“I used to watch it, but I missed a few episodes, and now I can’t follow it anymore.”
In the 21st century, this is an all-too-familiar sentiment because TV shows with heavy continuity and multi-episode, and even multi-season, story arcs are on the rise.
In decades past, TV writers had to be very cautious around long story arcs since it was difficult or impossible for the audience to follow along week-to-week. But in the age of Netflix and “the complete first season on DVD,” story arc restrictions don’t always apply.
In addition to watching TV episodes when they’re broadcast, modern audiences have the enticing option of waiting for a show to come out on DVD and powering through a whole season in a day or two.
“When I was recovering from a tonsillectomy, I binged through the first two seasons of ‘Dexter’ to kill time, and got hooked,” Spencer Pellant, junior in fine arts, said.
Pellant recalled accidentally discovering a lot of richness in the series when watched straight through.
“The continuity makes it more believable and ties the whole show together,” Pellant said.
Ryan Rutledge, junior in information systems, said he agreed with Pellant that watching TV show seasons continually offers great detail for viewers.
“I watched ‘Breaking Bad,’ mostly by waiting for it to come out on Netflix,” Rutledge said. “When you watch it all at once, and the story can continue for so long because it isn’t confined to one episode, you get a lot of character development that doesn’t come through in a shorter show.”
Rutledge and Pellant aren’t alone in watching TV shows to gain character development and strong story plot lines.
“I like to follow ‘Arrow’ and ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,'” Xavier Gavin, senior in interior architecture said.
He said heavy continuity, while pioneered by superhero comics, is made more accessible to people by the realism and brevity of live action TV.
“Movies are starting to get into the three-hour range, which is kinda long, even for a compelling narrative,” Gavin said. “I think TV arcs allow me to enjoy a long, compelling story while being able to take breaks in 30 minute intervals if I want.”
TVTropes.org calls this phenomenon “Better on DVD.” According to its article on the subject, “It probably has something to do with the fact that the writers live in the environment they have created for the characters 24/7, and the ‘previously on’ is not enough to bring the viewer back into that world.”
It points to examples like “Arrested Development,” “The Wire” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as shows that are best watched in marathons. The “CSI” and “Law and Order” franchises are the opposite. The latter two shows enjoy very high TV ratings because the episodes are self-contained and easy for casual viewers to follow, but have poorer DVD sales since marathon viewing doesn’t add anything.
Strong story arcs have a downside, though, which TVTropes dubs “Continuity Lockout.” It’s the problem of being inaccessible to new fans, or even old fans who missed a few episodes, by crafting a story that completely relies on story arc to be enjoyable.
“I stopped watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ when it got weird, and now when girls in my sorority have it on, I have no idea what’s going on,” Jessica Pennybacker, sophomore in secondary education and Spanish, said. “Some couples broke up, somebody has a baby now and I can’t follow any of it.”
Gavin couldn’t even begin watching “Doctor Who” because of continuity lockout.
“I was always told that ‘Doctor Who’ is a great show, and it very well may be, but when I’ve tried to watch it, it was way too lore-filled.”
Plus, with the difficulty of keeping up with studio, Gavin said he doesn’t have time in his life to follow more than one series in any depth.
Rutledge and Pellant identified another common problem of continuity: shows that drag out their story lines to the detriment of the story. They both independently pointed to the same culprit: “Supernatural.”
“It kept going long after the story was done with,” Rutledge said. “At some point, I couldn’t handle how they were squeezing the plot dry.”
Apparently, trying to make every single episode a dramatic, game-changing cliffhanger can be off-putting to fans.
Despite its problems, it looks like continuity in TV is here to stay. As Pennybacker said of her “Vampire Diaries” fandom, long story arcs can hook audiences and make them want to watch the next installment in a way episodic shows can’t. Even if story arcs may alienate potential fans, the fans they capture are fans for life.