Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why I ... Prefer plot-based to standalone

The next few non-comic review blogs on this page are going to spark some HUGE debates, I would expect.

Following the success of the Batman-a-thon, I intend to do a trilogy comparison, comparing Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy to the three Batman films Tim Burton was involved with. That alone would spark debate, but the fact I plan to give the originals any credit may break the Internet.

(Note: Burton HAD to have been either a director or producer, so Batman and Robin will not be included. Only Batman, Returns and Forever.)

Additionally, I will be doing a second Batman-a-thon for animated Bat-films, in honor of the upcoming release of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns Part 1.

Lastly, I will count down my 10 favorite animated series of all time. These always draw interest online, and I plan to give a lot of credit to shows that may not get as much credit as they should.

One thing that I have noticed while going through cartoons for this list is that it's more of a list of shows that either started after I was born or were active when I was born. Despite the fact that I do love shows like Scooby Doo, Looney Tunes and The Flintstones, they never really came into my consideration.

Part of that may be the culture. The cartoons that came around in the 1980s and 90s were marketed to children of the era, and so I related to them. But I believe something else is at play here.

I've talked with many of my friends about the differences between shows that are plot- and continuity-based vs. shows that base themselves in standalone episodes. It is no question that I consider story and plot to be tremendously important, and as such, I'm more drawn to shows that follow that model.

That's not to say that standalone shows can't be good – heck, can't be great. I get plenty of enjoyment out of shows like Animaniacs, Family Guy, The Simpsons and South Park. Very few of those episodes have long-lasting effects on the show as a whole but still are loved.

Plus, shows do both. There were loads of filler episodes in Dragon Ball Z (Saiyans on Arlia) and there have been Family Guy episodes that set a new status quo in the universe (James Woods and Diane Simmons being killed off). Heck, those shows can even be really good.

However, there are distinct advantages to universe-building and going into a season (or entire series) with a game plan as to where you're headed. So here's a brief list of reasons I consider plot shows to be in a better position to be legen- *wait for it* - dary.

1. Characters progress naturally

One of my biggest complaints with shows that don't have a plan is that, sooner or later, characters become known for certain qualities, and those qualities are pushed to the nth degree until the character is basically a parody of itself.

Need some examples? How about Peter Griffin? Peter was initially an idiot, but he at least was self-aware and was able to see when he messed up. Now, they've actually made him so dumb and oblivious that they had to declare him dumb to the point of mental retardation in order to make it plausible.

Plausible. In a show with talking dogs and babies.

Now, it may be that it also might garner Peter some sympathy. But don't you think there is something wrong when your character has become so annoyingly out-of-touch with logic that you have to make excuses for him?

Another is the Spongebob-Squidward dynamic. Initially, Spongebob was an idealist with a childlike personality who wanted Squidward's friendship. Squidward was a dry character who refused anything that didn't fit a very myopic worldview, and so it's easy to root for Spongebob to bring Squidward out of his shell and to a less abrasive level.

Since the show's theatrical release, however, Spongebob's naivete has been replaced with stupidity. And what had been following Squidward like a brother, is now stalker-like horror.

Meanwhile, Squidward has become an epitome of high-life desires. He wants to be successful, but the town shuns anything resembling high art, and Squidward is in a state where he is only allowed to be happy if he gives in to Spongebob's increasingly ridiculous demands for friendship.

What had been initially charming characters for a show are now annoyances who need a total overhaul.

With a show like "Avatar: The Last Airbender," the maturing of the characters is done in a reasonable time frame. Their growth is based on events happening to them, and although characters like Zuko have changes in character, they are still within the initial frame of who the character is.

Bottom line: Plots allow characters to come full-circle. Standalones keep a status quo until ideas run dry and a new status quo is needed, which brings me to part two.

2. There is little-to-no carryover from one story to the next.

This one's kind of a given, but it underlies the real problem:

2a. There is no urgency to see a story, and no story rises to a memorable level on its own power.

When Dragon Ball Z was on, every episode was a must-see for fans. Either major plot points were going to be hit, or a filler episode was going to give more insight into a character.

With a show like the Fairly Oddparents, there's nothing really that needs to be seen to understand the show. Even Timmy's parents' first meeting has been altered, so no episode (with the exception of the one where Poof is born) makes any real change to the basis of the show.

And because there is not a base where viewers all HAD to watch a storyline conclude, nothing is ever added to the character's mythos.

