Why can't Don Draper, Raylan Givens, and Rick Grimes grow up?
In an interview with The New York Times last summer, Breaking Bad creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan described his series in contrast to the typical televised drama: "Television is really good at protecting the franchise. It's good at keeping the Korean War going for 11 seasons, like M*A*S*H. It's good at keeping Marshal Dillon policing his little town for 20 years. By their very nature TV shows are open-ended." The two examples he chose are M*A*S*H, which has been off the air for nearly 30 years, and Gunsmoke, which ran for 20 seasons before ending in 1975.
The examples are old because Gilligan's point is dated. Nothing is that open-ended anymore. For a little more than a decade, there's been a massive shift in the nature of TV drama: from episodic storytelling—shows like the various permutations of the Law & Order franchise, in which a series' larger continuity is secondary to the self-contained story it's telling in a single episode—to long-form, serialized narratives in which a combination of many episodes tell a single, continuous story, like Breaking Bad and its peers, which are virtually all of television's most-acclaimed series, including The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood and The Wire.
For the most part, serialized storytelling has melded well with the episodic tradition of TV. The episodic structure of the medium means that unlike a novel or film, a TV series' plot can be tweaked at any time for the better (see Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman, who was originally slated to die in season one, or Justified antihero Boyd Crowder, who wasn't even intended to survive the series' pilot). And there's plenty to be said for rewarding regular viewers with callbacks and references, which is only possible when there's continuity from episode to episode. The best contemporary sitcoms, like Parks and Recreation or Community, have earned additional critical acclaim and viewer loyalty by increasing their number of recurring plot arcs and inside jokes. But dramas have been the primary beneficiaries of the serialization trend.
But there's one key element of TV drama that remains an awkward fit when a serial narrative is grafted onto an open-ended, episodic structure: the central protagonist. What we're beginning to see is a TV landscape of dynamic, evolving characters who surround a protagonist of frustrating rigidity. Though nearly any modern TV drama could fit this analysis, let's start with Mad Men, which returns to AMC for its fifth season one month from today. Betty Francis (formerly Betty Draper) has had a stunningly propulsive character arc—morphing, in four seasons, from meekly deferential housewife to strong-willed self-defender. Peggy Olsen has risen up the ranks of the advertising world, and consequently become more confident in her personal and professional talents; Pete Campbell, who sniveled his way through the first season, has become a capable businessman and husband.
And then there's Don Draper, who spent the first season drinking and carrying on with young, artsy brunettes ... and ended the fourth season drinking and carrying on with a young, artsy brunette. This is not necessarily a fault with Mad Men; there's nothing inherently wrong or unrealistic about a static main character (most tragedies are, after all, built around them). But I have a small, nagging feeling that Mad Men won't let Don Draper evolve. Series-best fourth-season episode "The Suitcase" made Don Draper's rock-bottom so visceral, and his subsequent guilt and recovery so honest, that it wasn't just disappointing to watch him make the same mistakes in the season's finale—it was implausible. But when your show is a hit—and your lead character, for all his drinking and womanizing, is a pop culture icon—fundamental change may be a risk too big to take.
This problem is even more pronounced in series like 24 or The Walking Dead, in which the main character routinely faces death. By the end of its eight seasons, 24's Jack Bauer had bested so many villains that the series' sense of danger was all but gone (one fan video measures Bauer's on-screen kill count at 265 over eight days). The Walking Dead hasn't been on for nearly as long, but protagonist Rick Grimes has already escaped dozens of zombies (and the occasional villainous human). Belief can only be suspended so far, and though the two hours of an action film are generally plausible enough, the dozens of hours that makes up TV's action dramas stretch suspense to the breaking point. No series (with one recent, very dramatic exception) is likely to kill off its main character, since that person tends to be its most recognizable, most liked, and the focus of its primary narrative and marketing campaign.
It's easy to rail against the worst offenders (hey there, six seasons of Dexter), but take a series as strong as FX's Justified, which—in the middle of what may very well turn out to be its best season—has also reached the point at which its main character is also one of its least interesting. The pilot of Justified opened with Raylan offering a fugitive one last off-the-record chance to escape, and though that went poorly, I wouldn't bat an eye if Raylan made the same offer to a new fugitive next week. For two and a half seasons, Raylan has been too strong and too clever to be beaten, and if even if that wasn't true, Justified's premise requires him to stay alive anyway.This is no fault of star Timothy Olyphant, who continues to bring nuance, humor, and gravitas to his portrayal of the series' prickly deputy marshal. It's not even the fault of Justified's creative team, which impressively manages each week to invent reasons why a U.S. marshal would be intimately connected with the goings-on of a small Kentucky county. The problem isn't Justified; it's television, which can't afford to change its primary status quo until a series' end is in sight.
There are, of course, other ways to build suspense. As Breaking Bad enters its fifth and final season, Walter White is not likely to be written out of the show. The series has maintained dramatic tension not by killing the character, but by changing him; as Walter descends ever-deeper into corruption, we're drawn right along with him. The Sopranos performed a similar trick by having Tony Soprano flirt with goodness before ultimately proving himself irredeemably evil. But even these innovative series can't fully escape the episodic TV structure; events from the first act pay off in the third, Chekov's gun is always fired and major events, with clockwork precision, at the climaxes of each season. Life doesn't have dramatic arcs, but television does.
But as TV offerings continue to grow richer, audiences—who love nothing more than a good surprise—will continue to grow savvier, and with every static protagonist they'll be more likely notice the proverbial "man behind the curtain." And though TV has come an undeniably long way, it will take a truly innovative narrative hand to keep audiences from peeking behind that curtain to the man-sized television wizards inside.