The Hero’s Journey in Episodic Television – Part 2
by Diana Black
As we established in Part I, ‘normal’ life – taking the kids to school, fixing the plumbing…yet again, or attending/hosting the obligatory ‘Happy’ Holydays – rarely provides an opportunity for heroism or maybe they do; depending on your relatives. Let’s hope we don’t have to put our lives on the line (or the children’s) when we take our beloved little sub-units to school…too horrible to contemplate.
To recap, how can we walk the path of the hero and experience pain and triumph? By proxy – through watching someone else suffer or succeed. Caught up in the narrative, at some subconscious level, we’re still back in that primeval forest, slaying the dragons of uncertainty about ourselves and the world around us – will we survive? In this way we get a ‘survival lesson’ for free.
We’ve already explored this via the big screen, by mapping the journey of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, but is the ‘Hero’s journey’ likely to be the same animal via that little box in the corner? Or via other media-viewing platforms; many of them hosting the television program peppered with sponsored advertisements? Hence, the importance of awesome, nail-biting cliff-hangers just prior to Act breaks.
But there are two issues here. So far we’ve only explored the heroic adventure in relation to ourselves, but what about ‘the’ hero/heroine in that television program? Can they undergo the heroic transformation in episodic/serialized television…well not really…so why not?
Let’s recap the structural road map of the hero’s journey – perhaps it offers a clue as to why this isn’t feasible in episodic television. Recall we see the hero in his/her ‘normal’ life. Then the inciting incident calls the hero to action – they’re dragged kicking and screaming because they‘ve no desire to undergo an inner transformation; in their mind there’s no need for it. However, they’re not given a choice…fate has anointed him/her for the task. They devise a plan to address the situation… it fails.
Girding their loins, they try again and even with help/back-up, they still fail with one obstacle after another making their life hell. Yet there’s no getting off the roller-coaster at this point. When everything is going to ‘hell in a basket’/ the ‘all is lost moment’, the hero/heroine reaches a crisis point. They’re confronted with the need for inner/spiritual transformation – that is, if they’re to be successful. This generally requires sacrifice – death of old self or death – all in the service of others/the cause.
We’ve or (they’ve) reached the climax of the narrative, the hero/heroine prevails/triumphs – either alone or with help. Then the denouement – we see the hero/heroine alive, but changed forever –older, wiser or perhaps damaged, but now living or perceiving their life differently in some profound way.
So, what’s the problem with this in relation to our television hero/heroine? If we stumble upon the pilot episode and love it, we’ll be like Sam and stay the course – remaining faithful and forgiving by not missing a single episode, so there’s no problem – for the character, us or the commercial stakeholders.
But what about the viewer who stumbles upon the series midway? If pandering to their primeval brain that wants a ‘survival lesson’ via a heroic transformation, the new recruit will be sadly disappointed and thinking wtf? And what about the ‘suits’, how do they recruit and keep lots of new viewers who’ll begrudgingly watch the commercials in between Act breaks; all because they’re emotionally invested in the character/s? This is what makes heavily serialized programs problematic; leading to the rise of DVD sales with the enticement of binge viewing; in order to get these guys up-to-speed.
So as television viewers, we must make a pact and fall in love with the character as they are, not for what they could become. Hence those characters have to be thoroughly engaging – bad-ass/ adorable/whatever, but worth emotionally investing in.
The only alternative to that is to switch channels. However, our primeval brain still wants to via proxy, to accompany ‘a hero’ on ‘a journey’ and learn from them, so flipping channels isn’t the answer.
Thus television characters that we love or hate don’t tend to grow and transform – the emphasis is on the adventure/criminal case itself – a marketing strategy to extend the life of the series, especially on commercial-dependent networks and aspiring television stations. Our hero/heroine is just fine as they are. This is also the reason behind ensemble casting – there’ got to be someone in that ornery bunch that you like and identify with, isn’t there!