Friday, August 24, 2012

The Familiarity Conundrum and Episodic Content

In the realm of TV, comic books, web series and other episodic content lies an underlying contradiction that I think challenges a writer of any level. In TV shows for example, every episode is supposed to tell its own self contained story, one that ties into the large narrative of the show as a whole. At the same time the shows must have familiar characters and settings that bind the narrative together and prevent the show from being a series of unrelated short stories.

In addition there's the familiarity of the story structure itself. One of the reason's I got into TV writing as opposed to books or comics was out of disgust with the procedural shows that cluttered my television. I was tired of seeing the same old plots acted out again and again with barely anytime given to the development of the characters or their stories. I would watch an hour of television, sitting through fifteen minutes of commercials to get five minutes of character growth. In almost any procedural show on television, whether it be about detectives or lawyers or doctors, they all invariably follow the same structure. You get the opening that has them talking about their lives, then the hook, be it the dead body that washes up on the shore or the accident victim being wheeled into the emergency room.Then they go through the episode's plot, who killed this person or what disease do they have. (And no, I'm not making the lupus joke.) You'll get a line of banter here or there about their relationship or what existential crises they happen to be struggling with that season, but by and large they fail to change or address anything of substance. Then at the end of the episode after the case is closed and the organ transplanted, we get our star crossed lovers having a quiet moment to themselves, only for the episode to end before it actually goes anywhere.

How many of us have seen episodes where the girl and guy to be are talking somewhere by themselves, having one of those romantic moments where they look into to each others eyes only to smile and look away, and then the episode just ends, for no other reason than they have to save something for sweeps week. In the real world the characters don't simply stop. It implies that they awkwardly walk away after the camera stops rolling, failing to mention anything that just happened. How many of us could go through that situation week after week before we grabbed the other person and said "enough with this shit, is this going anywhere or not?"

From Familiar to Boring

While familiarity in of itself is not toxic to stories, and can even be good (we'll get to that later) it runs the risk of ruining the story before your audience even get's a chance to experience it. I want you to do me a favor the next time you watch your favorite cop show of choice. Regardless of network, or series you will, without fail, see the same patten emerge. The killer, nintey percent of the time, is the second character introducted in the investigation. Could be a friend of the victim, or the neighrbor or a supsect, dosen't matter. If there are three suspects it is almost always the second one.

If the cops find out she was last seen with guy A,  it won't be him. They talk to the neighbor, guy B, and find out she was arguing with an ex-boyfriend. So they close in on guy C, thinking it's got to be the disgruntled ex. Nope, it was the neighbor. He thought he finally had his chance with her when she broke up with C, but was driven to a murder rage when he saw her with A.

Murder Rage, now there's a name for a band.

The formula completely ruined cop shows for me. Even when they try to spice it up by having only two suspects you know it will always be the first because the feel the need to pad the second act. The story of that type of show had become so predictable that it ruined the mystery.

Is Familiar All Bad?

No, it's not. As I said you need characters for people to identify with if want to have any hope of your story mattering to anyone. In addition there's something to be said for the comfort of the familiar. After all we're more comfortable in our own homes than in a stranger's.We all prefer our own beds to that of a hotel's.

One of the routines I used to have was turning on Scrubs after work. I had already seen every episode of that show at least three times, but still went back to it. After a long stressful and often unpredictable day it was nice to have something that I knew what to expect from. Mac and cheese may not be the most exciting of meals but at least you know you'll be satisfied with it. By building a familiar world and location we establish a sense of family with our characters. We feel like we could be friends with them and even come to call them family if they were to exist.

Alter the Mold Without Breaking It

I use Scrubs as an example above because I think it's one of those shows that really seems to get the medium it's in. When you turn on any random episode of Scrubs, you know what you're going to get. J.D. will be wacky, Elliot will be an emotional wreck, Dr. Cox will belittle someone and Dr. Jan Itor will say something that reminds us of the lovable sociopath that he is.

Within that standard framework the show was able to achieve so much more. It had multi episode arcs and rarely went more than a few episodes without having some kind of growth for one its characters. This was aided by having a huge cast that allowed them to rotate in side characters as they needed, but it was a show that was also willing to go to places that other half hour comedies weren't, like in the episode My Lunch. (My favorite by the way) Scrubs was able to use its familiatry like a securtiy blanket, giving us something to find comfort in as it explored darker areas.

The Simpsons is another great example, and speaks to why that simple cartoon has stood the test of time. You never, ever know where an episode of the Simpsons is going to end up. An episode is just as likely to begin with Bart in detention and end with Homer in a Russian gulag turning to Marge to say "it was a sure bet, how could we lose," as it is for the family to spend the entire epsiode within their own home. While using characters that have stayed virtually the same for the many years the show has been on, it provided and anchor with which to explore literately anything that came into the writer's minds.

So how do you fix this? How do we give engaging stories while retaining the familiar, how do we break into new territory without losing the familiarity that ensures the fans care? While I could provide more example like those above (Cowboy Bebop is a master of this by the way) I think it's best to go with the simple answer.


Characters are the chains that bind your story together. You can spend every episode in a different place, telling a different story in a different style as long as your characters are there for the ride. As long as you make your characters consistent, while giving them meaningful arcs and challengers to overcome, your audience will go anywhere with you. We travel with the crew of the Bebop to different worlds without hesitation, watching as they chase their latest target and get wrapped up in the target's story because we care about what's going to happen to them there. We care about how they're going to adapt to these new environments and the challenges that they bring.

We can break the mold of the same boring plots and paint by numbers fashion of storytelling because our viewers are there for the characters. Without interesting people no one would care if the murder was solved, without troubled doctors, no one cares if the patient is cured.


Is simply another tool in the writer's belt. It can liberate your story or carry it down into the murky depths of mediocrity depending on how you wield it. We're entering an age where television doesn't have to be the same boring cookie cutter templates we're used to. We can reach out into new forms of storytelling, explore new genres and styles as long as we give our audience something to hold onto, our characters as a security blanket to remind them what they're fighting for.


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