An Ode to the Episode

For a long time the idea of a “long movie” excited me. When streaming hit the scene I thought “finally, we have a way to tell a long filmic story that’s one cohesive whole! No more of these dinghy self contained “episodes”. We’re going to have honest to goodness novel-like-movies. Erich von Stroheim’s original version of Greed can finally be resurrected.”

Then the “long movie” did emerge and it was (for the most part) terrible.

The “long movie” (for lack of a more elegant term – the “novelistic movie” doesn’t work for reasons we’ll discuss) isn’t packaged as a “long movie” but rather a show meant to be streamed and binged. Most of the stuff Netflix puts out is a “long movie,” especially when it’s billed as a limited series. A few are good, but a huge majority are bad, because they shed what TV does well without appropriating what movies or novels, their two role models, do well. It’s one thing wearing the skin of another two things, but the skin doesn’t fit right, and as a result it’s neither of those things and is pretty ugly to boot.

Movies focus on a single event, a change from A to B (or a failure to change from A to B). They’re best comparable to poems. They say “look at this one thing, observe this one thing closely.” They work because they’re fast. Taking that focused observation and stretching it over ten plus hours doesn’t make for a good investigation. It makes for a thin story packed with tons and tons of filler, and because it’s so thin the observation which would have once felt dense becomes diluted, distracted, and empty. “You just have to get through the first few episodes and then things really start to pick up,” is a common refrain for Netflix shows, because the observation takes forever to start. Novels, meanwhile, work because of their wide focus. They can attack the same problem from a thousand directions and wander wherever they want, because you, the reader, can put them down and walk away and ruminate on them. But streaming shows aren’t built like that either: they try to always end with a cliffhanger to get you onto the next episode. They want to feel taut, so they don’t offer the room to participate and engage that novels do.

Excited until they hit the scene, I suddenly found myself wishing for these “long movies” to be different than they were. I realized what I really wanted was for them to be more episodic. I wanted them to be more like TV.

This shift in opinion reflects another shift in my thinking about TV and story in general. Once upon a time (this might link to LOST being the first show I ever seriously binged) I thought TV, stories in general, should be leading to an apotheosis, and that everything they do should be in service of that final climax and denouement. That’s not really what good TV does. It takes time to explore character slowly. It can luxuriate in some low stakes stories that don’t necessarily serve some “bigger plot” but do allow us to access these characters in new ways, again and again. Change comes slowly, in increments, organically. It gives both the writers and the audience a chance to slowly explore each character and each relationship. Classic TV does share some of its strengths with movies and novels. Each singular episode either changes a character or reveals something about them, but we observe characters over a large period of time, watching them grow slowly over time and growing more intimate with them in the process. It’s equivalent to getting to know someone in real life. It’s like making a friend.

Examples are easy. Just look to the best shows. Mad Men does it. Each episode feels compact is easy to watch without a broader context, but strung together they show a clear (and occasionally regressive) progression. Bob’s Burgers does it – the Louise and Tina of Season 8 are not the Louise and Tina of Season 1, even though it would be difficult to pinpoint a “turning point” for either of those characters. BoJack Horseman does it – each fight serves as a turning point, but each fight also has the cumulative weight of all the previous fights. Samurai Champloo does it, serving up exclusively episodic stories until the finale, but delivering a finale with gravitas because you’re deeply invested in the characters and relationships involved.

It sounds stupid laying it out now – of course TV works best when it plays to its specific strengths. When done well these strengths were invisible to me, and I wanted TV to be something else. It was only when I saw the strengths stripped away that I recognized them.

Ending on a final example – to finish off my recent animation binge I’m rewatching Adventure Time, a show that, on an episodic level, operates so speedily and irreverently it often doesn’t seem to adhere to any sort of story cohesion on either a episodic or series-long level. Two nights ago at 1 AM I watched “I Remember You” and sobbed my eyes out. It’s a well written episode, a beautiful episode, but it couldn’t be as powerful if we hadn’t spent four seasons getting to know Marceline and Ice King separately. We know who they were, who they are, how they feel about their friends, their loved ones, and how they operate in the world. The episode reveals just one new, small thing, one new friendship, and it is massive because and only because of how many small little things we already know. It’s not as if the show was building to it specifically. It’s not that one massive change a movie would have. It’s incidental to much of the rest of the overall show’s plot. But it’s a sincere moment built on the back of a bunch of other sincere moments. So while I’m still interested to see how “long TV” will evolve it has, more than anything, taught me to better appreciate the old school power of an episode.

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