The final stretch of Mad Men — and I write this having not yet seen the series finale — was uneventful: There was a finalized divorce and a terminal illness and at least three possible great, lasting love stories, and we watched Sterling Cooper and Partners being absorbed and dismantled by a larger agency, scattering its partners and employees to the wind (including Don Draper, who spent most of the last seven episodes preoccupied with a waitress and road-tripping West in a Cadillac). But it doled out plot in miserly increments as always, caring more about the why and how than the what, introducing major new characters whose personalities necessarily stole time away from the established ones, and generally seeming to take a Sopranos-like pleasure in thwarting what the audience craved: groups of beloved, established characters moving through a series of cathartic moments that popped one after the other like a string of firecrackers. In that sense, Mad Men, like Don himself, is one of the last of a dying breed of series. The newest, hottest TV-storytelling model is all about fan service, and it throws so much plot at viewers that the result sometimes recalls that old video game of the firefighter rushing up and down a sidewalk, catching falling babies in a basket.
Consider Fox’s smash-hit music drama Empire. Series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong laid out their premise in the first few minutes of the pilot — the ailing, King Lear–styled record mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) tests his three sons to see which would best lead his record company — then pressed the fast-forward button, piling incident upon incident to the point where each new “Next week on …” montage was so packed with intimations of Major Developments that it felt more like a preview of season two, or three. In every hour there were crosses and double crosses and alliances improvised and ruined, plus confessions, tirades, fistfights, and inebriated meltdowns so hilariously intense that they often became Vines and memes within hours of the episode’s debut. (The funniest saw Lucious’s tougher-than-leather ex-wife Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, poaching a recording artist from a rival by defeating him in a drinking contest, then collapsing in the backseat of an SUV with her legs in the air and urging a security man to “take a bite out of Cookie!”) The show burns through plot the way luxury-addicted pop stars burn through advances.
Empire’s narrative profligacy has become the preferred model of scripted TV. It’s a reaction to increased viewer sophistication — and impatience. TV writers live in constant low-level fear of being outguessed by fans, with reason. In the age of recaps and Facebook instant reactions and live-tweeting, everyone is a student of storytelling. They know the tropes and tricks because they’re a constant, often humorous topic of online chatter. We’ve been trained to know that when a character you haven’t seen in years gets mentioned in a “Previously on …” montage, they’ll show up in that episode with big news for one of the heroes, and that when a cranky or hissable character becomes halfway nice, he or she is probably due for a heart attack or cancer diagnosis or car wreck. Surprise and excitement therefore become products of timing. It’s no longer about what happens, or how, or why, but when. You predict what’s coming and at which moment, you discover whether you called it right or wrong, and you go online to crow or eat crow.
That’s why one of the most crudely satisfying reactions a show can summon is a sudden explosion of social-media profanity ignited by a plot twist: Holy shit, I can’t believe they killed him! It means the audience truly was invested, so much so that their customary jadedness went into remission. If the writers can’t quite earn a Holy shit, I can’t believe they killed him!, the next best thing is Holy shit, I can’t believe they killed him that quickly! This leads many modern series to punch the accelerator: faster, faster, faster.
The speed-demon impulse isn’t entirely new: Hits from the ’90s and aughts like ER and 24 dazzled audiences by seeming to fly through their worlds, their kinetic cameras catching large casts dealing with multiple, incident-packed, crosscut subplots. But what we’ve seen in the past decade is an exponential upping of the storytelling ante.
Shonda Rhimes’s back-to-back Thursday-night ABC dramas Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder have mastered this devious art. Watching devotees’ Twitter feeds during a season finale, you’d think Rhimes was standing in their living rooms zapping them with Tasers. Murder in particular has a state-of-the-art roller-coaster quality, flipping between past and present in the manner of a viewer binge-watching a linearly plotted program on Netflix or Hulu while shuttling back and forth to double-check salient details. Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified sped through plot twists and killed off significant villains and supporting characters at a startling rate; Justified had so much plot that discrete seasons sometimes felt like a couple of two-part mini-seasons fused together (think of how the final season killed off the main bad guy’s mercenary henchmen two-thirds of the way through and replaced them with a lone gunfighter). American Horror Story was the first horror series that seemed created with YouTube in mind, packing gigantic plot twists and Grand Guignol showstoppers into single episodes. Torture scenes, beheadings, lynchings, amputations, musical numbers: It’s all peaks, no valleys. Homeland is tonally a rather subdued, quiet series, but it, too, has a pedal-to-the-metal mentality that became apparent back in season one, when it took Carrie and Brody, characters that might have done a “Will they or won’t they?” dance for several seasons back in the ’80s or ’90s, and threw them into a soapy love story that started with a parking-lot tryst in episode six.
There is another approach, though, one that we’ve seen practiced on such diverse series as Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Knick, Masters of Sex, Hannibal, The Americans, and, yes, Mad Men: slow TV. What matters on these series is what’s happening inside the characters, not so much what they’re doing or what’s being done to them. Lay their respective incidents out on a time line, and you realize that things are moving at a rate that is, by the medium’s new standards, fairly methodical. The overtly dramatic moments (a lawn mower running over a man’s foot, a stunning one-take police raid on a housing project) are showstoppers, but the show goes on, and it’s never really about any single event. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and FX’s Fargo satisfy the Oh, shit! quotient with spectacular acts of violence while doling out actual plot quite meticulously, the better to focus on subtle, scene-by-scene psychic stirrings within the characters. The title character of Hannibal wasn’t exposed as a serial killer for two seasons, despite having been a direct or indirect participant in at least one gruesome murder per episode; the series is mainly interested in issues of deception, trust, and conflicting moral codes and philosophies, of which the violence is but one expression. The married spies on The Americans take part in espionage schemes and assassinations and seductions, but each season is ultimately about one very simple issue: the state of the marriage (season one), the relationship of the parents to their children (season two), and the relationship between the KGB and FBI operatives and their respective societies (season three).
None of this is to suggest that on a certain type of series, plot doesn’t matter, or that the main show is characterization and atmosphere, though critics (myself included) are fond of saying as much. Plot always matters, and, in a way, you could say it always matters most, even in seeming absentia, because a TV show’s relationship to plot is what defines its personality. In that sense, plot is character.
*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.