The Individual Versus The Arc

TV has changed a lot since the three-network days of my youth. One of the more significant changes involves the basic concept of what you are trying to accomplish with a TV series. In those days, every series (that I can think of, at least) consisted of disconnected individual episodes, and what happened in one episode wouldn’t affect future episodes unless the producers decided to bring on a new character at the start of a season. Every episode began and ended with the Cartwrights back at the Ponderosa, or the Bunkers at their tidy house at 704 Houser Street in Queens, or Kirk, Bones, and Spock on the command deck of the Enterprise.

Now, many series focus not on individual episodes, but on broad season-long story arcs. Episodes may tell an individual tale within that overall framework, but each episode also must have at least some elements that advance the general seasonal story line. I’m not quite sure when the arc concept took hold, but it’s been here for a while.

Here’s the issue: the arc approach is wholly dependent on the quality of that overall story line for the season. If that story line is compelling and the individual episodes help to fulfill its promise, the show can be great. If the seasonal plot is stupid or annoying, on the other hand, each episode is yoked to that failure and weighed down by it. I was thinking of this very basic point as I watched two of the most recent Star Trek offerings. Star Trek: Picard follows the arc concept, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds doesn’t.

In my view, Picard exposes the intrinsic weakness of the arc concept: in both seasons, the seasonal story line just has not justified multiple episodes in the telling. As a result, the show has felt bloated and self-indulgent and overly impressed with the supposed importance of its message. I’ve watched it, because I’ll watch pretty much any Star Trek offering, but it really sets my teeth on edge.

On the other hand, Strange New Worlds is freed from the heavy messaging that has made Picard such a leaden exercise. To be sure, there are some general character points being illustrated, such as Captain Pike’s (apparent) awareness of his own future fate, but each episodes stands on its own. As a result, the show has a kind of liberated, old-school feel to it that is much more in line with the original Star Trek series. Whereas watching Picard grind on to the end of season became a grueling chore, watching Strange New Worlds has been enjoyable and fun. (I say this even though I groaned, initially, at yet another show involving Spock and other familiar characters, like Uhura and Chapel, rather than exploring totally new ground, but the show’s creators and writers have dealt with that issue in an intriguing way that I’ll probably address at some point after I’ve watched a few more episodes.)

I’m not saying that the arc approach to a TV series is necessarily flawed or doomed to inevitable failure; shows like Better Call Saul would refute such an argument. I’m just saying that if you’re going to go with the arc approach, you’d better be darned sure that the story line is important and robust enough to carry the heavy burden of multiple episodes. Not every story line merits that kind of treatment, and when it doesn’t, the show suffers mightily for it. The individual episode approach, in contrast, has a kind of built-in protection against the clinker story line. There might be a lame episode here and there, but the next week the crew is back in their places and a new, and hopefully better, story is ready to be told.

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