A month in bed – Part two – Storytelling

By Evangeline Jennings

When the first season of The Wire ended, I wasn’t impatient for season two because David Simon and his crew had left me hanging over some awkward plot contrivance. Not even a little bit. Each season was a story complete in and of itself. The reason I had a date with my sofa and remote was I wanted to see what the people who made that first season would do next. That’s the way to tell a Story.

One of the many reasons for the outstanding success of season one of Veronica Mars was that it was constructed from the offset as a full season single arcing story. If VM had stopped at that point, it would have been most perfect TV show ever. As it was, the commercial imperative and our love affair with Kristen Bell demanded more and more, each season less wonderful than the last. Would the recent Kickstarter have been so successful if season three hadn’t been so poor, denying viewers closure? I doubt it.

They can’t just cancel a show like Alphas. You know? They have to help the viewers let go. Firefly did a movie to wrap things up. Buffy the Vampire Slayer continued on as a comic book. Heroes gradually lowered the quality season by season till we were grateful it ended.

– Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory

Just as God made me.
Just as God made me.

In other news, I’m beginning to think there’s a reason writers think in trilogies. So many long running TV shows do well for three seasons before going the way of Heroes that there must an immutable, universal rule of three. Ish. I’ve also decided it’s often a mistake even to plan a sequel.

Is it easy to fall into the series trap? Yes, of course it is.

Does the idea appeal to the writer and her ego? Very much so.

Has it proved immensely lucrative for some? The key word there is some.

In terms of yer actual quality and the value of – forgive me – your personal brand, it can be fatal to plan to write a series. Think too much about your second and third books while you’re writing your first and you’ll more than likely do shoddy second-rate work. Leave the reader on a cliffhanger – see the first of these pieces– and you’ll invoke either wrath or mockery. And if you fail to deliver the next part in the series, your readers may never trust you again.

Another problem I’ve started to notice frequently while overloading on TV is that writers and producers make some very strange and flawed decisions. Occasionally it’s because they were making the show up all along and had no idea how to finish it – see, for example, Lost, the longest shaggy dog story ever told on TV. But mostly it seems to come down to not having the courage to see things through.

Something about the horn
Something about the horn

My jury was already out on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. I don’t like his Will Graham or Jack Crawford and I have a very low tolerance for dream sequences – I think they’re cheap and a cheat. But there was a feeling lurking beneath the surface of Hannibal that was persuading me to watch in the hope of discovering something special or shocking. When, however, I realized that Fuller had pulled the fourth episode, I decided my life was too short to waste any more of it on his show. If he can pull an entire episode without ruining the season long arc I’d been hoping for, then why on earth make that episode in the first place? It’s very strong evidence that the Story isn’t as good as I had hoped. And if the Story was that good, then it’s a preposterous act of cowardice and vandalism to pull an episode. Story first.


One show I have caught up on during my April of discontent is The Following. A fun show on Fox that actually pushes a few boundaries, it focuses on a battle of wits between former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy). The first episode was fascinating. Crazy Joe escapes from his maximum security prison, does some scary serial killer stuff, and then allows himself to be recaptured by Ryan. So far so Lecter so good, but the strength of the concept lies in the title. Crazy Joe has himself a cult, a following.

The first sign is the suicide of a random girl intended as a message to Kevin Bacon.  The second is the abduction of Joe’s only surviving victim by two deep undercover wacko plants. Suddenly we have no idea who may or may not be a concealed Carroll weapon.

The show built well on that opening, steadily exposing the depth of Carroll’s planning and organization. Yes, there were flaws and clichés in abundance but that underlying model, jailed killer outfoxes FBI from his prison cell and strikes repeatedly through his following of assorted nutters and psychos had a distinct and macabre appeal. This ended, though, when Carroll was allowed to escape a second time. This “twist” smacked of premature ejaculation and the story has been disappearing slowly up its own arse ever since.

Valorie Curry

Earlier today I read that The Following has been commissioned for a second season so it must be putting bums on seats but it’s a pale shadow of the show it could have been. Had I been writing it – and yeah, I know – I would have left Joe in prison until the final episode and then just as Kevin Bacon was celebrating a famous last minute victory against the stunning Emma (Valorie Curry) and the Cult of Joe, I would have revealed a whole new layer of following – led by a Bureau insider, preferably “cult specialist” Debra Parker (Annie Parisse) – and ended on that crippling betrayal and Joe’s susbequent escape. That would have made for a much better season one and a far better set up for season two than anything I can imagine from The Following as-is.

But then maybe that’s just me.

I think what I’m trying to say here is keep faith with your story and don’t rely on cheap tricks.

Next up – A closer focus on one or two special shows.


2 thoughts on “A month in bed – Part two – Storytelling

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