Apr 16, 2020
Peak TV and serialization in the wake of the Game of Thrones finale
So… how about that Game of Thrones finale?
Okay, let me cut through the icy, awkward silence, and start over.
We live in the Age of Peak TV, or that’s what all the smart websites tell me: Peak TV this, Peak TV that. The House that HBO and The Sopranos Built has become the castle that looks down upon all of us.
So why is everybody so miserable?
In case you’ve been living under a cave, the series finale of Game of Thrones has been extremely polarizing. People have taken to the internet to share their hot takes about how the show went off the rails, jumped the shark, destroyed childhoods, and every other bit of hyperbole that fans go to when a TV show lets them down.
I’ll leave alone the fact that if people dedicated as much of their passion and energy toward solving problems in their community as they do toward the TV they watch, the world would be a better place. This isn’t to shit on Game of Thrones fans; Well, not entirely. I may take a potshot or two, but I’m married to a Game of Thrones fan, so my happiness depends on diplomacy. Believe it or not, there was a version of this essay in my head that would have went something like this:
Dear Game of Thrones fans,
You think you’re the first group of fans to be disappointed in a finale? Since The Sopranos, fan base after fan base has taken to the internet after their particular finale wasn’t up to snuff. From Lost, to How I Met Your Mother, to Dexter, people keep losing their shit because the last episode of their favorite TV show wasn’t the best. Grow up and get a spine already!!!
But I thought better of it. Frankly, I’m not one to judge. I’ve bitched about TV shows taking narrative turns I didn’t like before. Full disclosure: I didn’t really watch Game of Thrones. I read the books it’s based on, and I did watch the last season with my wife. She was disappointed, but she was fairly reasonable about it. I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong for disliking the finale. What I really want to do is confront what may be at the root of the problem: Serialization.
In the Age of Peak TV, one of the characteristics of a “great show” is serialization of a storyline. The Sopranos is often credited as the progenitor of the trend, but there were shows that came out before it that dabbled with having long arcs that stretched throughout a season, or even multiple seasons. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine come to mind. But the first non-soap opera to really try it was Babylon 5. The idea was that no longer would TV shows be episodic affairs with throwaway one-time stories. Now, shows could be large epics that told grand sweeping stories that had deep, resonant themes. The era became known as TV’s new Golden Age, and I will admit there are a lot of quality shows out there, and a lot of good shows have clogged the airways since the new millennium dawned.
My problem isn’t serialization itself. Serialization is a storytelling choice. It’s like telling a story in a nonlinear fashion, or having a character who’s a Chosen One. It can be done well, but it comes with its own unique challenges. If one fails at those challenges, it can really undermine a show’s quality. While there are many shows that mastered serialization, there have been many that have reminded me of the simple joy of watching “classic shows” from the ‘50s and ‘60s that featured mostly standalone episodes. My problem isn’t serialization per se, but the fact every show is serialized to the point where the writing would have to be perfect for the show to make sense and the ending to be satisfying. So who’s at fault here?
Just what is it you guys want, anyway?
Again, I’m not writing this to shit all over fans who were let down. But I must still ask the question above. We live in an era where we have more entertainment choices than ever, more than previous generations could ever hope to comprehend. And yet we seem very easily irritated. (A bitching marine is a happy marine, as the saying goes.) So the question of audience expectations comes up, and with the shows I mentioned above, as well as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the overall impression I got from fan complaints was “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t what we got!”
Which brings us back to what is it that we want from a series in the first place. To be entertained? For everything in the story to make sense? To be surprised? To have the ending that was in your head play out? My wife had almost seven complete scenarios mapped out of how the show “should” have turned out. Maybe it’s my approach to criticism, but I’ve never believed that when critiquing a work one should say what the creators should have done. You critique what they actually have done, and whether it was a satisfying experience. So I ask rhetorically, Thrones fans, what would have been satisfying?
