Articles Square Eyes Television

Order and Chaos – the logic of tv dramas

Monday, August 27, 2001

TV drama shows have to move comfortably in two different scales. Firstly, the small circles of the hour, with the plot coming to a reasonably conclusive end after each episode, giving the audience a satisfactory feeling of closure. Secondly, they also have to play the long game, with events building up episode by episode so the major characters develop over time.

This is why medical dramas work so well. You can bring in new characters as patients every week to power the plot for that particular episode. At the same time, the fortunes of the staff fill out the longer-term plot needs. Interlacing the two makes the whole experience much more rewarding.

Cop shows follow a similar logic, with crimes being solved in the space of one episode, but other events in the main characters’ lives stretching over whole seasons.

As we commit to watching every week, we get to feel like we’re growing with the show in the same time frame – what happened several weeks ago to Dr Green happened several weeks ago in our memory.

All this assumes a narrative order – watching one show after another in succession. So what happens when this order breaks down?

In Ireland this occurs when different stations show the same programmes. In any week you can watch the X-Files or The West Wing three times, with Sky One being quickest out of the blocks, then RTE and then one of the British terrestrial channels.

In practical terms, this is great if you happen to miss an episode, but the question is whether you start watching on one channel and stick to it, so as not to interrupt the flow, or whether you get your promiscuous kicks anywhere you can. 

The problem with this is that one channel might be leading up to a big climax, while another is way past it and into the (less suspenseful) aftermath.

In America the problem is exacerbated by the fact that popular shows are on daily, or even more frequently. Don’t ask how I know, but in New York you can watch Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman once in the afternoon, and then again at 2.30 in the morning (and some days in the early evening as well, I think).

So without trying too hard you can see Dr Mike single, happily pregnant and living with Sully, and then unhappily separated from him – all in the same day.

On the one hand, this mightn’t matter too much, as each episode has its own internal flow, and looked at one way, it’s a suitably postmodern way to watch tv. Questing for a narrative order and logical progression is considered so 19th century in critical circles.

To misquote Truffaut, watched in this way a tv series has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Personally, I have a compromise option: I try and watch new episodes in order, and use the range of stations to make sure I don’t miss one. This means I have some linear sense of the big picture, and don’t get any nasty surprises.

Once I have that shape sorted out, I’ll watch as many reruns as I can stumble across (unless it’s an episode I really didn’t like the first time round). This way, watching the old ones is like looking through a photo album, remembering how things used to be and contrasting that with the sense of the ‘present’ I get from the new ones. ‘My, how Scully’s clothes have improved since the early episodes.’

We all like to think that our lives make some narrative sense, that there is some reason to things, some sense of cause and effect. Watching shows in order plays to that view of the world. Arguably, of course, people’s lives don’t make any sense seen in any way, they just happen – like drama episodes watched out of order.