what I crave

Catching up on Supernatural made me realize that, when all is said and done, there is a particular flavor of story I love above all others — a flavor I haven’t been getting enough of lately.

To whit: the dramatic serialized arc.

Unpacking that . . . I want a dramatic story (as opposed to a comedic one, though using comedy as the jab to set up the impact of the subsequent dramatic cross is even better) — which for me, by the way, means really strong character development; I cannot live on plot alone. I also want the story to be told in installments, whether those are novels of a series or episodes of a TV show. And finally, I want the installments to form an over-arching narrative shape: I want there to be an endpoint the story is trending toward, that helps define that shape, rather than it being created wholly on the fly.

I realized this because of a discussion over on Fangs, Fur, and Fey, and as I said there, this form has a downside: it really has to stick the landing. If you give me an awesome series that whiffs in the final installment, it’s often worse than a standalone novel or film that whiffs the final chapter, if only because I’ve invested so much more time and energy into it. But that investment is also why serialized narratives can affect me so powerfully — and the closer you come to getting it right, the more I will thank you for having pulled my guts out and played cat’s-cradle with them.

(When I said I wanted drama? I meant it.)

This is why I love the Lymond Chronicles. It’s why I love Supernatural — they’ve done a better job of the multi-season metaplot thing than most comparable shows. It’s why I love the anime series X, cracktastic as it is. Some seasons of Buffy pulled it off; George R. R. Martin might do the same, thirty years from now when his series is finally done. But I haven’t tried any new TV lately that’s done it for me, and I’ve had so little time for fiction reading that I’m coming up short there, too. So I throw this open to the peanut gallery: what stories — in whatever medium — do you think would hit all three of those buttons? Dramatic, serialized, and closed-arc, delivering a satisfying macro-level experience as well as good moments along the way. What should I be reading/watching, in my oh-so-copious spare time?

0 Responses to “what I crave”

  1. kateelliott

    The 5 seasons of the HBO show The Wire did that for me. imho, the first season is strong, seasons 2-4 are phenomenal (each with a powerful season closure), and while there are some weaker aspects of the fifth season (compared to the ones that came before) they completely nailed the ending in every possible way. Obviously, no show is the right show for everyone, but this one I thought did it right.

    You have to persevere in the first season through the first 3 eps or so to start getting the rhythm and the feel and the atmosphere, and it is a deeply convoluted show where a throwaway line in one ep will have immense impact 5 eps later. But I think it hits all those buttons.

    • Marie Brennan

      I watched something like eight? eps of The Wire, and thought it was very well-done but not for me. Its drama was of too grinding a sort; I love characters having emotional breakdowns, but watching their lives just suck is a bit more than I felt I could handle as entertainment.

      • kateelliott

        Fair enough. Weirdly (and this quality becomes more pronounced for me as the seasons went on) I found it to be one of the most humane and compassionate shows I have ever seen. But, yeah, it is grinding; that aspect ever ends.

      • pentane

        The show I place next to the Wire is the Shield (and while I dislike how dysfunctional McNulty is, he’s not my main focus).

        I liked the individual episodes of the Shield, the building arcs across seasons and the overall arc across all 7 seasons. It’s pretty explicit (in some ways that might be considered triggering) and very morally grey, should that bother you.

        I’m also formally working my way through X files (I’d seen bits of it as it was out)… how did that work for you (assuming you’ve seen it).

        • Marie Brennan

          I’ve seen all of The X-Files, and consider it Exhibit A for how not to do arc plot. 🙂 I enjoyed the non-mythology episodes a fair bit, though.

  2. findabair

    I’m sure you probably know it already, but just in case you don’t: Babylon 5. No tv-series has touched me and stayed with me as that one. The story goes that the creator of the series had the plot for all five seasons worked out when he began pitching it to the production companies – and it shows. Season 4 is a little rushed, since they weren’t sure they’d get renewed for season 5, so apparently they pushed some of the season 5 material forward, but it still works very well I think.

    • Marie Brennan

      I keep meaning to give B5 another shot. I watched the first season, and was deeply underwhelmed — no doubt in part because the show had been so massively hyped to me, but also because S1 is really not that good. (Taken on its own merits: I’m told there are all kinds of awesome details tucked away in there that you only notice in retrospect, but lacking retrospect, those things mean nothing to me.) But yes, it’s one of the exemplars of serialized arc-plot in TV, and it’s possible that if I were to get into S2 — and get past Sinclair — I would like it better.

      • findabair

        What you say about S1 is very true – it is far from the best season, and there really are lots of goodies tucked in there for the next seasons. I just never think of the weaknesses of S1 anymore – I watched the show on tv when it first came out, so it’s been a long time since I watched S1 without knowing the other seasons 🙂 Let us know what you think, if you do give B5 another shot!

