Entertainment Geekly: R.I.P. The Serialized Thriller, 2001-2013
Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
A certain highly specific and wildly influential notion of the Serialized Thriller died a quiet death in the first official week of the 2013-14 Fall TV season. Experts disagree wildly on the genre’s specific age, but the birth of the Serialized Thriller is generally traced to November 2001, the debut of the Fox series 24, which established most of the essential tropes that would alter the scope of television and the nature of TV fandom. 24 required viewers to see every single episode, an idea that still seemed radical 12 years ago. It established a new kind of storytelling, filled with long-running mysteries. Every episode ended in a cliffhanger. Every good character was potentially an evil character in disguise. 24 was not a success in its first season, but the DVD release was the event that inaugurated the whole TV-on-DVD era; it invented binge-watching about a decade before anyone came up with the idea of “binge-watching.”
By the mid-2000s, “serialized” was the buzzword synonymous with the daring narrative innovations of the DVR era. Lost built on the 24 model and expanded it in every direction. The Lost series premiere was a kitchen-sink mega-mystery, filled with characters with secrets and a weird recording of a French lady and an out-of-place polar bear. Lost opened the door to a whole host of shows with loglines that sounded more like two-hour movies than ongoing series. Prison Break, The Nine, Vanished, Kidnapped, Heroes, Invasion: These were shows with exciting premises, shows with pilots that threw a million balls in the air and attempted to juggle them in TV form. Most of them failed — really, what do you do with a show called Prison Break after they break out of prison? — but when a Serialized Thriller succeeded, it felt like nothing else on television.
The Serialized Thriller was often lumped together in the parent-species Serialized Drama; indeed, the blanket definition of “Serialized Television” can basically encompass almost any TV show with a fervent fanbase and running plotlines. But a show like The Sopranos — or Sopranos-spawn like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire — tended to use long-form storytelling to drill down into characters and atmospheric situations. Critics of those shows tend to point out that nothing much happens. On the Serialized Thriller, things were always happening, sometimes in multiple time periods at once.
Serialized Thrillers tended to road-map their path forward, which meant that the Serialized Thriller as a genre came to define a certain kind of hyper-engaged disappointment when breathless seasons would build up to disappointing anticlimaxes. The genre entered its decline in 2009 with the debut of FlashForward, a glossy ABC thriller which was nominally adapted from a novel but was actually adapted from how cool everyone thought it was when Lost ended its third season with a flash-forward. FlashForward begat The Event, which in hindsight looks like a parody of Serialized Thriller excess. There was always a slight emptiness at the core of the Serialized Thriller: It was a mystery whose resolution was constantly delayed, possibly because there was no actual resolution. This was literalized by The Event, which never really got around to revealing just what the hell The Event was. (The big villain on Serialized Thrillers was usually some form of shadowy conspiracy — the Dharma Initiative, the Americon Initiative, the Global Blackout Conspiracy.)
The little-seen but hugely influential HBO series The Wire moved the goalposts of serialization, with seasons built on dizzying narrative complexity. It’s possible to see the influence of The Wire on shows like Battlestar Galactica and Fringe, which became less episodic and more serialized — and worse — in their closing seasons. (People generally think Fringe got better as it became more Serialized, but this was actually a bait-and-switch: The masterful third season of Fringe was essentially two procedurals in one, flipping back and forth between dimensions. The final season of Fringe went full-serial, and was terrible.)
I come to praise the Serialized Thriller, not just to bury it. It altered people’s viewing habits and demanded greater engagement from viewers. Aspects of the Serialized Thriller were absorbed into the procedural, creating a new kind of TV show that combined episodic storytelling with long-running story arcs. Consider “serialsodic” shows like Burn Notice, Justified, and the middle period of Fringe. Consider, also, the new shows The Blacklist, Sleepy Hollow, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which spent their pilots establishing mysterious new worlds even as the pilots road-mapped procedural storytelling.
All of those shows debuted to healthy ratings and appear, at least for now, to be pretty good. Conversely, this week saw the arrival of Hostages, which is what happens when your grandpa hears the pitch for 24; it had meh ratings. But at least it did better than the season 2 return of Revolution, which this time last year looked like the savior of NBC and now looks a bit like Heroes 2.0. The big summer hit was Under the Dome, but Dome‘s success is telling. It had a large viewership and zero buzz; it transformed the Serialized Thriller into exactly the kind of comfort food the Serialized Thriller used to be rebelling against. If 24 was the Sex Pistols, Under the Dome is Fall Out Boy. (The Walking Dead is Blink-182: Hugely successful, silly, and one-note, but also catchy. In this metaphor, “That part of every episode when they murder zombies” is “that part of every song when Travis Barker murders the drums.”)
This weekend sees the conclusion of Breaking Bad, a show that became the best Serialized Thriller of the decade by subverting all the expectations of the genre, with a gradual pace and a remarkably small cast of well-defined characters. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s next move is telling: He’s co-creating a Breaking Bad spin-off that appears to be a comedy and a CBS show that appears to be a cop show. In this post-antihero age, the next great innovations in the TV medium appear to be coming most from comedies — reflecting, perhaps, the long-tail influence of Arrested Development, which in hindsight did for sitcoms what 24 did for dramas.
The Serialized Thriller is survived by its close relatives, the Rejuvenated Miniseries (Hello, American Horror Story! Welcome to your second life, 24! Hoping for the best, Fargo!) and the Seasonal Investigation Procedural (Bye-bye, The Killing! Hello, Broadchurch! Not really sure about you yet, The Bridge!). Scandal reincorporated the Serialized Thriller into the much older — and more disreputable — form of late-night soap opera, and the result was the buzziest show of last season. And one the most-praised TV shows of the new season was Orange Is the New Black, which explicitly takes the Lost model (remote location, characters trapped together, flashback episodes) but takes out the artificial necessities of the mystery-theater plot arcs. The Serialized Thriller was often fatally flawed, but it leaves behind a legacy of bold moves and big ambitions. It made the medium more interesting. It transformed television into an event; we can forgive it for The Event.
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.