Television has changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years. Not only the standard storytelling methods of the typical day-to-day procedurals, but the existence of the purely-serialised and partially-serialised series. Now, many shows don’t just have episodic arcs and formulae, but seasonal ones. The funny thing is, it’s in a way a longer form of what is done at the episodic level, with a seasonal formula repeating every season with new elements.
Some varying kinds of seasonal formula elements include:
A good show has character arcs, whether in the long term (such as series-long development) or the short term (the episodic events change a character in a permanent way). For some shows, there’s no real seasonal arc beyond steps forward on the larger character development; every season of Breaking Bad, for example, Walter White descends further and further into criminality, but the arcs are merely forward motion on a larger arc. There aren’t necessarily beginnings and endings there.
Grey’s Anatomy has often been pretty good with such arcs. Every season often gives each character a larger year-long arc, which may push their larger development forward, but has a distinct beginning and ending. The show particularly likes to use these for Cristina Yang: in season three, it is her slow dissolution and sacrificing her personality to her fiancee, only to be left by him in the finale; in the following season, the series focused on her struggle to find herself without the relationship and without a mentor; after that, she had yearlong arcs involving a new relationship that tested her in new ways (season five), a dilemma that forces her to choose between her personal and professional desires (season six), and then reeling from her PTSD after the hospital shooting (season seven). Each of these arcs has her emotionally positioned in one place, with tension over one particular aspect of her life, and she encounters different obstacles that leave her in a new place by the season finale.
Shows with these like to have bookend moments for the arcs, particularly in the finale, highlighting the growth. A character will have a line of dialogue – or occasionally, a monologue – that hammers home how they’ve evolved since the season premiere. Some random examples: Cristina Yang at the end of Grey’s Anatomy crying that she’s “free”. Elementary‘s Joan Watson being the second person to ever outmaneuver Moriarty at the end of season one. Master of Sex‘s Virginia Masters finally getting the credit she’s long been due since the pilot. The end is a culmination of all the character arc beats throughout the season.
These are often tied to character arcs, as different series regulars become romantically entangled with new love interests. Often these are as short as three episodes, but some shows use them for full seasonal arcs. Often an actor is hired for an ‘arc’ and their exit is pre-determined after X amount of episodes, which can sometimes squander promising characters, or alternately some characters long outstay their welcome.
Short-term love interests are everpresent in television, particularly in comedies and in procedural dramas that want the semblance of serialisation without committing to it. The Mindy Project‘s first two seasons were marked by constant love interest arcs, one after the other – and, in fact, often the material surrounding these love interests was the show at its best. These characters can pop in, appear for a few episodes to add a new texture and push a storyline or two forward, and then vanish. Occasionally these characters work well in the ensemble and are asked back, either for more guest/recurring spots, or occasionally to join the regular cast. Typically, though, these characters are gone and forgotten inside of six weeks.
Sometimes these characters are season-long guests. They can be tied to the season-long plot arc, like Dexter season five’s Lumen. Alternately their relationship to the series regular in question is the arc. For example, in Mad Men, Don Draper will typically have a new season-long love interest who would typically vanish after a season: Rachel Menken, Bobbie Barrett, Suzanne Farrell, Sylvia Rosen.
Big Bads and Little Bads
Big Bads are season-long antagonists, be they the monsters of supernatural shows or sophisticated serial killers on crime shows. Typically they are introduced in the season premiere, are entangled with a handful of episodes throughout the season (or all of them), and then dispatched in the finale. Little Bads are used in conjunction with Big Bads – also recurring enemies, but clearly less powerful and appear less often. Little Bads have a variety of uses: complicate the narrative away from a clear ‘A vs. B’ tension; pose a separate threat that threatens to grow into a Big Bad, only to be revealed as a Red Herring; or allies of the Big Bad who must be defeated to take down the ‘boss’.
A crime show example: Justified had Bo Crowder and Miami to contend with in season one; once they were dealt with at the end of that season, new Big Bads immediately appeared in the form of Mags Bennett and her sons. In the finale, most of the Bennett clan were dealt with, clearing the slate for season three. Similarly, every season of Dexter involved a seasonal Big Bad who is killed in the season finale, from the first season’s Ice Truck Killer to the fourth season’s Trinity Killer to the sixth season’s Doomsday Killer. Occasionally there is a Little Bad involved, such as season two’s Lila or season three’s Skinner, whose involvement allows an element of unpredictability before Dexter inevitably takes down his foe.
Supernatural shows love these as well. Teen Wolf, The Vampire Diaries, and plenty of others like to structure their seasons around the introduction of a new evil (or increasingly, one for the front half of the season and one after midseason). In fact, the terms Big Bad and Little Bad were coined by Buffy the Vampire Slayer Joss Whedon, whose Buffy and Angel series always had a larger seasonal foe, and typically also involved a smaller foe, following a distinct seasonal formula in Buffy‘s case.