Character development, season-ending payoffs prove serial’s buzzworthiness

Procedural vs. serial: The great debate

Anthony Zuiker is one of the most creative guys I know, and one of the people I most respect in Hollywood. So I’ll let him make my argument.

The pilot for “CSI” was a serial.

It was a two-parter, actually, but the principle was the same: It got viewers hooked. It raised the stakes, told a larger story and made the payoff count.

OK, yeah, maybe that’s stretching the point, but only a little. Cliffhangers and season-long serials feed off the same emotions and have the same impact. They expand the canvas, make more room for story and character, and maybe, most importantly in our current wacko media world, they create appointment television.

Before we get too far down the I-Love-Serials road, I need to say I love self-contained hours, too. And I know series such as the “CSIs” are extraordinarily valuable to a network. They draw viewers, in part, precisely because people get satisfaction in 60 minutes. Their ability to repeat is incredibly important, and not just to networks. In my house, even reruns of the “CSIs” or the “Law & Orders” play like religious ritual, which tells you something about my lack of depth, but there you go.

Still, when it comes to telling big stories, and to creating buzz — particularly among my TV critic colleagues, whatever we may be worth — well-drawn, smartly executed serials are the gold standard. They don’t have to be running mysteries or entirely open-ended, but look at the shows getting attention this spring: “24,” “Lost,” “The Sopranos,” “Grey’s Anatomy.” They’re serials. So is “American Idol,” the current monster in the yard. A huge piece of “Idol’s” appeal is the combo of building tension, running soap opera and big climax.

Let’s look at this from a couple views. First, simple commerce: Serials cut through the clutter like nothing else. If someone gets hooked on a “24” or a “Lost,” the show becomes as must-watch as anything on TV. It becomes compulsion, the kind of “Shut-up-I-TiVo’d-It” series people plan their weeks around.

And serials play to our expanding technological universe. DVRs make it easy to watch every episode, and to dissect them with obsessiveness. Web sites and Internet offerings feed the fanaticism, and extras for series with continuing storylines have far more value than the less-vital bonus info about nonserialized shows.

Then there’s the story. Serials open all kinds of doors. Plots can twist, split, then sprint forward. Mysteries can expand and venture into new, unexpected territory, like, uh, hatches. Characters can grow, adapt, slowly get flushed out in all their complexities, or get whacked — R.I.P. half the characters on “24.”

Web sites take bets on which “Sopranos” wiseguy is going down next. What was the last self-contained show that had betting odds? I mean besides the Kentucky Derby?

And looking at TV as art form — probably something we critics do more than we should — serials let writers tell better stories. They offer the size and depth of a novel.

Good television has become the literature of our modern culture. It can tell the stories of our society, our families — our emotions, battles and lives — with a resonance no other medium can muster.

Series such as “The Sopranos” or “The West Wing,” or classics like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “NYPD Blue” or even “Ally McBeal” and “Sex and the City” play like essays on contemporary American life.

I’m not saying every show should be serialized. Most should not be, at least not so those elements stand out. The networks saw last fall that viewers have limited attention, time and, frankly, willingness to be mystified by running conspiracies. Particularly if they involve aliens.

But all the great shows have some serialized elements. The “CSIs,” — as self-contained as any hours would appear — still deftly drop in just enough continuing story to give them depth and to keep all the series evolving, even when they’re not doing two-parters.

And when writers and producers get it right, when they mix a compelling story with a continuing sense of progress, possibility and, maybe, pending disaster, they can make television that’s like nothing else in show business.

(Rick Kushman is the TV critic for the Sacramento Bee.)

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