I own the first season of Dawson’s Creek. Laugh if you want, but I think it’s an excellent example of compressed storytelling (and Joey is HOT!). The creators had no idea if the show would go past the initial run of 13 episodes, so they made sure they wrapped everything up in a nice bow at the end of the last first season episode. It holds up nicely as something I call a Limited Run Series for television. I can ignore the rest of the seasons if I want. And I do, even though Joey is HOT.
I was thinking how downhill Lost has become and one of the major culprits is the extension of the mystery of the island. The extension of the mystery problem can be applied to Alias, The X-Files and Twin Peaks to name a few hits from the past that featured a central mystery.
I didn’t watch Lost for the entire first season. I didn’t get it. Afterwards, I looked up the show and downloaded the entire season, borrowed the DVDs from my library and got myself up to speed. However, many people just don’t have the inclination or the time to play catch-up. In fact, I remember about four episodes into the second season of 24 when someone told me that they started watching the show, missed the third episode and decided to screw it and wait for the DVDs.
What does that mean? Well, new viewers won’t watch a show of that stripe starting with Season 2 unless they play catch-up with Season 1 and that’s no guarantee. They also will stop watching a show if they miss a few in a row and will wait for the DVD season set. So how is this phenomenon fixed? The Limited Run series. Having a limited-run show eliminates the need to extend a mystery and pushes the creators to write with an end in mind instead of open-ended.
The initial complaint will be that only having 13, 24 or even 48 episodes doesn’t syndicate well. I think they are wrong. The original Star Trek had just under 80 episodes in three seasons and it can arguably be considered the greatest syndicated show of all time. At least it’s the most influential.
It also makes people incredibly happy to have a complete set, so to speak, of a television show they invested their time and effort in. I was quite happy to buy all five seasons of Babylon 5 on DVD. They look fabulous on my shelf and I can watch an episode whenever I want.
The Limited Run Series format allows the show to have a beginning, middle and end which can now be packaged nicely for the DVD market. Obviously, this only works for arc-driven television shows like Lost and The Nine and Heroes. Sitcoms don’t feed the need to have watched 50 other episodes to know what’s going on and hour long dramas like CSI don’t have a lot of backstory that can’t be easily picked up from watching any episode.
The other cool part is that it forces networks to plan seasons and keep shows fresh. If one of the shows becomes a hit as a Limited Run Series, you might get a few viewers to check out the next offering from the same creative team. It could even be a spin-off from the original Limited Run Series continuing the story, but featuring a different protagonist or even retelling the same story, but from a different perspective.
So, I propose the Limited Run Series. Start it off with a well-known franchise… say Star Trek. It should get people interested because teasing viewers after two or three years for a big payoff answer to the big, fat mystery and then pulling the rug out from under them will only prolong the agony. And start the “abandon ship” cry among viewers. See Lost.