TV storytelling has shifted along with its finances, moving from syndication-friendly standalone episodes to extended storylines with the complexities of a novel, suitable for timeshifting or DVD.
“This is a key reason why I think we’re in a new golden age of television,” says Clyde Phillips, “Dexter” head writer and showrunner for the first four seasons. “We’re able to do more complex storytelling across bigger stretches of time.”
But writers on serialized shows also inherit challenges unknown to dramatists working at more traditional lengths.
Phillips says while the luxury of multi-episode stories let them make Dexter a father, “with a more novel-like approach, the writers also have to stick with this new reality in Dexter’s life. You can’t just drop it when it’s no longer convenient for the story.”
Notes Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men”: “Longer stories demand far more organizing of materials than when TV writers functioned with a known set of characters who basically never changed, and you added in guest characters. Now, you have to construct whole lives.”
To take the example of Don Draper, the ad exec extraordinaire and the central character of “Mad Men,” Weiner says, “I knew that (he) would have to have a childhood, but once I determined that he had a really tough one, I had to figure out by trial and error how to reveal that, gradually, through the course of the seasons.”
Weiner has seen the shift play out over his own career. When he started, he says, no story arc could go past three episodes.
“You couldn’t expect viewers to catch up to a longer storyline,” Weiner says. “By the time I joined ‘The Sopranos’ in the fifth season, the field had changed. (Creator) David Chase allowed all sorts of things to happen during the many months between seasons. Characters who weren’t married before had already tied the knot when we returned. I’d never seen that kind of storytelling before.”
Writers nowadays must consider whether to write a serialized show with an extended plot even in the absence of a network commitment.
Michael Hirst, creator and sole writer of “The Tudors,” set out to produce the saga of King Henry VIII’s six marriages and battles with no guarantees from Showtime that the show would run.
“I went ahead intending to write Henry’s story with a longform approach in mind, as if we would indeed stay on the air long enough to get to the end. I had to assume that I would get to dramatize the six marriages with no assurance that I would actually get there, which is a bit unnerving at first, but you get used to it.”