The use of continuity in a TV show is a tricky business. Oftentimes viewers can be frustrated by continuity errors, while an overly complex continuity can often drive viewers away from picking up a show partway through its run. Properly used, however, it is a powerful way to build up a solid and loyal fanbase.
Continuity as a drawing tactic for a show is a relatively modern phenomenon, which can possibly be traced back to the show Twin Peaks in the early 90s. Prior to this, most shows featured continuity to some degree, but often the situation in the show was that the status quo was king. With the exception of soap operas that featured long, involved and often mocked plots, missing an episode of a show meant no real disadvantage, as the starting point for any episode (except the occasional two-parter) was guaranteed to be identical.
The first real cracks in this setup appeared with the show Twin Peaks in 1990. While the show often used soap opera conventions to help viewers realise the ongoing nature of the plot, it was clear that this was an entirely new type of beast. The show also showed some of the perils of this arrangement when the resolution of the main hook of the show (the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer) was resolved, and the evolving continuity of the show lost its focus. This was a pitfall that the next series to blaze this trail, the X-Files, managed to avoid only to find an entirely new pitfall instead. While it had the episodic nature of the old procedurals, the X-Files sought to weave a broader narrative from episode to episode, with hints doled out as to the underlying purpose of what was truly going on. This proved to be a much more sustainable tactic for drawing in viewers, although the pitfall in this case was that the lack of any substantial payoff alienated viewers after too long simply subsisting on scraps. Regardless, the simple conclusion was reached – continuity could often equate to loyalty from viewers.
In this light, then, I’d like to look at two shows that used continuity in two very different ways, and how that usage led to very different attitudes from the fans of the show. One, Lost, made it very clear that continuity lay at the heart of the show. The other, Stargate, simply maintained a continuity, which in the end could be why it managed greater success.
Lost was, at its heart, a mystery show. What the mystery even was, however, was part of the mystery itself. The core concept – a group of relative strangers marooned on a deserted island – provided the initial drama, as the mysteries surrounded their prior lives were intertwined with the greater mystery of the island. The formula proved explosive, and the show was wildly popular. Fan sites sprouted up picking on every detail of the show and spinning wild theories. Clearly, the show could never hope to match up to this level of frenzy, and while it lasted five years and launched a flock of would-be imitators, every flaw and mis-step was highlighted, tainting even the exciting early part of the run in people’s memories.
Stargate, on the other hand, never really aspired to be more than an adventure show. One gets the feeling that it would have been perfectly happy to follow the old “situation reset” model of years gone by, but those days were gone. And so the show built on itself – the tale of a single group of intrepid adventurers sent out to a new frontier inescapably built up into a galaxy spanning saga in which Earth’s secret starships played a decisive role. All of this in a series that lasted twice as long as Lost and spawned two spinoffs (one successful, one somewhat less so) as well as several feature-length follow ups. And while continuity was a core part of that success, it was not a necessity. Lost might make the resolution of a series 2 mystery a core part of a season 4 episode, which would lose its impact to those who did not recall the mystery. Stargate, on the other hand, could make a season 2 discovery the solution to a season 4 problem, but it never made it a necessity to know what the original circumstances of the discovery had been. As a consequence, viewers were still able to overlook the gaps in the show’s universe, the chief of which was clearly its complete ignoring of the language barriers that interstellar travel would cause. In the world of Stargate, the universe spoke English – and we were okay with that.
So what does this prove? Not much. The difference between the two shows may be responsible for one’s immediate wild success followed by later stagnation, and the latter’s long running low level success, but all that really tells us is that different methods achieve different results. The key lesson, perhaps, is that shows that simply use their continuity can get by without relying on it, while those who live by continuity can, in the end, die by it.