Much of modern television is being created with the season and series-run in mind. Think of how Netflix encourages viewership in bulk—watch the entire series of Damages in a weekend, and then move on to something else. The broadcast model for television series’ was to create episodes that were nothing more than enjoyable, stand-alone snippets that drop the viewer into the world and then leave them behind just as quickly (with some exceptions, of course). From a plot perspective, it didn’t really matter if you caught every single episode of I Dream of Jeannie, and few people did because it aired once a week for half an hour and that was it (until syndication). The newer way of telling stories on television involves creating a long-term relationship between the viewer, the content, and the characters, in a media consumption environment that allows for easy repeat viewing (again, think Netflix, DVRs, and torrents). This trend is more obvious in drama, but comedies also create character arcs that we are significantly invested in.
In The Office or Parks and Recreation both Michael Scott and Leslie Knope are different people in the final seasons of their shows, and that has to do with a combination of a long-term plan for the characters that the writers reveal over time, and a honing of the character details in accordance with the performance of the actor.
Because of this emphasis on long-form narrative, we wanted to highlight which television series you need to watch. We’re talking about those bygone shows that pulled together a tight narrative over many seasons—no easy task.
First up, J.J. Abrams’ science fiction gem, Fringe. Fringe is a stellar example of a show that delivered a complete series, and there are a few reasons we rate it as a must-watch show.
Awesome, Stand-Alone Episodes
A show is only as good as its stand-alone episodes. Creative arcs that span seasons and characters are a certain kind of rewarding for the viewer, but in order to earn our attention for the length of a season or series, you have to make compelling stand-alone episodes. These are the self-contained, small bits of story that convey big meaning in a small period of time. They communicate deep character motivations, but the viewer shouldn’t need to know anything about the story or the “universe” of the show to enjoy it. Over the five-season run of Fringe, there were some truly great episodes driven by a talented cast and well-formed characters. Fringe excelled at creating devastating human drama that was just creepy enough to make you think twice. The dead ballerina put back together by a lover and controlled like a marionette is one such example.
Another is the heartbreaking episode about the consequences of controlling time that plays out between a married couple facing a difficult reality. Performances by real-life married couple Jimmy James (Stephen Root) and Finn’s mom from Glee (Romy Rosemont), make this another stand out, stand-alone entry in the series.
That Arc, Tho
The relationship between Walter Bishop (a damaged, but brilliant scientist) and his distant son Peter is the central focus of the show, and it is no great surprise that the episodes that focus on the dynamic between the two are some of the best the show ever produced. Their story pushed the pair beyond traditional time and space, and forays into parallel realities became the norm in the later seasons. Peter and Walter’s story is the basis for everything that happens throughout the series, even though you might not pick that up the first time you watch it. It helps that Joshua Jackson gives a steady performance as Peter throughout the series, while John Noble just freaking kills it as Walter Bishop, and as Walternate in later seasons.
The intricate story Fringe creators told throughout the show’s run is really something special. Critics lauded the second and third seasons of the show, and fans (including myself) sometimes dismissed the first season as the product of a show finding its storytelling legs. When the fifth and final season wrapped, however, it became clear that the creators had a plan for the story and the seeds of that plan are planted in those very first episodes. The genius of that first season is that even when you don’t realize it, the show is setting up and pushing forward arcs that last its entire run.
A Closed Book
Another reason Fringe makes for such a satisfying watch is that the storytelling comes to a close. The show’s creators knew that they were headed into their last season when the fifth started, and they diligently went about closing the loop on the narrative they built over the five-year run of the show. While cancellation loomed between the earlier seasons, there is a confidence in the writing and a warmth and gratitude in the performances that you can feel when watching that final season.
It’s telling that Fringe was a product of J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, which had just established itself as a major force in television by creating Lost. As you probably remember, Lost was notable at first for the frenzy of excitement it created with a unique narrative set up and mysterious plot developments, and later for the increasing frustration of its audience when many of those mysteries were not properly or completely resolved. Viewers felt betrayed for the time and emotional energy they had placed within the show, and there was significant fan backlash for this problem. While Fringe was never as wildly popular as Lost, it is definitely the stronger of the two shows, and the lessons learned in the Lost production undoubtedly informed the impressive show that Fringe became. It’s absolutely a series worth watching (and re-watching, frankly).