Man, that is an unusually fancy title for me! I feel a little intimidated by my own post now…
As some of you may know, last season I was watching Tsurune and the show took a week off around the end of the season as it had started late. The 2-week break between episodes changed the dynamic of how I as a viewer interacted with the show. Tsurune is a slow but steadily paced narrative with a calm storyline devoid of too much artifice. My viewing of it has become somewhat ritualistic and the break really upset that. I got out of the flow and coming back into the groove of the story was a bit more awkward than expected. Although I don’t think the series would benefit from a binge watch, it does really benefit from a steady viewing.
I saw something similar happen when I was watching Steins;Gate 0 on a weekly basis. Although there, the breaks seemed to be fantastically timed with the narrative arcs which in fact enhanced my experience.
This has led me to reflect on the peculiar nature of creating serialized fiction.
Just so that we’re all on the same page, when I talk about serialized, I don’t mean episodic. I really mean a story that is delivered to the audience in consecutive pieces rather than as a whole. Because you expect the audience to take breaks between viewings, you need to construct your narrative accordingly and this can be a challenge. If you want to return to a plot point that was established much earlier on, you either have to trust your audience to remember something they heard a month or two ago or find a graceful way the recap information that’s already been established.
Arguably, manga which come out in monthly publication face the same challenges but the more static nature of print medium (digital print is still print) means that you can simply add a footnote directing your readers to refer back to chapter 2. This is simply not workable in an anime, even if the entire series is readily available on a streaming device. Can you imagine pausing an episode in the middle to go rewatch an earlier one? OK, so that doesn’t sound that unreasonable, but it still seems like much more of a hassle and it becomes unworkable if you happen to be watching a show on a network.
I’ve only just begun to notice these little delicacies of series production. I believe this was in fact one of the biggest issues with Grancrest. The story was just never properly broken up into weekly episodes that flowed well and made sense. This is why the recap episode was one of the best of the series.
Because I prefer waiting for a season to be over and watching anime at my own pace, I had managed to largely ignore this issue. Don’t get me wrong, you can still see the impact of it even when you binge watch, but at least you don’t have to deal with imposed uneven watch schedules.
Now that I am watching more shows as they air, it’s become quite glaring. It’s also led me to really appreciate series that can utilize serialization to their advantage. There aren’t that many…
Slice of life shows usually fair reasonably well, but I find them much more forgettable if I spend a week or two between each episode. Personally, I find it best when they are fairly even keeled where most episode deliver similar emotional impact and there aren’t too many ups and downs throughout a season. Otherwise, you tend to only remember to climatic episodes as the season wears on and the rest becomes a blur.
More continuous storylines though are rarely seamless or get confusing if you are also watching 12 other shows in parallel. Honestly, I don’t know how you seasonal reviewers manage to get all your emotional bearings straight and deliver reviews for such a wide variety of shows. You never cease to amaze me.
Like I said, I think the combination of cliffhangers and timed climaxes and arc progressions that match seasonal breaks in Steins;Gate 0 was a pretty impressive feat of organization but I know most people didn’t see the same things I did in that series that I did. I also know that I’m hardly an impartial observer in this case, so I’ll pick another example.
This series can be considered mostly episodic with a thin connecting thread throughout. However, episodes were arranged in such a way as to create a gradual but constant emotional ramp up as the show progressed. Episode 1 was a shocker and a nice high impact opening act. The series then seemed to take a big step back and settle into a comedic slice of life type narrative. Then slowly, it injected just a bit more drama, episode by episode allowing the viewers to get progressively more invested in the characters at a pace that matched the release schedule.
Each week was different enough that you easily remember what happened in each episode but similar enough that you still felt like you were watching the same show. Characters didn’t suddenly change but you got to know them in a way that you realized they were not who you thought they were.
In tone, mood and deliver, episode 2 and episode 11 were almost drastically different but the transition was smoothed over because we got a whole week to let events rest before we moved on to the next. The show also didn’t go back on its steps too much. We still had moments of levity, running gags and jokes but by the midway point, this was no longer a slapstick comedy and the narrative beats and storytelling rhythm was adjusted accordingly.
This type of transition is a great way to take full advantage of serialized storytelling. It allows for tonal shifts that might be a bit more jarring if you’re expect to take them on in a single sitting.
Again, I understand that my personal examples might not be your experience with these shows, but I think the ideal of weekly narrative construct still applies at large.
I’m going to keep an eye out and try to notice more when a series is working with its release schedule rather than in spite of it. This is a very unique skill of television writers and to me it seems like something that is very difficult to do and deserves more recognition. Tell me, have you noticed any shows that have managed to make weekly viewings an asset?