      • cofax7

        B5 is brilliant, so long as you squint past the leaden dialogue and the clunky acting of the human cast (the actors playing aliens are far better than the ones playing humans, almost across the board). The storytelling is very strong, and JMS mostly gets where he intended to go, but the writing, on a line-by-line level, is … pretty bad. “It’s quiet… too quiet,” kind of bad.

        But it’s still worth watching, because nobody else has managed to pull this off: one monster storyline played out over multiple seasons, addressing politics, religion, life, death, love, redemption, destiny, evolution, and all that. Despite messy cast changes and at least one cancellation (followed by pickup by another network), they managed to get it done, pretty much as originally intended. It’s quite impressive.

        • Marie Brennan

          so long as you squint past the leaden dialogue and the clunky acting of the human cast

          Thanks for saying that. Those were two of the aspects that underwhelmed me, but at least if I know they’re going to stay at that level, I can adjust my hopes and expectations accordingly.

      • anghara

        Stick with it, REALLY. B5 is one of the best, if not THE best, serial arc dramas ever presented on TV- and it really does nail the ending, with one of the best possible final episodes ever made (given that they had the rug pulled from under them and ran out of the time they REALLY wanted to do things right. But they did a fantastic job with what they had.)

        The other contemporary one you might want to try, if you haven’t, is Six Feet Under.

      • Anonymous

        Okay I have to play devil’s advocate here, I was very underwhelmed by Babylon 5 as a whole. I’d say the show has been hyped to you and I about the same amount as I’m pretty sure it was hyped by all of the same people. I bought and watched the whole run of the show, and honestly I’m kind of sad I bought it, I wish I had just borrowed it ’cause I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.

        For me it’s a variety of reasons. There is at least one character who’s resolution I strongly disliked. I think it had pacing and story construction problems. The people who love the show always blame the pacing and story construction problems on the fact the show got canceled and then picked back up by a different network which, fine so maybe some of them aren’t the writers’ fault, but the fact remains the problems are still there. I found the last season very underwhelming, so much so that by the time final episode came around I really didn’t care that much anymore so it all just ended with a “Meh” for me.

        And season 1 is pretty terrible, the problem is you can’t skip any of it, because there are things mentioned in pretty much every episode that come up later in some form or another.

        That’s not to say the whole thing is bad, there is some really terrific stuff in that show. Season 2, 3, and some of 4 are fantastic and I absolutely loved them, but I personally think the show as the whole just suffers too much from the problems I mention (yes I know I mention them fairly vaguely but I don’t want to be more specific in case you do watch it and I spoil it for you).

        I still say Deep Space 9, for continuing show that got a proper ending and didn’t end because it was canceled. They did not start out with the intention of having an overarching story, but they ended up with one and it’s great. The series finale is really like one long 8 part episode. It is without a doubt my favorite ending to any television series.

        It also has a fairly horrible first, and good chunk of second season, although nowhere near as bad as say the first two seasons of Next Generation and, if you want you can skip large parts of it because they’re just adventure of the week episodes. That being said I find the best remedy for those bad episodes is to just laugh at them. I’ve been showing them to Alyc, and we’re on season 3 now so we’re pretty much past the really bad stuff, and our solution to the bad episodes in season 1 and 2 was just to laugh at how horrible they were, it actually worked quite well and made otherwise fairly bad episodes rather enjoyable.

        Also, I’ve only watched the seasons on DVD once each season is done so I haven’t seen any of this season but I found Lost to be great in an overarching story way. In the special features of the season 1 DVD the show creators who aren’t J.J. Abrams, say that when the show got picked up by ABC, they sat down and figured out the overarching story for five or six years, which means that they’ve always known where they’re going with meta-plot stuff, and I think it shows. I can’t testify to the ending as the final episode was last Sunday and I haven’t seen any of this season anyway, but season 1-5 are great.


        • Marie Brennan

          I’m pretty sure it was hyped by all of the same people

          Actually, the real proselytizers were some college friends of mine, though they did get echoed by folks in Bton.

          I hear you about the flaws; even if they were caused by extenuating circumstances, that doesn’t mend the holes in the story.

          DS9 is still the one Star Trek series I might actually sit down and watch someday — though odds are I’d just skip the first season entirely (or maybe watch a selection of eps that for some reason can’t be missed), and just pick up with the better stuff. Time enough to go back and watch the crappy parts after I already care, y’know?

          Lost, I’m likely to stay away from. I watched S1, and decided I only cared about the mysteries enough to look up summaries online, not enough to watch (at the time) four seasons — and it seems to have gone so far into the realm of wtfery that I think I made the right choice. Also, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that the later seasons feel like the writers pulled them out of their asses, so either they didn’t really figure out their overarching story in advance, or they did and it just wasn’t very coherent.

