Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Did you know that I watch TV shows? Holy hell, it's true! Did you also know that I'm a giant geek? No, the full-size replica of Sting (the sword, not the singer/actor/addonis) hanging on my wall isn't for home defense. So it follows that I probably like sci-fi (not SyFy, as certain networks have been forced to call it) shows.

Why then has nobody told me before now how incredibly awesome Babylon 5 is?

What TV does far, far better than movies is long form narrative. If you have a two hour movie, you can only tell so much story. Even if you have three three-hour films, you're still limited in scope. However, if you have multiple 13 or 22 hour-long episode seasons, you can tell a crap ton of story. I like story, so I like TV that tells long stories.

Of course, most shows don't. If you sit down in front of an hour of Law and Order from season 8, then watch and episode from season 3, it probably won't matter. They'll probably also be the same episode. Good TV will tell a story over the course of the season. Things change in meaningful ways between the first and last episodes.

Great TV tells stories that have implications across multiple seasons, but not always in the same way. Think of a story as an arch. Most TV (think Law and Order) has an arch that stretches over a single episode. That's fine, but those kinds of shows are like popcorn, and ultimately, they're forgettable. Even excellent shows like The Simpsons do this.

Shows that tell a season-long story still have the short, episode arches, but each of those small arches also goes into a bigger, season-long arch. Buffy and 24 are examples of this. You really can't watch those shows out of order, or you start to miss things.

Which brings us to Babylon 5. This show was on for 5 seasons. One guy wrote them. The amazing part? He knew how the series was going to end before he wrote the first episode.

Think about that. This guy must have had a massive pair of brass balls. I can't imagine walking into a network exec's office and saying "I have an idea for a sci-fi show that's not Star Trek that will last for five seasons, and tell one complete story in that time." It would never happen in today's landscape. It's a minor miracle that it happened back in 1994. But someone gave him a tiny budget and Bruce Boxlietner, and let him have at.

It's brilliant. This show is essentially one large story arch that extends from season 1 to season 5. At first blush, a lot of episodes in the first season come across as one-offs that don't tie in. Then, two seasons later, something that happened in the first season suddenly turns out to be a pivotal moment. Because he planned everything out, he's able to do actual, honest to God foreshadowing in ways that are just never seen in TV. It's like reading a well-constructed novel over the course of five years.

Of course, it's not perfect. The show was done in 1994 on a budget of $5 and baling twine (they couldn't afford shoe strings). The acting is sometimes iffy (though often brilliant), and the special effect are...well...quaint. But once you get past all that, it's one of the best TV shows I've ever seen. Just thought you should know.


Andrew said...

Haha, yeah, I love the space combat parts that were probably rendered on a 486, and had graphics that resembled TIE Fighter. Good god that was an awesome show. I'm kinda jealous, you get to watch the whole thing without commercial breaks or retarded baseball games displacing your episodes...

Mike said...

Dude, I've been raving about this show on OO forever. If you weren't paying attention, that's your problem. ;-)

Glad you finally found it, though. It's all kinds of awesome. If you like comics at all, Straczynski has written quite a few that are now available in trade paperbacks and such. Rising Stars, Spider Man - you'll come to recognize some of his favorite/pet themes after a while, and even his penchant for corned beef with mustard, but the writing's always excellent.