Screen Time: Balancing serial and procedural

Where HBO’s The Newsroom may run into problems this season

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Scripted television comes in two flavours: the serial variety and the procedural variety. Serial television shows follow storylines across an entire season. Procedural shows offer individual storylines within a single episode. A show’s identity and audience appeal is usually determined by which category it fits into.

Some successful serials do manage to balance season-long story arcs with individual episode arcs — shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad have often successfully toed the line between the two. The episodes need to work as stages of the longer serial story, individual storylines building on each other over time. But there still needs to be a pressing need for the characters to accomplish something specific during a single episode.

When the two are not balanced, the show becomes difficult to follow. Take the first season of HBO’s The Newsroom. Each episode of The Newsroom’s first season focused on a specific news story from 2010 or 2011 with the staff of the fictional ACN news channel managing to pull together a news broadcast, before competing news networks like Fox News or MSNBC could, with information the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, provided from two years of hindsight. The season-long story arcs, which include reinventing the network’s News Night broadcast and several different romantic conflicts, are all given equal importance with the major news events from each episode. The rapid change from one story to the next became rushed and hectic.

Attempting to appease his critics, Sorkin seems to have changed HBO’s The Newsroom away from the slightly procedural story structure in season one to a strictly serialized storyline in season two. And the show does not make the transition unscathed.

The second season of The Newsroom began on July 14 with three different storylines: Mitt Romney’s political campaign, the development of Occupy Wall Street and a legal battle that results from ACN’s News Night broadcasting false information about a black ops mission called Genoa. Rather than miraculously resolving each news broadcast within the episode it is introduced, as Sorkin did in season one, he has stepped back and begun showing the much slower development that news stories typically take. Stretching news events out over several episodes, the show changes from what was originally more procedural to what is now a serial storyline.
The appeal of procedural shows is that the episodes can often be watched in any order at any time and each episode, with its own storyline, will be interesting to watch. There is an almost infinite amount of variability and seasons can easily stretch out to almost two dozen episodes.

In comparison, the season-long story of serials requires viewers to return religiously week after week. Serials provide a greater motivation to continue watching the show — the storylines continue for several episodes without providing any resolution for the audience.

So a serial has to work much harder at providing a gripping storyline, which is where season two of The Newsroom looks like it will run into problems. By toning down the show and focusing on the slower development of news stories the show loses the fast-paced appeal of the first season. Broadcast journalism is not a profession that provides a sense of dire consequences on screen. None of the plotlines in season two’s first episode are especially gripping, with the only exception being Maggie Jordan’s change from long blond hair to bright spikey red hair and the brief mention that something traumatic happened to her during her time reporting in Africa.
The first season conveyed a certain amount of tension while watching ACN staff work on deadline. But season two appears to have no deadline.

Sorkin may have solved many of the grievances from the first season but he may have deprived the show of what brought audiences back episode after episode last year.

Screen Time is a bi-monthly column looking at television and movies.