Breaking Good: The Season Arc

Because of my work with Television Without Pity over the last decade, I’ve obviously seen a lot of the same recurring questions and complaints having to do with the viewing of television. If you have any interest in TV writing at all, probably the following will seem really basic to you, but that’s by design.

My interest isn’t in explaining the jobs of a screenwriter or showrunner: My interest, as always, is in doing what I can to make sure that you’re getting as much as you can out of the activity of watching itself. And — at least for me — having internalized some of these basics actually contributes a lot to my understanding and enjoyment of a particular episode of television. It’s the kind of thing that’s so written into my DNA (and anybody with even a tangential connection to the business) that nobody really seems to explain it, you have to go looking for it. Which I guess you did, if you’re reading this, but still.

So: A simple, consumer-oriented primer on how a season of drama and comedy gets written. (With the caveat that this is Platonic and no show actually works like this 100% of the time, of course.)

Before anything else, understand that television shows are broken out — outlined — a full season at a time, and that even if the actual episodes aren’t all written (and often subject to rewrites after the show begins airing), the overall arc (what happens in each episode) has been decided long before filming even starts.

“So-and-so has been going on too long,” “Character X can leave my screen any time,” “Why does this character even exist” are questions and complaints that become a lot less meaningful in this context. Obviously, having opinions like these are one thing — do whatever you want — but in terms of the mechanics of television, it’s not like you could create a petition to suddenly change the direction of the season at whatever point you’re watching it. And once you are looking at the season as a whole, it can ease the pain of complaints like this to know that there’s a place and a plan for whatever storyline whether or not you personally enjoy it.

So all the writers and the producers get together in a room and break the season. We’ll use True Blood as an example, because A) That show rules and B) The numbers are easy to work with, as you’ll see.

Three-act structure defines every story, so it makes sense that it would be the first step here. A given season of True Blood has a structure that falls into three acts: Episodes 1-4, 5-8, 9-12. Generally you’ll find a lot more cliffhangers, fun plot, and oftentimes emotional strength and quality focused around those breaking points. (Go look up your favorite episodes, they’re probably there.) You also get a major turning point around the halfway point (6/7 for this show, 11/12 for a longer-season network drama), where the season’s whole arc flips over.

I don’t want to spoil any TB fans with examples here, so I’ll point you to Buffy, which took a brilliant approach to this structure with the Little Bad and the Big Bad. In every season, Act II introduced or brought to the fore a villain who created the conflict for Act II, and then was vanquished or absorbed in time for the Big Bad in Act III.

Within these acts, alongside the main themes, every character needs to be accounted for. Act I, Character X is doing A, then moves into B, and ends the season with four episodes of C. Shippers especially have trouble with this one, because different character arcs get highlighted in each Act: For example, with Gossip Girl each lead character (Serena, Blair, and somebody else almost every season) takes an Act. It can be hard to perceive, much less enjoy, these kind of patterns on a week-to-week basis, but I do find that knowing the basic structure and keeping an eye on where we are in the season can take a lot of the pressure off.

On this level, then, you see a lot of complaints along the lines of, “Why has the show forgotten about X?” or “I’m so bored with this storyline taking up time!” Which again: Valid, for you, but easier to take if you think about it in terms of structure. Quality becomes less a matter of catering to your personal likes and dislikes, in this way, than is making sure that back-burner storylines remain compelling.

Season Two of True Blood, for example, meant something very different to a fan of the show than a fan of a given character, but even diehards often found the Maryann/Tara storyline to be inert and repetitive. You have an Act about Tara’s seduction and re-parenting, an Act about orgies, and an Act about religious belief. But the four episodes with the orgies seemed to stretch out into infinity, for lots of reasons that don’t really concern us right now.

(Similarly, in terms of subjective time, an arc on Buffy that drew comparisons between two lead characters’ self-destruction had the misfortune of falling on opposite sides of a painfully long winter break, creating in viewer’s minds the illusion that two or three episodes which saw Buffy actively destroying herself, Dawn whining and screeching endlessly, and Willow becoming a crackhead stretched out into forty unending episodes — because for the viewer of the day, that’s how long it took to resolve — that persists to this day. Ask anybody how long Willow was a crackhead and they will tell you that it was no less than forty-six thousand years, and they won’t even really be exaggerating.)

If you’re getting bored by — or turning nasty about — a given character’s storyline, look at the numbers. Chances are you’re getting bored right on schedule, and something big is about to happen. Even if the character doesn’t take the Act, their back-burner story is going to flip into something else. Nobody will ever leave Bon Temps for more than four episodes, nobody will ever stay in a relationship longer than four episodes, and nobody will end the season in the same place they started. (Of course, the debates about that last one will rage, but at least it means people are thinking in structural terms.)

If you’re bored of everybody talking about Serena, a simple check of the episode number will reveal where in the seven-episode (-ish) Act you are: That’s precisely how long people are going to be talking about Serena, until they start talking about Blair. And so on.

I know it may seem basic, and even obvious, but that doesn’t mean the next time you sit down to watch your show you won’t get frustrated and impatient about whatever’s going on. I do it too. And when I do, I check the numbers and I chill out, and then I let them go on telling me the story they want to tell.

If you’re not happy doing it, why do it at all?

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5 thoughts on “Breaking Good: The Season Arc

  1. Yes! Absolutely true. We not only watched Season 6 in “real time” but we watched Season 6 in real time as defined by when my brother could remember to take the VHS tape out of his machine and give it to us at some family dinner so we could take it home and watch it. Given the long winter break and VHS hand-off situation it seemed like the character breakdown(s) went on forever and ever.

    But going back to rewatch season 6 over the course of 2-3 days was like… 'oh… Willow's not really such a mess is she?'

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  2. Having come late to the “True Blood” party, I watched all of the previous seasons in a long marathon over 2 1/2 days. It felt more like a movie – and I enjoyed the stories more than I think I would have had I been required to wait 1 week in between each episode. And it certainly removed any feeling of a character being absent or too present, everything just flowed.

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  3. Thanks for posting this. I get frustrated at the way a lot of people watch television. Glee is a really big example of this. People get impatient about the plot development. There's very little suspension of disbelief, or waiting to see what the story brings, and a lot of I want my Whopper my way kind of attitude flowing through the online community. They've been made aware of the fact that online opinion does indeed influence plot, but in a much slower, less dramatic way than they believe. So I suspect people are hoping to influence the outcome of the show.

    Also, if you really, genuinely hate what's going on within any given tv show, you usually just stop watching it. If you claim to hate it and you watch an entire season of whatever it is, you might be getting more out of it than you thought.

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  4. Brilliant post! A lot of this stuff I'd already gleaned from watching and repeat-watching and recap-reading and all that, and it was really stimulating to see it all laid out like this.

    Having said that, I'm very guilty of forgetting about season structures when I don't like what's going on. Mostly in the context of Grey's Anatomy, a show that is literally a waste of my time if I don't like who they're talking about.

    One of the things that bugged me so much about True Blood's 4th season is that they failed really hard on all the act-break episodes. “Episode 4 tonight – it's going to stop sucking,” I would say, only to be painfully and bowl-wrenchingly disappointed.

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