Stargate to House: Story Arc as a Necessary Evil

I recently reached Season 5 of Stargate. Season 5 is when Daniel Jackson ascends or dies or, at least, leaves the show until he gets a better contract.

I remember hearing about the incident back when it originally happened. My reaction at the time was, "Oh, another actor who thinks he should be the center of the script!" (my apologies, Michael Shanks). Now that I have more investment in the disappearance of Daniel Jackson's character, I went onto the Internet to discover why Michael Shanks took a year off.

I discovered yup, he came back when his agents re-negotiated a better contract, but I'm more interested in the explanations Shanks gave to interviewers at the time: namely that his character had become superfluous since the show was doing this whole conspiracy/a million-military-episodes arc: not much need for a language-guru archaeologist.

Shanks' reasons may have been a contract ploy, but they happen to be accurate. In Season 5, Daniel Jackson basically spends every episode playing straight man to Jack. Which is very funny, but not exactly character-driven or in keeping with the show's original feel.

All this analysis of Stargate is a big lead-in to the following: I find the story arcs of most shows incredibly dull.

Weird segue, huh? But I agree with Michael Shanks' analysis; I too think Stargate morphed from "our fun group visits another interesting planet this week" to "watch next week to see if the good guys took over a particular outpost yet" type of show. I've always found the former approach much more engaging than the latter. "Watch next week to see if the good guys took over a particular outpost yet" is inevitably linked to "what's the big story arc this season?" and as previously stated, story arcs just don't captivate me in the same way a tightly plotted episode does. I was rarely interested in the arcs on Buffy (with one exception--see below). I gave up on Angel because of the story arcs. And I have about as much interest in the "conspiracy" arc of X-Files as I do in the composition of plastic.

Here's what I can't figure out: do most viewers prefer arcs or do viewers put up with them for the sake of the characters?

If you watch how shows unwind, usually the first season is a collection of individual episodes: plot-driven, tight, and non-arc-related. By the time you hit Season 4, however, everything is arc-driven (with the exception of Star Trek, thank goodness). Granted, by this point, the only people watching are die-hard fans; hence, the writing is all about, "Will so-and-so finally do X, Y, or Z in this episode?" The writers assume the viewers have long-term viewing and emotional investment with the show.

And I don't want to. Have investment. I figure I have enough problems with investment issues in my real life; why create more? I like certain characters; I get a huge kick out of Jack and Daniel's relationship on Stargate (and a bigger kick out of the unintentional or intentional homoerotic element that, like it or not, I am SURE attracts a certain number of dare-I-say female fans). I love Mulder and Scully. I am incessantly amused by David Boreanaz's ability on Bones to be completely different from his Angel self while still being David Boreanaz. (And I like the rapid-fire dialog.) But I simply can't go on caring. I don't want to go on caring. It's like American Idol. I was interested when I watched last year, but I can't remember anyone's name now--well, except for Sanjanya, bless him.

There's nothing particularly profound about my disinterest in becoming emotionally attached to television characters or, even, my huge interest in plot-driven episodes (with a touch of character interaction to satisfy my need for subtlety). But my non-profound reactions do bring up the whole issue of "Why do people enjoy . . . " fiction, a particular show in the first place?

Is it the story arc? Is it the characters? Is it the suspense? Is it the need or desire to "connect"? Is it emotional? Intellectual? Logical? Is it about imagination? Are we forced to invest in TV characters (you can't get the created universe without the writers' story arc, darn it!) or do we WANT to invest? Is it all the gadgets? Is it personal--what people get is entirely individual and the story arc is the only way to deliver "whatever it is" to as many people as possible?

My theory is that story arc is the only way to deliver whatever it is people really want: that is, we are looking for something other than the arc, but the arc becomes the vehicle and, like it or not (I say to myself), the arc is the only decent delivery system.

