I have been thinking about this since the last couple of posts on this subject (“From cliffhanger to cancelled” & “Why do good TV shows get cancelled“) and the more I think about it the more I have come to the conclusion that TV shows (especially sci-fi and fantasy ones) have become the 21st century comic book.
The parallels are clear – they are both planned as an ongoing storyline with multiple arcs that will play out over many editions/episodes, and they often involve multiple writers at different stages of their lifecycle. Both are driven by the same commercial issues (not enough viewers/readers leads to cancellation) but because the medium through which the stories are delivered engages the audience in totally different ways, you have to wonder if the ‘comic book script approach’ should be loosely applied to TV series as we do today, or if there is a better approach.
Comics are more cerebral and engaging – they combine the visual artwork with the written word – and allow the reader to engage with the story in a different way to television. It is easier for a new reader to read the back-issues and become a follower of the story – either through individual editions or anthologies. Also, each edition is tactile and can be appreciated for longer – each panel can be viewed and reviewed and the reader can take as long as they want on each panel to absorb all the details.
Television is instant gratification – you are either hooked or you change the channel. There is so much content on TV that competes for your time, it is so easy to switch over and watch something else – something ‘safer’ – than persevere with something that could become great TV. And every channel switcher is a nail in the coffin for the renewal of the programme, and if you miss an episode it’s not always easy to catch up with it – even catch-up sites like the BBC iPlayer don’t always have the content available which makes it frustrating when you miss an episode and all the more likely you won’t watch the rest of the show. Plus you get a limited time (e.g. 7 days) in which to catch up.
Because of the fundamental differences in the way we engage in the two mediums, there needs to be a difference in the way the content is presented. I have already discussed the perils of the cliffhanger given the likelihood that a show is cancelled, but there may be a way to salvage this (although this may require a seed change in the way the TV execs view a particular property).
Some comics have enjoyed long runs and then come to a natural end. A story arc is complete, or the readership wanes because there is nothing new to hold their interest. The publication goes on hiatus but may then be renewed with new writers and a new direction at a later stage. Comics such as Superman and Batman have both enjoyed this renaissance, but because they were successful properties the first time around, they are more likely to be successful the second time also. TV shows such as Doctor Who have also achieved the same, but again the original property was successful.
Maybe we could adopt a similar methodology for shows which show potential but get lost along the way. I am not talking about re-imaginings of previous shows, but a new season that picks up from stories told in previous seasons yet takes a new direction with new writing and new ideas and builds on the core characters and world-setting with new challenges and new revelations. The show would need to be able to be watched without prior knowledge of the now distant seasons past, but tie in with them at the same time to embrace the fans of past seasons. Such properties could include Firefly, Outcasts, Heroes, V (assuming it doesn’t get a renewal), and any of the myriad cancelled shows that now sit gathering static in the digital vaults of the studios.
The general basis would be “more stories from the world of …” and could use some of the same characters (although continuity with specific actors would be the issue here), but would need to work in the same world as the previous series so it is clear that it is not a new show entirely. Some shows have picked this idea up in the form of prequel series (e.g. “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” & “Smallville”) but it could be extended further. The key challenge is in assessing the risk of picking a show’s world where that show originally did not do so well, but then that’s down to the pitch process.
What shows would you like to see more of, and how do think some shows could be rebooted and made to work?