Interchangeable Episodes

I think I’ve ranted here before about my love for the TV show as a medium. Or, rather, my interest in its future. I don’t think it will ever be my favourite medium (neither my pet/nostalgic favourite, which is reserved for the novel for better or worse, or my favourite for purely academic reasons, the video game), but it’s changing and we’re making it better and better and that’s always going to hold my interest for a while. However, any change means that we’re also experimenting, which means that I’m going to have to rant about how certain changes Burn my Soul, Preciousss, so here we go.

A long time ago, I heard about a fascinating concept. There was a novel released, someone told me, that was designed so that you could read the chapters in any order you liked, and they would still make perfect sense.

I still haven’t read that novel. It’s called The Unfortunates, and is written by B. S. Johnson, and the basic premise is that provided you read a particular chapter first and a particular chapter last, the rest can come in any order. It’s a very cool concept, particularly since it forces a rethink of most of our ideas of narrative.

But it’s not the only example of that. Franz Kafka’s The Trial was published only posthumously. Kafka did not keep his notes in order, either – presumably he knew where certain ideas would go and so forth – and so his friends had to piece together what was there of the story, guessing which order the chapters came in. As anyone who reads Kafka knows, this is not as simple a task as it might sound. Thus, it is also essentially a book where one can read the first chapter, and then put the rest in any order until the last chapter (though it was once presumed to have a narrative order, so there are certain chapters that must come before others and so forth).

The astute reader will also notice that this is the same premise that has kept the sitcom running since its inception.  Most of those don’t even need a first chapter: While it might make references that only long-running viewers will get, one’s experience of, say, Friends or The IT Crowd is not substantially diminished by not watching the episodes in order. In fact, long-running episodic series like these do this even better than the literary novel. While the literary novel wants us to examine our concepts of narrative development and flow, the sitcom abandons any pretence at having one in the first place. Characters return to status quo at the end of the episode, with a few, but usually game-changing exceptions, so there’s no reason for the audience to fear that, having watched Joey in episode 6, they’ll be missing a piece of the puzzle to understand his actions if they skip straight to episode 116. Joey is always Joey, no more and no less, depending on your opinions of the writers.

And then there’s the soap. This gets the closest I have ever seen to that literary goal of having a series of chapters that are interchangeable, but maintain narrative arcs and changing sets of characters. And the way they do it is by constantly referencing material. A nice, neat recap at the beginning of each episode, and usually an Important Discussion about the events of a previous episode that have caused the current emotional states of the characters in each episode, and you’ll never be without context for a character decision.

Are they high literature? No. Do they do something better than an experimental highbrow form of literature? Yes, and I stand by my answer.

At the moment, there’s a TV show out called Miraculous Ladybug, allowing for regional variation. It’s being released sort-of simultaneously in France, Korea, the US and now French Canada. None of those places has the same release order.

It’s an interesting case – there are, of course, fans releasing their preferred “unofficial episode guides”. Doubtless there will be alternate interpretations arising because of the order certain episodes are watched in.

But I sincerely hope they don’t continue with it. The show is great, but it’s started to grate.

See, if you want to be as good as out-of-order episodes as a soap, you have to commit to being a soap. Roughly equal emotional intensity the whole show through, characters don’t change, the status quo never really changes, even if characters come and go. You can’t even have a proper tension ramp-up to a season finale.

But that’s death to a show like Miraculous Ladybug. Right from the first, we’ve established a few mysteries (who is Hawkmoth, when will Chat Noir and Ladybug stop being so damn blind and just realise that maybe their partner’s alter-ego is that one classmate that has the exact same build, height, hairstyle, eye colour and mannerisms as their partner, who are the other superheroes yet to be seen, what is Hawkmoth’s Ultimate Evil Plan, and so on), and by definition without change and growth, a show whose primary mysteries revolve around ‘how will this conflict escalate’ is going to have to choose one or the other.

Not to mention this show requires plot references. In a recent few episodes, one of the characters references being given a trinket. When were they given the trinket? In the subsequent broadcast episode. Who is this character? Why, Nathaniel’s brother? Who is Nathaniel? A classmate, but we don’t learn his name until later in the broadcast order (at least, the way I watched them). Not to mention that a core part of the show is the main characters growing closer together, so the show has to keep at least some kind of progression to avoid the “wait, they’re OK with hugging now? Huh, well, OK. Oh, and now they’re not OK with casually bumping shoulders. What happened?” syndrome that can occur.

Honestly, it’s an interesting tactic for the first season, where they can play around with who sees what and when, test out different audiences and above all, make it so that, say, when Korea’s broadcast is on hiatus, fans can find new episodes in the French broadcast to watch. It’s a good way of keeping the interest and momentum in the fanbase while the first season sets the scene for later.

Now, my opinion of the actual show is not appearing in this blog post, except that I will be continuing to watch it. I do hope that we start to get more of a cohesive storyline with more consistent progression later, but for now, I’m having as much fun as the other nerds comparing timelines and unofficial season guides. But the show isn’t made to be interchangeable and it won’t keep it up forever. It can’t. And I, personally, think that’s a good thing.

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