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October 2017
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Formulaic television – How we love (hating) it


©Ilse Zwaan

Formulaic television series are a phenomenon we all know, with ‘formulaic’ meaning predictable, unoriginal. These descriptions show us just how negatively we perceive such formulas. With successful, mind-blowing series such as Game of Thrones we might say that ‘The end of formulaic television is coming’, however, I am not so sure. I think it’s time to admit we all secretly enjoy it, and should embrace it.

Ilse Zwaan

I won’t deny it: I am addicted to television series. Big time. Doctor Who, telling the story of a time lord travelling through space and time to save the earth, thereby might be one of my favourite television shows currently being aired. According to the BBC, its 50th anniversary episode was watched by no less than 10.2 million people within the UK, proving the series’ popularity amongst British families. This does not surprise me: Doctor Who is a show you sit down on the couch for, you enjoy with others, you admire for the great details.

I admit I am one of these persons spending their free evening waiting for the new episode. Even though the complexity of the series never fails to grasp my attention, the single episodes are overall remarkably simple, even formulaic. The Doctor and his companion are travelling, planning to explore the universe. However, there seems to be something wrong with the place where they end up. Together with a few persons they meet on their way, they eventually find the villain. The faith in the Doctor is tested and up until the last five minutes of the episode, it seems like the Doctor will not save them this time. But then he heroically saves the day. And the universe.

Being creative with formulas

This structure (or: formula) is interesting, not only because it seems to hold for a lot of other series as well – think Friends, Law & Order, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – but also because people seem to perceive these formulas as increasingly negative. Me included. We don’t want to predict the plot the second we tune in, counting down the minutes to where the Doctor will yell ‘Geronimo!’ and be admired by his companion. Or do we?

As controversial as it may sound, we will never get rid of formulaic television. Moreover, we actually need and (secretly) enjoy it. Robin Tonin, writer of The Screenwriting Formula: Why It Works and How To Use It (2007), stated in his work that “’Formulaic’ has become a pejorative term when applied to the arts and especially to the art of writing. But let me ask you: If someone gave you the formula for turning lead into gold, would you take it? Or would you self-righteously proclaim that gold created through the use of a formula is not worth having”? Indeed, we have to realise that formulas are everywhere and that, by using such formulas, we are able to appreciate television series more.

Let’s look at the Emmy Awards-winning show Modern Family. The highly popular television series basically follow a clear structure, portraying how every family has its own craziness. Every episode focuses on fixed relationships, as also discussed by, which leaves room for details that make the show unique. In season 3 episode 8, for example, Phil comes home with an alpaca, which then once again follows the line of his wife criticising his behaviour. Exactly these humorous little aspects are the reason Modern Family is enjoying such high ratings, and the details are appreciated because they colour the basic formula.

The official website, about the tricks of television writing, explains the ideas behind a formula, emphasising my argument. They mention that by using a predictable storyline, “the writer has gotten the shape of the story out of the way of the content of the story.” People say they want to be amazed by a show, but when they don’t understand the basic frame, they will not appreciate the story. So, by structuring an episode, or a whole season for that matter, the series’ content can use its full potential. And the audience will be as happy as can be.

Besides making details more valuable, formulas will also enable writers to change elements which at first seemed fixed. The result? Audiences celebrating ingenuity and – oh, the irony – unpredictability. Even though the plot will again not be shocking, changing minor elements will definitely shape a renewed interest of the audience. Ever watched an episode in which the future has changed, and you learn a lot about the psychs of the characters? I did. And so did other viewers of Friends, Scrubs, One Tree Hill, etc. Even moving away from a formula is structured.

Formulas are here to stay

In a Salon interview in 2012, Joss Whedon – writer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, discussed his interest in universes with rules. Where the majority of people would see formulas as limiting creativity, his approach is daring as well as refreshing. He cleverly remarks that “[t]he more you can create a structure by which people live in a fantastical situation and by which they will act, and the more you lay that out for the audience, the more they will feel at home in it.”

I think Whedon deserves a round of applause. With all the excitement regarding complex new television series with budgets growing bigger than those of Hollywood movies, audiences seem to neglect the enjoyment of watching a regular television show. Yes, Game of Thrones is amazing, but can we really compare this to our love for Joey’s ‘How you doing’ in Friends? Or the classic ‘Geronimo’ remark in Doctor Who?

I think we should embrace formulaic television instead of depicting it. Just as the screenwriter emphasises, what we want is the feeling of understanding the story, being able to identify with the characters and appreciate the unique details. We want to feel at home in it, and this is exactly what formulaic television can mean to us. Indeed, where would we be without watching our predictable shows, while getting comfortable on the couch, with some popcorn? Just relaxing or admiring the clever writing. Finally dozing off with the assurance that the Doctor will save the good old universe.

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