Back in the day, there was nothing I loved more than a soap opera wedding. It was a chance for the show’s many characters to come together, wear fancy clothes, and interact with each other in unexpected ways. Weddings were also a time for major storyline payoff, bringing together threads from various plot lines and twisting them together in a satisfying culmination of drama, suspense, romance, or tragedy (often all four at once.) The best part… the weddings went on for days. The writers let the storylines build slowly against the backdrop of the wedding. If they really did it right, they could milk weeks worth of stories out of pre-wedding activities, the ceremony itself, and post-wedding fallout. The same held true for funerals, births, and courtroom trials. Talk about appointment television. You didn’t want to miss a moment.
I don’t watch soaps anymore, but I still believe the best serial dramas are the ones that take their time to tell their stories.
Take Dawson’s Creek, Season Three: The first episode of the season ends with the enduring image of Pacey and Joey sitting side-by-side on the dock of the now-famous creek. Joey’s crying because she’s been dumped by Dawson. Pacey’s hurting because his girlfriend is in a mental institution. As Joey bemoans the fact that Pacey—her former adversary—is seeing her like this, he puts his arm around her and says, “It’s a new year. Who knows? You and I might even become friends.” The seed was beautifully and delicately planted.
The showrunners spent the next eleven episodes slowly building up their friendship. By episode 12, Pacey realizes he has feelings for Joey. Five more episodes of hidden longing and yearning from afar. The couple has their first kiss in episode 17. This was followed by six more episodes of angst with Pacey and Joey finally getting together in episode 23 (the last of the season appropriately titled “True Love.”) It’s a new year, indeed! The season-long build up was slow and simmering, and it made the payoff all the more enjoyable for fans. I still remember squealing with delight when Pacey and Joey literally sailed off into the sunset together.
Six years later I fell in love with a new show—Glee—but something’s not right. I love the music and dancing, but I don’t feel the same connection to the characters or their stories. There have been a few storyline moments that have grabbed my attention, but they always seem to fizzle. Here are three examples from season three. (Take special note of the duration of each storyline.)
- At the very end of episode 14, Quinn Fabray is hit by a car while texting. She spends five episodes in a wheelchair before suddenly regaining the ability to walk. For one or two scenes she keeps this a secret (to gain sympathy votes for Prom Queen) until she triumphantly stands up to perform on Prom Night. This storyline was barely mentioned again.
- In episode 18 it is abruptly and heartbreakingly revealed that Coach Bieste is being physically abused by her husband. Two episodes later she leaves him. The painful aftermath of her abusive marriage has not been addressed to date.
- In perhaps the most egregious example of a rushed storyline, Puck falls for his teacher (and adoptive mother of his baby) in episode 6. They consummate their relationship in episode 7. By episode 8 it’s all over. Shelby leaves town and we never see or hear from her again, let alone the fallout from her affair with a student.
Paralyzed accident victims… domestic abuse… underage affairs… do you know what a field day soap opera writers would have had with these storylines?!? Actually, you probably do know, because each of these stories has been played out numerous times on many soaps. But each plot line would play out over months instead of a mere three episodes. How can the writers of Glee expect us to care about a story that’s over before any of the complicated emotions are explored? (It should be noted that Dawson’s Creek took on the teacher/student affair storyline in season one, but spent the whole season telling the story. Still ridiculous in many ways, but at least you were invested in what happened.)
I get it. You’re worried that kids these days have short attention spans. With texting and YouTube and everything else they’re watching, you have to grab their attention before it strays. But I think Glee is missing the mark with their breakneck pace. Slow down. Take your time crafting your characters… all of them. Not just your favorites. If you want a show with such a large cast, give them something to do. Write good stories for them, let the stories build, and give us a satisfying payoff. We promise… we’ll care.