Continuity and TV shows – a good thing, or something that gets in the way of telling good stories?

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks is continuity. Now, to some people, the term “continuity” means consistency on a TV show or movie from scene to scene (someone on the set makes sure that the actor’s hairstyle does not change from scene to scene and that props set on a table don’t mysteriously “move” in between cuts). That’s not what I’m talking about.

What I mean is the continuity of character and story inside a TV series. In the 1950s there was very little of this, even in hour-long dramas (with some exceptions – The Fugitive famously had the ongoing story thread of the one-armed man, which was resolved in the series’ final episode). In the sixties some continuity began to occur more often, with recurring villians (Wild Wild West, Batman, Star Trek, Doctor Who) and references to earlier episodes in later ones (again, Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Thunderbirds). Note that british television was an early pioneer of continuing story arcs and continuity.

The real continuity as we know it today was on TV in the 50s and 60s, was on daytime television. Soap Operas such as Guiding Light and Edge of Night told continuing stories, and character arcs ended while others began.

Then the era of the mini-series: the 1970s became the “novel for television” decade, starting with Roots and continuing with Rich Man Poor Man, Holocaust, Winds of War and many many others. These allowed the creators of television productions to tell complete stories with a limited number of “episodes” and to may in television this was a very appealing prospect (far better than having to create stories in the context of “everything’s the same/works out/fine” at the end of every episode). A lot of the writers on mini-series ended up in hour long dramas and so…

Following quick on the mini-series was the prime time soap opera, taking the same approach at story telling that daytime TV had used for decades. You know the shows: Dallas, Knots Landing, Dynasty, Falcon Crest. Continuity was all-important and, like day-time soaps, viewers had to tune in every week to keep up with the story. It has continued to this day, with dramas (Lost, ER, Battlestar Galactica, etc.) and comedies alike (The Office, My Name is Earl, Arrested Development, etc.) having ongoing stories steeped in a self-created continuum.

And that’s when I think the problems started, for both viewers and TV creators.

First, the positives that continuity brings to TV:

  • Stories are not limited to an hour, and can last anywhere from two episodes to an entire season.
  • Viewers HAVE to keep watching (to keep up – networks LOVE that)
  • Characters can leave and return, and writers can explain advances in their character through exposition (it happens “off camera) and allow for
  • New characters and arcs can be created and introduced at any time.
  • An entire series can be “planned out” by the producers, much like the better soap opera writers have done.
  • It allows for the creation of a rich “universe” that can be used as a springboard for new ideas and arcs.

Now, the negatives (some directly related to the above):

  • Sometimes there is WAY too much exposition, as sometimes the writers feel obliged to inform the audience what has happened in the past (and done badly this stops the drama dead in its tracks) in case an episode was “missed.”
  • Viewers have to watch every episode to follow the story; people have lives outside of TV watching (at least some people do).
  • Not all characters or arcs are created equal;  not only does the show have to continue to focus on the primary characters/actors the audience “fell in love with,” the writers have to try to organically introduce new stories or characters at the same time.
  • You are your own worse enemy – you are not competing with other shows, you are competing with your previous stories and characters. Viewers, if they feel the new arcs in season two of the show aren’t as good as the first season, will tune out or compare the show with itself (see: 24).
  • Sometimes, you can’t “finish” a story. Some shows reach the dramatic conclusion of the primary story arc and in doing so wither ticks off the audience or loses a significant percentage of them or both. Case in point, Twin Peaks and the murder of Laura Palmer. David Lynch originally did not want the show to reveal who killed the character and instead expand the mythology of the show by creating new and different characters and plots. Well, they DID reveal the murderer, and most stopped watching.
  • In case of a crappy series of episodes, break glass and hit the reset button. Sometimes the writers write themselves into a corner and can’t get “out” of the situation they have created in the show. So they (rarely, thank goodness) hit the reset button. The classic example is of course the Bobby in the shower reset of an entire season of Dallas. What happened? Angry viewers is what happened.

Another, well, not necessarily a “negative” but a constraint for writers is, well, keeping up with their own universe. Ron Moore, one time producer and writer for Star Trek, has repeatedly complained about having to maintain and be consistent with the continuity they had built up over years of multiple Trek programs. In some instances it killed some good ideas from being written up as episodes because it would contradict what they had done before. After being “gone” from Trek for several years he is hesitant to ever return unless he could start with a “clean slate” because he could not be able to “catch up” on the lore that was built in the universe after he left.

So, is continuity good or bad for TV writers and viewers? The short answer in my opinion is “yes” to both; If handled well a show that is almost ALL continuity (like Lost) can be a rich interactive experience that rewards consistent viewing. The problem lies with “keeping up” and, while DVDs  has allowed for viewers to easily “catch up”, there is the challenge of getting new viewers into the show that the producers have to handle (the “recap” show is the new solution for this challenge, as several programs have done this). And several shows still only do continuity “around the edges, ” with character arcs and continuity secondary to telling a stand-alone story (CSI, Law and Order, etc.) so people can “tune in” without having a reference manual to the show nearby.

Basically, it’s a balancing act. How much continuity is important? How much do you trust the audience to remember “events” of months earlier? Every showrunner must make their own decision, and the wrong one will turn off new viewers or get in the way of the primary point: entertaining us.

A final thought: One of my favorite shows of all time (often referenced on this blog) is The Odd Couple, and it had a huge number of continuity problems/contradictions (here is an article that lists most of them). It was also pretty damn funny, and consistently so. In interviews, when producer Garry Marshall has been asked why there were four different episodes showing how Felix and Oscar met (for example). Marshall has shaken his head. His reply?

“It’s just a TV SHOW! All we were trying to do is tell a good story and make people laugh!”

I daresay if more shows spent more time telling good stories and less on trying to “map out arcs” we’d have better television.