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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Serial Goodness

A top 5, this week, because I have little else with which to regale you.

I can understand why strict episodic formats are so popular with the TV powers that be; they allow new viewers to jump onboard any time without worrying about what they've missed and they make scheduling random repeats that much easier; but to my mind there is nothing more satisfying than settling down to watch a pilot, having no idea what's going on, and then spending the next 3, 4, 5, 6, or however many years, unearthing and unravelling a bunch of mysteries along with the characters.

I mean, it's the ultimate sign of respect for the viewer, is it not, that you not only expect them to, but believe them capable of, following events over the course of weks, months, or years? Certainly, it's a sign of disrespect to say they can't.

The middle ground, of course, is the episodic serial. Like the show that has a new case/mission/adventure every week but also soap opera-ises it's characters personal lives; or there's the recurring nemesis, who pops up two or 3 times a season (premiere, mid season sweeps and finale) and maybe gets a mention or two in passing elsewhere; The Mentalist's Red John being a prime current example of that one.

The realist in me says that the best format, for building, and keeping, an audience, is the episodic that morphs into a serial down the line. You do a bunch of stand alones, with a little background soap opera, maybe drop in a few hints here and there as to a bigger picture but nothing that's going to alienate any newcomers, then once you've built your audience and have them hooked, you allow the threads to come together and become gradually more serialised. The best examples of this, to my mind, being Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and of course the now legendary Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

That's the realistic view though. The idealistic view, is that the show designed from day one as a serial, the show that asks questions from the outset and makes you work for every answer, the show that has you drawing flow charts and venn diagrams almost from the moment you switch on the pilot; that is the show I love. That is the show I want to watch. The history of television, or at least the recent history of television, is littered with shows that tried this method and failed, but when it hits, it hits big.

Either way, though, the need in my heart for a nice meaty epic is always going to make these shows the ones I gravitate toward the most, in terms of favourites. I watch the other stuff, because I watch everything, but I don't love it. These shows I love.

I make no apologies, by the way, for the fact that some of these shows, including those in the top spots, are household names. I could have tried to pull a bunch of obscure stuff out, but the fact is I aint no hipster; if it's good, it's good, regardless of it's popularity, and these shows are good.


What? I know, I know, it's only on it's 2nd season, and it's barely gotten going; in fact, at time of writing this I have only actually seen 7 episodes of S1. And those 7 are more than enough for me to say you should all be watching. Not that I need to say it of course, since you're all watching anyway. Right? Right?

If I'm honest, I might have held off on it's inclusion on this list if I hadn't read the books. After all, lots of shows can start off good and trail away. However, knowing the excellence that is to come; assuming they remain as faithfull as these early episodes have been, and there's no reason to suppose they won't; gives me shivers, and I'm genuinely a little bit jealous of those who come to this through the show. You have no idea what lies ahead.


Like Buffy, Farscape,
DS:9, and countless others Babylon 5 is a show which began in a very episodic fashion, built it's world, and then gradually became a serialised story as it went along. Unlike those shows, though, it's a show that intended from day one to do that, rather than gradually evolving toward it.

Let's be honest. Given show creator J. Michael Straczunski's explicitly stated aim to write a show that told a finite story with a set beginning, middle and end, over a predetermined number of seasons, the show is the quintessential serial. Those early hours may have appeared standalone, but that was just because we didn't yet know just how they connected. If the episodes didn't end on cliffhangers and pick up immediately were the previous ones left off, that was only because that level of urgency wasn't needed. Yet.

Once the storyline(s) really kicked into high gear, the show gave us some of the most intense waits between episodes that TV had ever provided, up until that point, and if it's been bettered since it's only as a result of it's own success; others recognised it's greatness, emulated it, and refined it's principles. Sci-Fi TV as we recognise it today would not exist without Babylon 5. Fact!


This is an odd show, in that it started off heavily serialised, switched to episodics, and then reverted to serialised, all over the course of one season. One season, I might add, that was the only season the show ever got. Which is, not to be too blunt, a fucking outrage.

