Apparent quality versus addictiveness of a series

Saw this post from cartographer, where she talks about spoilers and how she is getting more interested in good writing than:

trawl through hours of quite-good just for the big reveal at the end

(I know it’s nearly month ago, but I’m only catching up on some posts now).

Of course, she’s talking about Harry Potter, a series I’ve yet to go near. I thought I was just being peculiar in my book-buying habits but there is part of me that, in general, distrusts certain types of series. I’m not just talking about novels, but roleplaying books, TV shows and movies.

I’ve always been more engaged by a short concise format for a series then a never-ending or over-long one: a definitive beginning and a definitive end with in a short enough time frame, such as the recent The Lost Room (TV).

I tried to grasp what it was that makes me distrusts such series by performing this thought exercise and formulating it into a sort of rule or law:

The longer a series continues, the probability of disappointment reaches zero.

This is true. The longer something goes on, the greater the chance that I’ll find something I don’t like about it. Nothing’s perfect. But this isn’t what I’m after. A series can dip and come back stronger. No there is something else. So I started thinking about the various series I’ve loved and hated: The Matrix movies, all six Star Wars movies, Lost (TV), X-Files (TV), World of Darkness (RPGs), Discworld (Novels), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV) etc. All these series I eventually turned my back on them or they left a bitter taste in my mouth. They all had a certain strong addictive quality, a fanboy-ism and hype that seemed to throw me eventually off them… many were based on “the big mystery”, like Lost and X-Files. Others had a evolving and alluring mythos, such as World of Darkness and Star Wars. It might have been the tired formula and decreasing impact of the “hit” that turned me. They are like a drug where each “hit” has less and less high which has the knock-on effect of increasing the demand/addiction for more, which further gives the appearance of the series getting worse.

As a series, with a high addictive quota, continues, the apparent quality of the series will decrease.

Where “addictive quota” is generally anything fanboy-inducing, be it a rich setting, a big unanswered mystery/conspiracy, a never-reaching but alluring climax, etc. essentially a element that keeps you coming back for more, whats going to happen next, kind of thing. But this isn’t necessarily correct either. A series can maintain “apparent quality” even with a big mystery. For example the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Star Trek Next Gen. I nearly considered Farscape in that list but that got canned so perhaps the quality didn’t decrease to a level that turned me off.

Of course, what I mean by “apparent quality” is subjective viewer experience of the series. The quality of the series could be consistent through, but from a user experince of it and the decreasing power of the hit, the subjective quality decreases. However in my experience, the quality objectively seems to suffer a bit.

Anyway lets try to rewrite the rule:

As a series, with a high addictive quota, continues with no fundamental change in premise, the apparent quality of the series will decrease.

H.P. Lovecraft didn’t write a series with the same set of characters. Each short story stood on it’s own, yet each shared a similar formula. In a similar vein, Star Trek Next Gen comprised of lots of short stories (of course nostalgia could be playing it’s part here and making me look back with rose-tinted glasses). Stargate have regularly changed the major antagonist and so by fundamentally changed their premise. However, in the case of Stargate for me, I never got into it so I would have never noticed the quality dipping.

So, the trick, it would seem, is to have a big enough dramatic change or end of story before the “apparent quality” of the series decreases. In the case of Lost it might mean actually revealing something concrete. For World of Darkness… they simply waited too long, for me as a viewer of the series, before changing their formula and ending their big-mystery-story. There is a danger that it’s only the addictive quality that has you watching and if you stop watching, the addiction fades away and the subjective lack of quality is all that is left.

Sure some people have a greater tolerance before the quality decreases which means they are more willing to wait till that big change or the end arrives. Most normal people’s tolerance is not high. My wife got bored of Lost within the first episode of the second series. It took me at least 4 episodes or so. Even when I tuned in to the finale of series two, I found, nothing seemed to have changed! I’ve heard people saying the latest season or finale is brilliant and well worth it, but my subjective view of the quality of show is so low now I can barely work up the interest to switch it on. And of course, in the case of TV, people often start watching later in the series and so their tolerance takes them further than someone who started from the beginning. I think also, as a child and teenager, my tolerance was much much higher or perhaps the impact of each hit was greater so it took longer before I noticed the series going bad.

If I had the time I’d draw a graph, where you have a viewer’s subjective quality and their level of ‘hit’ and as the level of hit dips and goes below quality, quality decreases. Once that happens, if you stop the addiction, a viewer lose interest.

All these does explain why I have developed a general distrust of majorly hyped series such as Harry Potter and why I avoid them, I think. I could be simply spouting nonsense too! :)

So what does this mean for a “good” series?

Well simply, a series must change. It can’t depend on the big mystery or that one bad guy to keep it going so long. It has to regularly dramatically change. Well you can, if you get the right audience I think, but you have to be careful then.  If you fail to provide a big enough hit later, some of the audience may find themselves wondering what they thought was great about the series in the first place.

So I wonder… would the Prisoner have been a cult hit if it hadn’t been canned?

(Small side note, I don’t think this affects actual roleplaying chronicles or games. When you play an RPG, I think, the hit is so different, self-generated if you will and so it can maintain the same level as long as the players don’t get too jaded.)

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