The Episode Lives!

It’s really hard to see an episode of a TV drama these days.

Not to watch one — of course that’s easier than ever, thanks to Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and the rest. But to see one — to see a single episode as a single episode, instead of as one chapter in an ongoing story, that’s gotten tough.

A lot of that has to do with the way we’re watching TV now, of course. When I’m bingeing my way through four seasons of Sons of Anarchy, I stop noticing what happens in each individual episode. I just want to see what happens next. And it’s even easier now that Netflix automatically starts playing the next installment unless you hit your iPad with a hammer or call 911 to stop it.

This really isn’t a problem if all you care about is enjoying what you’re watching. Unlike my much more sophisticated colleagues who teach (and practice!) the delicate art of the short story, I rarely pause in my reading to notice the way a sentence is constructed. I want to find out what happens. And that’s how most people watch dramas.

But for those of us who are writing television drama — or who want to do so — this is something we’ve got to fight. Because as I’ve said before and will no doubt say many more times, a TV episode is not a chapter in a novel. It is a work of art in itself. It’s not just the continuation of the series’ story — it is the series in miniature. A well-constructed episode exists not just to further a plotline, but to replay and re-examine the conflicts that are at the heart of the series’ franchise, and to do so using the structural and narrative tropes established in the show’s pilot.

And that’s why it was such a pleasure to watch this past Sunday’s episode of The Newsroom. It may not have been perfect television for all the usual Aaron Sorkin reasons, but it was a perfect episode. Three storylines, each part of a longer ongoing arc, each with a discreet beginning, middle and end. Each structured to allow Sorkin to explore his characters and their conflicts. And each reinforcing each other in subtle, unnoticeable ways. So at the end, even if you saw just about every plot turn coming — oh, right, you thought that little African kid who looked like a miniature Marcus Samuelson was going to survive the hour? — you knew you had watched something rich, full and complete. Complete, even though it was only a small part of a bigger whole.

I watched the first season of The Newsroom in two days on HBOGo when I was in bed with the flu. Season two I’m taking week by week. With other shows that’s been a frustrating transition, as I get used to flying through storylines of, say, The Walking Dead, and then find it difficult to reach the same level of emotional involvement once I’m waiting seven day between shows. But I  haven’t felt that frustration with The Newsroom, and after this week I’m glad I’m taking it as it comes.


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