Serialised drama has soared in popularity over recent years, but as the number of shows on offer continues to multiply, Nick Edwards asks whether audiences are getting tired of long-term commitment
Long-running, immersive TV series have come to define our drama consumption over recent history. First, there were the early pioneering shows such as Hill Street Blues and E.R., where longer storylines and character arcs were first introduced, then classic series including The Sopranos or Mad Men, and now we have ‘peak’ TV and the current streaming era.
Much has been made of these shows, which have been widely celebrated for offering the public something different to what was once a staple of ‘episodic’ TV drama that filled the primetime slots on linear public service broadcasters or their commercial rivals for as long as anyone can remember.
There can be a danger of people in this industry producing shows for their friends, or they want to do a cool show for a cool commissioner. Sometimes they forget the mainstream viewer. Nicola Söderlund, Eccho Rights
The shift away from this type of storytelling to the serialised style has long been considered a boon for writers, producers and directors, who can develop characters and storylines over many episodes and seasons. This is in contrast to what is seen by some as the creative straight-jacket of the ‘old-school’ style of TV storytelling, with storylines neatly wrapped up each week, a clear-cut morality eschewed, and where the main characters age but do not necessarily evolve.
Midsomer Murders is a go-to example in the UK. A light hearted crime drama set in a fictional English county, based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby book series and adapted for television originally by Anthony Horowitz, the show is hugely popular – airing on the UK’s ITV since 1997 and sold to over 200 countries.
Midsomer’s run of well over 20 seasons is impressive but Germany’s procedural, the ARD-produced Tatort, has been running continuously since 1970 and still achieves audience figures in the millions. In the US, Dick Wolf’s Law And Order epitomises the North American version of the episodic format, while The Rookie is a more recent example. When done well, such shows deliver high audience figures, large advertising revenues and can be sold all around the world, not to mention air as repeats in daytime slots, with their inoffensive content not troubling pre-watershed rules.
Despite the amount of media coverage that serialised drama gets today, Ampere Analysis’s Guy Bisson points out that his company’s data “suggests that across the TV market as a whole, there are still plenty of episodic shows making the rounds and airing.”
However, the extent to which serialised storytelling is now established within popular culture – especially in comparison to its elder sibling – has created some challenges. “It is a common complaint from clients with regular ‘detective slots’ that the market went through a shortage of detective procedurals while being overly focused on the serialised drama boom,“ says Stephen Driscoll, EVP for EMEA at All3Media, which distributes titles that range from Fleabag to the aforementioned Midsomer Murders.
“I sense a fatigue of long-running series,” adds Nicola Söderlund, managing partner at CJ ENM-owned Swedish distributor Eccho Rights, which sells Viaplay’s Conspiracy Of Silence and Love Me, reflecting audiences who are now changing their consumption habits.
HBO duo I Know This Much Is True and Chernobyl – the latter produced in collaboration with Sky – exemplify the trend, with others such as Showtime’s Escape At Dannemora and Netflix’s When They See Us highlighting how single-season shows have become as popular and talked about as the longer serialised form. The UK’s Fleabag and the BBC’s Normal People, though multi-episode, are only around six hours of screen time per season, yet have become ‘must-see’ TV in the way that novelistic classics such as The Wire or Mad Men once were.
Current shows that epitomise the high-end serialised model such as HBO’s Succession have been widely praised by critics, yet some viewers have become impatient having to watch three or four episodes of exposition in order to experience one or two episodes of ‘greatness’ before it’s all over and the following season’s storylines are set up.
And if, at the end of a first season, there’s no resolution, viewers can be left unsatisfied. “It’s quite an investment of peoples’ time,” says Söderlund.
As more new players enter the market, that pressure on time becomes a major challenge – as does the necessity to create stand-out series that create the buzz required to attract subscribers. Such a focus on shows that push artistic boundaries to achieve this has led some to believe there is a certain attitude in some areas of the creative community. “There can be a danger of people in this industry producing shows for their friends, or they want to do a cool show for a cool commissioner,” says Söderlund. “Sometimes they forget the mainstream viewer.”
