"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." -Ecclesiastes 1:9
The observation that movies and television recycle and reuse ideas is so well-known as to be a cliche itself. Some would argue that stories themselves can be broken down to 12 (or is it 9? I forget) basic narratives, but that's a topic for another day perhaps. I'll just accept it as a given that Hollywood is redundant. But what other observations can we make?
LOST vs. Gilligan's IslandI am by far not the first to make this comparison. As a matter of fact, here's an amusing little link to someone who spent too much time thinking about it already. It's made even more entertaining by the fact that it was written somewhere along Season 2. What other comparisons could be made now?
My real point with this comparison is the idea of episodic versus serialized storytelling. As a kid, I loved Gilligan's Island unabashedly. It was a daily afterschool rerun ritual. I loved the first season of Lost as well (I still watch it, but it is a vastly different show now). But in GI, every show was independent. You could watch them in any order. You knew everything you needed to know from the opening credits. You also knew that no matter what, everything would return to status quo by the end of the show. Lost made a deliberate effort against both of those statements.
Of course, it's patently unfair to compare a 60's sitcom with a 00's drama. Sure, the desert island theme is pretty timeless (especially in Lost), but other than that, they really have next to nothing in common.
BSG vs. Battlestar GalacticaThe original was loosely serial. You still had the opening narration that let you know who the players were, what was at stake, why it was happening. But between each show, was there really any continuity? Did it really matter in what order they were watched?
The more recent incarnation was quite rigid. It's another show that I loved at the beginning, but gradually came to dislike. The essential problem with serialized narratives seems to come from the conflicting goals of story and commerce. Characters need to grow and change; some may even need to die, if the story dictates it. But fans, producers, actors, and advertisers like to have reliable sameness. "You can't kill off, Starbuck, she's the most popular character!" When characters who are expected to die don't, or worse, come back, I think it cheapens the story and deserves the derogatory comparison to soap operas.
Lost did a great job with this the first season. Most of the actors were relatively unknown (re: expendable), so the writers could get away with killing anyone. As the show grew in popularity, they had to bring in new people so they'd have someone to kill. This last season, they actually killed Locke, but brought him back as the Anti-Jacob just so Terry O'Quinn could keep collecting a paycheck.
Star Trek vs. Star TrekThe older I get, the more I love the original series (TOS). The plots were thought-provoking, yet simple. It dealt with ideas and concepts more than technology. The solutions were always understandable. You could watch them in any order, of course, and the relationships never changed.
Then look at Next Generation (TNG). Let's just ignore the first couple of dreadful seasons. They still tried to keep it the same every time, but it just wouldn't work after a while. Two-part episodes turned into minor themes or even season-long "arcs." Character choices often didn't make sense ("We've pulled out the captain's chair for Riker three times; he just won't sit down!"), except to maintain the status quo.
All the later Trek shows continued and expanded on this serial narrative. Deep Space Nine actually transforms itself through out it's run. Anyone watching the final episode without having an understanding of the whole narrative would be confounded (like I was).
Jon & Kate plus 8 vs. The Brady BunchSome would say that serialized storytelling is more like real life. Characters, just like the actors who play them, get older. Life changes things. People develop and grow, relationships come and go. One could even say that reality shows are a natural extension of the trend towards serialization. The spontaneity makes it fresh and (supposedly) unpredictable. Things change. Stuff happens that really matters. But with all the footage taken and edited down into an hour episode, is that really accurate? Besides, I think the reality shows aren't much different from live television variety shows from the early days, except they have less talented performers.
Law & Order = DragnetThankfully for me, episodic television has not died completely yet. There are still plenty of shows that you can appreciate without ever having seen an episode.
Sadly, the whole point of this post when I conceived it was to talk about why that narrative shift may have occurred, and instead I spent all this time babbling about everything else. Oh well. Next time, perhaps.