Episodic storytelling and I have a rocky relationship. It’s like that friend you have that always takes you on great adventures but eventually you realize that there is no progression and you learn the same lessons over and over again so eventually you will just give up and just decide to take him with you when it all ends–
Just me then?
Episodic storytelling is one of the many tools in the arsenal of a creative person. It fundamentally is a different tool from writing something serialized. It always depends on the amount of story you have to tell. It’s a shame then that most shows that use this feature use it so badly.
Episodic storytelling is often an excuse used so you can tell a random amount of stories to pad out the length of your series. Your run of the mill detective series or Star Trek show knows all bout this. When done well, episodic storytelling can be a powerful and unique way of highlighting and focusing on one element of the universe or the characters you want to explore. The problem in most shows, however, has always been the use of negative continuity and padding.
Take a show that is very episodic in nature, Rick and Morty. While there is mostly no overarching story (which might change, but bear with me), there is no negative continuity. Adventures can be watched standing on their own and they have a beginning, middle, and end, but there is something for long-time viewers to see progress. At the same time it’s very satisfying to have some closure.
I’ve talked about serialized storytelling on here before, but essentially its main problem is the lack of closure until months or years down the line. While good serials will often build in little storytelling loops where emotional and story pit stops serve as temporary closure, often its used to stretch out way too little story over too wide a canvas.
Babylon 5 season 1 is also an example where episodic storytelling is very useful in building a universe of possibilities. While the series could have lived without a random boxing episode or that one time Garibaldi builds a motorcycle, they do flesh out the characters in a way that part of a serial often cannot.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably the best example of a show that was both a success and a failure because of its reliance on individual episodes. When they were strong, they managed to tell some of the best stories in all of Star Trek, like The Drumhead, The Wounded, Yesterday’s Enterprise, or Tapestry.
Episodic storytelling is essentially the short story of visual media. You use it best when you want to convey a very specific idea or theme. To be good in television is also has to enhance the series overall by making the characters stand out. I think that over the past two decades, we have seen the meteoric rise of serialized storytelling that we often conflated bad stories and negative continuity with episodic storytelling, as if that was the main reason people were bad at writing, rather than a lack of quality people working in-front and behind the camera.
In the end, it’s a tool, not dogma.