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Upfront Aside: The Emergence of Limited-Run Serial Drama

May 21st, 2009 | Ivan Askwith

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With all of the standard noise and fanfare this week around the network upfront announcements, I almost didn’t notice this passing comment from Steve McPherson, President of the ABC Entertainment Group, about the forthcoming “re-imagination” of V:

“[It has a] normal order right now, 13 episodes. We really, from the beginning, want to craft a whole series, and we’d like to be able to announce what that is at the time that it airs. At this point we believe it’s going to be in four parts, and those will be anything from 13 to 22 episodes in each part. But it will have a beginning, middle and end,” he added.”

While the creative and business benefits of this approach will make intuitive sense to audiences of telenovelas (which are structured as long-form but limited-duration narratives) and non-American networks such as the BBC (where even mainstream hits such as “The Office” and “Life on Mars” end after only 1-2 seasons), it strikes me as proof of an important evolution among American television networks, where high-performing shows are extended indefinitely as “sure bets.”

The problem, of course, is that indefinite renewal works far better for some types of narrative (e.g, sitcoms, procedurals, episodic dramas) than others (i.e. long-form, evolving and complex narratives). I’ve addressed this topic in more depth in the chapter that I contributed to Reading Lost
, which considered some of the motives that compelled ABC to approve a firm end-date for Lost several years in advance.

In the closing paragraph of that chapter, I proposed that ABC’s unconventional (and intelligent) decision to let Lost‘s showrunners work toward an established ending could have significant implications for the future of American network television:

After LOST’s first season, critics and writers suggested that the show’s most important contribution was that it cleared the path for a new wave of television programmes with rich details and complex, rewarding narratives. If Fox is right, and LOST’s final three seasons demonstrate the importance of an established end date in developing a coherent and compelling serial narrative, the show may accomplish something even more important. It may provide the precedent for a new era of television narratives that have the freedom to end.

I believed it when I wrote it, and I believe it even more now. At the same event, McPherson — who authorized Lost‘s finite run — conceded that:

I think that was obviously a tough decision a few years ago to give it an ending, but I think it really paid off. This season was stronger than it’s ever been because there wasn’t an infinite middle to the show. So I think, giving them an end date, you’re going to see probably some of the strongest writing you’ve ever seen on the show, because they’ve been able to really retrofit from exactly where they want to end up.

To me, it looks like V is being granted the golden opportunity that Lost never got: the chance to plan a beginning, middle and end from the beginning. Here’s hoping V makes good use of it.

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  1. May 21st, 2009 at 09:13 | #1

    It will be very interesting to look at the numbers for Lost’s final season. I think we will find higher than usual ratings, in part, because as fans we all know the show is ending.

  2. Ben
    May 21st, 2009 at 11:20 | #2

    Given the increasing number of franchise “reboots” and our seemingly insatiable hunger for “origin stories,” maybe we can take this idea of a pre-determined end-date for a serial narrative to an absurd conclusion: the thing ends before it even begins. What is left? An infinite number of prequels, of course. A number of prequels to a story that is never “actually” told…

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