Let TV Be TV

Understand the medium you’re working in.

Grace Robertson

I recently made my way through the first season of Legacies and it proved to be the most delightful surprise. Often described as a “spin-off of a spin-off” and technically following from The Originals, the series borrows much more from parent show The Vampire Diaries and ends up really putting its own spin on the franchise. Vampire Diaries in its best season felt like being in a members only club. Those on the outside would think “wait, you watch that show? The obvious rip-off of Twilight with Boone from Lost?”, while anyone in the know would respond with “No, seriously, it’s so good. You have to watch it”. Legacies, with its humble spin-off origins, seems like it’s destined for a similar path.

The show often feels like creator Julie Plec’s ode to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with an additional sprinkling of Harry Potter and X-Men with a big helping of teen soap goodness. It has its ongoing stories, yes, but it also embraces the long forgotten trope of interweaving them with adventures of the week. Despite existing in a world of magic and monsters, it knows it can’t compete with the visuals of big blockbuster movies and doesn’t even try to. Above all else, it knows what it wants to be: television. Its reference points are from TV. Its storytelling mode is inherited from other TV shows. It has no pretension to be any other medium than the one it exists in today, and what a relief that is.

A full two decades have passed David Chase supposedly swooped in and made TV a serious art form with The Sopranos and the medium still has an endless inferiority complex. Every showrunner behind “prestige” projects, from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to David Lynch to Noah Hawley, talks of wanting their series to feel like “a [number of hours] movie”. The third season of Twin Peaks (which, to be clear, is a stunning achievement, and one of the most vital works of art of this decade) is no longer cast as the latest installment of the television series Twin Peaks, but Twin Peaks: The Return, an 18 hour art film described by many as among the best “cinema” of that year. Its status as a film was seen by its advocates as not a merely descriptive term, but an unambiguous aesthetic value. In their eyes, it had been elevated to film, something seemingly all TV series are supposed to aspire to now.

This fetishisation of film is everywhere in TV. When Lucasfilm wanted to move into the live action TV space with Star Wars, they went not to a TV writer, but to Jon Favreau, a blockbuster filmmaker. Almost no one in the TV space would be treated as such a big deal as Favreau, who feels like a “get” in this context. Film is what TV should aspire to be. If a series has “cinematic” visuals, that is seen as an objective strength. If its narrative structure apes a long film more than individual episodes, that is more mature (despite the fact that it’s a form borrowed from the very lowbrow TV genre of the soap opera, but that rarely seems to be noticed).

There is also a case of technology acting as a catalyst for some of these aesthetic evolutions. The binge watch, which started with DVDs but has very much blossomed into the dominant viewing mode with streaming services, makes the individual episode almost invisible, incentivising showrunners to push for more serialised, coded “cinematic” stories. The 74 minute mid-season episode of a Netflix show that has no discernable purpose or structure arises. House of Cards creator Beau Willimon once claimed that TV could “dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight hours or 10 straight hours, and you decide where to pause”. To Willimon, a playwright who dabbled in film before setting foot in TV, this medium is just a space to tell stories that can last longer than what he’s used to, and traditional elements like the episode are just shackles. But the episode itself is the organising principle through which all of television works. It’s the site of experimentation, the trick that allows something more tonally and structurally variable than an endless blob of story would suggest. You might have hated Breaking Bad’s “Fly” (and you’d be wrong, it’s wonderful), but it was a swing, and a swing only possible because of the magic of the episode. As critic Jaime Weinman has stated in the past, “when you remove the old model of having to produce six to 22 weekly episodes, many seasons don’t actually have a compelling reason to be six to 22 hours”. As Weinman goes on to note, even the best TV shows “[contain] a lot of redundancy, or at least repetition, within a season”, as “plot and character points are stated and then restated and restated again”. This is all fine and a necessary part of making any TV show function. If you do away with this, in the quest for something less episodic and more “cinematic”, what you instead get is an endless dragging on of story beats, the Netflix season that feels like it will never end.

A slightly different but related issue to trying to tell more filmic stories on the small screen is narratives that end up running much longer than they need to. This is, in part, a change driven from within television itself. Vince Gilligan, bored with the way The X-Files was never allowed to really change the central dynamic, devised Breaking Bad as an engine of constant change, “Mr. Chips into Scarface” as it were. But Gilligan, experienced in long running TV, had a good sense that this was a story that would take 60 or so episodes to tell. So many shows think they’re telling a story as grand as Breaking Bad, but only came up with an idea that has a season or two’s worth of narrative engine. Homeland, for example, had a conceit around its two leads that was golden for one season, followed by the show desperately fishing around for other things to say afterwards (sometimes worthwhile things, other times, less so). Orphan Black enthralled audiences with a group of clones discovering each other and the conspiracy that led to their births for about a season and a half, before having no idea where to go and just slowing down into a convoluted mythology. Does Killing Eve, with its premise of a cat and mouse chase between an assassin and a spy, really warrant telling its story over many years? Does Big Little Lies, which already used up all of its source material? These aren’t concerns that the shows seem to have thought about in advance.

Crafting a TV show around constant changes to the status quo is extremely difficult. Breaking Bad succeeded at it, as did The Americans. Sometimes shows with huge, sprawling ensembles, like Lost or Game of Thrones, have an easier time at this, but that narrative path has its own struggles. The alternative, which TV has historically engaged with, is some kind of stasis to fall back on. The obvious example would be in a purely procedural show, where we can trust that our protagonists will have resolved whatever issue of the week they came across just in time, while the next instalment will open with their position as the show’s heroes intact. But it doesn’t have to apply to only episodic shows. The Sopranos employed a very serialised narrative, but without really breaking the show’s central status quo of Tony Soprano as a mafia boss and all that entailed. Soap operas (and drama series heavily influenced by them), too, engage in ongoing serialised conflict, but are ultimately predicated on the truth that the status quo will never permanently change. There are really two options for TV: tell a story with a fixed beginning, middle, and end, where you know the destination and realistically how long you have to tell it, or tell a story that could go on and on with some kind of status quo to fall back on.

It’s the status quo model that helps make Legacies such a pleasure. The premise, of a school of mystic and magically inclined teenagers dealing with their own problems as well as outside enemies, with the Buffy model of standalone monster stories with a season long arc, could in theory run forever. At the end of season one, the main protagonist Hope Mikaelson is in a very tough spot, but we the audience ultimately know she will find a way out of it and return to her role at the Salvatore School sooner or later, even if she has grown and changed along the way. Legacies totally knows it’s a TV show

And that stasis is what TV is all about. Having some kind of fixed point in the narrative, something reliable to fall back on, is what allows shows to continually find new stories to tell. When you don’t have a fixed point, when you just have a continual narrative engine, you end up with a story that has no direction. Worse still, when abandoning the episode structure as the narrative form on which your story hangs, everything feels seemingly endless and without purpose. Stop trying to play down the elements on which TV has been built. Stop trying to be a film. Television is wonderful, and storytellers working in the medium should embrace its peculiarities wholeheartedly.

I, meanwhile, am off to rewatch Legacies to bridge the wait for season two.