Wow. So lately the wife and I have been watching random episodes of “Law & Order.” It’s always interesting to study something that is so immensely successful. It’s somewhat painful, given that the shows we typically fall in love with so often get cancelled long before their time. But nonetheless, I think it’s valuable to study the types of storytelling that seem to garner such enormous audiences.
L&O seems to have a number of strengths:
- Simple characters – They follow a pretty basic white-hat/black-hat pattern. The cops are righteous and honest. The prosecutors are determined and competent. (I won’t go into some rant about how completely unrealistic that is.) They do have to sometime make tough decisions, but the motives are always pure. It’s fascinating how long actors will stay on that show, some of them for over a decade, but at the same time they people they portray are pretty interchangeable. Also, if you are a female lawyer, you are hot.
- No story arcs – as far as I can tell, every episode is done-in-one, that is, the mystery is completed in one episode. L&O vets could probably point out exceptions, as I’m sure they’ve probably done two-parters before. You can pick any episode out of any season and watch it without worrying about some crucial plot point or character development. Because there isn’t any. (Come to think of it, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was much the same way, only occasionally referring to previous stories or featuring recurring characters, and often what seems like a dramatic character epiphany or growth was forgotten a week later.)
To me this is almost blasphemous. It’s a waste of the real strength of TV, the serial story. Shows like The Shield, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and Deep Space 9 took full advantage of the serial aspect of television. The actors grew into their characters. The characters could be given long-lasting changes to their motives and personality. The producers can introduce plot elements in a subtle fashion, planting seeds for future stories sometimes several seasons in advance. It requires committment, sure, but the payoff can be extraordinarily satisfying. Do you want to start watching mid-season? Of course not, but in this age of easily-accessable TV on DVD, there’s really no excuse not to be caught up.
Clearly, however, it has worked for L&O, so I’m probably just talking out of my ass.
- By extension of the previous two points, there’s this powerful revelation: you can start watching any given episode at any point and be caught up in five minutes or less. Missed the first half hour of the show? Who cares? You’ll be fine. Just wait a tic, and the DAs will summarize everything up to that point. It’s the ultimate in impulse television. By contrast, if you missed the first five minutes of an episode of Babylon 5, you could write off the rest of the season. And back then there was no DVD to run to.
None of this is meant as a slight – L&O and its various and sundry spin-offs is perfectly entertaining television. In fact, the little I’ve watched of SVU indicates that it actually does use the serial nature of television more to its advantage, with overarcing character development. And I have a great deal of respect for the writing pit crew, who must have a hell of a time coming up with a fresh mystery every week. I just thought it was interesting to note some of the facets of the show that I think contribute to their success.
I’m not sure what the lesson should be for prose writers, but there’s got to be one in there somewhere. And it’s probably depressing.