Given how quickly things have moved this season on Lost, I wonder out loud once again: is the traditional model for broadcasting drama hopelessly outdated? Or rather, is the question, “Is the business model for television in actuality television’s greatest enemy?”
Now, this question doesn’t affect all programs, naturally. Ongoing procedurals such as Law and Order don’t require a finite run in which to optimally tell its story. And most sitcoms, which are observational in nature as opposite to plot-driven, need not apply. But shows like How I Met Your Mother? might be better served by knowing how many half-hours they have in which to reveal the answer inherent in its title. The show might be a modest hit (modest being the operative word here), but in some ways its success works against it. The longer the show is, the longer it has to pad the narrative before reaching a conclusion that’s hopefully organic.
Once Lost learned it had 48 episodes left over three years in which to finish their story, it’s almost as if the gloves came off. Not every episode this season has been perfect by any stretch (I’m looking at you, “Eggtown“) but dating back to the deaths of Nikki and Paolo, the show in general has been more propulsive than we’ve ever seen it. And all that forward momentum started with concrete knowledge of the finish line.
Now, I recognize that such plans can’t work in the hit-or-miss nature of popular entertainment. If everyone had a 100-hour story in them, maybe. If Hollywood could accurately predict what could be successful for that long, maybe. But neither is true, and as such, Lost is, as per usual, the exception to the rule. I’m not suggesting that Lost be the model for EVERY SHOW, but the idea of deriving shows with a beginning, middle, and end should be the goal each time out. The only variable show be the length of that story.
The cable station FX features shorter seasons for its original dramas, allowing them to show new episodes all year round of programming that, while very different from each other, each appeal to fans of quirky dark-humored drama. Having 22-ep seasons of The Shield probably would dilute the show, stretch the budget, and drive down audience. By keeping the seasons short, they allow narrative focus, offer “must see” viewings, and allow its actors the chance to do other projects throughout the year as well.
This model would work well across all networks, with one huge problem preventing this: a dirth of good ideas. If there were a surfeit of excellent dramatic scripts floating about, we wouldn’t have to endure shows like Carpoolers, now would we? But by shortening the production, production companies and networks could take chances on lower-risk projects. More projects means more chances for great television, and if doesn’t connect? Eh, a new show will be on in a few weeks, just behind it in the pipeline.
If nothing else, some shows that are pitched as open-ended only do so because that’s the business model in mind. The show Drive was so high-concept that it really had no business lasting more than 8-13 episodes. Three years of a secret cross-country round race? No thanks. But thirteen hours of Nathan Fillion chasing after his wife? Yes, please.
Again, I’m not suggesting wholesale changes to the model: just a way to look at one aspect of it and hone it. People crave closed-end narratives, and this season’s Lost shows just how invigorated storytellers can be when free to dictate their story at their pace. Or, you know, you could always air CSI: Des Moines. It’s up to you, Hollywood.