The current era of Peak TV owes much of its existence to the increasing sway of serialized storytelling. The availability of TV seasons on DVD and then streaming allowed TV creators to think in seasons rather than episodes, putting their characters through genuine changes rather than hitting the reset button every time the end credits rolled.
But treating TV seasons as unified wholes has its drawbacks, too. As I wrote over the summer, the canard that TV has become more like novels allows writers and showrunners to gloss over a multitude of flaws on the episodic level, with the justification that it will all make sense in the end. Sure, it was manipulative to lead viewers of “The Walking Dead” on for an entire month with a phony death, but maybe the deception won’t seem so egregious when Glenn is stuck under that Dumpster for hours instead of weeks. For shows designed to be binge-watched, episodic divisions become almost irrelevant, mere mile-markers on the journey to the finish line. (I’d argue that binge-watch shows still need those mile-markers to give viewers the periodic dopamine hits of incremental progress, but that’s an essay for another time.)
As Alan Sepinwall writes at HitFix, “More and more — particularly on cable, but now even on many broadcast shows — dramas are being structured for marathon viewing, rather than the weekly schedule in which they originally air. Serialization was once a dirty word in network television, where researchers used to claim that even a show’s most devoted fans watched one out of every four episodes on average, and where the president of entertainment at FOX had to lie to her bosses that ’24’ would have self-contained episodes in order to get a greenlight. Now that DVRs are commonplace, almost nobody airs reruns anymore, and the big aftermarket isn’t in syndicated repeats but selling shows to the streaming outlets, serialization is not only accepted, but in many cases preferred.”
One can argue the plusses and minuses of the seasonal model, but there’s one inarguable casualty of the shift away from the episodic approach: the standalone episode. Episodes like Lost’s “The Constant” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” “Hush” aren’t totally dissociated from ongoing plotlines, but they’re fundamentally self-contained, often departing from the show’s typical tone or style. (I’m speaking primarily of hour-long dramas here, since half-hour shows tend to be much more malleable affairs.) Standalones gave writers a chance to experiment, and sometimes those experiments bore fruit: If it didn’t work, it was back to business the following week, but if it did, it might take the show in a promising new direction. As Sepinwall notes, “The Good Wife” — one of the few network shows that regularly pushes its own formal boundaries — pitted its core characters against each other in the mock-trial episode “Red Team, Blue Team,” and the resulting tension was so intriguing that it dramatically altered the course of the show. “What began as a one-off,” he writes, “led to the single best stretch ‘The Good Wife’ has ever had, and is a reminder that doing standalone episodes provides room to experiment and stumble upon an element of the show you never realized was there before.”
“The X-Files” might have been the standalone episode’s pinnacle, using its procedural format and supernatural subject matter to bring a variety of cinematic styles to the small (and still squarish) screen. It was effectively three shows in one: There were the “mythology” episodes, with Mulder and Scully delving ever deeper into a massive (if never especially coherent) government cover-up; a wry, “Twilight Zone”-esque exploration of human foibles as seen though the lens of paranormal phenomena; and a collection of dark, spooky fables that got as close to horror movies or E.C. comics as broadcast TV would allow. You didn’t have to be a fan of all three kinds of episodes as long as you liked one: If you preferred the funny ones to the scary ones, or, for God only knows what reason, the ones about the black oil and alien bounty hunters, you knew it was just a matter of waiting until your favorite genre came back around. If you paid attention, you knew to perk up when you saw Kim Manners in the director’s slot, or Glenn Morgan and James Wong as the writers, and even if you didn’t catch the opening credits (no DVR rewind in those days), you could probably guess their involvement from their characteristic styles.
The shorter seasons of cable dramas and the emphasis on serialization and binge-watching has pushed shows in the direction of developing a consistent, singular voice. Showrunners have increased not only their artistic influence but their marketability, and it’s their names in the opening credits that generate excitement: You know when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss get writing credit for a “Game of Thrones” that something big is about to go down. The 22 (or more) episodes of a network TV season made it relatively easy to go off in a different direction, but contemporary standalones like “Breaking Bad’s” “Fly” or “Mad Men’s” “The Jet Set” or “The Americans'” “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” required entire seasons to be built around them; air one at the wrong moment — say, right after you’ve apparently killed off a major character — and even a fruitful departure may be resented for slowing down the overall story.
As an art form, television is much richer for the ability to tell longer, more coherent stories. But even though standalones of a sort still exist, TV has lost the mechanism to put forth an episode like “The X-Files'” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” or “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or “Home,” idiosyncratic stylistic departures which require no more than an easily gleaned understanding of ongoing character dynamics to be enjoyed in full. Perhaps “The X Files'” return next year, reportedly a mixture of serialized and standalone episodes, will remind the industry that TV doesn’t need to be a novel, and sometimes, short stories are one of the things it’s best at.