Arcs sont Triomphe
"All art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame."
— G.K. Chesterton
If you're the type of person who reads the type of thing I'm writing right now (and it would appear that you are), then you've probably heard many people observe that modern films and TV shows are "grittier" and more "realistic" than their predecessors. This is true, but myopic. It is a secondary consequence of some other change, but not the change itself. It's like blaming rising health care costs on chronic diseases, without noting that we spend more dealing with them because we have longer lifespans. But whereas that secondary cause is the result of us living longer lives, the secondary cause of our characters' grittiness comes from the fact that they're living shorter ones. The cause of the change is change.
There's no way to engage modern audiences unless the protagonist undergoes real change. And real change means irrevocable events that the writers can't take back. And events the writers can't take back means angst and soul-searching and clearly defined character arcs. And arcs mean ends. Which means fictional lives are made more emotionally significant in the same way actual lives are: by ending.
The Arc Nemesis
The shift is made most obvious by comparing older protagonists with newer ones; the distinction is clear and jarring. You can watch the first 20 James Bond films in any order, and the guy at the end of each movie is pretty much the same guy from the beginning. The Lone Ranger just kept on ranging. But no more. Bond has been rebooted and semi-serialized, with real romantic attachment and loss that informs the next story. The rebooted Batman looks to wrap things up after three installments. The Bourne films are continuing, but as a spin-off; the titular character is hanging up his rolled-up-magazine-in-a-toaster (sorry, that's the closest thing I can find to a signature weapon outside of "punching"). And Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy has been promptly followed by another take on the same tale. Three films seems to be the standard, mirroring the three act structure.
This shift in taste goes a long way towards explaining the rise of comic book movies. The conventional wisdom is that, around the time X-Men started raking in the cash, comic book adaptations were beginning to take over Hollywood. But Hollywood hasn't just made cash cows out of the characters: they've adopted the narrative structure of their stories, too. In comics, there is no one completely overarching Batman or Superman storyline. There are original stories, sub-stories, and alternate universes. There are serials that build on previous stories and "one-shots" that take place entirely outside of the character's continuity and exist simply to explore their world, unburdened by long-term considerations. When a story runs its course it can simply end, and another can be told which does not necessarily swear any fealty to the canon, even though many make an attempt to reconcile any contradictions. This adoption of form is reason enough to wonder whether comic book movies are leading to more clearly defined character arcs, or if the increased demand for character arcs just happens to be a natural fit for comic book movies. Either way, we're getting more.
The implications of this shift are only now becoming particularly noticeable, because we're only now wrapping up the first play-through of most of these properties. But as more of these stories end the inevitability of the change will become increasingly conspicuous. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy was enormously financially successful, and the first two films therein were both critically admired. But the series is being rebooted a scant decade after it was launched, even though Raimi's version was a clear success in almost every way and wouldn't seem to cry out for an immediate do-over. Nolan's Batman trilogy ends this year, and while no announcement as to its future has been made, you're crazy if you think Warner Bros. isn't going to find a way to keep playing with the $2 billion in house money it'll have handed them by then.
This is all fairly intuitive; when something works, you keep doing it. But it seems to make no difference whether the last attempt was a huge success or a disappointing failure. Both rationalize the choice to do it again: the success because it demonstrates interest in the character, and failure because it wasn't done right the first time. Take Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk, released five years after Ang Lee's more ponderous interpretation of the decidedly un-jolly green giant. Leterrier's redo ignored the previous film and rebooted the character as soon as is technically possible: after a single film.
If a storyline is done or isn't working, just scrap it and start over. What option is there when audiences find genuine consequences and character development necessary, yet still want to see more? Either the story becomes retconned and glued together until the plot becomes a duct-taped nightmare (I'm looking in Saw's general direction), or it simply starts over when needed.
The Repetition Will Be Televised
This extends to TV, as well, though that medium has its own timeline. LOST called it quits after six seasons. So did The Sopranos. The creators of both The Wire and Breaking Bad drew the line at five. Ditto for Big Love: five seasons spanning 53 episodes. Six Feet Under: five seasons, 63 episodes. A startling number of the shows typically counted among the best series' of the last decade have ended their run after either five or six seasons. Somewhere around season three, great television narratives have to start getting to where they're going. At some point they have to make it clear that they're running a marathon with a beginning, middle, and end, and not just doing laps. The trend towards more cinematic television is superficially obvious in terms of increased production values and high-profile casting, but it's also evident in their contracted lengths. Whether this is the product of television's more cinematic feel, or one of its catalysts, is impossible to say. But whether the shorter series runs are the cart or the horse, you've got yourself a carriage, and that carriage needs a destination. Mr. Ed is a notable exception.
There are financial complications to this new trend: shows with shorter shelf-lives have less financial upside. If the best-case scenario is an eight-year run, as opposed to a multi-decade one, then the risk-reward calculus changes and less can be prudently invested in each new pilot or nascent series. "I complain a lot about shows, stories and characters that have run their course, but that keep going and going because that's the way the American TV business model works," says HitFix TV critic Alan Sepinwall. "You can't make money on anything short-term, so you have to extend things as long as possible to turn a good profit. The problem is, not every idea is well-suited to that."
