Take Five: Episodic vs Serial works

In modern continuous works (largely tv shows at this point in time, but also comic books and other media) there are few ‘one-shots’ anymore. Obviously, books are the largest exceptions, but even many movies nowadays feel like they’re all either remakes, reboots, prequels, or sequels. Everything is linked to something else because why spend all of the money to make one of something when (if people like it) they’ll pay to come see another with less advertisement? And I’m sure that’s how a lot of consumers have come to see it. But from the perspective of a writer, it’s fantastic. Why? Because serial works have something that episodic works tend not to have. What is the difference between the two? I’m going to use TV shows as my ‘medium’, but you can apply this to any form of media.

A serial work is one where each episode builds off of previous episodes, and sets up future episodes. Episodic works, on the other hand tend to just rehash the same setting, but with a new plot. Rather than try and strictly define a midpoint, I’ll just say that it’s a vague continuum; everything is a little bit episodic and a little bit serial, but some works are way more episodic (Whose Line is it Anyway?) and others are way more serial (Lost). If you tune into a random episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? odds are you’ll understand it just fine. You might miss a few of the jokes that are more recurring jokes, but they’ll probably still be funny. On the other hand, the first time I tuned into Lost, I was — pardon the pun — lost. They were on an island, and an unknown monster — I was hoping they’d crashed on a prehistoric island and it was a dinosaur –was attacking them, and I had no idea why they were hiding in trees from a boar, and why the boar couldn’t be seen and then the next episode I tuned into I think there was a ghost or something and they were living in a bunker and pressing this button and all I could think was WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MONSTER? WAS IT A DINOSAUR? IS THAT WHY THERE’S A BUNKER? AND WHY ARE THEY PUSHING THAT BUTTON?

So I understand why TV shows are at least somewhat episodic. Who has the same chunk of time open EVERY day? Who will NEVER miss an episode? What about that random guy who sits down and turns the show on, is he going to keep watching if he can’t figure it out? Books on the hand, are inherently serial. You don’t sit down, pick up a book, flip to a random page, and start reading. So if somebody criticized a book for not making sense when you started halfway through, we’d laugh at them. But we do sort of expect that to be possible with TV (less so in the age of TiVo, which I think explains the success of shows like Game of Thrones). And I think we understand that book series’ and comic book series’ are part of one ‘book’, so to speak. Nobody buys just book 2 of a series.

Bear with me as I make a small detour here. We’ll get back onto the main route eventually, I promise.

I didn’t listen to much music as a kid; I preferred to read constantly. But every morning, I drove to work, and my dad would listen to one of three music artists: Al Jarreau, Norah Jones, or Dave Brubeck. And it was from Dave Brubeck that I first learned the secrets of time signatures. He has a song called Eleven Four. I didn’t know it then, but Eleven Four is the time signature of the song. What is time signature? It’s basically what the music is broken into. 4/4 is music broken into fourths, where the basic unit is comprised of 4 fourths. Your two most common time signatures are 4/4 and 3/4, although fractions and multiples thereof, like 2/4, 3/2, and 8/8 are common. So what does it mean for 11/4 to be a time signature? Essentially, it means that the music is broken into 11/4, which is notable because it’s 12/4 with 1/4 missing. You can even hear the missing beat if you listen hard enough, as the song is (3+2+3+3)/4. One of those 3s gets truncated into a 2, and it makes a jump in the song. I knew what time signature was from choir, but I didn’t really think about it. I just thought I was hearing something in the music. Not a skip or a slip or a mistake, but a quirk. Like a freckle. I had a crush on a girl with freckles at the time, so of course I chose that metaphor, but I liked it. It made the song interesting. The music was good on its own, no doubt, and that made me like it. But the freckle was what intrigued me.

In high school and college, I discovered and took in everything I could about music theory. Early in high school, I became fascinated with the band Tool. They had a song (Schism) with an intro in 5/8 + 7/8, not to mention almost 50 time signature shifts (I think it’s the top 100 billboard hit with most time signature shifts). I started collecting music with unusual time signatures everywhere, but I didn’t think much of it. It was only recently that I started to actually think about what time signature meant. It all started when Doctor Who’s 11th series started. The new theme was in 7/8, one of my favorite time signatures. 7/8 is a very…rushed feeling time signature. Depending on how you listen to it, either it almost sounds like 8/8, where you couldn’t wait to start the next 8/8 and so it ran into the one you were already doing, or it sounds like 2 4/8s that share a beat. And this is EVERYWHERE in sci-fi and fantasy.

I immediately revisited all of the off-time signatures, and it was like somebody had left a pattern for me. Chrono Chross (every tempo ever) and Chrono Trigger (5/4), both games about shifting time, have huge time signature changes in their music! This song is from Battlestar Galactica, and while it is 9/8, and you might think it to be (3+3+3)/8. But it’s actually (1+2+2+2+2)/8. Then again, contrast that to Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo, which is (2+2+2+3)/8 vs (3+3+3)/8. And this (1+3+3+3+2)/4 from BSG? What’s stopping it from just being a time-shifted series of 3/4 where the 2 at the end is the beginning of the 3/4 that the 1 at the beginning ends?

