29 November 2020


One of the most misquoted observations about television goes something like this, depending on who you ask, "Television is a medium in that it is neither rare nor well-done." Whoever said it and whatever their exact word choice may have been, it bears asking how they'd feel about the streaming and on-demand services. 

The two most influential animated shows of the early 90's were Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men. Between them, many would consider Batman the superior show, if only because of staying power. This is ironic because Batman stuck to a mostly episodic structure with little to no continuity between episodes. X-Men, by contrast, tried to weave season-long story arcs more in line with their comic book source material. Episodes were rarely if ever self-contained. The execution ultimately fell flat, but this failure was a product of its time. The two most important factors to consider were the general public's perception of animation as a medium for children, and the simple fact that the internet (as we know it) didn't exist. These were the dark days of broadcast media, when a show would air, possibly be repeated, and if you were very lucky would receive a physical release. Beyond that, you were on your own. There were no on-demand services beyond cable's Pay-Per-View, and that was typically reserved for newly-released movies and certain sporting events. 

What this meant in terms of a viewing experience was a fairly significant portion of each episode's runtime starting off with a recap. "Previously, on X-Men" came to precede every episode before the opening titles. What I remember most about these was how narrowly I understood the idea of "previously." Of course, it would only make sense that Part 3 of a plot arc would recap what happened in Part 2 and maybe even touch back on Part 1. What always threw me for a loop, if briefly, was something like Part 15's recap touching back on Part 1 and more or less Part 1 alone. It made me think I was watching Part 2. As I said, this was only confusing very briefly, and given the idea of taping the episodes on your VCR was somewhat of a rare thing to do, it made sense to bring people up to speed on the return of a character we hadn't seen since Part 1. 

I thought back to this today while binging the new season of The Mandalorian. At the time of this writing, only 5 episodes of the new season were available as Disney+ has chosen to go for a weekly doling out of episodes rather than all at once. I don't know if they did this for the first season or not, being a bit late to the party. I have mixed feelings about the practice of releasing a show piecemeal rather than all-at-once. There's certainly reason to believe Disney+ is doing this to keep people subscribed to the service for longer, but the seasons aren't long enough for this to have any long-term benefit. I'll certainly have plenty of time between the last episode of the season and when I let my subscription lapse to switch over to HBOMax in time for the release of Wonder Woman 84. Once that lapses, I'll simply wait for Mandalorian season 3 to renew. 

Thus far, the new season has been very enjoyable, and there's a good sense of growth in terms of the show's scope. Season 1 came across very timid as far as the world-building went, keeping the references to other Star Wars series to a minimum so as not to alienate newcomers and more casual fans. Some felt this reduced Star Wars to an aesthetic, hastily slapped over a western gunman/wandering samurai story, calling the overall approach formulaic or otherwise playing it safe. In its defense, nobody involved in the show has shied away from wearing their influences on their sleeves. Bryce Dallas Howard joked about falling asleep during a meeting her father had with Akira Kurosawa, which makes her directing the episode The Sanctuary rather sweet, like an apology to the man responsible for 7 Samurai, imitation as flattery or however you want to phrase it.

For better or for worse, Season 2 has moved past the "Like X, but it's Star Wars" paradigm, broadening the scope to include references to the animated Rebels series and its predecessor The Clone Wars. I never got into those series outside of a few clips here and there, but it takes quite a bit to get me invested in a TV series anymore. I think what I love best about The Mandalorian is how it embraces the freedom of the streaming platform when it comes to length. Some episodes push a full hour while some take only a handful of steps past the 30 minute mark, yet never once did I ever feel shortchanged. Even the weakest episode thus far in terms of plot (Chapter 10, The Passenger) didn't overstay its welcome, telling exactly the story it wanted to tell in exactly the time it needed. That said, both Chapter 10 and Chapter 12 suffered from padding in terms of recaps. Every chapter had a recap, but while some alluded to the preceding chapter, others alluded to events in season 1, and ultimately amounted to the show telling you, "Hey, you've seen this character before." Other recaps were more broad, simply serving reestablish the lore of this universe, "The Empire still exists (sort of), Mandalorians don't take off their helmets (until they do), and The Child is to be returned to his people (until... no spoilers here)." which is almost worse. 

First things first, season 1 is only 8 episodes. Compared to most dramatic series, this is sparse, and seems to exist mostly in the realm of Cable and Premium networks compared to the Hound or the Turkey or... whatever humorous nickname would work for ABC and CBS. Legion, for example, aired on FX (a basic cable spin-off of Houn, er... Fox) and also clocked in at 8 episodes for its first season. Even those felt a little padded since we were still dealing with time slots and commercial breaks. The non-linear approach to narrative justified the reuse of specific scenes in key places to emphasize plot points, and those reused shots were typically the ones with the most complex effects, so it's hard to stay mad at feeling shortchanged by the format. Moreover, I think Legion would have been a very different animal on a streaming service freed from the confines of runtime. It made use of the medium, while The Mandalorian is starting to feel held back despite it. 

It may well have been a few months since I last watched any episode of Season 1, but I did not need to be reminded of a character from Chapter 6 so I wouldn't be thrown for a loop when his severed head began speaking in Chapter 10 (don't ask, no spoilers). I certainly would have remembered someone from Chapter 1. Even if I didn't, it wouldn't have mattered as this character was so insignificant to events he could have been a new character altogether without a single word of dialogue being changed. 

The point is not everyone has that great a memory when it comes to episodic content, but the medium is no longer the hurdle to this issue. You can call up a previous chapter at literally the push of a button, and in the case of many newer shows that favor quality over quantity of episodes, it's not as if your binging buzz is going to be on life support. More importantly, the episodes should still work regardless of these references. 

To be completely fair, part of me wonders if these recaps have less to do with writers feeling like they're still beholden to old broadcast practices and more to do with the possibility of actually being beholden. What I mean is maybe The Mandalorian isn't as exclusive as Disney would prefer you to believe it is. 

For perspective, quite a number of shows on Netflix or Hulu labeled as "originals" are actually shows broadcast in other countries like Canada or the UK and are simply licensed to those platforms in certain regions. That is, Netflix is the distributor, having little to no involvement in the production proper. This was the case for the film Annihilation, which was released theatrically in the United States but on Netflix in other countries. I don't know how widespread Disney+ is compared to Netflix and Hulu, but I imagine there may be more than a few networks out there somewhere that would pay a pretty penny for the right to add The Mandalorian to their evening lineups, least of all if the streaming platform wasn't available for one reason or another. 

I know that idea is a bit of a stretch, but given the Byzantine legal and accounting practices of the film industry, it's hardly left-field. Maybe I'm just holding out hope for a boxed set to have on my shelf next to Legion.