Episodic Watching and the Difficulties of Writing Serialized Fiction

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.

anbime all watching tv

these things are important

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.

dropped pudding

you call that a hassle!?!

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.

sound euphonium

I always thought this scene was beautiful

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.

Zombieland Saga!

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.

zombieland

there is fantastic Zombieland fanart out there

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?

watching anime

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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10 Responses

  1. wingking78 says:

    I think for the vast majority of shows, weekly watching vs. chunk watching either doesn’t matter or comes down to personal preference. I can’t really think of a show where I watched it in weekly streaming, bought it later, and felt like bingeing it on DVD made it significantly better or worse than when I saw it the first time. Now there is one very personal thing for me, which is that when it comes to heavy slapstick or gag comedies, like a Pani Poni Dash or Ramen Fighter Miki or Ninja Nonsense, I pretty much have to watch those weekly if I’m going to watch them at all. I can only take that kind of humor in small doses anyway, so whenever I try to watch those kind of shows in bigger chunks, I always end up getting really bored really fast. I’ve probably started and dropped more gag comedies than any other type of anime. But I’m sure there are people who love that kind of stuff and could watch it all day.

    As far as shows that deliberately took advantage of the weekly schedule, I feel like Yuki Yuna of all things actually kinda did that. I think Yuki Yuna’s staff knew it was going to end up drawing Madoka comparisons, fairly or not, so watching it when it aired it felt like they took advantage of that to deliberately misdirect and keep us guessing sometimes. For instance, I remember in the week after episode 4 aired, basically everyone watching the show in real time (including me) thought Fu was going to die. Episode 4 had death flags all over the place, we knew they had a big fight coming in episode 5, and she was the obvious Mami analogue right down to wearing yellow. So the whole topic of discussion that week wasn’t “whether” she was going to die but “how” (and sometimes, “Will she become a vertex after she dies?”), and then episode 5 drops, and surprise! Everybody lives! In hindsight, that wasn’t the only time it seemed like they were trolling the Madoka fans, either. But if you’re just chunk-watching or binge-watching the series five years later, your experience probably going to be along the lines of, “Oh, episode 4 ended on a cliffhanger. Let’s just keep right on going to episode 5 and see what happens next,” without really stopping to speculate like we did back then.

    • Irina says:

      Interesting. I watched Yuki Yuna well after airing and didn’t notice but that sounds like a very smart use of scheduling

  2. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    Just as an observation, I think that for the slice-of-life fan, a show’s continuous quietude as it progresses is one of the genre’s unique charms. Personally, I know that I’ve seen a great slice-of-life series if, at its end, I remember it as seemingly just one big episode. Of course, that’s just me!

  3. Lumi says:

    This is one of the advantages of binging to me. Sure,I miss it out on the weekly discussion,but I don’t like guesswork anyway (unless I’ve reached series/season end) and so I get the time to really let things sink in.

    Hibike is a great example you brought up,I probably would have been bored watching that weekly,but as a whole,it was captivating and what I still hold as the most gorgeous thing KyoAni has put out.

    I watched that “friend confession” scene more times I care to admit.

    • Irina says:

      I actually didn’t mind staggering Hibike. I liked cutting into the melodramatics a bit with silly comedy series.

      • Lumi says:

        Guess that’s our difference. I tend to flush away the drama AFTER like a chaser. Unfortunately, as I sorely figured out with Punpun, which was VERY intense and dramatic, that after -chaser can last a long time. I read nothing but romcoms after reading Punpun for three months. Couldn’t handle drama,lol.

        • Irina says:

          I read punpun in one afternoon. For me it had enough dark humour in it to balance out the drama whithout anything else.

  4. Dawnstorm says:

    I’m watching lots of anime weekly, and every now and then I think an anime might better when binged, while other shows are better to consume one at a time (slice-of-life often fall into that category, especially when they’re overly sweet, or have other elements that tend to build up and give you an overdoese).

    For most of the shows, though, I find it doesn’t make much of a difference. Mystery shows that leave space for community online speculation are fun that way, but that’s not so much a writing issue as it is a community issue. (Though of course you still need to know where to end an episode for maximum speculation value.)

    Sometimes, I find single episodes end on a game changer, and if they do it’s often good to have a forced break to digest the change. A good example would be School Live episode 1.

    Tsurune was a show I’d put off until I have nothing else to watch; sometimes I’d end up watching two episodes in a row, because I ended up putting off watching episodes that long. So the break didn’t bother me much; I might not even have noticed if the show never came back.

    I believe Grancrest suffered less from serielisation, and more from bad balance: sometimes they’d spend a lot of time on some romance scenses, and then they’d just wind forward skipping or narrating plot. It’s not that I didn’t like the romance scenes; it’s that the balance was off. And they also never showed enough what sort of threat the “chaos infestation” was, so the motivation wasn’t easy to gauge, in many cases. What little we saw were standard fight scenes; but I don’t remember much village life, or mundane travel, since all the characters were basically nobility. I think Grancrest had too little time, and no good focus.

    It just occured to me that the topic of the post is basically “series composition”. Why didn’t I get that before I started wiriting the post? It’s so obvious in retrospect.

    • Irina says:

      Grancrest is a collection of wasted potential which is fascinating as a questioning of what went wrong but less so as an actual anime

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