Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model

I Want To Believe

(After reading, check out my follow up post: “If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV?“)

It all started, like so many televisual things do, with The X-Files. The supernatural horror show was the first to pioneer the use of an intricate, series-spanning mythology in prime time television.

It was ambitious. Prior to the 1980’s, TV plots were all episodic, neatly wrapped up by the end of the 30 minute time block. In the ’80s, some shows began experimenting with seriality, creating stories that arced over several episodes. But the concept of creating season long, or as it turned out in the case of The X-Files, a nine season long narrative, was unheard of.

It was risky. A complex serial storyline makes it much harder for new viewers to tune in, and in a format where viewership is perhaps the most important factor, it’s a big gamble. Like the “art television” (Twin Peaks) that it took many of it’s cues from, The X-Files brought exclusivity to TV.

For the viewers that had been watching since the pilot, what would they think of this new type of storytelling? Would they like it? More importantly, would they understand it? Chris Carter and gang thought so. The best shows, the best works of art for that matter, are always the ones that don’t underestimate their audience.

But, it was messy. If you’ve watched the entirety of The X-Files,  you know what I mean. The mythology is rambling, sometimes ponderous, sometimes thrilling, sometimes elusory, and in the end, not really cohesive. But it was the first to undertake an open narrative in such scale and complexity, so I think it’s allowed a few mistakes.

Despite The X-Files’ many missteps, J.J. Abrams still owes a lot to Chris Carter and the writers of the series. Building off of Carter’s work, Abrams launched such hit shows as Alias and Lost. However, Abrams didn’t address the issues of narrative cohesion that plagued The X-Files, so each of his shows reached similarly unsatisfying endings.

I’m Lost…

If The X-Files pioneered this style, why am I calling this the J.J. Abrams model rather than the Chris Carter model?

Because Carter’s only hit (regrettably) has been The X-Files, whereas Abrams has created, written, or produced more shows than possibly any human being ever (hyperbole, but it goes without saying that he is one of the most prolific creators of TV today). While The X-Files did it first, Lost made it the current popular standard.

The success of Abrams’ shows, like Lost, early on eclipsed their dissatisfying ends and encouraged others, who might not be as capable as Abrams, to reproduce this complex narrative style. The result has been a slew of poorly constructed television that promises exciting twists and turns but ends up spinning out of control, offering up developments that are each more arbitrary and unlikely than the last or leaving important aspects unresolved.

Terra Nova is a good example of a Lostian format gone horribly wrong. The plots were poorly conceived or poorly executed (often times both), and the characters were one dimensional. Structurally, the show was unable to balance its “Monster of the Week” episodes with the larger mythology, which left the first season feeling like it had failed to create a mythology or self-contained storylines. All of this led to a very unsatisfying, and often maddening, viewing experience. Trust me. I watched and wrote about every episode. No, I did not receive hazard pay.

An American Horror Story 

Is there a solution to this increasingly frightening situation facing American TV today? I think so, and it starts with the quote made famous by Johnny Cash, or Albert Pennyworth, or possibly Kenny Rogers: know your limitations. It’s better to make an entertaining, tightly knit narrative than to create an inconsistent one with random or inconsequential plot twists in every episode. Try something new. Pushing the boundaries of any medium is the best way to find growth, but in an era where TV is struggling for relevancy in many ways, taking risks isn’t encouraged. But when it works, it really works.

Take, for example, American Horror Story, one of the biggest hits of the n 2011 Fall season. In an earlier post, I expressed concern that the show was following the J.J. Abrams model of leaping into the narrative before looking, and therefore it was was certainly headed for an unsatisfying conclusion. But, I was wrong. Creators Falchuk and Murphy recognized that AHS’ format was untenable to sustain over several seasons, so they decided to take a risk and conclude the current plot by the end of the first season and start over in season two with a whole new storyline. Whether this will pay off audience-wise remains to be seen, but I think it will certainly keep the show entertaining and interesting far longer than if they had tried to force the narrative onto subsequent seasons.

With Abrams producing several new shows this season (Alcatraz and Person of Interest) and another one of his projects, Revolution, having just been picked up by NBC, I hope we’ll see some evidence of learning from past mistakes. I’m not holding my breath on that, though. At least we have another season of Arrested Development, the pinnacle of narrative control, to look forward to.

