This post contains minor spoilers for the first seasons of Fringe and The Good Wife.
Essentially, there are two basic ways to format a television show: make it procedural or make it serialized. Both have pros and cons. Viewers can jump into a procedural at any time and still make sense of the story. The most known procedurals are the CBS crime dramas, where everything is wrapped up neatly in an episode (for the most part). Additionally, many sitcoms and reality programs can fall into this format, for each episode contains one basic event that concludes when the credits roll. On the other hand, with serials, there are continuing story arcs, which allow for much greater plot and character depth, ultimately leading to a more complex viewing experience. Of serials, perhaps the best known are ABC’s Lost and FOX’s 24, which required the viewer to see every episode in order to make sense of the plot and characters. There are people who loyally follow one format; some hate having to follow a story week after week, while others revel in it. However, I am not going to spend too much time talking about these two extremes. Rather, I’d like to focus on what I believe to the best of both worlds: the pseudoserial.
In my definition, a pseudoserial is a television show that incorporates the best elements of both the procedural and the serial. These shows often have a story of the week, but this story is part of a larger developing character story. In fact, one can watch any episode without prior knowledge of the plot and the characters, but for those who follow it regularly, there are benefits. Right now, two of my favorite programs fit this mold, and I’m sure that there are others.
First is FOX’s Fringe. After viewership on Lost started to dwindle, J.J. Abrams started a new show, Fringe, which he claimed would be easier for people to follow. And he was right. The first few episodes of the program were entirely “case of the week,” with the team investigating one creepy crime after another. Slowly, however, a complex story of parallel universes, scientific experiments from the 1980s, and family secrets began to unfold. The way that these elements have been progressing is fascinating to watch, and lately, the overarching story has begun to take more precedence, without losing the case of the week.
The key to its storytelling success is the strength of the characters and their importance to the overarching plot. Leading the team is FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, who as a child, was experimented upon by Dr. Walter Bishop (along with William Bell). Olivia and Walter work with Walter’s son Peter to investigate strange occurrences. However, beneath this already intriguing plot are even more developments that have come about slowly. The show is easy for viewers to understand without these elements due to the structure of each episode usually having a self-contained case.
Second is CBS’s The Good Wife, which is similar to Fringe in having a case of the week but also incorporating intense character drama. The basic premise of the show revolves around Alicia Florrick, who is restarting her law career in her early forties because her husband, a former State’s Attorney, is in jail on corruption charges brought about by a sex scandal. Each episode has a self-contained case, where Alicia and her coworkers are in court. However, the growing importance of the character drama makes the show even more compelling. In the first few episodes, getting Peter (Alicia’s husband) out of jail was an important subplot, along with the idea that someone is trying to frame him. There is also ongoing political drama going on at Alicia’s firm, and it so happens that she and her new boss were friends in college. Though this may sound a bit melodramatic, the care with which these stories are told makes for compelling drama. However, the pseudoserialization makes it very easy for a casual viewer to understand and enjoy The Good Wife.
The title of this post asks if pseudoserialization is the key to success. In my head, it is, for it is a perfect balance of two extremes. However, neither of these shows has been a big ratings success story. Though both were renewed for, respectively, a fourth and third season, their ratings are modest. Fringe was even banished to a Friday night slot, and The Good Wife was evicted from its plum Tuesday slot into a more modest Sunday slot. There are a couple of reasons why this may be so. Perhaps, the problem with Fringe is that it is too sci-fi, too “out there,” or that people originally did not like the emphasis on the case of the week. With The Good Wife, it is possible that people were turned off by the original premise, which many described as something that belongs on Lifetime. I hope that people will eventually begin to see how good these shows are, and we may begin to see more pseudoserialized storytelling in the future, which I would welcome.
Are you a fan of pseudoserialized television, or do you prefer straight procedurals and/or serials? Do you think that the balance in pseudoserials is enough garner widespread appeal?