The Event debuted last night, and did respectable numbers, but like just most sci-fi/mystery/whatever TV shows since… well, Lost, it was a terrible bit of television. Every season it seems there’s one or two “we’re the next Lost” shows in some network’s can; every season most of them fail. FlashForward is the most recent, but also consider Persons Unknown, Kings, Journeyman – nobody will ever learn all the mysteries involved in these shows because nobody cares. At best, you get something like Heroes, Dollhouse or Sarah Connor Chronicles that starts out strong, then limps to a relatively early cancellation.1
The genre successes of the past few years other than Lost have been less continuity-heavy fare.2 This isn’t to say that shows like Supernatural or Chuck don’t have continuity, because they obviously do – but they can also do “monster/spy of the week” episodes to lighten the burden of the ever-present overall metaplot. They don’t require quite the level of commitment to enjoy; there’s a good chance, with any given episode, that you can jump in and watch and be entertained regardless of not knowing all the rules about how Sam and Dean can capture demons, or what the Intersect is exactly. They’re not as entry-level as, say, Law and Order or most other cop procedurals – but they’re certainly more accessible than a show like Lost, where in order to understand what’s going on you basically have to watch from the beginning.
Does this mean you can’t make a successful mythology-heavy show? Of course not: Lost proves that you can – as does Battlestar Galactica, for that matter. But Lost and BSG offer up a set of guidelines for the prospective TV producer that often go ignored.
1.) Have a clearly defined story and viewpoint for your premiere episode. Lost‘s first episode is the crash of Oceanic 817 and the immediate fallout from it. Battlestar‘s first episode is the Cylons eradicating most of humanity and the escape of the last human fleet. These are simple, relatively straightforward ideas designed to introduce the larger, vastly more complex narrative in an engaging way. Compare this to The Event, which bounces around an entire year of its storyline willy-nilly throughout the first episode in a way that’s almost schizophrenic: you never feel grounded in the story because it feels like you’re browsing a Wikipedia entry rather than watching a TV show.
They’re made more palatable by reducing the number of perspectives from which we view the opening story. Lost‘s premiere episode is largely about Jack and Kate; most of the cast gets introduced, of course, but Jack and Kate’s viewpoints are what shape the story. Battlestar works primarily from three perspectives – Adama, Roslin and Baltar – again introducing other characters, but relying on those three perspectives to drive the story. Heroes (which had a good pilot, as much as I disliked the show generally) was primarily about Hiro, Peter and Mohinder.
Simple, right? Well, compare to Flashforward, where the entire show’s cast gets about three minutes apiece to do their thing. You don’t care about anybody because you don’t have enough time to get to know anybody. The Event is nearly as bad in this respect.
2.) Make sure your hook is a good one. The Event fails in this regard, too. “There are these guys? And they are vaguely mysterious? And there is a conspiracy? And a plane disappears, I guess?” The question marks are not simply there for effect; after watching the episode, you’re still not sure what it was about. Flashforward doesn’t work either, because “people prepare for a future that is forthcoming with vague sense of dread” might work for a book (and did!) but as a teevee show it is not thrilling. Lost has a great one (“after a disaster, survivors must rally together in a strange new environment”) which Persons Unknown unsuccessfully tried to copy. Journeyman stole its premise from Quantum Leap, so it was solid, but… eh.
Kings, while ambitious, never really had a good hook. “It’s the life of David… but with lasers and tanks and stuff” is simply not an enthralling idea and despite the fact that Kings was actually executed really well, the general pointlessness of its concept (retelling a story everybody knows the ending to) was one of the reasons cited to me frequently as to why people weren’t watching it: it was the Gus Van Sant shot-by-shot remake of Psycho of TV series. Okay, that’s a little unfair, but it’s one of the reasons the show flopped.3
3.) Don’t try to do too much in your pilot. People tend to forget that Lost was originally designed to have a two-hour pilot (and for all practical intents and purposes did, since in any market where they didn’t air the pilot as a two-hour feature, they aired the first hour back-to-back against the second the next week). Battlestar was a four-hour miniseries before it was a show. And again: these were two shows that had pretty straightforward opening premises (a plane crash and a very, very fast Cylon blitzkrieg). FlashForward tried to show pretty much all of its initiating event (a two-minute coma for the entire human race) in a single hour. The Event… don’t get me started.4
In two hours, Lost introduces its main characters (and I mean main characters – Jack, Kate and Charlie are the only ones who get any serious grounding) and establishes that there is a monster on the island and it is weird there. In one hour, The Event doesn’t really introduce any character other than Goatee Kid and President Man, and then time-jumps him so much you have no idea what’s happening. That’s not the key to a good, story-dense series that keeps people coming back. The first episode of a TV series is like the first chapter of a novel: even if you’re going to use storytelling tricks, you need to give people an idea of what your story is about, and that means not going all over the place.
- Well, Dollhouse didn’t start out strong and in fact always mostly sucked, but you get my point. [↩]
- Or they are vampire shows with vampires being vampirey. Also, porny. [↩]
- Also it was on NBC on Sundays. [↩]
- Incidentally, I would like to applaud the producers of that show for trying to build tenseness into an action sequence after letting the audience know what would happen beforehand. No. Really. That was absolutely brilliant of you guys. [↩]