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Haters of the ever expanding stories on tv, beware! I found myself writing this essay after seeing so many complaints this tv season.



People say that less is more. I never remember where that idea comes from, but it’s a phrase used all the time to chastise someone wearing too much makeup, layering too many clothes, using too many accessories, or a film project where the actor layers on a thick accent, shows too much skin, gives an over the top performance, or a story where the author adds in extra backstory, or an essay where the writer gives way too many examples to make her point. It’s a phrase we use when we want to justify why we think something is too much, something goes too far. We use it as an excuse to dial things down a notch, or five. When did we become so jaded though that we decided less is more when it comes to telling a good story?

Critics and audience members have lamented the 2013-2014 television season as trite, steeped in stories we’ve already seen, endings we can all predict. Audiences say we don’t need any more spin-offs, reboots, or anything of the kind. And yet, we keep watching. And then we all complain some more about how nothing is new. No stories are fresh anymore.

Let’s be honest for a second here. Are any stories truly new? A love story is a love story is a love story. No matter how much relationship geometry a writer throws in there to distract you, there is still a central relationship the audience roots for. No matter how many obstacles are in a couple’s path, the truth of the matter is, Obstacle A will be overcome in a relatively obvious way, only to lead to Obstacle B, which will be a bit harder, but will still lead to another Obstacle that will help us reach that happy ending. It doesn’t matter what the obstacles are. It doesn’t matter how many there are. They are overcome. That’s the nature of a love story. Does that mean people will stop watching them or reading about them? No. Someone is always going to be sucked in to a tale of two people (no matter what race or gender or age they are) who are perfect for one another, but have to realize it. The individual plot points change, but the story doesn’t.

This break down isn’t comprehensive, just what I remember off the top of my head, but take a look at this list of prequels, sequels, and remakes in the recent tv world:

Remakes this year: Ironside, Dracula, The Tomorrow People, Resurrection
Spinoffs: Agents of SHIELD, Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, The Originals, Ravenswood, Girl Meets World, Sam and Cat
Planned spinoffs on the way for: Breaking Bad, NCIS, Arrow, How I Met Your Mother
Adaptations of novels on TV: Legend of the Seeker, The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, The Lying Game, The 100, Under the Dome, Elementary, Sherlock, Beauty and the Beast, Sleepy Hollow, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Arrow
Previous prequels/spinoffs: The Carrie Diaries, Caprica, Angel, Dallas, the CSIs, the Law and Orders
Previously successful remakes: Battlestar Galactica (but not its prequel), Hawaii Five-0, The Office, 90210, Nikita, Teen Wolf

Clearly, some of those shows have been much more successful than others. Some of them have hit at just the right time with just the right audience, where everything just clicks into place. Television critics and studio executives probably think that there’s some sort of magic formula that will lead to a hugely successful show (how many of them have tried to replicate the success of LOST since it went off the air?), but the truth is, there isn’t one. If there was a “magic formula” all shows would be exactly the same and universally adored by everyone tuning in. Stories don’t work that way.

Here’s my theory. It’s the reason stories work. It’s the TV works. It’s the reason we want more.

Good characters make good stories. Do I need to repeat that? Good characters make good stories.

The writing for a show can be all over the place as the writing staff finds its groove. A plot device can seem familiar and trite. If we love the characters at the center of it though, we forgive all of that. That seems to be true with sequels/prequels/spin-offs/remakes as well. Let’s take two of my current television obsessions for examples, shall we? Agents of SHIELD and Once Upon A Time in Wonderland. Yes, I realize these are both ABC/Disney properties, but that happens to be a coincidence this time around.
With SHIELD, expectations were huge when the spin-off was announced. Whedons were at the helm, which meant instant cult status. Marvel was behind it, which meant instant nerd-cred. When its first few episodes aired though, it received some pretty harsh criticism. Chief amongst them were, ugh, this is so monster of the week and I want my superheroes, damn it! Apparently, a lot of people forgot that the tagline for this Marvel cinematic spin-off was “Not all heroes are super.” SHIELD shows us what it’s like when you haven’t been overloaded with gamma radiation or super soldier serum, but are still expected to go out and be the front line in protecting the world from all of the bad guys. It’s a crime show. It’s a spy show. It’s a comic book lovers dream (or maybe nightmare). It’s a character drama. Yes, at its heart, it isn’t about all of the other stuff going on. It’s got a slowly building mythology, and it’s found its groove in expanding the Marvel universe after a rough start, but at its heart, SHIELD is a show about people who want to do the right thing. As much as I have witnessed complaints from people about the nature of the show, the writing, and everything else that goes along with that, you know what I haven’t seen? I hate all of those characters. They suck. A few complaints from vocal fans about one character in particular have mostly abated at this point in the show. What’s drawing people in is the journey of Coulson, the mystery of May and Ward, the camaraderie of FitzSimmons. We want to know more about these people, how they became who they are, how they fit in a world of the super powered and the gifted, how their lives connect to the larger universe. That’s why we want that spin-off. That’s why we keep watching.

Wonderland is a bit different. It isn’t a direct spin-off from its mothership series Once Upon A Time what with the non-linear story telling present on both shows, but it does feature some cross over characters. It doesn’t so much expand the universe as it does transport you to a whole new one. But it’s still in the spirit of the other show – beloved storybook characters shown in a whole new light, going on adventures, and changing their world. Does the show have the greatest special effects? Nope. Does it have some over the top dialogue? Of course. There’s a campiness to it that works because of the nature of the storytelling involved. Fairytales have never been subtle. It is the characters on this show that are wonderfully done though. No one on the show is wholly evil or wholly good; they all exist in these shades of grey where they are willing to do whatever it takes to get back the person they love or save the world, whichever the case may be. It makes the stakes somehow higher for the show, even though so much of it is in the same vein of its predecessor. There is so much storytelling potential for these characters once their turn in this series is over, especially with them all coming from different origin points (Jafar - Aladdin, Anastasia - Cinderella, Will - Robin Hood, Alice - Alice in Wonderland, who knows which story Cyrus comes from?).

My point here is that a good story doesn’t have to try to one up itself every single week. A good sequel doesn’t have to try to top the original. Good stories give us characters we want to keep following around. Isn’t this flood of prequels, sequels, spin-offs, and remakes just doing what members of online fandoms have been doing for the last few years anyway? Delving more into character backstories, giving us the secrets about what was going on with one character while they were away from the core group, letting us in on what happens next, and next, and next? The serialized nature of television provides us with a great opportunity to explore these characters and get more in depth storytelling. I love it.