MFW All of My Favorite Shows Have the Same Narrative Structure

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
Hourou Musuko
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.

9 thoughts on “MFW All of My Favorite Shows Have the Same Narrative Structure

  1. If you were to write a book, and you don’t give your characters a backstory, or you don’t show what they do i their everyday life, what makes them tick, their turnons and turnoffs, etc. etc. then the reader simply wouldn’t care about the decisions that character makes. They wouldn’t care if you decided to kill your character off, and they certainly wouldn’t interested to see whether they have a god-mode button which they use to save the world.

    One important thing about fiction is that you need to get your readers to empathize with your character, to understand what makes up that character, and this can take up a lot of time (hence why many people say books can have fairly dull introductions, as they delve into the mundane).

    Cartoons and animes are no different: if your audience don’t care about your main protagonist, they’re not going to care whether they have the power to see the dead, manipulate magic, or what other crazy stuff you want to think up. You need to introduce the character to the reader, and their everyday life is a very effective method to do this.

    It’s why fanfiction is such a popular thing; it’s got people’s favorite characters, whom they already care about and empathize with, so they’re interested in the adventures and misadventures that the fanfiction author writes about the characters going on.

    • While I agree with you, my point is more that I like for a story to *stay* in the phase of exploring everyday life. That’s what I mean bringing up a show like Stein;Gate, which does a beautiful job establishing the characters before diving into its bigger plotline, but for me, the early episodes were the ones I really care about. When a show goes beyond everyday life into a bigger plot, tends to be the point where it starts to engage me less and less. Which is why my favorite show is something like MLP, which only gets plot heavy in bursts so small that they only seem like another part of life alongside all the others.

  2. What I like to do with the characters I really like in novels I read is guess where I would think they would fall on a Myers-briggs type indicator. This more than anything to me says how I feel about these characters and how I enjoy to think about them outside of their stories.

    There is this series of sci-fi novels called the Vorkosigan saga that follow a character, Miles Vorkosigan, from before he is born (so you get an impression of how his parents forged his identity) to the current point he’s at now in late 30s. Each story is a self-contained mystery/puzzle/what have you that Miles has to figure out but they each also gradually push his character further along in his life. My favorite novel of the series focuses on a crisis he has at the beginning of his 30s that completely changes the way he has been living his life up to that point. There’s also some mystery thrown in there for flavor but the really point of the novel is about that development. I highly recommend the series. The writing itself is good, if nothing tremendously special, but Lois McMaster Bujold (the author) keeps the story going at a brisk pace so no one novel takes much time to read.

  3. Loose narrative, while enjoyable, is rarely going to be a favorite for me. I don’t see any single common element in my favorites, but the two most common traits are badass and clever. My conception of badass does require walking the walk, which could happen in a loose narrative but could always happen better with a strong narrative. As for clever stuff, excellent comedy within the loose narrative could make it a favorite. However, I rarely find that in anime (I love action-based/situational comedy in anime, but joke-telling in anime usually falls flat). Archer would come close. If you consider The Boondocks to have a loose narrative, that would be a favorite.

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