Saturday, April 10, 2010

What's the future of serialization on broadcast TV?

I've talked a lot about serialization here on the blog, and it's just as popular elsewhere (check out a nice post from Myles McNutt on Justified), partially because it's the end of two major serial powerhouses in Lost and 24 and also because I think people just love talking about it. So why not continue that discussion?

Today: what to expect from serialization on the broadcast networks.

As the photo to the post suggests, I think the future of serialized broadcast television lies with FOX's Fringe.

Let's face it: series that are heavily serialized with dense mythology do not seem to word in this landscape. As previously discussed, ratings for newbies V and FlashForward range from okay, but shrinking to overly awful. And ratings for those leaving series aren't blowing the house down either.

And although there is certainly more at play in those situations -- most notably FlashForward and 24 sucking -- the slumping ratings, especially for the new series, tells us that heavy serialization might not work on broadcast television.

So what will?

Serialization-lite. Which is where Fringe comes in to play.

Expect the networks to follow the Fringe formula: Introduce a serialized story that has the potential for heavy mythology early on, but rarely touch on that mythology. Instead, there will be some sort of procedural element that could keep the "general" viewer interested on a weekly basis and keep the attentive "fan" salivating for more of the A arc.

Not only does this approach keep the general viewer coming back -- and thus keeping the ratings afloat -- but it makes the fan do so as well. Take the Fringe episode "Peter" from a few weeks back. The response for that episode was overwhelmingly positive, primarily delved into important moments in characters' history. Now those who were already invested in the series feel revitalized because they actually "answered" something and perhaps those who were losing interest are now reinvested. It's a win-win, seemingly.

Now this is definitely not a new development, as The X-Files comes to mind first as a series that (at least attempted to) kept the overarching mythology at a distance long enough to keep those fans clamoring for more. Of course, it went off the rails before answering most of those questions and that is perhaps why Fringe has a leg up.

Lost fans and critics who don't have anything else to write about might feel the need to cry about the end of serialization as we know it, but it seems cyclical. Those writers influenced by their viewing experience with The X-Files probably went on to write more fully-developed mythology and straight serialization in their series through the aughts. Now there are writers that have seen the negatives to that type of storytelling as well, so we're heading back the other way to some sort of middle ground. And even though I myself get frustrated with some of the procedural episodes of Fringe, it's not because they are standalone, case-based. It's because sometimes they're not very good. When Fringe gets the procedural stuff right, it's still a damn good hour of television.

Just as Myles suggests, the real barometer for how people embrace the mix of serialization and procedural is how successful they are deployed and ultimately, if the episode is enjoyable. And at least with Fringe, that's almost always the case.

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