False stakes welcome — The pointlessness of ongoing arcs in USA series

With Burn Notice‘s mid-season finale coming up this week, I’ve been thinking about the series’ approach to serialization and really how the whole batch of series across USA network approach ongoing arcs.

And as evidenced by the title of this post, you can guess how I feel about it.

This isn’t a new complaint. Critics across the web have wondered aloud if Burn Notice should just drop the “arcs” and stick to the fun, sun-drenched cases that keep the series afloat from week to week. The same could be said for White Collar, Royal Pains and even the smidgen of serialization that Psych attempts to drop in at the end of every season. Not one of USA’s series would falter if the little nuggets of information introduced and quickly taken care of in the first and last three minutes of episodes were simply erased. No one watches these series for those parts of the episode, generally most everyone in the critical community is ambivalent or annoyed and fans surely are not much different.

And thus, pointlessness. Back at the beginning of its run to cable supremacy, I’m guessing USA brass figured that integrating some semblance of ongoing story would both keep fans hanging on and add credibility to the content in an age when HBO was dominating with super-serialized products. But now, after Monk roped its audience into seven seasons of glacially paced stories before revealing the pilot’s biggest question in the series finale and Burn Notice‘s once-promising mythology is muddled beyond belief, I’d argue that the only thing this approach is doing is creating one group of false stakes after another.

Now, obviously, television is all about false stakes. Each series has its own rules, but when characters get put in danger, we know that there’s a good chance nothing will happen because the stories in television dictate that the lead people come don’t die and come back to fight another day. That’s fine, I think we can all live with that because those just the rules, you know?

But what USA does is something worse than that. Yes, individual episodes of White Collar or Burn Notice do put the lead characters in danger that we know they will get out of, but it’s more than that when it comes to the serialization. More times than not, especially recently, the ongoing plots on these series don’t actually put the lead characters in danger at all. Earlier on, we thought that figuring out who burned Michael Westen was legitimately essential to his survival — it really wasn’t. And from there, it’s only gotten worse. These days, what passes for an ongoing arc is a mish-mashed bunch of threads that don’t connect to anything. On Burn Notice, it doesn’t really matter to Michael, Fi or Sam that the new baddie played by Robert Patrick is off doing bad things in the world. Sure, they’re do-gooders who want to protect people, but it’s not as if Patrick’s character John Barrett was coming directly after them, until they provoked him, of course. On White Collar, it’s much of the same thing. Neal mopes around looking for Kate and then her killer, and admittedly that’s emotionally important to his character, but not something that deserves the attention it’s getting.

The ongoing arcs on USA series are particularly annoying at this juncture not only because the detached stakes, but how those lame stakes are executed. Instead of building to something, continuing stories on USA series meander, stumble forward into something else without revealing anything of substance. Burn Notice‘s strongest season is its second, which slowly and logically builds until the reveal about Management comes. There was actually light at the end of the tunnel. Since then? Nonsense. Conspiracies unravel on both Burn Notice and White Collar without little consequences, as bigger, “badder” people come into the picture until they lead to another piece of the puzzle that introduces an even bigger-er and badder-er person. It will never end, and I think that’s the point.

The intent of this type of storytelling is to hook us in and make us think we’ll be getting some great explanation at the end. This is why certain fans were angry with the final season of Lost. But with these series, the original execution of the mysteries in question were never the good in the first place, so there’s no reason to care or be enraged that Neal Caffrey hasn’t found Kate’s killer yet. There’s no real hook to any of it, no real drama of relevance. Just let it go, USA.

By Cory Barker

Assistant Professor, Bradley University


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