Why am I talking about video/computer games, science-fiction, and jazz? Well, it was only recently, not a week ago, that I realized something I’d (quite embarrassingly) never noticed before. The song “Take Five“, one of my favorite jazz songs of all time, is in 5/4. It’s even called “Take FIVE”; how had I not realized that? I’m honestly not sure, as I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, and I have only just realized its unusual time signature. I think I know why, even. In jazz, you can often ‘swing’ two beats, making the first one heavy and long, and the the second one light and short, fooling the brain into thinking it’s hearing a triplet with the first two slurred together. But “Take Five” actually goes ONE two three FOUR five, creating a triplet followed by a two beats. This gives it a uniquely funky feel, as it starts off like a waltz, then drops into a ‘rock-step’. Can you say waltz-swing? I would say Jazz is ultimately a music rooted in experimentation. But strangely, until 1959, time signature experimentation was relatively uncommon in Jazz, which had stuck largely to 3/4 and 4/4. In 1959, Time Out (from which “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo” are from) came out, and I think it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a ‘study in time signatures’.

I would argue that science-fiction is a naturally explorative genre as well, given its subject nature. Once it branched out from books into movies and tv mini-series (ones with actual production values), it is no surprise to me to see very creative music coming from these genres. I’m sure somebody with more of a music theory background could talk at length about this, but me, I’m a time signatures guy. And video/computer games? They’re a whole new (developing) media form. If that isn’t definitionally where you see experimentation, I don’t know where you would.

Funny enough, the influences of Dave Brubeck can be seen in one of the longest running gaming franchises, Final Fantasy (and in my opinion, the running body of work of one of the greatest composers in gaming history, Nobuo Uematsu). Most Final Fantasy games have included a ‘Chocobo’ (a bird-like beast of burden) theme. Here they all are, in chronological order! And here, side by side, are “Cinco de Chocobo” and “Take Five”. “Cinco de Chocobo” is an obvious homage to “Take Five”. Both have 5 in the name, both are in 5/4, and you can hear the resemblances (although the tempos are different, so they desync quickly)

So why does this all matter? Well, I think the brain naturally divides events up into subevents. The first is most obvious; anything can be halved. Halves and fourths and eighths are just how we hear music. The brain is in two hemispheres. The world is left and right, up and down, forwards and backwards. It’s just the way our brain does things. The second is a bit more about storytelling, and that’s threes. You get threes everywhere in stories, from three OF something, to a simple beginning, middle, and end progression.

But in these unusual time signatures, events get broken up uncomfortably. With a time signature like 7/8 or 9/8 or 5/4, you don’t have the usual distinctions you would otherwise get.

This is where I return our train to its rails, and we revisit the topic of serials. 4/4 is the episodic model; everything is neatly tied off into sections and you can stop by anytime. What are you going to see? 1234. But time signatures like 7/8 or 9/8 or 5/4, or unusual songs like Lateralus by Tool (uses the Fibonacci sequence) introduce a different style, one in which each event bleeds into those before and after it. If you leave for 4 or 8 beats and come back in, who knows where you’ll be? You might show up just in time for 1, but you could just as easily hop into a 6, as a plot point from a previous episode is still driving this episode.

Essentially, the two numbers are how the show is broken up. The bottom number breaks up episodes; every 4 beats, you have a new episode. But the plot? It runs to its own tune. It might end with the episode, or it might drag into the next episode, or who knows, the same riff may show up 5 episodes down the line.

To give the most literal example I can think of (it involves an actual song/riff as a plot device), I’ll have to go to BSG, and I’ll have to give HEAVY spoilers. As always, they will need to be highlighted to be read.

In Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica, a few characters start to hear a song in their heads. They turn out to have been cylons all along, without knowing it. Then another character, who had died and then come back to live, starts to learn that song from another crew member, who turns out to be a hallucination, she begins to obsess about the meaning of it, day and night. Until the final episode, when THIS (HUGE SPOILERS) happens. Now, we can argue about execution; the last season may have been supposed to be two seasons before being eventually cut, and some of the dialogue is overly forced to include “there must be some kind of way out of here”. But ultimately, this ending to the show is (relatively) satisfying. The events that follow it feel a bit unusual and forced, but that’s a critique of execution, not ideas.

An episodic show is like a pop song; all the elements go at the same time, at the same speed, with the same pattern, and just repeat together. But a good serial show is an experiment.

This is the sort of media that is ultimately satisfying to long-term watchers and writers alike; you develop small details that ripple through the show. You might establish a bass line in 4/4 (in BSG, that could be anything from biological vs synthetic to authority vs freedom to survival vs sacrifice). Every episode, you set up an issue with that underlying theme, and you resolve it. And then 4 bars in, in 3/4, in comes the bass drum. These are your interpersonal conflicts, and some of them get resolved in an episode, others carry over to another episode. And then in comes the sitar, the distant trouble, in 9/4, and when it goes away, you know it’ll be back later. In 15/4? Now you have foreshadowing: an overarching plot item that’s building over time, fading when it gets resolved, only to crop up again. These items overlap and conflict and you wonder how the band can keep them all going at the same time and then all of a sudden, they meet in a finale and it all comes together. And really, that’s what’s interesting about writing. Why? Because nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything happens in the context of something else and it’s often that context which makes it interesting.


8 responses to “Take Five: Episodic vs Serial works

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  3. I love the thing about time signatures. I had a similar experience when I realized the Gorillaz song “5/4” is actually in 5/4 time. I felt pretty stupid about the whole thing, too. I knew all about time signatures, AND I had heard the song several times. Seems like a no-brainer now, but you really don’t seem to think about those things when you’re just sitting listening to music. Crazy

  4. Thank you so much for this article. I was in a band that always said “Aerosmith says everything is in 2s and 4s.” I screamed… NO IT IS NOT! My parents watch uncontroversial episodic TV. If I leave 10 minutes before Jeopardy ends and ask what the final queston is, I get a curious look and “I don’t know” I love serial stories, and I think this clarifies how our brains are wired differently, and makes me less angry and confused.

  5. Gentleman– I love you. As a massive music theory/music in general individual, I was extremely interested to see these parallels drawn.

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