What’s the Matt-er: The Importance of Having a Plan

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Everybody loves series, whether they be TV or books (or, in the best of cases, both), the chance to return again and again to familiar stories and characters is intoxicating. We know who these people are, we’re invested in them in a way that we wouldn’t be if their story was a one off, and this investment makes the whole experience more enjoyable. However, the series’ strength– the fact that it is a much longer and more extended form of storytelling than any other – is also its greatest weakness.

Because they repeat, because they are constant, coming on year after year, picking up old storylines and introducing new ones, there is a sense that a series can last forever – and when you’re caught up in the middle of it, you kinda want it to. This is not what you should want though. Endlessness is the death of the series. Every time a series is renewed for another season, it runs the risk of being irrevocably ruined, as writers run out of plots, characters end up in development-less limbo and the whole thing gets stale and dull. This has happened to lots of series, series which were considered ground-breaking and the best things around at the time.

Can't we just pretend season eight never happened?

Can’t we just pretend season eight never happened? Photograph: Showtime

The first four seasons of House are fantastic, but after that it kind of trailed off, recapturing its former brilliance for only one or two episodes every season. Dexter – do I really need to elaborate on this? Have you seen the final season? Lost, although a bit more complicated, still suffered from a noticeable dip in the latter seasons. Eragon, kinda, mainly because it wasn’t that good to begin with, but was definitely just bad by the end. Friends, slightly less so than the others, the final few seasons weren’t bad by any means, but they are the ones you skip over more during the inevitable re-watches (also, Joey and Rachel? Really?). A Song of Ice and Fire – though it hasn’t finished yet the last two books definitely have a bloated, meandering feel to them, one that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the series.

The problem with all of these is that the writers didn’t really have a plan when they started out (with the exception of Lost and A Song of Ice and Fire, more on those later). They made money, and did very well, and so everyone just carried on as they were, wilfully ignorant of what might happen when the ideas inevitably dried up in their search for more money (something something Spaceballs 2).

This is how you do a series

This is how you do a series

This is all made easier to see if we look at opposite examples: series where the writers had a concrete plan from the off, one that they stuck to despite success and the lure of easy money. Harry Potter is a brilliant example of this. J.K. Rowling knew from the off how her story would pan out (to the point of having written the final chapter before she even started the series), and it shows. The whole series is filled with direction and purpose, with the kind of foreshadowing and creative awareness that makes re-reading it so continually enjoyable. Another example is Breaking Bad. There’s a reason everyone bangs on about it being the best thing ever, and that’s because, like Rowling, Vince Gilligan knew what he wanted to do from the very start.

"So they go back in time, and also into a parallel universe. And the nuke does go off, and it doesn't, and everything that happens happens? i think I get it." "But what about Walt?" "Fuck. I don't understand it at all"

“So they go back in time, and also into a parallel universe. And the nuke does go off, and it doesn’t, and everything that happens happens? I think I get it.” “But what about Walt?” “Fuck. I don’t understand any of it.” Photograph: ABC

Even though it dipped in the middle, Lost is actually another of these series. Damen Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (and J.J. Abrams, kinda, and Jeffrey Lieber, even less so) had a definite plan for the series at its conception, one that they eventually saw through. In fact, one of the main reasons for the series starting to unravel and get away from itself in the latter seasons was because, despite the creators’ plan, the studio saw how successful the show was and demanded more of it, forcing Lindelof and Cuse to stretch their story out for a further three seasons. If they had stuck to their initial plan, rather than layering mystery onto mystery onto weird combination of time-travel and quantum something, maybe less people would have been so upset by the series’ finale (and for fuck’s sake, no, they weren’t dead all this time, it really isn’t that hard).

Now that we’re all caught up as to why series should definitely have plans, and definitely shouldn’t go on indefinitely (ha, wordplay), let’s take a look at some of the more popular series still happening now (is that the proper verb? Do series happen?).

