Ideally, a great television show should be both satisfying in terms of the overall story that unspools over the series and in terms of the smaller story that is told in a single episode. But what happens when the story needs of the series and the episode find themselves in conflict?
In response to this post on the TV concepts that, no matter how often they appeared, just kept on coming right back to haunt us, a discussion began about some common television pitfalls — including this rumination from commenter lightninglouie on one case where a move towards greater continuity within a series ended up backfiring:
I always felt that X-Files got a lot less interesting once it was revealed that the aliens were just straight-up invaders bent on conquering the planet. The ambiguity of the first four seasons, where it wasn't clear if the aliens were hostiles, victims, collaborators, indifferent observers, or some combination thereof, was much more compelling. (And there seemed to be at least four or five different species of aliens, too, before Carter and his writers straightened out the series' mythology.)
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The show was infamous for not having a series bible of any kind for years. The writers would just come up with crazy ideas for stories without checking to see if they violated established continuity or had story elements that were similar to something they'd done before. That's why there are all sorts of odd inconsistencies running through the first four or five seasons, like a young CSM showing up as a government agent in a flashback when a later episode had him as an Army private around the same time. They were just making stuff up as they went along. It also accounts for the weird shifts in tone — there are episodes that suggest the characters live in a universe driven purely by scientific rules, and there are others where magic and spirits are shown to be real things, minus the sort of pseudoscientific rationale you see in other genre shows. Very few crossovers, though. You never see aliens in a haunted house.
It was only when Fox greenlighted the movie that Carter and Frank Spotnitz had to come up with a working backstory. That was when they decided the oil and the greys were the same thing, and that the aliens had been planning to take back the Earth for hundreds of millions of years. The problem was that the more consistent the series got, the less weird and interesting it became.
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The big problem was that they felt the need to do more traditional story arcs as the series progressed. After the Syndicate was exterminated, they had the Super Soldiers, but then they realized that was kinda boring so they brought the greys back. You got the feeling they had no idea what the central theme of the show was going to be once the big mystery was revealed.
To me, the big appeal of the show was that any kind of strict "continuity" was dubious and could be contradicted at random at any time by any episode. I mean, the aliens are supposed to take over the Earth and subjugate humanity in the near future, but there's that one episode where the guy's traveled back from 2050-something and he never says anything at all about black oil plagues or greys.
What do you think? Are there some shows where you're less concerned with internal consistency within the show, and more concerned with how an individual episode plays out? Or do you want a series to work together as a whole in order to enjoy the individual parts? Tell us you opinion (with examples) in the comments.