There is also perhaps an assumption that serialised drama is a ‘writers’ medium’, which insinuates that writing episodic shows is less of a craft. But this is not the case, as Marc Lorber, SVP of international co-productions & acquisitions at Lionsgate, points out. “Good writing is good writing, it’s just a different form of the same genre.”
Indeed, episodic shows present their own challenges. “If you write in an episodic style it’s set in a confined area, around a single central character, like the detective in Midsomer Murders, or in a single arena, like the hospital in Grey’s Anatomy. In a way, creatively, it’s more difficult. You need a new plot for every episode, you have to introduce new characters, make it exciting enough for viewers to stay for the whole episode and also have the resolution,” says Söderlund.
Fremantle recently partnered with 87 Films, whose creative team produced many episodes of Silent Witness, one of the BBC’s most successful primetime episodic series of all time. Christian Vesper, the production group’s creative director, points out that episodic’s ‘lean back’ veneer often hides what goes on under the bonnet. “It’s harder to get right than you would expect,” he says. “It takes a very disciplined type of storytelling.”
As in many areas of life, Covid-19 has sped up trends that were already taking place. “History tell us so much,” says Lorber. “In wars, pandemics, depressions – what kind of books, radio and TV were being listened to? A mass group of the audience returns to things that are comfortable, enjoyable and entertaining.” So in today’s exceedingly uncertain world, it makes sense that “viewers may be thinking they’re working longer and harder, and actually don’t want to watch three or four hours. They just want to watch a one hour [drama],” suggests Lorber.
Long-form storytelling on TV is also famously associated with anti-heroes, dark subject matter and the darker side of humanity, which may further affect demand as viewers look for the familiar. Supporting this theory is the number of spin-offs and remakes on the cards: NBC is producing Law And Order: Organized Crime, for example, while Lionsgate-owned Starz is producing Power Book II: Ghost, which continues where its parent show Power left off.
Yet the episodic show can remain challenging and finding a contemporary edge that will appeal to younger audiences is vital. Classic British shows such as Midsomer Murders, Vera, Grantchester and Inspector Morse all feature main characters in their 50s and take place in rural or semi-rural environments and thus tend to skew to older, often retired audiences. For channels and networks looking to reach out to younger city dwellers, this is a problem.
One attempt from the UK aiming to address this is Sky One’s Bulletproof, starring the well-known actor and director of Kidulthood Noel Clarke and star of Top Boy and former So Solid Crew rapper, Ashley Walters. The show, which is set to return for a third season, follows two London detectives and best friends as they investigate some of the country’s most dangerous criminals. Perhaps not coincidentally, Nick Love, the show’s co-creator and writer, previously worked on a movie remake of the 1970s cop show The Sweeney, considered to be one of the UK’s greatest episodic TV series of all time.
There are also an increasing number of hybrid shows. All3Media’s production Van Der Valk is based on the Amsterdam-set British episodic that ran from the 1970s until the early 1990s and features Marc Warren taking on Barry Foster’s role.
But, like season one, the second season (now on hold until 2021, due to the impact of Covid-19) is a three-part ‘event’ show, as opposed to the classic multi-episode model.
Over in the Nordics, Maria Wern – a female-led cop show – is in contrast to famous ‘slow-burn’ Nordic Noir. Though it features character arcs over the season, each individual episode (or two-parter) consists of a self-contained story – a recipe that has proved successful for Eccho Rights across Europe. Then there are shows such as Fremantle’s Salisbury Poisonings, again a self-contained mini-series based on real life events, which brought immersive and serious drama to a UK primetime slot and achieved over 10 million viewings in consolidated figures.
Such a variety of shows highlight how primetime episodic TV is evolving, supporting the theory that the future will be more “blended,” says Fremantle’s Vesper. “Even the most popular and entertaining shows have ambition to tell bigger stories. It’s not as easy to distinguish them as it used to be.”