I’m not asking these questions because I think fans are necessarily wrong. But these questions do need to be asked from time to time. A good example is season one of True Detective, when a lot of fans were disappointed with the ending because it turned out the murderer was just some guy. I mean, there were twists and turns, but in the end, it was about a serial killer, and the efforts of the main characters to track him down. It’s like everyone was expecting there to be more to it than that, when the show never advertised that there was anything other to the story besides some true detectives trying to solve a murder case.
Then again, while fans can read too much into some things, sometimes they get suckered in.
Do shows do too much to get viewers’ hopes up?
In this respect, Lost and Battlestar Galactica come to mind, but so do The X-Files and even the Star Wars saga. Lost and Battlestar Galactica both seemed to be telling this long, overarching story that was at the center of the narrative, one that was driving everything that was going on. One that would pay off when everything came full circle. There were so many questions about all these mysterious elements in Lost, and Battlestar even went so far as to say of its villainous Cylons, “They have a plan.” So there was a plan, then? The writers of both shows must have sat down and planned out these epics in detail before they got going, right?
Troubling signs emerged as the shows dragged on, with sudden plot twists popping up that seemed to have been tossed in to prop up the flagging storytelling, and in Lost’s case, there were so many questions that one began to wonder if the story was thought out at all. Then the finales for both aired, and we finally learned from behind-the-scenes materials that what we all suspected was true. There was no plan. They were just making it up as they went. They just acted like they had a plan because it was a hook to get audiences interested.
You saw this with Star Wars and how fans were coming up with fan theories as to who Snoke was, and who Rey’s parents were. My hatred of fan theories aside, I could only shake my head and think, “Guys, come on. It’s J.J. Abrams. He’s always presenting story elements like they’re some great mystery even though he has no idea what the answers to the questions are. You’re all going to be disappointed.” Sure enough, The Last Jedi comes out, and all the fan theories meant nothing. And before you jump down my throat about how it was all Rian Johnson’s fault, every source I could find basically said Abrams left it up to Johnson and Andy Serkis to figure out who Snoke was and what he was on about.
While I could make fun of fans, I could also argue that they were taken advantage of. If my insight into the creative mind holds any weight, I think some writers like to seem smarter than they are. What better way to do that than act like you have some grand ingenious plan? J.J. Abrams even said in a TED talk how much mystery can open up possibilities in storytelling—though, I don’t remember him ever mentioning how important it is to resolve any mysteries.
Even George Lucas falls into this category. While he’s insisted over the decades that he had this large story mostly formed in his head when he began the Star Wars saga, if you look at the various statements he’s made, the number of “planned” films in the series changes constantly. At one point he was insisting he had 12 films mapped out; For most of my childhood, it was nine, with the original trilogy being the middle part of the story. Then after the prequels concluded, and reception was still polarized, he was insisting that the series was always going to be told in six chapters, and that it was always supposed to be about Darth Vader’s character arc. Of course, that doesn’t really explain why Darth Vader only has 12 minutes of screentime in A New Hope, but hey, what do I know?
It should also be noted that when you read interviews with literally anybody who was involved in the production of Lucas’ Star Wars movies from a storytelling position, it seems clear they were making it all up as they went along. Maybe that’s because…
Long form storytelling is HARD!!
The statement above is not meant to be condescending. It’s something I think we all know. But the sheer amount of vitriol has inspired satirical news articles with titles like “Game of Thrones writers petition fans to write their own goddamn show, if they’re so smart”. While I do feel for creators who have to deal with fan reactions that drift right into hyperbole, there’s something that we shouldn’t miss here. In the Marine Corps, we like to joke that USMC stands for “U Signed the Motherfucking Contract”. Basically, it’s a catch-all phrase to get people to stop bitching about the perils of the job. As annoying as fanboys can be from time to time, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, you were the ones who tried to adapt Game of Thrones. You accepted the challenge. You undertook the mission. You did so knowing that things could get messed up. You’re responsible for the show when it’s good. You’re responsible when it’s not good.
