I’m absolutely fucking flabbergasted that I didn’t realize this until now. To start with, here’s a list of my top-tier favorite shows,in the mediums anime and cartoon (because I have no significant favorite live action shows):
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
The Venture Brothers
In case you’ve seen none, or too few of these shows, and the connection isn’t obvious: all of these shows have an episodic format with a loose overlying narrative (though the looseness between them is debatable). This doesn’t pervade all of the shows that I consider to be “favorites,” since those lists are quite long, but it *absolutely* pervades my top tier, to the point that this narrative structure could be considered a prerequisite to top-level favoritism from me.
What causes this? I think it mostly has to do with characters. I realized that 100% of the characters that I really care about come from shows with loose narrative structures, because those are the kind of characters that I can imagine in a capacity beyond what they do in the show. They are the kind of characters whose everyday life I can picture and interact with outside the narrative.
I don’t necessarily think this is a better or more interesting way of making characters by any stretch. Baka-Raptor has said forever that a character can only be a badass if they have a story which gives them badass things to do. The more scope and weight a story has, the more meaningful a character’s decisions are. However, I don’t tend to care about badass characters. I tend to care about characters more on a level of “what is their day to day life like” more than anything.
Now, a show can have both effects. I think that’s a big part of why the characters in The Wire are so fucking great. That show has a big narrative focus, but it takes a lot of breaks to just show the characters dicking around and being themselves, on every side of the conflict. A lot of dramas try to do this, but none does it anywhere near as well as The Wire does, in my book.
I think what’s great about a loose narrative is that it isn’t restrictive about what can happen in an episode, which means we get to see how the characters will react to a greater number of situations. In a show like Eureka Seven, or Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, there are a lot of small stories that are great, but all of them ultimately have to be relevant to a greater plot or character arc. In a show like MLP, they don’t have to be. An episode can just be about characters completely dicking around, or in K-On it can be as simple as, “how would these personalities interact with London?”
But these shows still have an overlying arc, because REAL LIFE ALSO HAS ARCS IN IT. Real life ISN’T a place where you dick around doing the same shit for ten years, it’s a place where major shifts happen on, at least a bi-yearly average, and even though people grow up and change their attitudes and positions, they still remain those people, and they move into a new kind of normal.
It always comes back to the ending of Manabi Straight that impressed me so much, so many years ago. That moment when, instead of ending when the girls graduated high school, we got to see a glimpse of what the girls went on to do in the future, and a reunion that they had in the old stomping grounds a year later.
The Venture Brothers goes through seismic shifts every few episodes, only for things to quickly become normal for everyone. Archer sees characters get cancer, get cured, in a span of a couple episodes—but those things continue to *have happened.* K-On!! and Hourou Musuko are all about following those kinds of changes in the ever-moving flow of life. (I’d throw in Hidamari Sketch, one of my oldest favorites, even though it’s been years since I watched any of it). Even Gintama, which doesn’t usually make any major changes, carries the same aspect of things continuing to matter (some of the time. But that show is way too meta to fit into any kind of generalization).
My love for these kinds of series is pervasive into favorites that don’t strictly follow the format, too. My favorite episodes of Steins;Gate and Durarara!!, for instance, have always been the early episodes before the plot takes off—when we’re just getting to know the characters in a really laid-back sort of context. Even outside these mediums, my favorite works like Scott Pilgrim and Homestuck are mostly so because of the long stretches of characters doing fuck-all.
I could go on all day analyzing how the concept of everyday life stories fits into all kinds of shows, and how some shows would’ve been so much better if they’d incorporated some of that. (Madoka Magica is the perfect example of a show whose characters never got to have enough of a life outside the story.) But for now, these are just my post-fridge-moment scatterbrained thoughts. I’ll definitely dive into this more in the future.