Seven Seasons – Variations

Variations

A while back, we defined “seasons” as a particular chunk of story with particular attributes. Much like an “act” in a movie. We then took you through all the different attributes of each season.

The seasons are defined by these attributes, it’s what makes a particular season different from the rest. This is an important distinction to understand when “variations” come into play.

Here at Story Shamans we make a clear distinction between a show’s “season”, based on structural content, and a show’s “year” based on the schedule in which it was released to an audience.

Ideally, your “seasons” and your “years” would line up perfectly.

Like we see with:

  • The Shield
  • The West Wing
  • The Wire
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Sons of Anarchy

But, a “year” of a show and a “season” of a show won’t always be the same thing.

When this happens, it’s called a “variation.”

These variations come in many forms:

  • Continued Season
  • Season Jump
  • Mislabeled Season
  • Mash-up Season

Continued Season

When a season of content keeps on going into the next year.

The content should shift from one year to the next, moving the story forward from one season to the next. But with the “continued season” variation – it doesn’t.

It just keeps the same season content, across two (or more) years.

Dexter did this with its last year. Their season 8 is really just season 7 continued. Their season 7 started in year 7, and continued on through to year 8. It was just a big two parter.

One Tree Hill did the same thing for its fourth year. Year 4 wasn’t season 4, it was season 3 continued. Everybody is still in high school, playing out the events of their senior year, dragging out that first era.

Season Jump

When you jump to the next season, mid year.

Maybe you’re in season 4 and it turns out you’re getting cancelled. You don’t want to end your story on all the weirdness and shake up of season 4. So half-way through the year, you jump to season 5 content, to close out the era and the show.

This is exactly what The O.C. did. Year 4 starts out with our main characters living their post-high school lives. Scattered and grieving the loss of Marissa. That’s “change of circumstances,” “disbandments,” and “beginning of new era.” All season 4 stuff.

Then at the midpoint of the year, they resolve all of this stuff and jump straight into season 5 content:

Ryan’s Dad Frank comes to town to patch things up with his son – “family” and “salvation.” Ryan finds emotional solace in his new relationship with Taylor – more “salvation.” Sandy and Kirsten are going to have another baby – more “family.” Julie is dating both Bullit and Frank and has to choose between them. Will she marry for money or love? – “impossible decision.”

The show clearly transitions from season 4, straight into season 5. All in one year.

Prison Break did the exact same thing in their fourth year. Halfway through, they resolve the season 4 content, and move full-on into season 5 content.

Mislabeled Season

Imagine your favorite show is truckin’ along.

  • Year 1 = season 1
  • Year 2 = season 2
  • Year 3 = season 3
  • Year 4 = season 4
  • Year 5 = season 5

And then suddenly, the coming episodes are being advertised as “season 6 part 1,” and then “season 6 part 2” after that.

This variation is just a quirk of labeling.

It typically has nothing to do with the actual content and “seasons” of the show.

We see this happen with:

  • The Sopranos
  • Entourage
  • Nip/Tuck
  • Rescue Me
  • Mad Men
  • Breaking Bad
  • Teen Wolf
  • The Walking Dead

For The Sopranos, their seasons matched their years, all the way up until the end – when suddenly they had “season 6 part 1” and “season 6 part 2.” That’s what the marketing team called them anyway. But really, content-wise, it was just season 6 and season 7.

With Entourage, their season 3 was supposedly broken up into “season 3 part 1” and “season 3 part 2.” But structurally, it was really just season 3 and season 4.

These distinctions are usually business decisions, not creative ones.

Mash-Up Season

With the “season jump” variation, we saw clear examples of shows blowing through two seasons worth of content, over the span of one year. And they did it sequentially. Year 4 of The O.C. first spent time on season 4 material, then moved on to season 5 material.

The “mash-up” is different. Instead of doing two seasons sequentially…

You’re doing two seasons simultaneously.

We see this in:

  • Veronica Mars
  • Alias
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Veronica Mars:

At the beginning of their third year, we see elements of both season 3 and season 4. Veronica is working a new case, chasing down a serial rapist. That’s “power,” “sexual violence,” – exactly what you would expect in a season 3. But she’s also starting college. That’s “shake up,” “even trade of characters,” – exactly what you would expect in a season 4. It’s both seasons, at the same time. Structurally, you would expect one more year of high school playing out season 3 elements. But they’re jumping the gun and incorporating season 4 ideas as well. This is a classic “mash-up.”

