TV talk on structure, series and sequels

I was listening to an episode of Current Geek recently, when a fascinating conversation emerged regarding the structure of television shows and their series’. Current Geek features Scott Johnson and Tom Merritt with guests, discussing pop culture topics. At the end of each episode, they have a feature where they predict what will happen in the future.

I’ll be honest, I usually skip past this section because there’s no way it can live up to the fun of the quiz before it, but this time I listened to the scenario and was intrigued. The episode is available to listen here, with the specific section at about 49 minutes in, but I’ve transcribed the bits that interested me below.

They don’t particularly come to any conclusions, and I don’t know all of the TV shows being mentioned, but I thought it was a great topic to discuss. It starts with Scott introducing this week’s subject.

Scott: US television will start playing the British model of short seasons of longer episodes of higher quality production, think Sherlock for example, where they do it in chunks of three or a series will do six in a row and then nothing for two years while they work on the next series, that sort of thing.

I’m kind of a fan of the way Britain does it, the way the UK does it in general, but I also… you know, I didn’t want LOST to be 12 total episodes, sometimes you want a big, long meaty show to go on for six or seven seasons. So, I feel like there should be a mix. In a way, haven’t we kind of met in the middle with cable shows that are highly thought of, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, they go for like ten to thirteen episodes. Game of Thrones and so on. Isn’t that kind of a step in that direction? Without completely losing the American model of “pound it into the ground until it’s dead”?

Tom: I think what’s happening here is not so much that we will change the model of how we determine how many episodes there are, but the reason the BBC does that, as far as I can tell, and if anyone knows different please tell me, is because they are not beholden to a broadcast rating game, the way broadcasters are in the US. Because they are supported by the licence fee, right?

So they can say, this story needs to be told over this many episodes, or Sherlock, because of the production value we want, should only be three episodes per season, so we can really make them good. They can pay attention to the needs of the story they’re telling over the needs of marketing and ratings. And the reason we always had 26 episode seasons was because that spread them out over the fall and spring seasons, and if you did enough of those seasons, it made a nice number for syndication.

Those reasons are going away, syndication doesn’t mean what it used to mean. You can syndicate to Netflix, you can syndicate to Hulu, and they don’t care how many episodes are in the season. And we’re already seeing this with things like House of Cards, with things like Orange is the New Black, with HBO shows, where they will sometimes do an eight episode season out of the gate, because they’re just trying it out. Or with Rome, where they were like, we’re just doing two seasons of Rome. That’s it. Because that’s the story we want to tell.

Scott: That’s true. They did kind of end that one on their own terms, didn’t they? But then again, you’ve got a show like Deadwood, which was one of my favourite TV shows of all time, and they just yanked the rug out.

Tom: And that just shows how we haven’t quite got there yet, to where we’re totally independent of that stuff.

Eric: Deadwood’s kind of old, that’s before this whole big TV is awesome thing…

Scott: Well, they were what ’04 to ’06/7?

Tom: They were on the way up.

Eric: But still, not like it is today. Where everybody thinks the content coming from TV is fantastic.

Tom: The best and worst ever, right? Depending on what you’re talking about. You can talk about Breaking Bad, you can talk about Mad Men, you can talk about The Walking Dead and people are like oh, it’s some of the best television ever made, outside of HBO even. And then you can talk about Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty and people are like, television is the worst that it’s ever been.

Scott: It really is polarised now, isn’t it? But think about this. This is one thing that hit me the other day about what’s different about now versus say, let’s say the 80s or even the early 90s, with television. Back then, it was a death nail, except maybe in M*A*S*H’s case to take a successful movie franchise, for example, or movie, and make a TV show out of it. They always failed. We were talking about it on Twitter today, what were some of the examples?

Tom: 9 to 5.

Scott: Ferris Bueller series was terrible.

Eric: There was a Ferris Bueller series?

Scott: It lasted like five minutes, I swear, that thing was terrible. And this happened all the time. I wanna say there was a clueless series in the nineties, I mean all these weird “let’s bring movies home” thing. But lately, A&E’s Psycho series Bates Motel is really good.

Eric: What about, Hannibal?

Scott: Hannibal’s really good. Fargo is amazing. We’re in a different time. These old ideas of “that doesn’t work” is kinda… maybe video games will get to that.

Tom: They’re smarter though. Look at the difference. With M*A*S*H even, which was incredibly successful, and 9 to 5, and Ferris Bueller, they tried to take the movie and turn it into a television show. And everybody’s like, wait a minute, that’s not Matthew Broderick, those aren’t the actors, this isn’t the same story, this is weird.

Whereas what they’re doing with Fargo, what they’re doing with Psycho, is they’re figuring out how to continue the story, in a way that says the movie is still the movie, but we’re going to tell another part of the story that you never saw before.

Scott: Yea, different angle, different time or different characters altogether. Like in the Fargo case, that’s just the universe. It’s the Fargo universe with a whole other story being told and they’ll do that for season two again, a bit like American Horror Story does this.

Tom: They restart every season.

Scott: It’s interesting. There’s an old guy part of me that grew up with the A-Team and shows that I thought were amazing and were just kind of bad, and TV was bad. Now when they said they were turning Fargo into a series, I went ooooh, I don’t know man. That seems weird. But this stuff works now.

The fact that NBC is still making episodes of Hannibal blows my mind, because that is such a non-network thing to do, to make that show. That is so cable, I don’t know how they’re getting away with it, that’s a really good show. I equate TV with garbage now, broadcast TV, I don’t think of anything good on those. I know there’s stuff, but I don’t think of it as good.

Eric: It’s interesting the model we have today, look at Community that got cancelled again but now Yahoo picked them up.

Tom: By the way, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – award-winning film, turned into the sitcom Alice.

Scott: Oh, I didn’t realise that had anything to do with that. But then they made Flow and ruined it.

Tom: They’ve always got to take it to the Joey level, don’t they?

Scott: Oh they do, dude. The worst offender was The Dukes of Hazzard and the Enos spin-off.

Tom: I think AfterMASH.

Scott: AfterMASH was pretty bad.

Eric: They had Barney Miller, then they did Fish, right?

Tom: I actually liked Fish.

Scott: Fish was alright. They occasionally pull it off, like Frasier is a great example. It was a really good show.

Eric: Frasier was fantastic.

Tom: One of the keys is doing it before the first show is cancelled. Because Joey with Friends and AfterMASH with M*A*S*H, they’re all like well the main show’s been cancelled but we’re trying to save a part of it. Whereas Frasier started before Cheers had ended.

Eric: Cheers was still going on but he wasn’t playing a big part of anymore.

Scott: And they tried to have another one, the spin off from Cheers that no one remembered was The Tortellis, which was Nick Tortelli, who was Rea Purlman’s ex on the show. I remember being excited about it and watching it and going, this isn’t very good. That’s a weird thing you don’t see happen as much anymore. Scrubs ends, but you don’t see Zach Braff doing his character but living at home as a dad, or something dumb like that.

Tom: Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is totally doing this. It’ll be interesting to see. Scott: It’s funny, because you find things to trust, even though it goes against the idea that you think you don’t trust. But because the right people are involved, you’re giving these guys passes. I suppose, that’s a lot of pressure on them.

Tom: They’re kind of doing the same thing as Fargo, where we’re going to live in the universe but we’re not going to try and tell the Breaking Bad story.

Scott: I’m excited for that, we don’t have an air date for that?

Tom: It got delayed. They’ve renewed it for a second season, though, and it hasn’t even been on the air yet.

Scott: Someone went in the future, saw it worked out and came back.