I’ve been playing devil’s advocate with my wife since the series ended, and I’ll say to fans what I said to her. The showrunners have inked a deal to work on the next Star Wars trilogy. They also have an alternate history series in development with HBO. It’s clear they wanted to wrap Thrones up and move on to other things. I’m not saying they’re right to have handled the last two seasons the way they did; I’m saying I understand why. Understanding doesn’t mean agree with.
Also, here’s one of my few potshots at the fans: stop with the petitions already. Disney is not going to remake The Last Jedi; they’re too busy remaking every animated film they’ve released in the last fifty years. You may be correct in disliking a piece of work, but if you can’t even say you’ve produced a short film that was well received on YouTube, what makes you think you’re capable of making a better version of anything? You’ve made your displeasure known. As fans, as customers, and as consumers, that’s all you can do: let the producers know they did it wrong, and hope they learn their lessons. Long form storytelling is hard, with many different ways to screw it up.
In storytelling, there’s the term “midpoint”. The midpoint doesn’t necessarily need to be in the exact middle of the story. But it’s a turning point at which all the setups in the story begin to converge. The moment when the Millennium Falcon is captured on the Death Star is a good example. All the plotlines get fastened together and all the characters start heading for the conclusion. The problem with Thrones’s final seasons, from what I can tell from questioning my wife, is that they spent six seasons establishing setups, and then tried to wrap them all up in thirteen episodes. Even a genius storyteller would struggle with that. As Ralph Sepe put it in his video on the subject: “They didn’t stick the landing, because it was a hard landing to stick.”
If you’ve read my columns for the Agony Booth in the past, you might notice a pattern. I’m not just criticizing what kind of stories are coming out of Hollywood, but how they’re made. For me, a big part of being a fan of cinema is understanding how it all works. TV is an industry. I know it doesn’t feel like it, because it involves making images of dragons, lightsabers, and derring-do, but it’s still a business. I work behind the scenes in sports broadcasting (humblebrag), and let me tell you, the desk that Shaq and Charles Barkley clown each other at takes a really long time to build.
My columns are simply my way of airing my concerns about the business side of the entertainment industry, which does affect the product we consume. Case in point: The first example that I can find of true serialization is Babylon 5. If you haven’t seen it, watch it; it’s a pretty cool show. It was conceived by creator J. Michael Straczynski as a “novel for television”. It was always planned to be a five season series, with 22 episodes per season, with each episode essentially being a chapter of the larger story. And for the most part, Straczynski and his writers pulled it off.
But life got in the way. When it seemed the show would be cancelled in the fourth season, the writers tried to get as much of the season five plot into season four, just in case. Then the show wasn’t cancelled after all. As a result, the end of the fourth season felt a bit overstuffed, and the fifth season felt like half a season stretched out to a full one. The show was still pretty awesome, but one couldn’t help but feel like there was a marked dip in quality.
In the case of Game of Thrones, I feel like the show succeeded more when it was adapting George R.R. Martin’s source material directly. As the seasons wore on, they basically ran out of novels, and had to subsist on Martin’s notes for the last two unwritten books to guide them as they worked out the story. And the story in the books may end very similarly to how it ended in the show. But it’s fairly clear the showrunners were in a hurry to get there. They took shortcuts.
To go back to my columns, every single one of them is about storytelling choices being made for reasons that aren’t creative in nature. Whether it’s bringing back long dormant properties, or announcing a glut of projects before you know how the first few are even going to be received, many decisions come about because of money or perceived self-interest. In the case of Game of Thrones, they just wanted to move on, and instead of handing it to other writers with the time and vision to get the job done, they felt they had to do it themselves.
Maybe we could back away from the serialization for a while?
While I enjoy a good serialized story, I do think there are some things to be said for so-called “classic” TV. Don’t get me wrong—I do think we’re spoiled in terms of how many good shows are out there. But as someone with two kids, one of whom is not yet teething, I’ve had some time to watch old TV shows, and I think in the rush to serialize everything, something has been lost.
