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October 7, 2015

Should Continuity Be King in Serialized Television?

by Ryan McGee, posted Mar 8th 2011 3:00PM
FringeThe last episode of 'Fringe' was a crucial one in the show's run. 'Subject 13' took a long look at one of the more pivotal weeks in the overall story, one involving crucial meetings both in Our World, Over There, and especially between the two of them.

But while it sparked the imagination of millions of viewers, it also brought about many furrowed brows, with fans trying to reconcile what the show presented before that episode and what went down in 'Subject 13.'

The issues raised by this episode, however, have far greater ranging implications than simply within the world of 'Fringe.' Indeed, they get to the very heart of serialized television, especially the type of serialization that has come into vogue over the past two decades.

Shows as varied as 'The Sopranos,' 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'Lost' have all trafficked in some form of serialization or another, taking advantage of the medium's long-form format in order to tell tales that last over entire seasons, or even series.

In telling such stories, continuity becomes a crucial aspect of the show's ever-increasing power, with the accumulated weight of the show's stories adding up to something far greater than an individual episode, and producing what is (hopefully) a unified body of work.

Walt, LostBut at one point or another, each series that attempts to tell stories of such length come into problematic areas. Sometimes these problems are practical: Nancy Marchand died early in the run of 'The Sopranos,' leaving Tony without the mother figure that so dominated season 1. Over on 'Lost,' the showrunners had to deal with the real-life aging of actor Malcolm David Kelley, so the character of Walt was relegated from a central position to nearly an afterthought.

Sometimes these problems are simply human error: While nearly every show has an online wiki assembled by dozens/hundreds/thousands of contributors, such encyclopedic knowledge doesn't always translate into the writers' room, where a small contradiction in show history can lead to online Armageddon.

Such are a few of the problems involved the high-risk, high-reward world of television continuity. But so often in these debates, the forest can be lost among the trees. Drilling down into small details and making larger connections implied but not directly spoken within the show's text can make shows that engage the audience in this way a pleasure unlike any other in pop culture.

However, this endeavor can often 1) assign a false equivalence between what's important to the show and what seems important to the audience member, 2) misplace what's truly important about these shows, and 3) not give enough leniency to a medium that is singular in terms of its ability to control its super-narrative.

By "super-narrative," I mean the story from Point A (pilot) to Point B (series finale). Often times, this lack of control comes from an inability to truly produce a body of television work that's driven solely by creative vision. Some shows like 'Terriers' are pulled far too soon, whereas 'Lost' might still be stranded in a series of hatches had it not negotiated an end date. A show like 'The Shield' managed to end its series run in a way that felt complete, but this is clearly the exception rather than the rule in an industry when as many shows burn out too quickly as hang on well past their optimal expiration date.

The problem stems from three primary places. Let's break them down.

Problem No. 1: The inability to know how long they will have to tell their stories. Without that knowledge, proper pacing is almost an impossibility. A subset of this problem: even if showrunners claim to have a sense of how long they might have to tell a certain story, either from a network mandate or internal road map, there's no way that they will be able to deliver on that timeline. David Goyer famously said before 'Flash Forward' ever aired that he had the first five seasons mapped out. Cough.

Problem No. 2: The inability to guarantee that optimal conditions will exist to tell even the best-laid tale. I've dealt with this above to some extent, but practical measures such as contract negotiations, budgetary concerns, recasting, or a dozen other practical measures that mean very little to Joe Viewer at home but nevertheless provide massive obstacles to those trying to create cohesive storylines over multiple seasons.

Problem No. 3: The inability to retroactively edit. Here we get to the heart of things, and the reason that 'Subject 13' is such an optimal episode to kick off this overall discussion. So often, when fans complain about continuity being broken, they point to older episodes that contradict information delivered in more recent ones. But what almost NEVER happens is a viewer complimenting a show for chucking out an old idea for a newer, far better one instead.

Now, the problem that comes with discovering a much better idea down the line is non-existent in, say, a novel. Sure, someone like Stephen King might have to go back and rework earlier chapters in order to make things fit, but the public would be unaware of anything other than the final, finished product.

Likewise, film script rewrites might make headlines on certain websites, but rarely exist when projected in the local multiplex. What ends up on screen might be a muddled mess, written and directed by committee, but there's a fundamental difference in audience reaction to having something that happened one hour ago be rendered moot and something that happened 50 episodes ago be rendered moot.

FringeWhat 'Fringe' has done since roughly two-thirds through its initial season is to disown the mess that was that show's mythology at the time. Go on, look back and try to recognize the show you (hopefully) now love. Think about the last time you heard anyone mention "The Pattern." Think about the last time "ZFT" was used as anything but an Easter egg in the season 2 finale. There's nothing about the show's ultimate shift to a storyline that not only made Olivia Dunham more than a passive observer to 'The Bishop Boys Power Hour,' but also delivered a simpler, more potent mythology that produced emotional resonance.

