In defence of ‘monster of the week’ episodes

While TV shows nowadays tend to concentrate on building complex mythologies, what's wrong with the odd one-off monster?

There was a time when the Monster of the Week was the standard format for genre television. There might be some character development across the series, but from week to week each plot stood alone and the audience didn’t need to have seen the previous week’s episode to understand a new story. There were exceptions and special cases of course. Classic Doctor Who was serialised, and some shows like The Prisoner, while largely following a distinct narrative each week, also incorporated ongoing plot progression, an ongoing story arc. But for the most part, you could tune in to a show a month after you last saw it and still know what was going on.

Due to a variety of factors including the increasing popularity of video recorders throughout the 1980s, things started to change. The name ‘Monster of the Week’ comes from writing relating to The X-Files, as the phrase was used to distinguish between one-shot stories and episodes relating to the alien conspiracy myth arc. Several 1990s shows, such as Stargate SG-1, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Farscape, followed this model and combined ongoing story arcs with monster of the week episodes. While The X-Files floundered a bit when its myth arc became rather convoluted, many of these shows produced strong, compelling story arcs that culminated in dramatic, emotionally resonant season finales.

This continuing trend has produced some fantastic television over the years, but I believe it has had one rather unfortunate side effect, namely, the de-valuing of the monster of the week episode. From the late 1990s onwards, these episodes have frequently been referred to as ‘filler’ episodes, implying that they are somehow worth less than story arc episodes. Good ones may be praised as being surprisingly good for a filler episode, while bad ones are criticised partly for being a filler episode. Shows that don’t use this format can be criticised on that basis alone, and if characters fail to mention the events of the previous week’s episode in the following episode, they can be accused of pressing the dreaded reset button.

In extreme cases, show-runners have started to produce more and more episodes based around ongoing plot arcs relating to the main characters, on the grounds that episodes about the main characters are always the most popular with the fans. It’s true that episodes whose plots revolve around something deeply significant to a main character will always be the most popular – but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can get the fans to love every single episode by making them all about the main characters. Take Quantum Leap, for example. Fan favourites episodes of that show often include those revolving around Sam or Al; M.I.A., The Leap Home, A Leap for Lisa. But Quantum Leap simply couldn’t work as a series if every episode was about something deeply personal to Al or Sam. Just because fans like episodes focused on personal crises for the main characters doesn’t mean they want to see that every week.

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Of course, every show has to find the format that works best for that particular series. Some shows combine story arcs with monsters of the week very effectively. Other shows tell an ongoing story in which every episode builds on the last and it is necessary to watch every week. This form of long-form story-telling has been around for a long time, chiefly in mini-series and book adaptations, a tradition continued today through hit series like Game of Thrones, which uses shorter, more tightly scripted and focused seasons to tell a story adapted from a specific book (or half a book). The format has also become popular in non-literary-based longer US-format seasons following the (initial) popularity of Lost, Heroes and 24. There’s nothing wrong with any of these formats and they are clearly the best option for some shows. However, I believe some shows could benefit from more monster of the week episodes and less of an emphasis on story arcs, and that no episode should be criticised on the basis of being a monster of the week episode alone.

Artistically, monster of the week episodes allow a show to tell a contained, focused story with a clear beginning, middle and end. Viewers can sit down to enjoy an episode of their favourite show knowing that they will get some resolution by the end of the episode (or by next week if it’s a two-parter). The show can also embrace a wider variety of styles and stories, so that if a viewer doesn’t like a particular episode because it’s not to their taste, they know there’s a good chance they’ll enjoy next week’s more. This is especially true of series with particularly broad-ranging concepts, like Doctor Who or Quantum Leap, but it is also true of series that stay more closely within one genre, as The X-Files might follow up a mutant serial killer story with a ghost story, or the various incarnations of Star Trek might follow up a technology-gone-wrong story with an alien-planet-based story.

There are also practical advantages to this form of story-telling. Most of us who spend time on the internet talking about science fiction shows are probably pretty tech-savvy and knowledgeable about the various options for following complex plots over a period of time, including catch-up services, Netflix subscriptions and so on. But there’s a whole world of people out there who haven’t the time or inclination to hook up their computer to their television (or arrange their furniture so they can sit and watch things on the computer together), who don’t pay for the services required to get catch-up services on their television or who simply haven’t got around to finding out about these things. Even when catch-up services are easily available, not everyone wants to have to work on squeezing in two hours of catch-up viewing before watching this week’s episode. Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to sit down and watch a show you haven’t seen in a while without wondering what on earth is going on.

Ultimately, like most things, it all comes down to personal preference. Some people will always prefer complex, long-form story-telling, some will always prefer more self-contained episodes, some will prefer one for one show but a different form for another show. So I suppose my point is that whatever your preference, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a monster of the week episode or an anthology show. Criticise episodes for being boring, criticise them for being stupid, criticise the plot for not making any sense, the acting for being terrible, the direction for making you feel sick, but maybe think twice before criticising something purely on the basis that it’s a ‘filler’ episode. They’re not completely without merit.

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