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November 17, 2012

The Dangers of Formula in a TV Series

Many episodic TV shows have a formula they stick to. For a wildly popular show, that formula is sort of the "brand" that keeps people coming back and watching the show. They sometimes deviate from it, but unless the deviation is quite creative, fans can sometimes rebel against it.

Note that I'm not talking about shows that have one continuous story that goes from week to week, like The Walking Dea or Lost or something like that.

I actually do enjoy when a show tells a lot of different types of stories using different formats. The various Star Trek series would veer from super-serious drama to light-hearted comedy to science spectacle (though the science was often laughable) and back, all in one season. The Las Vegas CSI show often has a few comedy episodes to break up the monotony of all that serious death and murder (something I think the Miami show could learn from, at least the first few seasons that I saw in syndication before I stopped watching it).

But other shows have a formula and they stick to it. If it's very successful, why deviate?

In this day and age, that can be dangerous.

Take Castle, for instance.

Readers of this blog know that the wife and I were blasting through the seasons of this great show starring Nathan Fillion. At the time of writing that post, we were watching multiple episodes a night. But by the time it actually posted (I wrote that post on Monday and it came out on Thursday), we had stopped, at least momentarily.

Why? Because they were all feeling the same.

Don't get me wrong. It's still an excellent show, well-written and witty with interesting murder cases. But they all follow the same formula (at least through the first season and a half, so I can't say whether it has changed): discover body; meet a couple of suspects; try to figure out what happened; discover that one character must have done it; accuse character; character denies that they could have done it, points detectives in new direction (possibly introducing new characters); discover that another character obviously did it; accuse character; continue that pattern until there are only one or two characters left; finally solve murder. Many times there's a sub-plot with Castle's mom or daughter that will end up providing Castle with some insight into the murder case when he's talking to them about their issue.

The constant "you did it! No, you did it! No, you did it!" was starting to get annoying. So we're taking a break, though we do want to get back and finish watching.

What's dangerous about shows following a formula nowadays is in how many people consume their TV. How many of you don't watch episodic TV anymore, but instead wait until the season's out on DVD? How many of you have discovered a new show that's into season 4 or season 5 and have plowed through all of the old episodes on DVD or on Netflix or something?

When you're watching a huge number of episodes back to back, the formula gets boring after a while. If you're watching something week to week, you've had a whole week to let the formula fade from your mind so that it's not annoying when you are exposed to it again. Not to mention the fact that you're only watching one episode a week so you're not getting overwhelmed by the formula.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not attacking Castle or it's formula. I do love the show.

But formulas can make catching up on a series increasingly tedious after a while.

It didn't used to be that way, but then you can say that about a lot of things, can't you?


  1. I agree, not only about this show but about many others. And the formula has to help the writers who push out 22 episodes a season.

    But I love about decided to only watch one or two episodes of a show a night on DVD. It really helps keep the formula from wearing on you.

    1. Yeah, we may end up doing that. One or two episodes a night, a day or two in between. Might make things easier.


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