          • Anonymous

            If you do ever watch DS9, as much as I’m an opponent of skipping episodes in the run of a tv show (and I don’t just mean that about this show specifically), you could skip almost all of season 1. There are a few episodes you’d be better off to watch just because it sets up politics that come up later, and therefore it’s good to see the set up of that stuff, and there are maybe two episodes in the first season that I think are genuinely good.

            Although the one problem with deciding what episodes to skip is, I’ve found going through it again this time with Alyc that there are quite a few episodes where the main plot is pretty bad, but the secondary plot is really good. Regardless, if you do ever get around to watching it let me know, I’m perfectly willing to go through the first season and tell you which episodes you need to make sure and see.

            As far as Lost, personally I’ve never really felt like the writers have ever just pulled anything out of their assess, but that’s just me. Granted everything about the island, and the show has gotten weirder and weirder each season, so if you look at where it is now compared to where it was at the beginning it’s waaaayyyy different, but I’ve felt it’s always been a gradual thing, getting steadily and steadily weirder. Although, within the first fifteen minutes of the first episode they do introduce the fact that there is some kind of monster on the island so you have to kind of expect weirdness. I still recommend it, but if it’s not your kind of show, it’s not your kind of show.


          • Marie Brennan

            I may take you up on that DS9-guide offer — especially if Netflix puts it up on their streaming database. (Since that’s become my favored method for watching TV shows.)

          • kateelliott

            I like DS9 a lot, btw. Seasons 3 – 6 are often quite good and there are a couple of really brilliant eps. We watched the whole series as it came out, and then later rewatched the entire thing, and while S1 and much of S2 are weak (although there is some good set up there), overall I enjoyed the rewatch and felt it well worth the time. My kids liked it, too. They had vague memories of seeing the it the first time around, and I specifically watched it with my late teen sons the second time around.

            We also liked the first two seasons of the reboot BSG, which I thought had some really good stuff and some lamer stuff.

      • mindstalk

        B5 S1 acting is unpopular, and has some instances of really writing — #4, Infection, or a true “as you know Bob” moment in Babylon-Squared. It does set up lots of plot elements for later, and has a bunch of neat moments, especially having a labor strike, and journalists, and human (though not much alien) religious diversity. B-5 was much more of a real society than Star Trek ever had: markets and politics and entertainment.

        The real endings are at the beginning and end of season 4; season 5 is kind of a coda.

        I thought DS9’s ending was pretty stupid, myself.

        Serialized dramatic spec fic stories… I’d recommend anime myself, though getting a solid ending out can be tricky. Still, there’s tons of stuff that actually has an end in mind, rather than trying to write for as long as the network will let it go as seems the norm on US TV.

        • Marie Brennan

          Yeah, it says something that several years later, I still remember “Infection” as an example of thunderously bad writing. But the “real society” aspect of the show is exactly one of the things that attracts me to it (and one of the things that drives me away from Star Trek).

          Anime is something I’ll probably go on a bender with one of these days. I also find that UK TV frequently has defined arcs, which might be why a lot of my favorite shows recently have come from the other side of the pond.

  3. kernezelda

    I would love to recommend Farscape, which starts out slow in Season One, builds immensely in Season Two and has a phenomenal Season Three, and has a couple of major glitches in Season Four. It’s a show where details in Season One are enormously important to later episodes and later seasons, even things that seem at first throwaway.

    It has an overarching plot for each season, and as a series. Most episodes (if not in the meat, then in the teaser/tag) build toward that plot. Its characters fight against and for one another, they build friendships, have sex, fall in love and hurt each other, and do not forget from episode to episode or season to season. They bicker and support each other through lives that become harder and more traumatic with every season – but the pain is leavened with humor and occasional vomit.

    The show was cancelled unexpectedly, and revived in a mini-series hard-won by creators and fans, which while rushed and with a few rough patches (essentially trying to pack a fifth season into four hours), fulfilled emotionally the impetus of the series.

    The main male character is a human astronaut, who while conducting his own experiment, is flung into a wormhole and comes out in alien space – and he is not the White Man there to Show the Way.

    It is my Show of Shows, my fictional heart, and I recommend it for its acting, direction, writing, production, for its soaring attempts and glorious successes – as well as its daring failures.

    • elishavah

      Ha! Posted at exactly the same time. My brain just wasn’t up to providing more detail. But at least this gives me the chance to use my Aeryn icon, too.

    • cofax7

      To be fair, and as much as I love Farscape, I can’t quite argue that they stuck the landing. Which is not to say the miniseries didn’t have a lot going for it, but speaking for myself, I didn’t quite get the emotional fulfillment I wanted from it, in part because of the problems with season 4. Of course, I also must admit that by that point, very little could have met the inflated standards we’d built up during the campaign…

      • Marie Brennan

        Nothing has ever perfectly stuck the landing for me. Not in the kind of large-scale stories I’m talking about. But coming close is still pretty good.

