British television writer Jonathan Wright says that genre television’s current fascination with “mytharc” storytelling is ruining the genre. And he blames “Babylon Five” and its creator J. Michael Stracynski as the biggest culprits behind the decline.
In his latest column, Wright says:
“Back in the early 1990s, Straczynski, or JMS as fans know him, created Babylon 5. When it was first shown on Channel 4, it looked like a science-fiction series about a space station. The CGI was a bit shonky, but it passed the time.
Inexorably, though, it became clear that JMS, a control freak who wrote 92 of the show’s 110 episodes himself, had an overarching vision. It involved a portentous brew of big themes – politics, destiny, war, peace, love. If you tried to start watching Babylon 5 with series three, you were left hopelessly confused.
Wright says that shows since have all had a mythology storyline that runs through them, making it difficult for shows to win new viewers who may stop by to see what all the buzz is about. Wright says that it’s ruining the upcoming season of “Torchwood” because television has become too complicated and wondering, “what’s so bad about five not-so-epic-but-nevertheless-carefully-crafted-individual stories shown over five weeks –or possibly even six if you need to re-jig the schedules because of a major sporting event?”
You can read the full article HERE.
And let us know what you think in our poll.
David Duprey says
Over-arching mythologies is why I love Genre Television.
Same here. Episodic telly gets borring
Mr. Wright seems to have forgotten (or, as I suspect, is too young to know) how bad episodic sci-fi could be during the 70’s and 80’s. Without a consistent and persistent vision, genre series routinely devolved into jokes or self-parody or mediocrity. JMS and others, through the use of story arcs, made stories that were engaging, relevant, and enticing enough for viewers to return week after week.
We are not doing an ordinary drama or police procedural here. A sci-fi series has to create a world and a universe believable enough to aid in the suspension of disbelief. That is difficult to do with several different authors each with their take on the writers’ bible. An arc provides structure for articulating the show’s vision. It is the medium for delivering the message and, unless we are talking purely escapist fare, the best sci-fi always has a message to deliver to us in the here and now.
While some genre shows can take the “mytharc” concept further than others, like Lost (not necessarily in a bad way), it’s definitely a workable and enjoyable concept for many sci-fi genre watchers. To be honest, for most shows, even if you drop in at a later date, it’s not hard to get a decent grip on the story world in an episode or two. Again, Lost may be an exception, but that’s what things like DVR’s, Netflix, and Hulu are for.
Also, just to prove a point, I actually started watching B5 during the 3rd season and ended up loving most of the show. Yes, I’d missed backstory and yes it was clearer once I’d gone back to watch old episodes. However, I was still quite comfortable watching the show.
Valerie Butler says
“Mytharc” raises the quality of a show, by allowing plot depth, and development of characters much farther than random episodes. You also don’t suffer the embarassment of stupid episodes that just fill in because lack of inspiration. All the Star Trek series suffered from that.
Babylon 5 is a literally a novel presented in TV episode “chapters” and one of the best!
Well I picked other, mostly because the “reasons” just don’t mesh with any of my thoughts.. So to the point, I’d answer the question as “no.” There are plenty of of genre shows which do not employ the mytharc and there are those that do, I enjoy both but tend to like mytharc shows better since there are noticeable consequences to character actions. In most episodic television the reset switch every time tends to pull me out of the stories from week to week.
Besides, it is too much to lay the blame at one person’s feet, and sounds like a guy with a grudge of some sort. Soaps have used arcs for eternity, soaps have been on for eternity, right? Anyway, JMS did not invent the mytharc, he did use it rather well though.
The advent of DVR and DVD are nullifying this argument. I can see how ten, fifteen years ago people would rebel against arc-based TV shows since they are hard to jump into (Continuity Lockout was basically the reason why Farscape got cancelled, and as much as I love that show, the network had a good point), but now people can catch up with these promptly-released archives of previous show, IN ADDITION TO the regular reruns.
Personally, I love mytharcs in TV shows. They’re a major selling point on a genre show, or in a show in general (probably my favourite non-genre show in recent years has been Prison Break, which has a fantastic mytharc). Pointing at mytharcs and saying that they’re killing genre shows is ridiculous.
Mark Thew says
There should be room for both styles in any genre. Some ideas work best as a “mytharc” and others work best as “episodic”. Thinking that a genre is ruined by one or the other illustrates part of the group-think problems that plague hollywood today.
Huh . . . sounds a bit like what I wrote about in one of the editorials. I do think there is a core group of people who commit to watching genre fiction, and they will stick with almost any show, through its ups and downs, and through years of story-telling.