To ask why Olivia didn't remember meeting Walter in the show's pilot in light of the events in 'Subject 13' is the wrong question. It's confusing a slavish need for continuity at all costs for a need for the inherently messy (yet so often glorious) world of small-screen long-form narrative. With so many things that CAN go wrong, as listed above, shouldn't we celebrate moments in which writers realize the limitations of their initial ideas and push forward into something more entertaining, more stimulating, and more affecting?

It would be nice for the show to arrive fully-formed in the pilot, never wavering from that initial, brilliant, pure idea, and then unspooling it in exactly the right amount of overall hours. But since we don't live in that admittedly enticing world, we need to rethink our expectations about both continuity and how to enjoy shows that employ it.

Continuity works best as a support system for a larger, more identifiable, more human story. It doesn't work as the primary engine and prism through which to ascertain the success of a show. Structure can be a fun thing to analyze, and Lord knows there are plenty of things to glean about a show by looking at its structure. But if characters serve structure instead of story, then the results can be intellectually interesting but emotionally stilted. 'Subject 13' didn't directly contradict established information about facts in the world (Walter, Peter, and Olivia all have mental blocks about the era for various reasons, an explanation that either sates you or infuriates you), but it DID enhance our understanding of the bonds that these three characters have.

If a show like 'Fringe' nails the structure while missing the character, then it's little more than a hollow artistic exercise. But since 'Fringe' decided to forgo "The Pattern" in favor of strengthening its characters, what flowed from that refocus produced a whole new world (literally) for the show to explore. That's not a ret-con (retroactive continuity) so much as a readjustment, and if more shows did it, we'd have a lot more quality in our long-form television narratives.

Some people look to television to see the order that's missing from their lives. Others watch to see life's messiness reflected back. Which type of viewer are you?

What are your thoughts on continuity in television programs? Do they enhance your viewing? Not factor into it at all? What are your examples of continuity gone right and gone bad? Sound off below!

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I have not come across a serialized television series that was completely perfect in all of my years of viewing. Even the best ones, such as "BABYLON 5" and "BUFFY" had its flaws. I don't know why "FLASHFORWARD" should be viewed as a bad example of serialized TV. It was barely given a chance to find its legs. And most shows tend to find its legs by the second season.

The problem with shows like "LOST" and "HEROES" was that both were immediate successes during their first season and had no where to go but down, in terms of writing quality. "LOST" flip-flopped between mediocre and bad writing, with flashes of brilliant writing during its remaining five seasons. And "HEROES" simply went down the toilet, following its first season.

March 11 2011 at 1:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Continuity on Fringe is not a big issue for me. I just want it to engage me and surprise me. This season has done that in spades. Loving it.

March 10 2011 at 4:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bryce Larkin

I'm somewhat forgiving of continuity issues because TV shows face multiple problems. But I can't accept when shows constantly ignore it just to move an arc or episode forward especially when it makes previous seasons completely invalid. Why get invested in the characters or the story if a great moment is hand waved away a season or a few episodes later because the writer couldn't work within the established story.

March 09 2011 at 5:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lou Sytsma

I'm with those that feel Fringe is not the proper example for the subject of this article. Fringe has not chucked out earlier mythology but morphed it to switch focus to different areas. The cases the team are following can still be considered part of the Pattern, the Observers are still around, and the ZFT document is still valid. Plus the showrunners said ZFT could be revisited in the future.

Fringe did not drop mythology, it expanded it, and then switched focus to a new section of it.

March 09 2011 at 2:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

There's also problem-that's-not-really-a-problem No. 4 & 5:

ASSUMING THAT WHAT YOU SEE IS ALWAYS OBJECTIVELY TRUE. Was I the only person who watched 'Lost' and just assumed that, at any given moment, everyone was lying about something?

IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME. Even the best writers can come up with a conceit that either just don't work, or sticking with it is actually going to damage the show. Sticking with that for the sake of "continuity" is not a good move. Yes, I'm looking at Nikki and Paulo.

March 09 2011 at 1:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Craig Ranapia's comment
Brendan D

Well said. I'd also point out that, looking at 'Lost' as a prime example, there were a LOT of dropped storylines, let go for various reasons. Funny enough, I don't think Nikki and Paolo were the most egregious of these. Jin as a secretive mercenary dick didn't work, so he was softened significantly by the end of Season 1. There was never any real follow-up on Ben's feelings for Juliet; though this can obviously be retconned as more Ben mind games, I tend to think it was another strand that the writers picked up, realized sucked, and dropped hastily. But maybe the most obvious was the story that went on for the longest, the love-quadrangle among the various permutations of Juliet, Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. By Season 5, the writers seemed to realize how obnoxious that storyline was (and frankly, it was *never* really interesting, despite how good of an idea it may have seemed at one point), and they dropped it almost completely for the wonderful "LaFleur" episode. It seems silly to me now when I go back and watch the "caged heat" episode (Losties know what I'm referring to) in relation to what comes later; that just seems like a squandered, obnoxious opportunity to further their characters rather than de-evolving into soapy numbskullery, which 'Lost' unfortunately did a lot in Season 3.