        • kateelliott

          I wish I could convince you to watch The Wire, because for me, it totally and utterly stuck the landing. But – yeah – no spec fic elements!

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m giving Farscape another shot, I think. (Because Netflix offers it streaming, as they do not offer B5.) I’d seen S1 a while ago, and remember enough that I think I can pick up in S2 without being too hideously lost.

      • pameladean

        I’m watching “Farscape” for the second time. I had forgotten how many pokes it takes at the original “Star Trek” and how ineffably goofy it is. But I’d second the recommendation. Even when you think they have forgotten major events in the past, they really have not. There are always consequences.


  4. elishavah

    Okay, I’ll throw it out there, since I can’t remember — have you watched Farscape? Emotional, dramatic, character-driven arc story up the wazoo.

  5. diatryma

    There’s a reason I praise certain Elizabeth Moon books for sticking the landing. Most of them don’t for me, but the ones that do are on the to-buy list.

    Butcher’s Codex Alera is not exactly what you want, but it’s six books based, I am told, on Roman legions and Pokemon. And the ending is good. Not a lot of drama in the sense that you mean, I think; lots of miscellaneous awesome* thrown into the mix.

    *I don’t mean awesome as in I think it’s awesome, though I usually do, more that there are some things that authors throw in and you can almost hear them say, “This is going to be AWESOME.”

    • Marie Brennan

      I know the kind of awesome you mean; I’m fairly convinced the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie was constructed by stacking up pieces of AWESOME. Which is an imperfect plotting method — but at least what it produces is entertainingly flawed instead of tediously so.

      Which Moon titles would you recommend?

      • diatryma

        Remnant Population is my favorite of the ones that stands alone, and the Vatta’s War books, starting with Trading in Danger, are five in a row that work as books and arcishly. I started with the second or third of them, at least.

  6. scottakennedy

    First choice for you would be:
    Slings & Arrows, a three season Canadian production about a modern-day Shakespeare festival. It’s both hilarious and poignant.

    I would also second Breaking Bad (still in process, season 3 now broadcasting), but if you didn’t like The Wire (among my favorite TV of all time), it may be too dark.

    Prime Suspect (6 seasons total) had better and worse seasons, but watching the journey of Helen Mirren over about 20 years of her character’s journey is wonderful.

    I can’t really imagine anything sticking the landing as well as Lymond, however.

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, no — few people can be Dorothy Dunnett. 🙂

    • tooth_and_claw

      Echo on the Breaking Bad– I think it’s the best TV show out there right now, and by far the tightest in terms of storytelling, but it is really, really grim sometimes, and no spec at all.

      • Marie Brennan

        Yeah, I maybe should have included “spec element” as one of the other things I’m looking for. It isn’t always true, but to really get my love going, you generally need something that moves it at least one step aside from the real, modern world.

        • scottakennedy

          Ah, well, in that case I would have mentioned that one of the main characters in Slings & Arrows is a ghost.

          Actually, along those same lines (namely ghost as prominent character), the original BBC miniseries (as opposed to the Mel Gibson remake) Edge of Darkness is superb, and sticks its landing quite well. Only about 6 hours of TV there, though.

    • kateelliott

      My spouse and I are working through Prime Suspect now (we just finished #3). Helen Mirren is amazing.

  7. rusty_halo

    I adore you for comparing Supernatural and the Lymond Chronicles. ♥♥♥

    Did you watch Farscape? Four fantastic seasons and a miniseries which basically ends well. (There are some major duds in season one, but it’s absolutely worth it to keep watching.)

    How about Life on Mars UK? There are only sixteen episodes, but I thought the ending was the most perfect ending I’d ever seen on television. (Although some people loathe it.)

    • Marie Brennan

      I adore you for comparing Supernatural and the Lymond Chronicles.

      I didn’t necessarily mean to compare them directly — though come to think of it, they do both involve semi-functional/dysfunctional pairs of brothers . . . but man, if Supernatural had the equivalent of Sybilla and Philippa and Kate, my love for it would be galaxy-sized. 🙂

      (See above for Farscape comments.)

      • rusty_halo

        I’m just pleased that there’s someone else on planet Earth who likes both SPN and Lymond. (You’re right, SPN would be much improved if it had better female characters.)

        I hope you do give Farscape a chance. (Yay Netflix!) I just watched it a few months ago, after years of being told that I would love it. (Actually, I did a trade with one of my LJ friends–I agreed to watch Farscape and she agreed to read the Lymond Chronicles. I’m still waiting for her finish GoK, though!) It really was one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen, probably the best long-running one. And it has a fantastic set of diverse, well-written female characters.

  8. difrancis

    I liked the first four seasons of Bab5 for the arc. The last one–it seemed more tacked on to me. But the rest of it built on developing characters and each episode counted toward the end. I really liked that.

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