Maybe, just maybe, without the arc, we wouldn't get the wry, self-deprecating yet wholly untrustworthy Garak or the utterly entertaining, self-aware and ambiguous Spike. Maybe, without an arc, I wouldn't appreciate Samantha Carter's practicality (most normal woman character in all television: I kid you not) or Cuddy's snappy comebacks: "Is your yelling designed to scare me because I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be scared of. More yelling? That's not scary. That you're gonna hurt me? That's scary, but I'm pretty sure I can outrun ya."

Perhaps, without a story arc, I wouldn't look forward to Jack's unflappability or General Hammond's stoicness. I certainly wouldn't learn that Teal'c likes vibrating hotel beds! And perhaps, without the story arc, I couldn't appreciate all the fun details (so smart to move Wilson's office next to House's) and other such touches, such as ending and beginning Season 1 of House with Mick Jagger's "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and the final pay-off of Sarah and Grissom (which I realize is over, but I stopped watching CSI 2 seasons ago).

Maybe, just maybe, the story arc is a necessary evil.
A few arcs I admire:

Buffy, Season 2 is the smartest story arc ever created: it combines a fundamental/classic plot (boy dumps girl) with a supernatural/mythic twist.

The House arcs are always very, very good. However, when I borrow the seasons from the library, I never watch the arcs, just the individual "cases."

On Star Trek, I've always liked the Borg arcs. However, I've never cared for the Cardaissan arcs. I LIKE the Cardaissans: great bad guys. But the arcs are very military/very spy-capture-torture stuff. To be clear, I have no ethical problems with military/spy-capture-torture television/films, just no interest (my apologies, all Bond fans).

The amazing show Dead Like Me is a continuous story arc. It isn't soap operatic, but both seasons together are like watching one long story. It is also unbelievably good: the writers/producers could give Whedon a run for his money. The show is smart, insightful, human, funny, and has Mandy Patinkin, the stunning Britt McKillip, and an excellent heroine (Ellen Muth).



Eugene said...

I think the story arc evolved out of growing demands on the production side. Studios have to have a good idea of the product they're selling to the networks so the networks can sell the advertising slots and the studios can license to overseas buyers. Part of that selling process, I'm sure, is storyboarding the entire season before shooting begins.

Story arcs must also make the writing easier. Writing a season's worth of compelling material for shows like CSI and House has got to be tough. Carving ten minutes out of House for the current Wilson/Amber arc lessens the burden on the main story and draws in viewers interested in those characters. A way of being all things to all people.

I prefer "soft" arcs where each episode is not dependent on the arc for continuity. In the X-Files, only every third episode or so fit into the UFO/conspiracy arc. The House/Tritter and House/Vogler arcs at times came close to overwhelming the premise. In shows like CSI: Miami, the whole thing has dissolved into a revolving soap opera, all arc and no plot.

I can't stand shows where the primary question every single episode is: which cast member shall we put in jeopardy this week?

When it comes to "hard" arcs, I prefer watching on DVD (a lot of anime runs in hard arcs). I'm not patient enough to wait for regular broadcast television, and I don't like the feeling that I'm being "forced" to tune in next week. One exception is the daily NHK soap opera on satellite. But each episode runs only 15 minutes, so it's easy to take in small doses.

Joe said...

I suspect we are outliers and that most people like story arcs. Story arcs also provide predictability for advertisers and make it harder to cancel shows without protests.

Another reason for the story arc (versus the character arc) are actors demanding more attention. This is one reason they do tend to pop up in in seasons three and four. The actors' rational is two fold; screen time and for something new.

One problem with story arcs, though, is that they can actually limit the overall show by making subordinate characters less malleable.

Like Gene, I prefer shows with episodes that can stand alone, though with subplots that add to the overall enjoyment of the show. However, there have been a few shows where the story arc worked well or was just very well balanced

One thing that annoys me with story arcs is how often they involve conspiracy theories with some boogie man. This is the worse aspect of Bones.