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More series upending television's brand of storytelling

Controversial finales, the killing off of major characters — dramas like 'The Walking Dead' and 'The Killing' are turning to such atypical creative choices in a reboot of TV writing.

June 14, 2012|By Randee Dawn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Episodic television is following a form more closely associated with the novel than ever before.
Episodic television is following a form more closely associated with the… (Jonathan Bartlett / For…)

"Lost"co-creator Damon Lindelof loved the first season finale of AMC's"The Killing." But by calling the show's choice not to reveal Rosie Larsen's killer "a stroke of genius," he flies in the face of general opinion.

"If the show had told us who the killer was, we'd have been talking about it for a week," Lindelof says. "The fact that we're still talking about it — you have to admire it on a sheer Barnum form of showmanship."

Lindelof empathizes with "Killing" creator Veena Sud because he's been there with a show that colors outside the lines, facing a much larger broadcast television audience. But "Lost," "The Killing" and a host of other epic-style dramas are slowly becoming the norm in critically acclaimed series, representing a transformation in TV storytelling. Today, many of the top dramas aren't just serialized, but told with an arcing structure that resembles chapters of an ongoing novel. Their creators have a vision for where the "book" is going and how it will end — and that's making for some groundbreaking TV that's altered audience expectations of what they can get out of a simple series.

GRAPHIC: When TV characters die

"We've always talked about'Boardwalk Empire'as a giant epic novel broken down into chapters," says show runner Terence Winter, who also worked on "The Sopranos," arguably one of the first series to successfully translate a literary sensibility into TV series writing. ("The Wire"also enters high on that list.) "The series as a whole is a novel, and then you take year by year and each season as its own mini-novel."

Using a literary structure for telling one big story that gets chopped into individual seasons means audiences can once again be surprised by what TV has to offer — sudden midseason deaths of major characters, unreliable narrators, nonlinear storytelling and above all, avoidance of a pat, easy ending as a season or series wraps up. Sud's choice not to reveal Rosie's killer, like David Chase's cut-to-black "Sopranos" ending and "Walking Dead's" taking out two major characters in back-to-back episodes may infuriate some viewers, but they are rooted in creative choices that carry no whiff of marketing gimmickry or network interference. They are original.

Short seasons benefit such creators enormously; the 13-episode short-burst season is the much-longed-for grail for many a TV creator these days. Alex Gansa, executive producer on"Homeland,"says having a short first season was critical to building tension in his series: "When you're telling a spy story or thriller over the course of a [brief] season, you can get to a place that's so much more vibrating than you could in one episode."

Any grand vision for a series, however, has to be tempered by TV reality. "A novel is written in its entirety before it is published," says"Walking Dead"show runner Glen Mazzara. "You'd never make seven seasons of a TV show and then air them. TV is a living, breathing thing that has to find its way. You want to know where the show is going, but you have to rely on your heart and subconscious and collaborations with other talents to find your way."

Some series have been able to generate a novelistic feel even without short seasons. The recently ended"House"was clearly more than just a hybrid procedural about an iconoclastic doctor and his patients. "I never viewed this show as a three-act structure," says series creator David Shore. "It was all about exploring the life of Dr. House and the lives of the people around him — there wasn't a beginning, middle and an end. The series is not about the ending, the series is about the series."

GRAPHIC: When TV characters die

Of course, for many, the series finale is what can make or break the experience of a good novelistic show; giving show runners some lead time can assist in creating that "what it all means" finale that so many viewers crave. "If you have the end in sight, you can move in a very specific direction," says Scott Buck, "Dexter's" executive producer. "By our finale, we want to have been able to send out the message we're hoping to make."

But for shows that are ongoing, topping each chapter — or season — is the real challenge. Gansa says that eventually his series' "Manchurian Candidate"-esque starter plot will play out, leading the show to reboot itself. But he's fine with keeping the high-toned novel feel of the show going regardless. "We've all worked on other shows that were more modest in their ambitions, but even the simplest show is difficult to realize. We never say in the writers' room, 'This is just television.' We're aiming higher."

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