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7 thoughts on “Unsatisfying TV: The J.J. Abrams Model

  1. I also love Sherlock, and think that they went about it a very smart way. My only concern is that Merchant and the other creators originally wanted it to be only two seasons, but it’s so popular that it’s been pushed to three, maybe more. I hope that doesn’t affect the quality!

    But, let’s be honest. If it has Benedict Cumberbatch in it, I’ll watch it. No questions asked.

  2. Pingback: Novelistic Television | You, Me, and TV

  3. Pingback: If It Wasn’t The Sopranos Or Abrams, Who Ruined TV? | You, Me, and TV

  4. Shorter, more contained, season-spanning plots that are more tightly wound have always been more successful in avoiding unsatisfying endings. “Buffy” for example has a series spanning plot, but really plays to the strength of season-plots, which are self-contained and yet inform the over-all story-arc.
    Series that were conceptually created for one season, such as “Twin Peaks” or “Carnivale”, and then extended for a second season, often show problems with this new found freedom of time and money to further explore their worlds, by creating unnecessary side plots (narratively speaking, they do now have a time-void to fill) and losing clarity of the story they once wanted to tell.
    I am not sure I see how “Lost” and “Terra Nova” resemble each other narratively. “Terra Nova” is quite conventional, narratively speaking, besides its dinos. The son-future-sixer arc is so underdeveloped who even cared. 😉
    In the case of “The X-Files” I would argue that the series didn’t set out with a clear over-arching mystery planned, however, but rather had an “idea” of a conspiracy that lend itself to the episodic structure as a back drop. Only over time, as with many other shows, such as Supernatural, does it strengthen this story-line, which roots in its characters already established, a base-system to work from. Its need to still appeal to its origin-audience base makes the ride an often bumpy one.
    I agree that AHS would have stood little chance to maintain momentum even for a second season, but I believe that the problem in AHS lies with its clichéd story-lines, over-use of gimmicky camera work, bad female lead (that only has one emotion it appears), etc.
    There are so many multi-season arcs that do not fall prey to the problem you’re describing, “The Wire”, “Battlestar Gallactica”, etc. that I believe the problem itself does not lie with length, but devotion to character developments, and subject control.

  5. You raise all good points!

    You’re absolutely right that tighter, season based plots tend to do better than trying to spin out a mythology like X-Files’ across several seasons, often for the simple reason that it’s a lot easier to create a story across nine episodes than it is 20 or 50. But length isn’t the main problem with the many of these shows that try to pattern themselves off of The X-Files or Lost. I see the main problem lying with inept storytelling, including, as you pointed out, poor character development and subject control.

    I agree that X-Files didn’t start out with the idea of a creating an overarching narrative. It clearly has the hallmarks of an experiment, slowly defining and redefining itself as the writers and series evolved. But again, The X-Files was one of the very first shows to do this, certainly at such length, so it’s no surprise that it was a bumpy ride at times. Since the narrative arc has now been done many times and done well in some of those cases, I would argue that a show these days needs to know from the beginning how it wants to structure its story. That doesn’t mean it needs to know exactly where it’s going in the story because becoming a slave to one central mystery or plot (like FlashForward) stifles organic narrative development.

    This is, in part, why I brought Terra Nova into the post. It’s not that the show’s structure was similar to Lost’s, but rather that it collapsed under the perceived pressure (which it seems many shows feel) to emulate Lost. To be as conspiratorially and mythology driven as Lost. Terra Nova couldn’t decide what it wanted to be structurally speaking. Conspiracy mythology or episodic based serial? The show’s confusion led to imbalanced storytelling and a very erratic season. Admittedly, this is not the show’s only problem, which was also plagued by terrible writing and uninspiring characters.

    Finally, it’s true that there are many examples of shows that successfully execute story arcs that span one or multiple seasons. My post was more intended to address the many shows post-Lost, primarily on network TV, that seem to feel the need to pattern themselves after the successful series to entertain a growing number of viewers who expect complex, serial plots. Unfortunately, many of these shows lack the talent and vision of Lost, so they fail, creating a wave of unsatisfying TV shows.

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