Focussing on Sheriff Lucas Buck; still Gary Cole's greatest role, and he was on The West Wing; the show charts the attempts of a small group of naysayers to break the stranglehold that Buck has on the people he polices. He's charming, manipulative, and utterly ruthless; they don't stand a chance.

There's a stellar cast involved in this show. Aside from Cole, there's Paige Turco, Jake Weber, Sarah Paulson and of course a very young Lucas Black showing the world what he was made of.

This show doesn't pull any punches. Over the course of it's 22 episodes it goes to some very dark places; the efforts of the local school teacher to exert her influence over young Caleb (Black) are incredibly creepy, and the gradual disintegration of one heroes sanity is a little hard to watch as well. There's a nasty (albeit mostly implied) rape scene, and the final run of episodes, in which virtually every character is corrupted in some way is just gutting. You really will not see that ending coming.

A word of warning; if you do decide to watch this show, do a little research first (while being careful to avoid spoilers of course). As with all of creator Shaun Cassidy's shows; he's also responsible for William Fichtner starring Invasion, and the show that kick started Heath Ledger's career, Roar; it's heavily dependant on a building atmosphere and intricately plotted, slow burn storylines. So the fact that the network screened the episodes in the wrong order and missed 4 out altogether doesn't do it any favours. The DVD release has the 18 aired episodes in their incorrect order, and then the other 4 tacked on the end; serving to ensure that the show doesn't make any sense. At all. Find out the right order before watching. You'll be glad you did.


I debated the running order of these last 2. Both huge critical successes, I was hard pressed to choose between them in terms of quality, so I didn't. Instead, I chose based on enjoyment.

You see, as much as I love Battlestar Galactica, and I do, it's not a show you can really say is 'enjoyable' to watch. It's bleak. Unremittingly bleak. This is a show that has the human race all but wiped out in an almost succesfull genocidal attack in the first episode, and just gets more depressing from there. Not a single character is safe, be it from physical injury, psychological harm, or death, and as the 4 season run rolls on you can't help but come to the conclusion that these writers had some very twisted childhoods.

Lest I put you off, I'll tell you that a happy ending of sorts does arrive, but it's all relative. It's an ending that is only happy as opposed to everything these people have been through up until that point, and it's an ending that has been paid for in blood. A lot of blood; far far fewer characters arrive at the destination than started the journey.

As downright depressing as the show is to watch though, it's also immensely addictive. Writing, direction, and above all the acting; Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Aaron Douglas, Lucy Lawless, James Callis and Nicki Clyne are the names I would singe out for especial praise; are pretty much flawless throughout. You will need to know what happens next, even as you dread it.


You all know what Lost was about. Even if you never saw an episode, you couldn't have avoided all the hype surrounding it's launch, all the praise heaped on it's early seasons, all the grouching during the middle years, and all the dissapointment and scorn directed at the finale.

Well here's the thing. The launch deserved the hype; it was awesome. The early seasons deserved the praise; they were some of the most addictive and engrossing hours of television I've ever seen. But that's where I partways with the masses, because I had zero problem with the 'difficult' middle years, and I absolutely adored the finale. So nyah!

Of course, your mileage may vary, as they apparently say, so the only way to find out where you stand on the issue is to watch it for yourself. One opinion is as valid as any other, after all, what with taste being subjective. One thing that will make me hurt you, though, is if you trot out the 'unanswered questions' argument. The number of people I heard bemoaning the fact that they kept piling on the mysteries without ever resolving them, and then listing a bunch of plotlines that had already been resolved, at least implicitly, if you were actually bothering to pay attention... enough to make my blood boil. Hate the show if you want to, but at least hate it for crimes it actually committed!


  1. I was actually gonna ask you your thoughts on Buffy on Formspring haha

    1. DO IT! I could, quite literally, write all day about that show. ALL DAY!