This is hardly the first time television has had to augment its stories to work around changes on the business side of things. Dr. Who inadvertently solved this problem with its regenerating protagonist, though it was trying to grapple with the completely different challenge of casting turnover, and its sci-fi conceit isn't really available to most other shows. The most recent attempt at reconciling change with cha-ching is taking place right now, with FX's American Horror Story. Critics and viewers speculated that its plot developments were too wild and irreversible for the show to have any longevity, even under the New Normal of what now constitutes a long-running production. And they were right: co-creator Ryan Murphy said that the show's second season will "reboot" the plot with the same cast in a new setting. This makes it a lot more like another sci-fi throwback, The Twilight Zone: a series of stories connected through their tone, as opposed to their characters or plot. Whether or not this tactic works creatively or commercially, it represents an interesting new approach to the problem.
Whatever the creative merits, Sepinwall is circumspect about the concept's practical potential: "Ideas on a Murphy show are a particular struggle, since he tends to lose interest in his own creations very quickly and tries to move onto the next thing ... I'll be curious to see what tune-in is like for season two, because if this does work commercially, it might give other showrunners license to try something similar, rather than treading water for season after season because they're afraid of messing with the back-end money."
When it comes to treading narrative water, few can match the creative inertia of The Lone Ranger, which produced shows at roughly the same rate as a softball team's worth of Wayne Newton clones. The show ran for 221 episodes over a mere five seasons. Three of the show's five seasons saw 52 episodes (yes, that's the same as the number of weeks in a year) and its first 78 were produced and aired at the rate of one a week, without exception, for over 18 months. And I feel no obligation to watch any of them to proclaim that there was probably a little air in the bag, and that each great episode was flanked by half a dozen rote ones. Three acts may equal one arc, but a hundred acts equal none. To multiply is to subtract. Ask any engineer; arcs are stronger because they're compressed.
"I don't think there's much argument among television critics that serialized shows are the only ones — and here I mean dramas — that can ever be considered truly great," says The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman. "Unlike movies, television series are sort of a living, breathing entity that keeps alive, telling stories, expanding characters, hopefully getting richer and more novelistic as they grow. Closed-ended procedurals, like Law & Order, can only be mere entertainment because they recycle situations endlessly."
In Which This Gets All Sociological
The idea that culture has accelerated—that we consume, process, and render a verdict on cultural events more quickly than ever before—has gone from revolutionary insight to conventional wisdom to banal platitude (all in a short period of time, appropriately). But it applies to more than inherently transient things like fashion, gossip, or 24-hour cable news. Even the good, long-lasting stuff is digested faster. This is significant in and of itself, but it's compounded by the fact that the current generation of entertainment was made knowing that it will be consumed in this new way, making for a self-reinforcing cultural dysentery. And the best shows are often specifically constructed to take advantage; the denser a story is, the more it benefits from being absorbed quickly, so the viewer can get their head around the entire thing at once. If you've ever mainlined a season of The Wire over a weekend, you know what I'm talking about.
This, however, details effects and implications, but it doesn't tell us why preferences are shifting. There are several possible reasons:
An accelerated culture is, by its very nature, an impatient culture; we want significant things to happen.
Supply and demand: As our entertainment options increase, there is less benefit to extending the life of each one. We have so many choices that we can "afford" to speed up our entertainment turnover without running out of high-quality options.
Relatability: The more dynamic our world becomes (or is perceived to be), the more we find we can only connect with characters in the same sort of environment. There is, of course, still a market for procedurals, as there will always be a market for any kind of escapist entertainment that counterprograms reality. But most serious entertainment consumers crave gritty verisimilitude over pleasant escapism. If ignorance is bliss, most of us are masochists.
Cultural emphasis: Every time period chooses which virtues and failings to emphasize, and the one we're in now tends to overemphasize awareness and disproportionately denigrate naïveté. Our desire for dynamic stories and characters is indirectly fed by a growing desire to see through the artifice of media. Emphasis on realism is not just a preference, but a shield; people may or may not prefer the same media, but the grittier stuff is far less likely to be actively derided.
The more we exalt savviness, the more important it becomes that stories seem less fantastic, or at least less overtly so. If our characters don't suffer and scar and brood, they're not worth our time. Pure heroes are for kids; which means the culture that adores the idea of youth paradoxically hates the idea of innocence.
Whatever the specific causal makeup, this trend probably isn't sustainable. It's doubtful that the same characters can be rebooted ad infinitum without the emotional stakes taking a sizable hit; the second iteration probably won't feel as forceful as the first, to say nothing of the tenth. When it comes to creating a sense of urgency (increasingly necessary, as home theater encroaches), reincarnation isn't necessarily much better than retconning.
But the desire will always incline towards extending an existing property rather than going through the hard slog of creating a new one. And though this change is better than the procedural merry-go-ground and its world reset button, it's ultimately not one of structure, but of speed. Things are still starting over and treading over the same ground, they're just resetting at different intervals. But arcs mean ends. If you draw an arc and just keep going, you end up going in circles.