But if one has not started at the beginning, one misses out on lots of character development and back story. I stuck with both Fringe and Dollhouse through a number of shows, but eventually gave up on them. Now, with the addition of some make-up and removal of some clothing, they are both supposedly good.
Could be, but dropping in on the show right now would likely frustrate me because I’m missing some of the arc. Likely, anyone else who hears how good these shows are, and drops in to check them out, would likely be more confused than entertained.
Telling them they have to go back and watch a bunch of other shows is not going to prompt an enthusiastic “Yeah!! That’s what I’ll do with what little free time I have!!”
Contrast that to the show Life (and to a certain extent Chuck, if less so). You could start watching almost anywhere and not be totally lost. In both cases there is a thin arc, but the shows are entities into their own while still woven into a tapestry rewarding the long-term viewer.
Only my opinion, of course.
I said it in io9’s post, and I’ll say it here as well–Wright’s article is curmudgeonly link-bait, pure and simple. His premise is laughably broad, and the examples he cites are scattered at best, inaccurate/incorrect at worst.
He’s following a tried and true strategy: Find a widely-held premise, take a deliberately contrarian position, and watch as the angry comments and links roll in. Hey, Presto! I’m popular on the internets!
No. With the ability to DVR or catch-up online, fans can find out what’s going on
I am a perfect example of how this is not true. I didn’t start watching Lost until season 3, but with the early release of dvd’s anyone can join these shows even years down the road.
This is an old argument and one that made sense before the advent of 500 channel cable and Satellite Television. Not to mention the internet and Itunes and quick DVD releases. I could understand why a network would want to avoid large arcs when none of the previous technologies existed but now the point isn’t quiet so valid.
So I don’t believe trying to tell a story on a large canvas is a bad thing, there are plenty of ways to get caught up even if you have to read about past episodes on Wikipedia. I just wish there was more mythic story telling in sci-fi TV or TV in general. But I suppose if there is a solution to new fans not being able to get into something then maybe networks should consider cutting down 24 episode seasons to just 13.
Personally I like series that only run 13 episodes at a time but maybe thats just me.
Steven Perez says
No, reality shows are destroying TV. They require little thought and do nothing to challenge viewers.
The style of writing isn’t “ruining” genre tv, it’s just clashing with the old paradigm of tv vending, which assumes tv is a shiny wrapper for advertising that people passively consume in whatever time slot it’s dished up, or not. Old style TV is like a soup kitchen, if you want soup you have to line up when the people slopping it out decide is “dinner time” and listen politely to whatever sermon they see fit to throw at you while you are there for the soup. I’d rather just buy soup directly from the soup makers, when and where I want it, and now that technology has provided tools to make that possible, I can’t be bothered to queue up anymore. It should not surprise anyone that people who like sci fi might also tend to expect it to be delivered in ways that suit their convenience, rather than the outdated habits of the networks.
Cast your mind back to a series like Battlestar galactica (the original series).
This already had a story-arc in it’s first seaon . From the destruction of the colonies to the discovery of Earth-television signals.
The same could be said for Lost in Space, which linked almost all episodes with cliffhangers.
Both series could be watched from any story without to feeling lost.
Also there are very investive ways to recap a story line.
Look at ‘Allo ‘Allo for instance. Or the title-sequence of BSG.
So the central premise of this article does not tally with the facts.
Debbie Vaccaro says
No, with so many channels repeating the same show and with one channel often being a season behind, there’s no reason for anyone to be unable to “catch up”, and that’s what re-runs are for. JMS opened up a whole new way of story telling to Sci Fi in much the same way that George Lucas raised the bar for science fiction movies and he should be applauded for that.
Abrahamo Lincolni says
When B5 aired, it *did* ruin genre television for me — in the sense that I could no longer bear to watch anything that *wasn’t* intricately planned ahead of time. It takes a work of literature to reveal just how impoverished and, ultimately, uninteresting ordinary fiction is.
Kevin Bachelder says
I don’t think that every series needs a big myth arc. I enjoy them but don’t want to overdose on it for everything I watch.
Ben Ragunton says
Arc driven shows are not ruining genre TV. That has never been the case. What IS ruining genre TV is simply BAD WRITING!!!
John from Jersey says
So the article’s author thinks his lack of attention span and his distaste for character development and the concept of “consequences” applies to each and every viewer?
Some of us want better than the television equivalent of fast food.
It think both mythology-based shows and episodic shows have their place. Being a continuity geek, I tend to prefer the former, but I also enjoy some of the latter. And a lot of genre shows start out as episodic then become mythology-based over the years of storytelling and world-building.
