Serial Fiction & Jeph Loeb
Serial fiction has become the norm for how we like our stories right now. We want ongoing narratives that expand on everything rather than resetting back to the status quo all the time. We want sprawling epics like Game of Thrones or Lost (well epic not the right word for Lost) that pick up right where the last episode left off. Even the smaller series, such as Castle, that don’t do continuous season long story arcs have continuity where characters grow and things that happened in previous episodes are remembered rather than treated like they never happened. It has been ingrained into our culture now that this is the way fiction is moving forward, even marvel are doing it with their films, a medium one would think would be the exception to this. Well except for the current management of their TV side of things, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
So how did this all start? Well back in the early days of TV things like reruns and entire channels devoted to repeating the three same shows didn’t exist. So every episode could be someone’s first and there was little chance of catching up with missed episodes. So the ‘done in one’ format was used. Where every episode created a problem and solved it by episodes end, nothing really continued on to the next episode. Status quo was god and unless there was a cast change, where a cast member was added or taken away you, could watch the episodes in any order. Things continued on that way till the advent of the VCR, but even then it took awhile for companies took advantage of releasing things on VHS tape. So things through the 60s 70s & 80s didn’t change that much in terms of serial storytelling, though it was getting better. The 90s was probably where things really started to change. The VCR had become cheap enough for most people to own and therefore companies capitalised on that. Cable TV also became big. Both of which lead to TV writers not having to worry so much about needing to keep to the status quo anymore and continuity was being employed.
Slowly we got more complex stories because things could actually be set up in an earlier episode and used later down the line. Which meant stories could expand beyond the confines of the 22, 30, or 40 minute episode lengths. It wasn’t perfect but things were growing in that direction, shows like Babylon 5 were allowed to happen where there was a 5 season long story arc planned out from the beginning. Soon even shows that didn’t story arcs planned out, like Stargate, could have episode to episode continuity while still using the standard ‘done in one’ episode format.
Then we got shows like 24, Alias, Lost, and the like, that did long form serialised storytelling that became so popular we’re more likely to see it than not right now. Even the cartoons now are more likely to use continuity and story arcs than they were 20 years ago. The serial structure has become so common that it is used in practically everything and more people expect it. Well almost, anyway.
Jeph Loeb, the current head of Marvel TV and the man responsible for the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon and decline of Avengers Earths Mightiest Heroes in its second season, has stated repeatedly that he doesn’t want the Marvel cartoons to have continuity or serialised storytelling. Why? Because it would “confuse the audience if they missed an episode” which is a backwards way of thinking about a TV show in 2012. With the current technology of DVR, iTunes, and general internet usage, it’s fairly impossible to miss an episode, or what happens in one since, at the very least, a kid can go on their phone and read a recap of exactly what happened in the episodes they missed. At the most they can watch whole episodes with little hassle at all. The worrying over complex storytelling getting lost due to missed episodes should’ve stopped when Lost became a hit.
But no, in a recent interview with the Wordballoon podcast Loeb had this to say, “research that was brought to us showed that people were more willing to commit to an animated series when it was not in a true serialised form.” I’d like to see that research because I can go back to the 90s and point to successful serialised shows, Gargoyles and Beast Wars, I can do it in the 2000s, TMNT and Avatar, and I can it with today’s shows, Young Justice and Legend of Korra. I can point to most modern cartoons and see some form of serialised storytelling, so this research doesn’t seem accurate to me.
But Loeb went on to explain that he wants more “done in ones, not To Be Continued” and also that “When your network is telling you that it’s not working as well as stories that are done in one then you have a responsibility…” Disney, the people Marvel are making cartoons for now, is making Tron Uprising which is entirely serialised. Tron airs on the same network as the Marvel cartoons, Disney XD. If Disney didn’t think something was working, or that they wouldn’t make as much money off of it as they could, then they wouldn’t do it.
I can kind of see through the falsehoods and entire BS to get what Loeb is trying to say. It’s that he wants more stories that you don’t need to watch previous episodes to enjoy. Which is fine, but he doesn’t actually say that. He just talks about how he doesn’t want serialisation, while also saying things contrary to that. He says the end of season 1 of Ultimate Spider-Man changes Peter and Harry’s relationship forever. Which is something you would need to watch the previous episodes to understand what happened when season 2 comes out.
From what I have been told, since I didn’t watch more than the first few episodes, Ultimate Spider-Man does have an evolving storyline. There’s build up to and pay off with Doctor Octopus turning up in the background before he becomes a main villain that Spidey fights. The Venom symbiote shows up for multiple episodes before becoming Venom. Norman Osborn is also a background villain before turning into the Green Goblin in the season 1 final. And then there’s the fact that if you go from episode 1 and into almost any other episode skipping episode 2 you would be lost as to the team of heroes Spidey is supposed to be leading, since they’re introduced in episode 2. That’s not even everything I’d bet.
So the show is serialised, not a lot if you compare it to something like Lost or Dexter but it’s not devoid of serial elements, like ongoing continuity. Even when they’re supposedly trying not to be serialised there’s still things that seep in, because that’s the way fiction is going now. We can’t escape it despite the best efforts of some people.
And just to negate all of this, Loeb almost constantly spouts off blatant untruths in all of his statements. In fact that very interview I quoted also had him say the new Avengers cartoon, Avengers Assemble, was made to be more inline with the films unlike the previous show they had to cancel, Avengers Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. However he also said that they would “transition” between the two shows and implied they were in continuity with each other, in other places he or a Marvel rep has stated this as ‘fact’, which if it’s meant to be more inline with the Marvel films that would be impossible. So his statements are contradictory and most likely aren’t true anyway. He does seem to like saying anything and everything that might please the fans so they wouldn’t complain.
I made a big deal out of the serialisation and continuity statements because that is something he has continued to bang on about since he started talking about Marvel Animation. So despite it not being entirely true it is something he is saying a lot and probably is trying to be to the new Marvel shows. Which is something to be weary of for the new shows, like Hulk Agents of S.M.A.S.H, Avengers Assemble, and the S.H.I.E.L.D live action TV series.