When looking at different shows, you’re going to see all kinds of variations. And quite often, you’ll see more than one type of variation during a show’s run.

Veronica Mars had a crazy third year.

Year 3 started as a mash-up of seasons 3, and 4. Then it jumped fully into season 4 territory. Then briefly jumped to season 5, right at the end there. That’s 3 seasons, all in one year.

Alias had a couple of variations as well.

Over the course of the show they had…

  • A “jump” variation: Year 2 = season 2, then season 3.
  • A “mash-up” variation: Year 5 was simultaneously seasons 6 and 7.

Take a look at the new Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009).

It’s nuts. Once you think you’ve got a firm grasp on the seven seasons, go ahead and watch Battlestar Galactica‘s 4 year run and see if you can piece together just how many seasons they cover.

I’ll give you a hint: It’s all 7.

There are all kinds of combinations and permutations of the seven seasons and how they work across the years a show is on the air. It works best when each year corresponds to each season of a story. But some times, as a matter of necessity, variations are needed.



Season 1 (part 1) – Identity

Season 1

Let’s take a look at its…

Dramatic Structure:

There are 3 areas of concern:

Here, we’ll be focusing on:

Connection

In season 1, there is a pervasive general theme of connection.

Seasons 3, 5, and 7 have it as well. Each with their own unique expression of this connection idea. But here in season 1, this connection theme is expressed through:

“Identity”

There are two common ways, in which long form stories tend to express this “identity” theme in the context of connection:

  • Establishing Your Character’s Old Identities vs. Their New Identities
  • Establishing Character Roles

Old Identities vs. New Identities

When we first begin a story we need to explore the differences and similarities between who a character was before the story began, and who they are now after the story has started.

By contrasting their new identity against their old, you’re establishing a stronger connection, for the audience, to this new person that they’ve become.

You have all of season 1 to demonstrate to your audience who a character is, and who they were. Take your time, let it all unravel until you have a dynamic, multi-layered, individual.

In Breaking Bad, we’re shown a kindly high school chemistry teacher. In the very first episode, he discovers he has cancer. He turns to cooking meth to afford his cancer treatment – to stay alive and provide for his family.

His actions with cooking and selling meth contrast highly with his everyday facade as a law-abiding husband and teacher. Who he was. This contrast connects us, as an audience, to the person Walt has become now that he’s dying of cancer. We connect to and follow this new identity – this man willing to cook meth to make ends meet.

Let’s put our peepers on Mad Men. They did something similar, but in a different way.

In Mad Men, we spend season 1 getting to know Don Draper. Establishing his identity as the stoic and talented advertising man.

At the same time, we are also exposed to flashbacks of Don’s history. His given name isn’t even Don Draper. It’s Dick Whitman. He grew up poor and has a half-brother named Adam. A brother Don now wants nothing to do with. All of this is a demonstration in contrasting the new identity that we primarily spend time with in season 1, with the old identity from before the show began. Don Draper vs. Dick Whitman.

These dueling identities will persist throughout the run of the show, so it has to be established right here at the beginning – in season 1.

Character Roles

Stories have a whole roster of characters.

When you’re first starting out and introducing all of these characters, it’s a great idea to establish for them a specific role they serve in the story. A role they play in the group dynamic. This role connects them in a unique way to the other characters.

Once you’ve established a character’s role, their “identity,” you can then play with that identity later on down the line in other seasons.

We see this clearly in Sons of Anarchy.

Each character has a specific role to play in the club. This role defines them in a lot of ways. These roles establish the dynamic within the organization.

In season 1:

  • Clay is the President.
  • Jax is the V.P.
  • Tig is the Sergeant-at-Arms.
  • Bobby is the treasurer.
  • Aspiring members are labeled “prospects.”
  • The real girlfriends and wives are called “old ladies,” while club groupies are called “crow eaters.”

In a story like this, we see very clear roles defined for the different characters. They’re slotted into those roles. Those identities.

In a less clear-cut way you see the same ideas at work in a show like Entourage.

In season 1:

  • Vincent Chase is the famous movie star.
  • E is his business manager.
  • Johnny Drama is his older brother/less successful fellow actor.
  • Turtle is his driver/hanger-on friend.

Within the group, everybody knows where they stand. And for the audience, it gives them a base-line understanding of these characters’ identities.

In season 1, you want to dive in and deal with your character’s identities.