I have to agree that with the wealth of options — On Demand, DVR, sister-network syndication, DVD, Netflix, iTunes, Unbox, Hulu, Fancast, and individual networks’ streaming video sites — there’s really no reason that people can’t check out new episodes of established series and then catch up if they like what they see but don’t know the backstory.
I do agree “ruin the genre” might be a little strong. But many scifi fans have become accustomed to long story arcs, so in a sort of feed-back loop effect, that is what many of the series strive for. It’s almost as if they identify themselves as “serious” shows by how long and complicated the overarching story is.
And that is fine for the fans. As in fanatics. Not in a derogatory way, but fanatics just the same.
But for the casual viewer, those with varied interests, it now becomes more difficult to get small doses of the stuff. For these shows to make sense, one needs to follow them. And yes, you can easily go back and watch two (or more) prior seasons to catch up . . . if you are a fan. If you just want to be entertained occasionally, then the easier path is to look for something else to watch. I have friends who have a mild interest in the genre, but are not interested enough to dive in. For them the multi-episode story is a turnoff. Not because they might not enjoy it; they just don’t have the time.
It’s not necessarily a willing choice. For instance, my reading these days consists mainly of short stories (Analog). There are books I would like to read, but other interests keep me from it. Similarly, committing to a series with complicated and long story arcs is something I do very selectively. A series has to be good at episode 1 for it to have a chance of snaring me.
For some, watching Eureka is much more satisfying than contemplating getting into BSG . . . even now that all the BSG episodes are available. Too much time, too complicated, and with long tracts that are just not that interesting.
There is room for both. Let the viewers decide. I like both if they are good. Arc shows have been around for awhile it is just that B5 was soo good at it that the bar was raised to a new high level. I love a good arc show and want to tune it. I think DS9 hit it’s stride when it went into the war arc. Even B% had stand alone episodes just for fun.
Bill T. says
I’m sorry. I would have commented sooner, but I needed to empty a whole can of Glade air freshener to get the stink of this article out of my home. The author of this article writes from a false premise. Viewers will watch a good show, but many more viewers will watch crap. How else can you explain American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and Survivor. Jonatnan Wright has no business writing for television. He’s more suited to writing weather reports, and complain about rain.
oh look….sg-whatever is on yet another planet… bad guys pop up… sg-whatever comes up with last minute idea to save the day…. again….and again and again and again and again and again…. yeah that gets old after episode 5.
Give us long, wide reaching, intricate story archs… same old same old sucks.
oh and babylon 5…. EPIC.
this here by ends my rant. =)
A year after LOST started we saw a bunch of thrown together scifi-ish shows with similar continuing stories start up…and fizzle out. The network tried to manufacture it themselves and it didn’t really work well. Not every show can be LOST (or too B5 I suppose) but I think that most shows do benefit from having some kind of mythology or at least 4-5 episode long storyline once a season. They are not crime or medical dramas after all. That “formula” wears thin when applied to scifi IMO.
My favorite shows, scifi or otherwise, all have ongoing story lines. Dexter had the Ice Truck Killer, Fringe has the Walter’s past mystery (among others), Legend of the Seeker has the whole quest thing going on, Burn Notice has its ongoing who burned Michael mystery… The trick seems to be to make sure each episode is entertaining in its own right as well as having episodes here and there that contribute in some way to the ongoing story. And once someone sits through one episode and is reasonably entertained they can go to hulu or netflix and get caught up fast. I have a coworker who randomly watched this latest season of 24 and liked it so much she went back and watched season one. DVD/Hulu/Netflix changed how it works.
Tammy Smith says
Reality shows are ruining TV, not elaborate story arcs. Story arcs are fun when you sit down with a DVD box set & watch several episodes in one sitting. Reality shows, though, are a cancer. Ugh.
If Mr Jonathan Wright can’t handle it then he should stop watching.
Story Arcs are great because it means that the characters change and grow over time and that there is always something NEW!
Serial > Episodic
I don’t mind a middle ground, like say Stargate or Buffy that is a bit of both. However, a good serial show like Lost or Dexter is always my first in line to watch.
If a show is too episodic, I find myself giving up on it after a while. Of course, it would be easy to just jump back in – but I feel as though if I am happy to miss an episode, then I don’t really like the show that much.
I’m currently addicted to Harper’s Island (a single season, 13 episode, horror/multiple-murder mystery for those who don’t know). A big draw is the fact it’s a serial that will come to an end and wrap up neatly. I’d love to see more shows take on this format. Mini-series are too short, and often the same quality as direct to DVD movies, only a couple of hours longer. But with 13 hours of content, you get the quality of a real series with a story arc that will wrap up and a small enough amount of content to be viable for catch up for more people.