Spongebob Squarepants advertises new episodes all the time, and they even occasionally tease something mind-blowing will happen. But it doesn't, and most fans forget the episode.

To explain the importance of mythos, here's a perfect example: You could ask 100 people what the best Spongebob episode is and have no episode get more than about 3 votes. By contrast, you could ask Avatar fans which episode is the best and most likely have no more than 3 different answers.

The reason is that plot-based shows build to a conclusion, so if the show is good, then every fan will gravitate to the conclusion of that plot point. Standalone-based shows are there to entertain at a viewer's leisure, so there's no point where the whole fan base needs to see something. And that can lead to the third point:

3. Plot-based shows engage fan bases more

Let me clarify by saying this: Standalone shows have BIGGER fan bases. They draw in viewers who are just passing through channels because there is no story needed to understand what is happening. In that sense, standalones are more fan-accessible.

HOWEVER, that does not mean that the fans have anywhere near the same investment in the characters or story.

Spongebob viewers don't really think about the show when it's not on (which is almost never because Nickelodeon is like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld: sponge-crazy) because there's no depth to the story.

By contrast, there are debates all the time with plot-based shows. Was the Terra in the last "Teen Titans" episode the real Terra? Was Mystic Gohan the most powerful canon unfused DBZ fighter? If bending is spiritual, how can it run through a bloodline? (By contrast, if it was genetic, then why is Katara the only waterbender in three generations of family?)

There are so many discussions on what changes are made to the universe with each passing episode that whole podcasts and blogs are devoted to the task of making sense of it all.

And the relationships. Oh, the relationships.

These things are big to the point that according to my go-to Avatar/Korra podcast, From the Spirit World on the Dongbu Feng site, that message boards from the original show are filled with zealots who will treat you like a bat at an Ozzy Osbourne concert if your relationship of choice conflicts with theirs.

Now, is the world a better place when people exist who treat TophXSokka in such high regard that liking Suki as a character (to them) equates to slapping their mom in the face with you privates? I don't know, but it's certainly funnier.

Moreover, it gives the program a place in the world beyond its airtime, which will add to its legendary status in the long run.

Ultimately, I don't want anyone to think that I consider standalone programming to be inherently inferior, and I don't consider plot-based to be inherently superior.

I will freely acknowledge that I love shows that reset their plot. Shows like Animaniacs, South Park, Futurama and (pre-movie) Spongebob are excellent programs that get a lot across and show an interesting, if not ever-changing, universe.

By the same token, when continuity-based programming isn't executed well or fails to deliver on its buildup, it can be downright horrible. Despite being incredibly invested in Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide in early- to mid-high school, its failures in how it advertised the finale turned me off to ever watching the show in reruns as well as most non-animated programming on Nick.

***TIME FOR BACKSTORY: Alright, so I had no major complaints with Ned's finale itself. What bothered me was its advertisement for an alternate ending. I got into the show in Season 2 when it seemed a plot was forming, and had 'shipped with NedXSusie. It was pretty clear to me that the finale was going to go to NedXMoze, and I understood that that was the relationship that had been built based on the framework of the show.

BUT, the notion of an alternate ending excited me as well as my brother and cousins. We assumed Nick would provide a NedXSusie ending (since endgame was the only outstanding loose end in the main plot) and were ready to give credit to the network for doing their loyal fans such a service.

What we got, however, is two full airings with the same ending and then some stupid, tacked-on, 45-second piece of crap where aliens invade and the kids chase them around a hedge maze. At that point, it was clear that this creative team had no desire to produce a compelling program and merely wanted to appeal to the lowest denomination of child viewers.

Thankfully, I had discovered Avatar before this and its crew has kept me around. But ultimately, I had been on the fence regarding Nick's live-action shows and this blatant milking of Nick's goofiness for a higher ratings return turned me off from them permanently. Devon Workheiser and all the Ned crew: YOU ARE ALL HACKS!!!!***

And it's not to say that a show has to be one or the other. Teen Titans had standalone, goofy episodes that actually endeared the show even more. And the original Power Rangers had episodes that caused dynamic shifts in the show, and that made it all the more legendary.

All I'm saying here is that having a coherent universe that builds on itself and allows for fans to grab on and be more active in their fandom gives the show the chance to be more than a show. It becomes a modern myth, something that, when done well like Nolan's Batman trilogy, makes programming truly memorable.

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