Why Worldbuilding Is Increasingly Important To TV Shows

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So Dan Wells wrote an essay on the terrible worldbuilding behind Almost Human, which really pulls apart all the lazy ways in which JJ Abrams set out to create a TV show.
It’s good.  Go read it even if you don’t watch the show.  It’s a very good explanation of how and why worldbuilding matters.
Now, it’s not that Almost Human is bad – well, actually, it kinda is.  Basically, it’s a show with one element that’s so strong it almost makes up for the rest of the show’s terrible decisions.  The chemistry between Karl Urban and Michael Ealy is delightful, that kind of practiced banter that makes you want to follow them around.  They get all the best lines, and they’re great actors, and I like welcoming them into my living room once a week.
But in the end, it’s like Almost Human didn’t get the message about what television is these days.
Television is investment from fans.
Which is to say that back in the 1970s, there was no way to re-watch an episode of television.  There were no DVRs, no VCRs, no DVDs, no Torrents – once that episode of Incredible Hulk aired, if the network chose not to re-run it, that was it.  Your ass was either in the seat at the moment the show started, or you weren’t seeing it.  TV was as transient as live music.
So every show had to be encapsulated.  You couldn’t rely on anyone knowing what the hell had happened last week, as there was no Internet you could use to catch up.  So each hour of show was designed to be a start-to-finish experience, like a little mini-movie, simple and formulaic, enjoyable if you’d never seen the show before.  Complex storylines simply didn’t happen – except in soap operas and kids’ serials, and even then they had lots of redundant exposition to ensure that nobody was lost.
Then recording happened.
And the Internet made research easy.  Enjoyable, even.
And suddenly you could rely on viewers to keep track of what happened, and shows started to become more complex.
None of this is new, obviously; many essays have been written on this topic before.  But the point is that Almost Human is weirdly wrapped in this candy shell of “Oh, this is new and different!” but its core is very much that “Hi, we don’t expect you tuned in before, so let’s explain everything and not have any real continuity.”
Yet what you don’t see discussed was that the worldbuilding was often built on that premise, for the few sci-fi shows that existed.  Basically, if a writer had a good pitch, it went in the show. Didn’t matter if this week’s super-premise was at odds with what we’d been told last week – it’s a cool idea, stuff it in, nobody cares whether it makes sense in context as long as it makes sense for this hour we’ve got to fill.  The reason Star Trek was so crazily popular was because it actually had nods to past history and a semi-consistent framework – the Klingons, the Romulans, Harry Mudd – but it still had a lot of random one-time Things that should have changed the nature of the universe that were quietly forgotten because this episode wasn’t part of a contiguous whole, but rather every episode was a singularity.
(I mean, seriously, Scalosian Water has no usage elsewhere?  I want to write the story of the super-secret Black Ops team that finds these universe-changing technologies and quietly removes them to prevent horrendous wars and imbalances of power.)
Which is how Almost Human treats the speculative elements.  Hey, is there a burgeoning market in sexbots?  Well, I mean, cops traditionally have marital issues, wouldn’t some cops be seriously addicted to the sexbot fulfillment?  Wouldn’t we see people walking around with sexbots, taking them out for coffee to the disgust of their fellow Starbucks patrons?  How would the semi-sentient robots deal with that evident facet of their slavery?
No, no, man, we have a story about sexbots.  We don’t want to think about all that other stuff, or even reference it in another episode.
Sexbots are just a way to kill this next 43 minutes.
But while you can go with that “worldbuilding is episodic” that’s an error, in these days.  I’m not saying every show needs to have the insane storylines of Sleepy Hollow (though ratings might suggest otherwise), but rather that if your universe introduces a technology, we should see how that universe is shaped by the technology.  People get off on that.
And it gives your show a more unique feeling.  I mean, the #1 complaint I hear about Almost Human is that it feels generic, and it is.  It’s a buddy cop show with science fiction trappings.  And while that might have worked back in the old days, these days viewers are searching for a world they can get hooked into – they don’t want just an hour, they want to fall in love with the whole season.
And when you skimp on worldbuilding, you skimp on an element that draws them in.  It’s a fannish hook: if you show how sexbots are treated in society outside of this singular element of the procedural, then you get fans going, “Hey, how do sexbots work when you’re a single guy dating?” and they start trading theories on Tumblr and expanding parts of your universe in their head, and suddenly they are rooted more deeply in your universe – in your show – than they would have been otherwise.
For Almost Human, what happens is that you rapidly come to realize is that nothing matters except in the context of this episode.  And that’s meh-see TV.  You wind up tuning in if you’ve got the spare time – and Gini and I work at home, we’ve got spare time – but it’s not the kind of thing where you hunch in front of the television going, “Aww, man, how’s this going to start?”
And that’s tough.  You’ve got to plan – not something TV shows are known for, mainly because it’s not necessarily rewarded.  If you’ve got great worldbuilding and crap characters, you’re doomed.  If you’ve got great worldbuilding and awful actors or poor plots or unfunny dialogue, you’re doomed.  Great worldbuilding alone will not save you.
But I think right now, we’re seeing a real schism.  You have the procedural TV shows wrapped in nerdy bits – both Almost Human and Agents of SHIELD have some stabs at ongoing plotlines, but really it’s all about this episode – and both are ratings disappointments.  Meanwhile, you have the bull-goose looniness of Sleepy Hollow, which may turn out to make no sense but goddammit we’ve got all of American history tied up in this shiz, a great mystic conspiracy that’s evoking George Washington like he was some sort of Abdul Al-Hazrad, and people are all like, Whoa, I have to see what happens.
There’s a lesson here.  Television is still evolving, rapidly so, from the concept that viewers might not just be able to follow a dense storyline, but might be eager to do so.  That’s shifted television from the simplest visual medium to its most complex, and shit like Almost Human doesn’t get a pass any more.  If you’re going to do something sci-fi or fantasy, you’ll have to put a bit of thought into it – or at least front like you do (*cough cough LOST cough*).
It’s not about this episode.  It’s about how this affects everything.  And if Almost Human had looked at the script pitches for all the planned episodes, and said, “All right, how do we put in a sexbot reference here, how’s this remote viewing thing for the jury work here, how do mechanical organ transplants work here?” and put in little nods in all the prior and future episodes, I almost guarantee you Almost Human would be doing better in the ratings.  Because we’d still have that Urban-and-Ealy chemistry, but it’d be backed by a world that felt like it was more than just a stage to stand on.
And we’d be watching.  Watching with intent.

2 Comments

  1. Carmel J
    Jan 22, 2014

    I think the show you are looking for may be Warehouse 13. It’s not exactly Black Ops or strictly technology, but if you want to see how they track down and deal with the book of a Borgia lady that’s turning modern people into… succubi for lack of a better term- that’s your show. Should be on Netflix streaming. Even more to your point they seem to start a longer arc after the first 10-12 episodes. (Which is where I stopped so I could show it to my husband. )

    • TheFerrett
      Jan 22, 2014

      I’ve heard good things, but there’s ALL THE SHOWS and only an hour or two a night.

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