Binge-Streaming and the Mini-Series

With the rise and continued growth of services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon’s Prime Video, the way in which many people consume stories has changed. Before these streaming services, film stories were presented for consumption in basically two ways: serially over television, or in a one- to three-hour block, as a movie. There were some exceptions–these are by no means absolute–but to paint with a broad brush, those forms were universal.

It’s occurred to me lately that the form and shape of visual storytelling is changing with the continued popular and financial growth of streaming services. I’ll be using this space today to verbally explore my own thoughts (in no small part because it’s been some months since I last posted), and perhaps come to a conclusion or two.

Now, what triggered my mind were two excellent mini-series: Catch-22, published on Hulu, and Good Omens, published on Prime Video. Each is based on a well-known novel, one of which I’ve read (Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett; Gaiman wrote the screenplay as well). Each series contains six episodes, about an hour apiece. The episodes were not published serially, but on a single date. Both series have been filmed with good production–acting, music, cinematography, and so forth. And in both cases, I found myself watching the series in about two segments.

Conceptually, I like the mini-series. The great challenge behind serial storytelling is to continue the plot without it feeling meaningless. Plot drift is visible quite broadly in all sorts of media, in order to keep the story–and, cynically, the money–going. I think this is well highlighted by the television sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which takes nine seasons to achieve its rather unambitious premise. In contrast, the mini-series tends to, like a film, have a definite beginning, middle, and ending. While a television series can be constructed to provide a definite story, like Game of Thrones, I believe this is the exception, not the norm. The norm of the weekly serial is to continue until the dead horse is a bloody smear and it’s time to wash up and go home.

In contrast, a mini-series has by its nature a definite scope. Yet this same definiteness has precluded it from broad success. In televised format the mini-series certainly exists, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to claim that it thrived. At its best, the mini-series isn’t really a “series.” It’s a super-movie.

This distinction is well-highlighted by Catch-22 and Good Omens as well as some “in-between” productions like Netflix’s Umbrella Academy and Russian Doll. These in-betweens, while distinct from a mini-series due to their endings (and the fact that both have been confirmed for a sequel season) nonetheless have a unity of plot which serialized storytelling typically lacks. They are all created from distinct segments which are designed for viewing in large blocks.

Good Omens tells one story over six hours: how the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are attempting to avert Armageddon. Likewise, Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian trying to escape the Air Force, and losing his mind in the process. (This ending is admittedly less definite, but does feel like an intentional conclusion nonetheless.) Russian Doll tells the story of Nadia and Alan trying to escape from a loop in time.

In each case the plot takes steps during each episode, and very rarely does any space feel wasted. This seems to be a natural consequence of the relatively new format in which each show has been published. The storytellers devising these shows for streaming services know that their audience will sit down and watch a newly-released “season” in one or two days, and they structure the series accordingly. In the past, a high quality, popular, and successful mini-series, like Dinotopia (2002), was rare. We’ve had two good series published in the last month.

Now, the optimist in me believes this indicates that the binge-watching creates an audience who want a show of more substance than the weekly serial provides. After all, most of the seasons created and released on one date by the myriad streaming services appear to be more tightly-knit than a weekly sitcom or crime drama. The extant series seem to indicate going the route of “super-movie” is both more critically and popularly successful.

But I don’t think that’s accurate, if I’m being honest. I’ve heard too often of someone re-watching The Office for the third time, and truth be told I’ve re-binged my own share of serial television. There’s no magic wand to wave and say “Serial TV begone! Let Complete Story rule amongst us!” This is neither a good nor a bad thing; it just is. Yet I think it’s still accurate to say that streaming encourages the development of the mini-series as a valid format. Only time can tell if it will provide the financial incentives to its creators to self-perpetuate.

It’s hard for me to evaluate. To me it’s unquestionable that Good Omens, for example, is an aesthetic success and among the best adaptations of a novel to the screen I’ve viewed. Between acting highlighted by Michael Sheen’s delightfully prim performance as Aziraphale and Jon Hamm’s Gabriel, clever writing, and a perfect soundtrack starring Queen at all the right moments, I can’t help but feel that Good Omens is a masterpiece of cinema. It ought to be considered an example of the best which can come about from streamed storytelling. Yet I haven’t the faintest clue if the financial effort which went into its production equals its output financially for Amazon, in large part because I have no clue how Amazon’s finances work. The challenge is that all the financial mumbo-jumbo laying behind the art is what necessarily leads to its continuation.

Serial television has always had a financial upside, and I doubt that will go away entirely within a binge-watching format. Humans consume stories too avidly. The sitcom format is so successful because it doesn’t typically require a great variety of sets, costumes, actors/actresses, and so on. It’s relatively cheap to produce, and when well-written pays good dividends; this is true of other traditional forms of serial storytelling. Something like Good Omens is substantially more complicated, and I haven’t a clue how any company–much less one as complex as Amazon–could present an argument that it is financially worth it. I’d like to think that such a corporation would be willing to provide quality storytelling, in a sense, as a public good or service, but I doubt that would really be the case. And I find it difficult to imagine that they recover the entirety of Prime Video’s production costs through drawing subscription fees due to the enormous number of other services which those fees go toward.

If I have to predict, though, I’d say we’re going to see a bubble. Each streaming service already is trying to create its own content in order to draw viewers, in addition to what they offer from other sources–other films, TV shows etc. At some point, I suspect the complex of providing quantity and quality is going to force one of those to diminish. The mini-series historically struggled as a medium in essence because it wasn’t easily reproducible. I think this problem remains. For the time being, I’m content to enjoy and contemplate what we do receive, and hope that the stories remain well-told for as long as possible. I suspect the re-emergence of cheaply serialized content is inevitable–if it ever goes away.

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