In the days when cable was king, television shows had to produce episodes that were both essential and inessential at the same time. Each episode was a self-contained story that fit within a larger world. They all had to carry the overarching plot or character development forward, yet also be easily missed or dropped without confusing the audience. They often followed a similar formula so that fans could expect something similar yet different every time.
Comic strips, once primarily distributed via newspapers, had to have a similar flexibility that was dictated by the medium. In his retrospective collection Calvin and Hobbes Sunday Pages 1985-1995, Bill Watterson wrote that:
"The daily strips were sold separately from the Sunday strips, and newspapers did not always buy both. Consequently, readers might be seeing the whole story, all of the story except this strip, or this strip and none of the story. Thus, the challenge for me was to make this strip integral to the plot, yet entirely self-sufficient, yet utterly expendable."
Television episodes worked in much the same way. Not because the networks wouldn't air certain episodes (although that did happen when shows were bought and distributed by other markets), but because each episode was highly transient. They existed in a 20- to 50-minute block of time out of an entire season, and were not repeated until a rerun, thus individual episodes could be easy to miss.
Today, on demand has usurped cable's throne. "Channels" such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are now publishers as well as distributors, producing original shows in addition to serving up other publishers' media. And as the volume of these titles grows, we can see how the new format has changed the way these stories are told.
No longer forced to fill a fleeting moment of airtime, they are accessible at any time, anywhere, and on any connected device. Creators no longer have to worry about viewers missing an episode, they can simply go into the archives and catch up on what they missed, allowing for the narrative to occupy a larger arc that builds on itself rather than being born anew every week. Once disposable, each episode can now be essential, because the viewer has no excuse for not being caught up on the story. They can also go back and watch episodes over and over again, which gives creators the opportunity to pack in more information or nuance than older shows which had to keep information easier to digest in one viewing. Any parent can tell you that while in our childhood we were forced to watch an episode once and then move on as slaves to the Saturday morning schedule, kids today take full advantage of the luxury to watch the same episode over and over (and over) again.
Shows are also now released one full season at a time, rather than one episode at a time. This makes binge-watching possible, and further allows creators to skip the "recap" montage at the beginning of each episode. (Highly complex narratives like Game of Thrones still do recaps, not to catch viewers up on last week, but to remind viewers of the events from all previous episodes that are relevant to this week's story development.)
While today's on demand shows are still episodic by design, each one feels more like an 8-hour movie broken up into chapters. You wouldn't skip a chapter in a novel without expecting to be completely lost, and the same goes for the kind of stories that these digital channels now publish.
As technology provides convenience to audiences, creators can do more layered work that in the past would have been too much hard work for viewers. This not only provides more freedom to creators, it can also be a good investment strategy as well. In a 2013 letter that outlined the company's vision for streaming content, Netflix said:
"We believe we have a strong advantage over our linear competitors when it comes to launching a show. They have to attract an audience for Sunday at 8pm, say. We can be much more flexible. Because we are not allocating scarce prime-time slots like linear TV does, a show that is taking a long time to find its audience is one we can keep nurturing. This allows us to prudently commit to a whole season, rather than just a pilot episode. In addition, we are able to provide a platform for more creative storytelling (varying run times per episode based on storyline, no need for week to week recaps, no fixed notion of what constitutes a 'season'). We believe this makes it easier to attract talent."
It remains to be seen how technology like VR and interactivity will push storytelling, though we're beginning to get an idea. But for traditional cinema that has stretched into new realms of accessibility, flexibility on the part of the narrative is no longer required. The medium itself has become more flexible, giving TV show narratives room to grow.