Episodic storytelling refers to when a particular story is narrated through a series of episodes rather than chapters. This method can be found commonly through television as well as through ten-part specials such as HBO’s True Detective. In addition to this method, to be able to fully grasp the big picture of the story, it would make the most sense for the viewer to watch each episode or part, in order from beginning to end of each episode. The difference between True Detective and other episodic television series’ is that no two seasons are alike. Sure there is a recurring theme of “detectives vs. criminals” throughout each season. However the cast is completely different, the setting of the story is different, and the plot is certainly different.
Season one featured Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detectives, partners working on a strange homicide case in the deep south. After that case is closed after it’s ten episodes, season two opens up to Los Angeles. An entirely new setting, where a new homicide case, completely unrelated to the past, is being pursued by individual law enforcement agents (Rachel McAdams and Colin Ferrel) that come together in order to catch a murderer and in the process uncover a large political crime ring conspiracy throughout the city. Season three recently aired to give us another new case, and new officers working to solve it.
Almost like chapters of a novel or short story, these ten part seasons are effective in keeping the attention of the viewer or audience. As the entire story is told in ten episodes or less, this greatly amplifies the quality put into each episode, making each individual piece of the story valuable, and keeps the show from becoming repetitive. Ten-part seasons also appeal to the viewer in the sense that people today have very busy/fast moving/occupied lives. While episodic shows appeal to viewers because they can pop in and out of episodes, anthology series allow viewers to do that with entire seasons. In this sense, we get the best of both worlds: a manageable amount of television to juggle with our busy lives and character growth and narrative complexity.
These examples expand further to other successful television programs that have adopted a similar method of short, episodic storytelling. Some are known throughout American culture and most than likely internationally as well. Some of these programs also include HBO’s The Night Of or more widely known FX’s American Horror Story; where each season is in itself an American horror story, from season one being a haunted house. Season two was set around and throughout an asylum, three being brought into the lives of a 21st century witches covenant, four following a traveling circus with some creepy characters, five in a haunted hotel, six followed a couple that had recently purchased a property on land originally belonging to the ancient Roanoke colony.
The attention span of the average American is shrinking, however the expectations of quality of entertainment have only increased. This form of episodic storytelling through short, individual seasons in shows is a recipe for success. Viewers can go to work, study for their tests, practice for their games, whatever life asks, people as 21st century Americans can do; and through these short ten-part seasons, we can watch a great, fully developed, detail rich story in a week or two versus what used to sometimes take months if not years of our lives.