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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What Do You Need For A Good TV Serial?

Lost was one of the biggest, most influential series in recent memory. It resonated with audiences and kept them guessing to the end. There was so much buzz around it and the ratings were so good that everyone thereafter wanted to copy its template. There were a pile of dramas afterwards that could be called "Lost, But With A Difference."

For instance:
  • The Nine (Lost during a bank heist)
  • The Event (Lost with some...event)
  • Jericho (Lost after a nuclear explosion)
  • V (Lost with extraterrestrials)
  • Heroes (Lost with superheroes)
  • FlashForward (Lost with a timetraveling conspiracy)
  • DayBreak (Lost + Groundhog Day + MURDER)
Each show tried (or is trying) copying the supposed template: 1) Important event happens. 2) Characters try piecing together the mystery of what happened and why. The most successful one of these, at least in terms of audience size, was Heroes. We're going to tackle the rise and fall of Heroes in a later article, but for a brief, shining moment, they were oh-so-close to capturing the audience of Lost. Even that show fell apart, and most of the other shows are either fading, faded, or completely forgotten. Why? What happened?

We're going to use the notoriously bad movie Delgo as a clue. Delgo had a budget of $40 million and ended up grossing about $700,000. One of the reasons for it? Delgo opened with a long, boring explanation of the mythology of the world. Here's a quote from Nathan Rabin from AVClub:
You see, once upon a time in a land called Jhamora there lived a bunch of slithery lizard-people known as the Lokni. A loss of natural resources forced a bunch of dragonflies known as the Nohrin to settle on Jhamora with the permission of the Lokni. Alas, Sedessa (voiced by Anne Bancroft), the power-mad sister of Nohrin king King Zahn (voiced by Louis Gossett Jr., the young people’s favorite) decides to terrorize the Lokni out of a sense of racial superiority. In the process she and her goons murder the father (Burt Reynolds) of the titular young Lokni boy-lizard (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.). Meanwhile, Sedessa is stripped of her wings and banished from the kingdom of the Nhorin as punishment for her brutality. Fifteen years later, Sedessa forms a strategic alliance with a race of ogre people and conspires with one General Raius to exacerbate tensions between the Lokni and Nhorin people so war will break out and she can seize power.
OK, got all that? Rabin points out that Delgo assumes the battle is already won, so it has no problem dumping mythology on you without letting you know the characters. It gives you this plot diarrhea before telling you why you should even care.

That's what happens with some of these shows. Their primary concern is the mythology. They care so much about the world that they don't focus on why we these characters are worth caring about, and in turn, why we should keep watching.

Consider how Lost began. The first episode introduced the characters, the monster, then the creepy French radio message. The first season led us into the characters' lives and what decisions brought them to this point. Then and only then did they start deepening the mythology with the hatch, the Dharma Initiative, and all the other crazy stuff that they got into. For as crazy as Lost got in latter years, throughout the first season the show started out simple: People crash-land on an island that's more than what it seems, and they have to figure out how to survive there.

Because the set up was so simple, we could focus on getting to know the characters. It helped that the characters on Lost were so strong and nuanced that we cared about them and wanted to know more. Sawyer was an interesting character, for example. He was a charming rogue who didn't care about anyone, but he was also a victim with a scarred soul. Locke was a character who seemed like a rough, Special-Ops type of guy. It turned out he was a crippled, broken man who was living out the fantasy of being a tough guy. These are interesting characters who had goals and just so happened to be thrown into this situation together. If they never would have crashed on the island, you can easily envision what their lives would have been like.

Granted, Lost had the advantage of great ratings and a huge budget, so they could continue delving into their mythology. That being said, most successful serials follow the same template. Look at Battlestar Galactica, for example. BSG's first season is all about a simple concept: People on the run from robots bent on their destruction. Afterwards we started getting in to all of the other craziness, but not until we learned about the characters, like Starbuck, Tigh, and Adama.

We can see, therefore, that a high-concept show can't be too high-concept too soon. The most successful of these shows start with a simple concept and then deepens the concept over time. Why is that?

Let’s use an example of something unrelated to TV: Facebook. Your grandma can look at Facebook and understand it immediately. People who she knows will post about what they're doing. There's a big box at the type that you can type things in. You type in something and hit "Share," and it appears immediately. It's so easy to use that anyone can do it.

Can you do deeper things with it? Absolutely. You can share videos, post pictures, play games, list your favorite TV shows and get updates about them. You can create an ad and put it on the site if you want to. However, they don't splay all that in front of a first-time user. For a first-time user, they give you one message: How are you feeling? Share it!

That's what a high-concept show needs to be about. One of the deepest, most high-concept shows in history, The Prisoner, starts simply. A former spy is on an island. They're trying to break him, and he refuses. He tries to run away and gets caught. Using that basic template, The Prisoner was able to explore issues of identity, collectivism, Orwell, and others, but it all started out simple.

Let's run some comparisons. These are simple setups:
  • Lost: A group of people crash land on an island and have to survive.
  • Battlestar Galactica: A group of people are all that's left of humanity and have to survive.
  • Heroes: A group of people get superpowers.
  • Jericho: A group of people are survivors of a nuclear attack.
  • The Walking Dead: A group of people are survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
Compare that with other setups:
  • FlashForward: Everyone on earth sees two minutes of their future from six months down the line.
  • DayBreak: A man is framed for murder and sees his girlfriend die and is forced to relive the day over and over again until he solves the murder and saves his girlfriend.
  • V: Aliens come to Earth and claim to come in peace, but it's discovered that they're reptiles with more sinister objectives. (Admittedly, this is the same setup as the more successful 1983 miniseries, but the point still stands.)
Which setups are easier to understand and follow? Which shows were more successful? Sure, some of the aforementioned shows didn’t have very long runs, but they’re remembered as being GOOD. You’ll also notice that the “good” shows have premises that being with “a group of people,” as opposed to “something happens.”

That leads us to the next point: Once you have a simple setup, then it's time to set your characters in motion. Who are they? What kind of people are they? What were they doing with their lives before the show started?

This is the step that a lot of shows fumble. For example, Heroes was a great show for the first season when the characters had very clearly defined goals. Peter Petrelli wanted to be somebody, Hiro wanted to be a great hero, even stripper lady wanted to put aside her past and be a good mother. However, after that great first season, the characters went off the rails and did things that didn't make sense. It's no surprise that the show's ratings start plummeting when the characters fell apart.

You can sometimes pull out a great show with a complex premise and great characters. Farscape is an example. The setup? An astronaut is sucked through a wormhole and ends up with a group of people on the run. It's not the easiest setup to wrap your head around. However, because what followed was good, it made it easier to keep up.

However, the point remains that a complex premise is just plain offputting for most viewers. You could say that "audiences just shouldn't be so dumb and maybe they’ll understand something complex," but that's not fair. Some of the best movies, books and TV shows start with a simple premise:
  • Catcher In The Rye: A troubled youth runs away from home.
  • Star Wars: A young man discovers a mysterious power inside of him.
  • Catch-22: A soldier discovers the insanity of war.
  • Citizen Kane: The rise and fall of a newspaper mogul.
  • Singin' In The Rain: A silent movie star tries to make a talking picture.
  • To Kill A Mockingbird: A girl comes of age and sees racism in her hometown.
From those simple premises, they're able to build and weave intricate stories with deep and interesting themes.

Am I saying that all entertainment needs to be simplistic? Well, no. I'm just saying that for a complex serial mystery that attempts to emulate Lost, it's important not to get bogged down in mythology. A simple premise that deepens later on along with great characters is all you need to make a great show.