Billy Wilder used to say that if you thought you had a problem with the third act of a story then the problem was invariably in the first (act). Basically a story has to be constructed in such a way as there is a pay off at the end that relates back to elements at the beginning in order for it to be satisfying. This suggests that stories are finite and that their length and form is determined by their openings, which makes a certain degree of sense to me. But what happens when your story has to run an indefinite length and still have to be satisfying?
It’s a limitation that I see in comics and television. TV is generally commissioned on a season by season basis, so may have to wrap up in a given year or keep plate spinning indefinitely. It tends to make things disintegrate either into a wholly static experience in which the overall story is never advanced or a ludicrous series of digressions that undermine the underpinning story and leave you no longer caring if they reach resolution. In the only two shows I watch that have any pretence of having a definite story but are open ended as to length they both approach this as an overreaching conspiracy.
Overreaching has two meanings, and both are wholly appropriate here. I watch the Mentalist, which is a not very good program in which a fictional crime fighting agency ignores rules as the plot dictates and engage in a seventies style chase of suspects every episode but has a titular character he elevates it from near spoof to compelling television. Unfortunately the story trying to hold it all together has a serial killer (usually a particularly solitary occupation) having enough reach and allies to be able to organise a putsch rather than just torment the protagonist.
Castle, which I suspect knows its time is limited, has a cop investigating her mother’s death that implicates large swathes of the establishment and frequently causes for jarring tone shifts. One of the reason I suspect the show runners know that their time is nigh is that they have taken steps to wrap up the conspiracy and shift the dynamic of the show. It could be they’re casting around for a new direction, but it could be that they are moving towards wrapping everything up.
Other shows, which I have never watched, I understand to have the same problem. The Fugitive was based on the search for a man guilty of murder, Lost was all based on a mystery/conspiracy and many shows disintegrate into a mass of teeming contradictions in order to satisfy the suggestion of having an overall story (The X-Files, I am sure, falls into this category). It’s a sign of the limitation of the form and the uncertainty of where the first act ends and where the third act begins. An arc is a parabola, and the way Western stories tend to be structured. Unfortunately episodic storytelling is often thoroughly linear until it heads a dead-stop or is derailed. The conspiracy is an attempt to marry these disparate disciplines. Unfortunately it often breaks both.