March 09 2011 at 1:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Brendan D

Dude, you have just perfectly laid out why I love several 'Star Trek' series but have incredible frustrations with Trekkies. If the story is great, I don't really care that much about continuity. I mean, some internal continuity would be nice, but it's impossible to make everything contiguous. Take, for example, 'Enterprise' Season 3. I absolutely adored that season; it was a darker microcosm of everything I loved about DS9. However, it also screwed dramatically with the general continuity of the greater franchise. A LOT of people were PO'd about that; I was certainly not one of them. And when compared to the crap that had come just a season before, it's incredible to think that Season 2 and Season 3 are the same show; in all honesty, they're almost *not*.

That said, a complete lack of continuity gets really, really frustrating, particularly when the storytelling isn't at its highest. Season 6 of 'Buffy' really irritated the crap out of me because it seemed the characters kept learning the same lessons week after week. One week, Buffy would be suicidal, but by the end of the episode, she'd be more engaged; the following week, we were back to square one. That kind of internal continuity conflict doesn't work on a serialized show. On the other hand, when retconned correctly (as I think the last few episodes of 'Dollhouse' were), those kinds of internal conflicts can actually be woven quite well into the fabric of the show (in "Epitaph One," the 'Echo' personality embedded in the little girl called herself "Caroline," while she was back to 'Echo' in "Epitaph Two" a season later -- but it didn't bother me one bit, since the latter was such a kick-butt episode).

And then, of course, there's the gold standard of retroactive continuity, the collective writing staff of Deep Space Nine, which somehow managed to turn eight or nine different strands seemingly in conflict with each other into a supremely satisfying program that might've pissed a lot of Trek fans off but to which I routinely return as one of my favorite programs ever.

March 09 2011 at 1:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Jamie Wotton

I agree with people, Fringe is the wrong example. If we're to believe MaskedScheduler, the reason for Olivia not remembering is all apart of the very much still existing Pattern. Sepinwall queried, he answered. We'll see. Nice article otherwise though, I still find continuity important* - mythology can be played lose and fast but continuity and foreshadowing are neat weapons for long-form storytelling.

*Can't everyone have a Joss Whedon knowledge of their shows? ;p

March 09 2011 at 1:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I trust J.J. Abrams writers similarly. While J.J. Abrams does not stay around on a long term basis to write his television programs Abrams has a talent for identifying (or rather I should say that the people at Bad Robot have a talent for identifying) people who can write good television for a wide range of people. The writers for Lost also mentioned how many episodes they had left in their plan. Therefore when the Fringe writers say they have mapped out a certain number of years of program I can accept that it will be good because I know they have talked it over with a creative team who is capable of making good story telling decisions.

March 09 2011 at 9:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

In terms of problem 1 and specifically this line "David Goyer famously said before 'Flash Forward' ever aired that he had the first five seasons mapped out." I think this needs to be complicated a bit more. David Goyer was someone who had never done television before and he written poorly written movie on his own. Besides his assistance to the Nolan brothers on the rebooted Batman franchise he hadn't done anything to catch my attention as great writing. It would be like saying that Brannon Braga is a great writer because he wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation when in fact he was next to a great television writer in Ron D. Moore. His own television projects were critical failures and when you put two names like that together I think that bodes more ill for the television program than long term mapping.

Joss Whedon also famously said that he had presented his bosses at Fox with a 6-year plan with Dollhouse. While there were many problems with Dollhouse the exact pacing wasn't exactly one of them. The main problem was that Whedon wanted to make one show while the network wanted to make another. By the end of the first season the show had turned into a great one. We knew Whedon could do this based on his previous work on Buffy where he took the show from being terrible to great and could trust him when he said he had the show mapped out for a number of years.

March 09 2011 at 9:51 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I used to be a fanboy continuity nut about shows like Star Trek, but it's exhausting. I have a solution, if anyone should ever get TOO bugged by it. Think of each individual show's "universe" as being told by a narrator, as in "How I Met Your Mother." Within the construct of HIMYM, the narrator has been shown to have a flawed memory, or even to have "edited" the story as he went, for various reasons. You might call it a fanwank, but I prefer to think of continuity errors as just a flawed retelling by the storyteller. Problem solved.

March 09 2011 at 12:32 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jamie's comment
Brendan D

You know, it's funny that you mention 'HIMYM,' because one of the things that I can't stand about the show is that it's constantly changing the backstory. Some fluidity is certainly to be expected (see my post above), and I can forgive it if it's done in service of an awesome arc. But with 'HIMYM,' I get the feeling that the continuity is only important as much as it can service the plot of an individual episode. The writing on that show since the end of Season 2 has seemed to have more in common with the schizophrenic, occasionally retconned 'Glee' than with a serial comedy like 'The Office.'

March 09 2011 at 1:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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