As I often do when I’m feeling under the weather, I’ve spent more time lately watching old TV series. It helps to distract me from feeling bad. This time, I started re-watching The Pretender. The show is fairly formulaic, like most shows, but it’s also a good study into how to make a series work and some of the structural tools needed to keep things interesting.
The basic episode structure of The Pretender goes like this: Jarod the Pretender finds someone who’s been wrongfully accused or hurt. With his super-genius abilities, he pretends to be a certain profession (doctor, police officer, plastic surgeon, skydiving instructor, etc.) to find out who’s really responsible. Then he simulates the events that led to the victim’s hurt with the perpetrator to force a confession, which he records and turns over to the police. After righting the wrong, he disappears to do it all again somewhere else. Oh yeah, and meanwhile, The Center, the organization that captured Jarod as a child to use his super-genius for evil, spends the episode trying to catch him.
Truthfully, the formula could get old fast. But the writers of The Pretender are smart enough to head this off. They include the following to keep viewer attention:
Jarod’s personal goal/motivation: No matter what else is happening in an episode, outside the formula, Jarod seeks one thing and one thing only: his family. He neither remembers them nor even knows if his real name is Jarod. More than righting the wrongs he helped make by allowing The Center to use his genius for evil, more than escape, Jarod wants to know who his mom and dad were, if they’re still alive, and to be able to connect with them and love them like a normal human being. Thus, you have immediate emotional appeal that can carry through multiple episodes and seasons.
Dribbling Out Information: Every few episodes, a new piece of the puzzle to Jarod’s past is revealed. New information about the other main characters comes out and about what The Center is up to. This helps maintain view interest as well and slowly raises the stakes of the show.
Shifting Loyalties: Aside from Jarod, the other characters have shifting loyalties and gray motivations. For example, Sydney, the psychiatrist who raised Jarod, clearly loves Jarod like a son, but he will do things to help The Center try and capture Jarod. During any given episode, you’re never quite sure which side Sydney will side with more.
Breaking the Formula: After several formulaic episodes, especially in the second season, the show starts to play with the formula. An episode might begin where a normal episode would end, but there’s a complication and things don’t go smoothly like normal. Another episode might break the formula entirely and deal with other aspects of the show’s overarching plot. Sprinkling in these episodes helps prevent monotony.
In general, what shows like The Pretender must do to be successful is treat the whole series as a single story that must change and grow over time. Additionally, each episode includes its own full structure and story that contributes to the larger story. This approach also works well for book series.
So when you don’t have the time to read thousands of pages to study good series structure, pick a TV series that accomplishes the same thing. They must follow the same rules.
Have a great weekend, everyone!