, but characters grew up, grew wiser, and grew funnier. The show maintained its loyal fan base by sticking to the antics that made the series so lovable, but the characters got married, changed careers, and escaped dead-end plots. The same cannot be said for Entourage and Weeds, where repeating ploys led to audience fatigue.

There’s a delicate balance between hilarious quirks and caricatures, and unless a story takes (plot-appropriate, thought out) risks and grows with its audience, it’s destined to jump the shark.

Annie Epstein is an associate editor at Group SJR interested in food, lifestyle, and social issues.
Top image shot by Chris New, Director of Multimedia, art direction by Joelle McKenna, Visual Designer, animation by Tyler Hach, Motion Artist.

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When Serialization Goes Bad: 3 Rules to Keep a Series From Falling Flat