Many television critics have been bemoaning the death of the episode in TV lately. As our culture shifts to online, streaming, and binge watching, the episode has become less of a chapter and more of a sentence in the seasonal books we watch. More and more the shows we watch resemble 10-hour movies rather than episodic television. The flip side of that is that our movies are starting to resemble the episodic television we’re more accustomed to.
On the surface level these are driven by two different goals. Television is increasingly embracing the streaming platform’s structure of releasing a whole season in one go, which encourages long periods of watching, which doesn’t have as much need to break up the story into chunks like network television does. Movies, meanwhile, are caught up in the desire to be like Marvel, and create a shared cinematic universe. It’s the reason Captain America: Civil War is able to build on the characters, relationships, and events that people have been watching play out for almost a decade on the silver screen, or why The Force Awakens was able to exist paradoxically as a reboot, a sequel, and a retelling without fully standing on its own.
But underneath it all it’s the same principle: To get people obsessed with your content. Marvel has always understood that building out narratives across issues and decades creates generations of fans. Star Wars invented modern blockbuster culture because it turned out to be a smash hit. Shows like Bloodline, Sense 8, and beyond are able to take advantage of the interest in telling long-form stories and connecting (deeply) with characters week-after-week to use whole seasons as pilots instead of one episode. And so they borrow strategies that worked for the other in order to build their medium up. Similar to the way genres have started to bleed into each other, formatting now is as well; blockbuster movies are more often than ever before just episodes of a longer story being told across a franchise, and television is just an imagined story that functions more like building a puzzle rather than a daisy chain each week.