Long serials are great though. I mean really, who can argue with the success of Lost?
Michael Hickerson says
I think badly thought out arc plots are what’s ruining the genre more than the arc storylines themselves. (I’m looking at you Heroes).
B5 spoiled us by showing how a show can benefit from knowing its final destination before the first episode aired.
So many arc heavy shows are trying to be cool and arc heavy these days and keep missing that fundamental point.
I hate shows that are just repeats every week that just serve the same tripe with a different seasoning.
I want a story that continues, where we see character development.
As well presented as it is, I watched CSI up to the third series and then I realized that I had seen the same episode seventy odd times
Gary from Jacksonville says
A show will grab you whether it is arc driven or not. Good is good. Thankfully nowadays catching up with a show you discovered is an easy thing to do.
Mytharc shows bring a level of complexity to television that episodic shows cannot attain.
Not all need to have religious/mythical overtones but a strong central mystery that cannot be unraveled in 42 minutes is a good thing. Unfortunately, some viewers cannot sustain that level of interest or cannot think through something complex.
. . . OR . . . some people’s lives are already such that thinking through complexities of human interaction in personal, political, and business environments are a normal part of their lives, and one they do not necessarily find to be a form of entertainment when they are trying to enjoy some down time.
As fascinating as it may be for some, complicated story arcs with manufactured conflicts, conflicted characters, and faulty problem solving, do not provide a satisfactory escape from lives which have all those things and much more.
Story arcing is the natural progression from episodic T.V.
As a screenplay writer, and episodic machinma video producer, I find that having a general idea of my story arc helps me outline, plan and write the story I want over the course of my episodes. I cannot see how having such an arc covering the length of a series is a bad thing. It helps the writers, director understand where they are in the story this helps them keep the proper sate of mind. It also helps actors in understanding their character’s development. Finally it is very helpful when for when the rating start to drop. The writers know where they are and it helps them tie up the loose ends and bring about the originally planned ending.
Something it took Stargate 2 feature length DVD movies to achieve. A series should never end like that. It was luck that SyFy and MGM agreed to close out those arcs.
Jonathan Wright is an arrogant, stiff, turk who has nearsighted opinions and a strong lack of vision.(in regard to Babylon 5 SFX) “The CGI was a bit shonky”??? Babylon 5 was groundbreaking as far as TV series are concerned. And even though the CGI was in an infantile stage it still was fantastical to watch. That and it had a SOLID storyline (unlike ST-TNG which was a mishmash of Political correctness, inane humor, and senseless situations not relating to much short of something preachy at the end of each show).
Straczynsky is a strong writer who was willing to take a chance on creating an intelligent show rather then the flotsom seen in so many TV SF shows today. However mainstream TV is limited to time frames, and greed, thus good shows get replaced by Insipid and moronic crap (mostly stolen from UK based TV shows) that will rot you brain and supplicate you into stupidity. What Babylon 5 did for me was hook me into watching the next show. Anticipating feverishly what twists lie next. Farscape was also based on the same principles, and it was (IMHO) the best Science Fiction TV series with Babylon coming in close second. UNFORTUNATELY the limited capacity of the general public to be entertained by intelligent screenwriting is contravened by the networks demand for more sex and spurious nonsense that TV as a whole is becoming a waste of time, in addition to the leading cause of brain cancer.
C’est la Vie!
I completely agree that the huge overarching storylines are removing some of the enjoyment from NEW shows on television (although I’m pretty sure it’s just a fad that will eventually wear out). BUT Babylon 5 is an example of how to do the overarching storyline without completely confusing the audience – I felt like I could jump in anytime in this show and enjoy an episode even though I probably would not pick up on all the nuisances of the epic background storyline. JMS knew how to do overarching storylines correctly since he wrote the entire show (barring the last season) ahead of time so he could gradually build up the back plot while indulging in individual episodic stories – notice that in the first 3 seasons of the show he still had what would be labeled as an “episodic” show since each episode had it’s own individual plotline which may or may not have connected with the underlying story. In this way you could enjoy each episode separately, and enjoy it even more if you understood the underlying story.
In new TV shows, I’m finding that they are concentrating completely on the overarching storyline rather than gradually building up to it in an episodic form like JMS did. In other words, you can’t miss even one episode without being thrown completely out of the loop – if you missed an episode of B5 it [usually] really wasn’t that big of a deal since it was put together in such a clockwork fashion…if that makes any sense to you….
Basically, I think it worked for B5 since, besides being one of the first shows to do it, JMS had it all written out ahead of time so they weren’t relying on constantly throwing you for loops like new shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica were.
Just my opinion though…