The art of anticipation
Seasons of TV… and books and video games, too
In the year 2074, my wizened future self speaks to his robot amanuensis:
Oh yes, it’s true. Seasons of TV used to align with the sun and the stars. When the leaves fell, we awaited new stories. Again we waited when the ground began to thaw. They started together, these stories… they arrived in a great wave…
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; and today, a season of TV has nothing to do with a season of rain or snow. It can begin at any time. It can end after twenty-six episodes or just three. It can be purchased on its own or as part of a broader subscription. And, of course, a season of TV need not appear on a TV network.
In this redefinition, two realizations:
- The timing of a story’s delivery is not just a commercial consideration, but a creative one, too.
- There’s an opportunity here beyond TV.
Let’s quickly survey the Cambrian explosion of season-shapes. House of Cards falls from the sky like a crate of emergency rations. Sherlock delivers a tight burst of movie-caliber episodes, then disappears for two years. True Detective and American Horror Story remake themselves every season with a new cast and story. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. braids itself into the Marvel movie machine. (As I’m writing this, the show has just pivoted in mid-season to reflect the revelations of the Captain America movie that premiered the week prior.) This year, Louie marches double-time, airing not one but two new episodes every Monday. No season of TV has yet pulled a Beyoncé and arrived entirely without warning, but surely, it’s coming.
The House of Cards model is arguably the boldest, but it’s also my least favorite, because it dispenses with a delivery schedule altogether. It’s a fascinating experiment, but all in all, I think it sacrifices too much.
If I am honest with myself, a not-insignificant fraction of my enjoyment of any episode of Game of Thrones is delivered in its opening moments. I sit down, settle in, and… BUM-bum, bah-dah-BUM-bum…
If Game of Thrones was delivered all at once, I’d scrub right past this sequence, as beautiful as it is. But thanks to that wait, that week eternal between episodes, I watch the clockwork castles every time. I savor them. You can pick your metaphor: appetizer, foreplay, warm-up act. We like those things, all of them! They all enhance the main event, even as they delay it.
Sometimes the delay is the best part.
If you are the right age to have planted yourself in line to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on the day of its release, you know the feeling that was palpable in those theaters. We had waited decades. Some of us our whole lives. Finally: the shimmering Lucasfilm logo.
The blare of trumpets.
We bellowed with joy.
Delay, withhold, restrict, release: This is storytelling 101, Scheherazade stuff, and it’s deeper than marketing and distribution. We bring all of our creative talents to bear on matters of plot and character; the anticipation that precedes and interpenetrates a story deserves no less. More than ever, the shape of a season can be designed and managed. More than ever, anticipation can be art-directed.
It’s exciting that TV has come alive to these possibilities. Such ingenuity is not necessarily what you expect from a format insulated by layers of MBAs with a fiduciary duty to say “no” to weird ideas—but here we are! For once, it’s the complex, expensive, high-stakes medium that’s leading the way. There’s an opportunity for other formats to follow.
How might seasonal thinking play out in other media?
As I’m writing this, FSG Originals has just published Jeff VanderMeer’s Authority, the second volume in a new science fiction trilogy. The first volume, Annihilation, was published three months ago, and the last, Acceptance, will be published four months hence.
A book every three months is not the same as a TV episode every week, but it’s not the same as a book every six years, either. You can hold a story in your head for three months. You can maintain a sense of eager, non-mordant anticipation—particularly when the publication dates are set in advance.
There might be a Pollanesque maxim waiting here. Something like: Waiting is fun. But not for too long. A schedule is good.
An author could reply: “Ah, this is nothing new. I serialized my post-apocalyptic thriller, The Wolves of Ragnorok…” But serialized ≠ seasonal. This seasonal effect depends on a certain alchemy, and I’d be lying if I said I knew its ingredients exactly. It has something to do with the structure of a story, as well as the way it’s marketed, the muscle behind it. And, honestly, I think “season” might simply be a better word than “serialization,” which sounds to me like something you do with your taxes.
That’s a season of fiction.
A video game studio called Telltale Games produces the official interactive adaptation of The Walking Dead. Each game is comprised of five episodes released in sequence; each episode takes about two hours to play, and there’s a month or so between releases. Right now, we’re in the middle of season two. Most importantly: This isn’t my metaphor. Telltale Games pointedly uses this language of “seasons” and “episodes.”
It’s striking how closely Telltale’s model follows TV. You can buy the episodes one at a time or purchase a season pass. The game accumulates players as it goes, because it’s easy to catch up mid-season. Episodes are written by different people, and reviewers have tended to give each its own hearing, just as they do with TV shows.
A video game with a great story delivered in two-hour chunks, its creators scrambling to keep up with the schedule they’ve set for themselves.
That’s a season of play.
So, seasons of TV have become potent, flexible bundles of content, and the design of a season’s shape and its pace and all the attendant anticipation is a task that’s suddenly super interesting, super creative. I think there’s a real opportunity now to splice this seasonal thinking and the fun of waiting (but not for too long) into other media.
I haven’t started The Walking Dead Season 2 yet, but I’m hearing great things about it, and I can catch up anytime.
Authority is out this week. If you read it, you can join me in eager, non-mordant anticipation of third and final volume, due in just four months.