George R.R. "I have no idea what I'm doing" Martin

George “I have no idea what I’m doing” Martin. Photograph: winteriscoming.net

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (now a hit TV show!) is looking dangerously close to jumping the proverbial shark. The last two books in the series, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, amount to 2000 pages of not that much happening, because, as the author himself admits, he got about halfway into the story, realised he was stuck, and has since been trying to write his way out. The middle of a story is generally supposed to be the part where all the plotlines introduced at the beginning come to a head, where everything takes a massive downturn for our protagonists. It is not the time to start introducing a host of new characters to an already sprawling list. It is not the time to ***major, if hopefully obscured, spoiler*** introduce a radically important plotline that has absolutely no previous evidence or hinting in the earlier books – that is Young Griff, and everything he claims to represent. ***no more spoilers*** It definitely isn’t the time to describe, at length, a bunch of entirely irrelevant happenings throughout Westeros, all concerned with such fascinating subjects as the food people eat. What it is, is time to hire an editor, and give them free reign to tear your latest book a new one before its release (whenever the hell that may be).

Orange is the New Black, everyone’s favourite prison-based lesbian thing. Despite most people apparently preferring the earlier seasons, I actually thought the third was the best – it explored characters that had hitherto been left unexplored, and seemed to set up an interesting plotline for Piper. However, when Netflix announced that they were renewing their flagship show for not one, not two, but three new seasons, alarm bells started to ring. Exploring characters is all well and good, but it only gets you so far. At some point, you have to return to the plot (and with departure from plot being a main criticism of the third season, that point is pretty much now). It seems unlikely that whatever plot Netflix and Jenji Kohan have planned for these next three seasons is going to be the same one envisioned back in 2013, when the series began as the adaptation of a woman’s account of one year in prison. Not seven. One.

So they fired this guy and...and maybe they shouldn't have?

So they fired this guy and…and maybe they shouldn’t have? Photograph: Keystone USA

The Walking Dead, or the adventures of grime-y Rick, crossbow dude, and Coral. Now full disclosure, I stopped watching this show a couple of years ago, because, for me, it had already reached the point where I could no longer bring myself to care about the people nearly being eaten by zombies, but not quite being eaten by zombies, but then meeting a human, who was worse than the zombies!!!! (rinse and repeat) That being said, I gather that the latest season, or the latest half of the latest season (I don’t know, something about Christmas breaks), is rather phenomenal. So maybe I was wrong. Maybe The Walking Dead hasn’t jumped the shark yet. Maybe it never will. But that seems unlikely. For one thing, there are apparently (loose) plans for up to twelve seasons. For another, the whole thing is based on Robert Kirkman’s vision of an unending comic series. As with OITNB, my doubt doesn’t stem from the current state of the show being bad. Rather, it comes from series consistently becoming bad as they continue to be made and extended in attempts to capitalise on their success. Add to this AMC’s previous tendency to get all interfere-y with their flagship show (like the firing of showrunner Frank Darabont, a decision that culminated in season two, colloquially known as the season where nothing fucking happened, or their repeated attempts to cut the show’s budget in pursuit of higher profit margins), and what you end up with is a show that looks like it’s probably headed for a dip.

Recommendation: If you’ve been on Netflix recently, you’ve seen the big top-screen-part-thingy with Daredevil on it. This is my recommendation. If you haven’t already seen the first season (which you should have by now – we kind of bang on about it here), then you’re in for a treat. It’s like the Marvel films, but if they stopped pretending they were for children and not adults. Dark, violent, realistic(ish), and thoroughly engaging, the show is a good’un, no doubt about it.

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A 3rd year English student who likes staring at all the pretty moving pictures. Also books, I suppose. I do take English after all

2 Comments

    • avatar
      Matt Clarson on

      I think the last book especially suffers from the author not knowing how to resolve the plots that he sets up early on int eh series. Specifically the fact that the series’ main villain is so ridiculously overpowered that he has to resort to what is essentially a deus ex machina type plot device. Plus much of the last two books feel a lot more rushed than they should have been, the actual final ending is little more than the author’s own wish-fulfillment, and the world he builds, which seems promising as far as fantasy worlds go at the beginning, is quite sloppily put together, and very derivative.
      And what I was trying to say in the post is more that the series wasn’t really that great to begin with compared to the others that I’m talking about.

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