As streaming platforms battle to make their shows stand out from the crowd, Beyond The Neon’s Noel Mellor picks on one storytelling element of Disney’s The Mandalorian that is overdue a renaissance.
If you’re a fan of Disney’s The Mandalorian, you may have noticed the structure of the series has been a little different to the kind of shows we’ve grown used to in recent years. It’s no accident writer/creator Jon Favreau chose to treat viewers to singular, week-by-week adventures, as opposed to one overarching plot thread teased out in each episode. But what does this mean for the future of that thing we used to call ‘television’? In a year where streaming services and networks are going to have to battle harder than ever for our attention, I believe story structure could prove essential.
George Lucas has, in the past, made no effort to hide the places from which he drew inspiration for the Star Wars universe. Structurally, Lucas cites mythologist Joseph Campbell as key to the basic components of storytelling in the series, particularly when it comes to the first (or fourth depending on how you look at it) instalment. Religious myth and the films of Akira Kurosawa are also regularly brought up in conversation when it comes to the world-building and style of the franchise, but one original Star Wars influence that had been somewhat lost in the years that followed the original trilogy, is now front and centre again – the ‘film serial’.
Film serials are a concept that go right back to the silent cinema of the 1910s, based around the idea that longer stories could be told in theatres if they were broken down into parts or episodes. It was a great business plan for the picture houses of the day too, as they could rely on the repeat business of audiences keen to see ‘what happened next’ in whatever tale happened to be playing out in chunks. Typically, episodes would run at between 10 and 20 minutes each and could number as few as three (1914’s The Fates and Flora Fourflush) or as many as 119 (1914’s The Hazards of Helen), across an easy-to-manage two reels of film. Most of those earlier serials would be mysteries, dramas or melodramas, but over time, theatres started to cater more and more to the popularity of action and adventure based stories (often westerns) with heroic leads and contemptuous villains.
What film serials did initially was create a form of entertainment that told one, long-form story across a number of episodes. This way of storytelling is probably what we’re most used to today when it comes to streaming and network television shows. Season long arcs that deliver pieces of a bigger puzzle are the bread and butter of our ‘must see TV’ era – and it’s not hard to see why. Shows like The Sopranos, Lost, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are just a few examples of serial television that have brought people together on couches and around water coolers for many years now, to get that same fix of what happened next that was introduced in film serials. And whether we’re at home or online, we get the same shared experiences of discovering the next puzzle piece together, so we can fervently recount the events to one another at work or in the playground the next day. Streaming services may have warped the conversation from ‘did you watch?’ to ‘what episode are you on?’, but the result is the same – and it’s something we just take for granted.
Through the 1930s and 40s though, film serials became less concerned with the serial story arc, and more focused on episodic tales that made best use of popular characters. Heroes like Zorro and The Lone Ranger might have one specific villain or plot to deal with in their stories, but individual episodes would need to ensure their leads were given something adventurous to do in those short instalments. 1937’s Zorro Rides Again would feature episodes titled The Fatal Minute, Sky Pirates and Plunge of Peril, while in 1938, The Lone Ranger would face The Steaming Cauldron, Flaming Fury and Messengers of Doom, all part of ensuring fans knew they were getting a focused, almost singular narrative with each instalment. Comic book characters like Captain America, Batman and Captain Marvel (the Shazam! one) would follow suit, having been doing the same thing on the page for years beforehand. And when it came to getting audiences back for the next show, a well placed high stakes ‘cliffhanger’ (a phrase itself born of the serial film era) was a perfect way to get the job done.
As a child of the 1980s, I grew up in what I feel is the age of peak episodic TV. It was a time of high concept television shows featuring characters that were easily understood, and got to have individual adventures on a weekly basis. Whether they were a team of escaped military prisoners, a crime fighter with a talking sports car or a stunt man who did part time work as a bounty hunter, I knew that week in, week out, I’d get to see my favourite action heroes tackle one problematic adventure, then ride out into the sunset to find the next damsel (or Mexican family under threat of a ruthless land baron) in distress. One of the true kings of episodic TV, Quantum Leap, even managed to creatively reinvent the cliffhanger for this format, with a weekly “oh boy” moment that offered a taste of what the show’s hero Sam Beckett would face next week. What all these shows had in common though, was that they weren’t constructed to deliver clues and plot points over the course of a season, but act as individual slices of fun that allowed their characters to do what they did best. Not unlike what Favreau has given us with The Mandalorian.
Of course, shows like The A-Team, Quantum Leap and The Fall Guy did have one overall point of sorts that could be summed up in a question. Would The A-Team be caught by Colonel Lynch and his military police? Would Sam Beckett’s next leap be the leap home? Would I ever understand why I loved watching Heather Thomas walk through those saloon doors in a blue bikini so much? Even through the 1990s, when television shows did began to get more interested in the longer series arc, there was still that episodic element that kept them fresh and exciting for viewers. The best example I can think of that would probably be The X-Files, which managed to hook audiences with the serialised story of governmental conspiracy and a mystery around the childhood abduction of Fox Mulder’s sister, but still retained stellar ‘monster-of-the-week’ tales based on the central ‘strange case files’ concept of the overall show. With an established central pairing (he was an intelligent kook, she was an intelligent cynic), we knew enough about Mulder and Scully to just let them get on with it.
We live in an age where there is, frankly, too much stuff. Every single day, Netflix, Prime and others drop another, largely average 10-episode series that stretches one story just a bit too far. Some of these prove popular and manage to find enough purpose for a second or third season, but most don’t. And from the perspective of the streaming platforms, why should they? As we rapidly approach the point where subscriber numbers plateau and people settle on having their favourite two or three paid content channels, will a fifth season of 13 Reasons Why be enough to win new or even returning subscribers? Personally, I don’t think it will.
What The Mandalorian offers, with its week-by-week, adventure-by-adventure, episodic storytelling is the opportunity to get to know a fascinating character by having them placed in certain situations. As long as the first episode lays out the basics of the character (he’s from a place with a specific code of honour, he’s a bounty hunter, he has a mysterious past), we can still discover that serialised story – we just do it through that character’s actions and the lessons they learn along the way. Some might argue (it’s Star Wars, of course they fucking will) episodic storytelling is simpler and more derivative, and while I see that point, I’d argue the opposite. If you want me to fall in love with your character and their journey, having me do so without exposition, clues and MacGuffins – while keeping me on the edge of the seat – is a challenge. Not only that, but episodic TV provides a level of rewatchability we just don’t get in modern shows. For example, I love The Shield and Sons of Anarchy, but I’d struggle to go back and pick just one episode to enjoy. Quantum Leap, The X-Files and The Mandalorian on the other hand, don’t need me to watch a full season, I can just dip back in and watch ‘the one where he’s Stephen King’, ‘the one with the guy who can squeeze through an air vent’ or ‘the one where they save a village from an AT-ST’.
It’s difficult to say where we’ll see episodic television pop up next, but I have a feeling that the popularity of The Mandalorian will give studio and network heads pause for thought. Marvel’s What If series for Disney+ (an animated show which poses single, alternate scenarios of events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) could be one obvious contender, so too could Marvel’s WandaVision and Loki (which apparently surf through genres and generations to make use of existing, established characters). What I can say is, another show that offers the same kind of delightful, thrilling weekly adventures as The Mandalorian, is something I’m looking forward to.