There are two kinds of people in the world: those who could enumerate every film in the Criterion Collection in their sleep and those who could stay up all night binge-watching 10 years-worth of TV episodes. In the age of streaming platforms, TV shows have taken center stage and have changed the way we consume entertainment. Gone are the days when we would anxiously wait for weeks to know what happened to our favorite One True Pairing (OTP).
While storytelling is at the core of both film and TV, films do not have the same liberty and time to fully flesh out and develop the world of the story the way TV shows have the privilege of doing. This is why some audiences cultivate a strong obsession and attachment to TV characters they’ve spent years growing up alongside, becoming a pivotal part of their lives. Let’s break down how the elements used in TV effectively work together to create the timeless scripted shows that we’ve all come to know and love.
The Building Blocks of Storytelling for the Small Screen
While film and TV both encompass similar mechanics and elements of storytelling, they differ in terms of how these are processed, developed, and utilized in the narrative. Nowadays, TV shows come in all shapes and sizes. TV episodes range from 15 to 60 minutes long with commercial breaks in between. Some are serialized, meaning that every episode is connected and builds off of each other. Others could be episodic, wherein each episode contains a new plot and a variety of stories that usually have a conclusion as soon as the credits roll. Not to mention, limited series and anthologies have grown exponentially as more streaming platforms have emerged.
“TV shows have different narrative structures. A movie has a clear beginning, middle, and end, while TV shows are episodic and allow for multiple beginnings, middles, and ends. Each TV script is part of a larger narrative, with multiple characters and story arcs divided across a number of episodes and seasons.”
Sustainability is the most valuable commodity in the world of TV. For a show to thrive for years, it must possess vital components such as a strong and engaging concept, a captivating world, compelling and multidimensional characters, ongoing and sustainable conflicts, clear repeatable format, universal themes, and a well-defined genre or target audience.
Sustainability is the most valuable commodity in the world of TV
Among these components, characters and themes are the ones that fuel and sustain the narrative as long as possible. Characters are at the heart of every story, and they are the driving force that creates and moves the plot forward. Creating multi-dimensional characters is key to having a unique story that can pull audiences in and compel them to invest into the show for years. This entails having your characters become somebody that people could relate to by making them genuinely human, flawed, and complex just like how we are in real life.
Characters are the instigators of conflict, which is king in creating more tension, interest, and generating more storylines that could be further explored in future seasons. In creating great TV, writers would find ways to prolong their characters’ struggles up until they decide to wrap the series. This allows us to go deeper into the story and care about the fate of each character.
Once we have created the perfect ensemble of dynamic characters, we can focus on building the themes. It is defined as the central idea of a story that explores the universal truths of life and the human condition. It is the thread that stitches the elements of the story together that allows us to personally connect and understand the underlying messages that the story is trying to convey. This is why characters coincide with themes as they are the vessels that carry and demonstrate these throughout the narrative.
Theory in Action
It’s been almost three decades since the show has wrapped, but Friends(1994) continues to break records and steal the hearts of different generations from all over the world. The show was on air for a decade and was given a reunion special this year by HBO Max where host James Corden revealed that the show has been watched 100 billion times across all platforms over the years ― astounding!
Friends (1994) was the brainchild of David Crane and Marta Kauffman and started as a simple idea of making a show about the time in our lives when our friends are our family. This show centers around the lives of six friends who are navigating through their 20s in the bustling and unforgiving streets of New York City. Aside from the hilarious punch lines and dialogue, what truly makes this show the crème of the crop is its exceptional character development. Each character drives their own plot as well as embodies unique traits, personalities, and journeys that are relatable at various points of our lives.
It mirrors the challenges and transformations we experience, ultimately serving as a guide and companion to help us overcome the struggles and humdrum of everyday life. For instance, Rachel is the energetic and playful fashionista; Monica is the strong and ambitious woman; Phoebe is the quirky and easy-go-lucky creative; Chandler is the witty and sarcastic jokester; Joey is the sweet and social butterfly; Ross is the emotional and romantic intellectual. All these colorful personalities and the trajectories of their journeys perfectly blend and create a dynamic that makes the story a cut above the rest.
The Simpsons (1989) and South Park (1997) have been the frontrunners in shaping countercultures since they went on air. Both shows have revolutionized animation as well as modern comedy, and it continues to do so as evident in their growing number of seasons and trends they have popularized over the past years. While these shows have their distinctive assets, their collective success could be attributed to their eccentric and highly imaginative characters.
What makes these shows and its characters stand out from the pile is its audacity to utilize them in making satirical social commentaries on today’s issues that deserve critical attention and action. Due to its episodic format, writers have the room to grow and the liberty to keep generating relevant storylines and developing characters that continuously evolve with us and the times, truly making it an all-encompassing masterpiece that future generations will appreciate and connect with.
it takes ingenious character development, worldbuilding, and exploration of universal themes to make it timeless
With respect to themes, award-winning medical drama series, Grey’s Anatomy (2005) does a remarkable job in tugging at our heartstrings and at the same time exploring important social issues and a wide array of universal themes through its characters, which are usually expressed through Meredith’s voiceovers or dialogue between the characters and their patients. Some of its commendable themes revolve around the importance of friendships, familial and romantic relationships, overcoming life’s struggles and addictions, love conquering all, and empowering women among others. While most of us have never been medical doctors nor patients who facing extreme conditions, the underlying themes serve as the meaningful messages and lessons that connect these stories to us on a personal level and eventually get deeply ingrained in our psyche.
There are numerous components involved in creating a TV show, but it takes ingenious character development, worldbuilding, and exploration of universal themes to make it timeless and relevant. This is why even decades later we are still attached to a show mainly because of its exceptional characters, and would rather watch reruns because the connection is irreplaceable and we crave the emotions and lessons that have helped us through the ebbs and flows of our lives. Based on the diverse, inclusive, and socially impactful stories that are now dominating our screens, it is safe to say that we are finally heading in the right direction and reaping the benefits of storytelling to positively change our society. These are exciting times for the entertainment industry and there’s no doubt that the next generation of TV characters will be even more impactful and unlike anything we have seen before.