Are story arcs a good thing?
The plot arc; first it was a unique selling point of a few select series but now it seems to be the driving force behind almost every new programme to grace our screens. Arcs aren't a new thing, from the 1970's Doctor Who had a overriding storyline of the Doctor being an outcast or fugitive and the likes of Twin Peaks had hugely complex intertwining storylines that required undivided attention to follow. But these were the exceptions - for the most part television was a place to go to watch bite size self-contained tails, from the anthologies such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone to the 'monster/planet of the week' focussed Star Trek and Columbo!
In the 1990's Babylon 5 introduced casual fans to the joys of a planned overriding story, and while it was a slog at first and fell apart towards the end, it was the first glimmer of something that would drive television through the rest of that decade and into the 21st Century. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the first Trek spin-off to begin to embrace the same ideology when, part way through the second season it started to introduce the 'Dominion' war and whilst some would argue that it stole much from Babylon 5, the mythology and plot strands were developed to the point that we had a final season that really delivered where its alleged inspiration failed.
attempted a best-of-both-worlds strategy with monster of the week episodes interspersed through larger season-wide stories and for the most part it was successful. Some plot strands flowed between seasons and even into spin-off series Angel, but the risk was that if a season arc DIDN'T hit the mark it meant that viewers found a whole year a slog. Season six is much maligned for it's arc, but there were some stunning episodes that would have still stood out in more successful years. The same issues affected 24, but in this case there wasn't the episode of the week model in place to provide some relief - when a season had problems due to the arc then it there was no way out; later series of that show saw the writers falling into the 'make it up as we go along' trap with wild changes in style, pace and viewer interest.
Arcs have also made their way into comedy - Curb Your Enthusiasm follows the Buffy strategy with self-contained year-long stories, whilst Gavin and Stacey's whole raison d'être was to follow a pre-defined story from start to finish.
In the US, the spectre of cancellation often causes problems for arc-based shows. Initially this meant their uptake wasn't as great with writers avoiding getting into the trap of an unfinished story but as they became braver, so did the risk that a viewer would get into a show only to find it killed far too early leaving plot strands and whole stories totally unresolved - Firefly is probably the most offensive example of a show being sliced down but with only fourteen episodes under its belt we're glad it found its feet at all and became one of the biggest DVD sales successes ever. More recently, viewers of The Event experience the same with the show killed after just one year and just as it was finally getting good.
Then there's the issue that the writers, regardless of whether they plan from the start or make it up as they go along, find they can never meet their viewers expectations with the final pay-off. Lost was a prime example that built such a deep and involved mythology that it would have been impossible to deliver in the final year. The resolution had no chance of being as satisfying as that created in the minds of the series fans.
Arcs are often a barrier to a show collecting new viewers - once the complexities of the overriding story kick in, how could anyone hope to come to something such as Lost without feeling overwhelmed? Often, a series is stuck with it's core fan base within the first few weeks after which figures will continually dwindle to the point where there is no longer the following to justify continuing to invest in the programme. It's a delicate balancing act and we would never want to see us return to a time when the plot arc is too much of a risk as there's no other medium that can build such believable, deep and intricate worlds than the television series. HBO's recent commitment to the Song of Ice and Fire series of books, whilst laudable, can only be believed for as long as the resulting TV series makes a profit; the minute it doesn't it'll be on the chopping block just like any other - no broadcaster or producer is going to continue to invest in something that will never see a speedy return.
And what of those series that attempted to add an arc to something that was never part of their initial make-up? The Bill is a prime example - what was once a simple series of self contained 25 minute time passers underwent a number of transitions - first to multi-episode stories and then to a full blown soap-cum-arc template which required investment in both time and a knowledge of the shows history. Suffice to say the change in format hastened the show's demise and if there was ever proof of a TV station not understanding their audience this was it?
The arc is an essential element for many shows but they bring with them the requirement of a real investment on the part of the viewer. The arc needs to constantly engage and surprise and needs to end with a real pay-off. Complex storylines are fine, but they need to be planned from the start; it quickly becomes obvious where writers are flying by the seat of their pants resulting in flaky explanations or major plot holes. The traditional deus ex machina fall back allows writers to fight themselves out of a corner but viewers are often unforgiving when over used (Sonic Screwdriver, we're looking at you).
The best shows are those that find the right balance - the ones that can drop self contained stories into larger overriding arcs - it's often these breaks from an arcs intensity that are the highlights - 'The Visitor' in Deep Space Nine was a wonderful piece of story that referenced ongoing stories but was independent enough to be taken completely out of context; even the main cast were more like support to the guest actors in this one. Likewise Rob Shearman's 'Dalek' in Eccleston-era Who was a massively fresh take on a monster who became severely overused in subsequent years. Most recently, Mark Gattis' 'Night Terrors' is one of the few series six Doctor Who episodes NOT to be part of the River Song story line and benefits greatly from it's complete separation from that increasingly convoluted tale. And, who couldn't class Buffy's 'Hush' or 'Once More With Feeling' as being some of the best examples that Whedon's show had to offer over it's seven years?
We like the depth that an arc brings to a television series, but we'd hate to see a time where there are no shows that offer the brief self-contained tales that TV of old used to bring. Being able to get into a series at any point and enjoy it in it's small-screen glory is something that has made for some of the most memorable and eminently rewatchable television shows; the likes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek would find it hard to be made today and that is a real shame. Just because television has evolved, it doesn't mean we have to forget about or stop making the same sorts series that made television of the twentieth century so enjoyable.