One thing that’s been bothering me with television the past few years is that the old, “adventure-of-the-week” shows are just about gone. What I mean, is those fun shows that rarely required you to see the previous episode in order to understand/enjoy them. Instead, TV has become full of soap-operas where each season, or the entire series, is one linear story, forcing the viewers to watch every single installment, fearing that missing one will cause chaos and confusion forever.
The title reflects how you’ll feel if you miss a single episode.
The adventure shows I’m referring to are shows like, MacGyver, Magnum P.I., Quantum Leap, Highlander, and, of course, Star Trek.
These were shows that you could catch a random episode, having little to no experience with the show, and quickly understand what’s going on. The heroes are not necessarily law-enforcers, they’re usually good guys that operate outside the law (The Equilizer, The A-Team, Firefly), agents of a secret government program (X-Files, Mission Impossible), or maybe explorers or lawmen out on the dangerous frontier (Star Trek, 85% of all Westerns).
These days, most shows that follow the adventure-of-the-week theme are Cop Shows, usually police procedurals, or Sitcoms. No one needs know what shenanigans happened last week on Two and a Half Men in order to enjoy this week’s episode.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love me some Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Battlestar Galactica. There’s nothing wrong with a series. I just miss when TV had short stories, too. Personally, I blame Lost. Lost taught the networks that you could literally throw anything up on screen with the most convoluted plot ever, and as long as you hooked them with drama, and mystery, and a glimmer of hope that it would eventually make sense, the addict viewer would come back for more every week.
Quantum Leap had a great gag to hook their viewers. Every episode would end with a little stinger for the next one. Usually awkward. Sam would leap into his next body, and suddenly figure out that he’s a teenage girl, or Elvis, or holding a bloody knife above a corpse. You’d see his “oh no” face, then cue credits.
They just don’t make TV like this anymore.
Sometimes, an adventure-of-the-week show becomes a series. Those also disappoint me. Burn Notice was a great pulp show, sort of like The Fugitive meets, MacGuyver. Then it became a linear story. Supernatural was the same way. At first, our two roguish monster-hunters killed a new baddie every week, deliver some clever banter, then drive off in their muscle car blaring some rock and roll, headed toward next week’s adventure. Then it became an elaborate storyline involving Badger from Firefly and Booger from Revenge of the Nerds. A good indicator that your show is becoming a series is if the opening regularly includes a narrator/character saying “Previously On,” followed by a montage.
Castle was a great adventure of the week show. I loved it. It was like Murder She Wrote meets… meets Nathan Fillion. I’ve missed the last season or so, but have been informed that its weekly antics have switched to a longer story-line.
Now the purest of the short-story shows were the ones that were individual stories (Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Amazing Stories). Those shows were wonderful (OK, Amazing Stories was actually pretty damn cheesy). They tried rebooting Twilight Zone a few years back, but not even the power of Forest Whitaker could save it.
I suspect the reason for the shift in formats comes down to two big factors.
- Viewers that aren’t hooked might stray. There’s just so many shows out there, and unless a show holds the plot resolution captive, viewers might not tune in next week.
- Crappy Writing. Writing a new story can be hard. It’s especially difficult to pump out 13-15 new stories every season (remember back when a season was 20+ episodes?). So let’s just take one story and stretch it out. Problem solved. Now, instead of needing to have a beginning, middle, and end like every other story written since the beginning of time, TV writers just have to come up with enough to keep you interested (see Lost).
Hopefully, one day an adventure of the week show will appear that will blow everyone away. Then maybe studios will begin swinging back toward that format. Until then, we’re all pretty much stuck with soap operas pretending that they aren’t soap operas.