In his essay “From Beats to Arcs,” Michael Newman reads into the methods that television writers use to keep viewers both engaged and wanting more. As his argument walks through the strategies that storytellers use to form a successful TV serial narrative, he moves from small scale to large scale building blocks. When he spoke about the macro blocks, such as the character arc that develops across multiple episodes, I could not help but wonder what would happen if this narrative structure was unexpectedly interrupted, either temporarily or permanently.
A few years back, we saw an example of a temporary interruption of the traditional TV narrative when the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) went on strike for nearly four months. Now obviously this would affect the physical schedule of television broadcast, seeing as the networks had no new material to air during that time. Yet there were also many smaller consequences of the unexpected hiatus. One of the most extreme examples is the popular NBC drama Heroes. Heroes was extremely popular because of the creative ways it kept people simultaneously confused and wanting more. Yet when the strike began, NBC was forced to cut the second season from its usual 25+ episodes down to 11. They had to reorder some of the episodes and get rid of many others to make it appear like they were planning for only 11 episodes all along. While the microstructures of TV narrative, the beat and the episode, allowed for this truncated season since they were contained in only one episode, the macro arc was irreparably damaged. Since many of the episodes were already shot, character arcs began but were never finished; long-term conflicts were introduced but never resolved.
Not only did this long and unexpected hiatus affect the narrative arc of the series, but it also changed the viewing habits of its audience. In the case of Heroes, not only did the season have a scant 11 episodes, but the next season also did not return until almost 10 months later. People not only had more to speculate about because of the truncated season, but they also had more time to speculate about it. This led to an increase in Internet presence among fans, which ultimately altered the reception of and expectations for the narrative in the next season. This also may have, among many other things, led to a drop in the show ratings since people had more time to build up hopes and imagine their own version of what should happen.
Another form of narrative interruption is the cancellation of a show. As Newman points out, the way in which stories are crafted for television allows for ease of viewing and relating to characters. Viewers are encouraged to invite the television characters into their homes and integrate them into the tasks of every day life. They easily become the background for tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and even homework. When this is abruptly taken away there is the potential for a strong backlash from the audience that can also lead to a larger Internet presence.
I will be curious to see the reactions to the return of Arrested Development since it was cancelled and is now slated to return six years later. So by the time it returns it will have gone through both the effects of cancellation and an extended hiatus. With character arcs continue to be effective from the previous seasons given the long break after its initial cancellation? Will audiences perceive it differently now that they have had time to watch and re-watch what they thought was an entire series?