I’m sure most of you don’t pay attention to the Emmys, but they usually give awards to episodes rather than to the shows themselves. In the modern era, episodes have to be three things at the same time: They have to be a part of the show’s overarching narrative, they have to be a part of the season’s story, and they have to be a good story individually. But back in the day, the episode was all that mattered, because there were no overarching narratives. While I’m not suggesting we go back to the way TV was made in the 1950s, or that serialization should die, it doesn’t hurt to learn lessons from the past.
After all, while Star Wars was revolutionary at the time, it did take several old-fashioned cinematic and storytelling techniques, combine them with some new methods, and create something vaguely familiar yet fresh. One could even argue that the modern TV season and miniseries are descendants of the film serials of yore. So really, Game of Thrones is an example of taking something old and making it new again, as well.
Watching old episodes of Star Trek and westerns like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and Have Gun, Will Travel, I’m struck by how much storytelling can be packed into one episode of TV, some as short as 25 minutes (the one-hour TV drama wasn’t really codified until the ‘60s). From guest stars who had so much subtext and hinted backstory that I wished the episode was movie-length, to ballsy episodes that pushed the main characters to their limits, there’s a lot of craftsmanship and effort in “classic” TV episodes. There’s certainly more than the stereotypes would indicate.
Now don’t get me wrong. “Classic” shows had their share of bad episodes, including my beloved Star Trek (and a few of those episodes have been covered on this very site). Trust me, I’m putting “classic” in quotes for a reason. Nostalgia makes viewers forgive a lot. But having a chance to watch these shows again as an adult, I’m stunned by how much some of the episodes hold up. In fact, I would put any episode of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone up against any episode of any show released in the last five years. I encourage readers to answer in the comments: when’s the last time you watched an episode of any modern show and thought to yourself, “Damn, that was an awesome piece of storytelling, regardless of how it fits into the larger narrative”? I’m sure there are a few of you who can name a couple. A bet there are more than a few who haven’t thought about it in ages.
And if there’s a bad episode of Star Trek or The Rifleman or The Twilight Zone, it’s just a bad episode. In the streaming age, I can just skip that episode, and the next one will be just fine. But with a show like Game of Thrones, a couple of bad episodes can “ruin a show” for a lot of viewers. You can’t gloss over a bad episode when every episode is tied into one giant story. A lot of people give The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King grief for its extended ending (I should know, I was one of them), but it’s still an exceptional movie. If it had completely and utterly sucked, people wouldn’t remember that trilogy so fondly.
Once again, I’m not saying we should go back. If anything, I think The Wire is the best serialized show ever. Mostly because it kept its storytelling focus within each season, with each following season feeling like a sequel to the last. If I’ve gathered anything from talking with Games of Thrones fans, it’s that the first four seasons (and parts of the sixth) embody all the pluses of the serialization trend, while the rest of the show is a masterclass in all the pitfalls. Who knows? Maybe there’s some kid who watched Thrones, took notes of what worked and what didn’t, and will apply that knowledge when she gets a chance to work in TV.
One last saved round for the dumb fanboys: If you don’t like how they did Star Wars or Game of Thrones, signing petitions asking for remakes is pointless. Go to film school, or just get a job in the film industry, pay your dues, get some clout, and then you can get a chance to remake anything you want. Disney is never going to have The Last Jedi be just a dream. As a fan, you can say whether or not you liked a story or didn’t, but unless you’re a member of the filmmaking community, and convince the right people to hire you, you have no say in the matter of how the story is told.
Other than that, I’m with the fans on this one. Though I’ve got no skin in the game, I can side with a group of people who are letting their displeasure be known in a reasonable manner. I can only encourage my fellow TV watchers to have high standards for the shows they watch. So here’s hoping that HBO learns its lesson when it creates the next big thing in TV. Maybe they won’t, because Hollywood is very slow to catch on. Lord knows DC rode the Zack Snyder train for about three years before it finally sunk in that they were never going catch Marvel that way. I’d like to hope HBO is a little smarter than that.
I really do believe that Peak TV has overwhelmed us a little bit. Maybe this will encourage the suits in Hollywood to look for the next new storytelling trend in TV. HBO broke barriers before, they can do it again. It’s a shame they couldn’t do it with Game of Thrones season 8.