A roaming lead and rotating cast of characters going on all-new adventures week-to-week—that’s how long running dramas like Magnum P.I., Murder, She Wrote, MacGyver, and Quantum Leap operated in decades past. Then Netflix changed up the game with the all-at-once release model, a move that turned seasons of TV into 13-hour movies. Then came the launch of Disney+ and the debut of The Mandalorian, a show that had way more in common with the adventures of Jessica Fletcher than anything else in the streaming age. The Mandalorian, the first-ever live-action Star Wars TV show, broke all the rules of the streaming era by adhering to a completely different, previously outdated set of rules… and this old-fashioned storytelling worked, turning a show that was pretty much guaranteed to be a hit into a legit pop culture moment.
Instead of a sprawling cast like on Game of Thrones or House of Cards, The Mandalorian essentially had a cast of two: the titular bounty hunter and Baby Yoda. The rest of the purportedly central cast, Carl Weathers and Gina Carano, only made appearances when necessary, similar to the sheriffs and doctors of Cabot Cove. And instead of focusing on one or two major plotlines, like every season of every one of Netflix’s Marvel shows, The Mandalorian switched gears for 7 incredibly distinct stories in an 8-episode season. By stepping back in time toa classic TV format, The Mandalorian felt fresher—and more fun!—than any of the 13-hour movies released in the past five years.
So as we gear up for another year of content in the seemingly unending era of Peak TV, I have just one thing to say to every show runner and network/streaming service head out there: this is the way.
Linear storytelling is the way. Ever since Lost hit us with those shocking flashbacks, flashforwards, and sideways-whatevers 15 years ago, shows have bent over backwards to avoid telling stories in the conventional sense. Sometimes that pays off, but sometimes it seems like shows conflate having an interesting story and having an interesting structure.
There were no storytelling gimmicks in The Mandalorian. The season didn’t unfold in flashbacks or jump from timeline to timeline. Instead, The Mandalorian focused on just getting one lone character—Pedro Pascal’s gunslinger—from point A to point B to point C without trying to pull a fast one on the viewer. This simple story was enough, and it didn’t need a fussy structure.
Focused storytelling is the way. You probably heard more than a few gripes about The Mandalorian’s shorter-than-expected episode lengths, which was understandable considering just how hungry Star Wars fans have been for a live-action TV show. The Mandalorian’s Season 1 episodes were 40 minutes long on average. Compare that to the first seasons of Stranger Things (50 minutes), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (52), The Handmaid’s Tale (53), Marvel’s Daredevil (55), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (57) or The Witcher (59). How did The Mandalorian get away with it? Focused storytelling.
EPs Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni could have easily gone the Netflix way and devoted screentime to side stories. A 40 minute episode of The Mandalorian could’ve been 60 had we checked in with Cara Dune and Greef Karga in every episode, or kept up with the Client’s scouring of Nevarro and IG-11’s rehab with Kuill before the season finale. We didn’t. Instead, every episode was about the Mandalorian and the Child, and that’s it. Because of that, we never had to groan when the action hit the brakes to show us how the Client’s scientist escaped Nevarro or something. We weren’t shown everything so we were left wanting to see more.
Episodic structure is the way. Think about the 161 episodes of Marvel superhero TV that Netflix released across four years. How many single episodes can you pinpoint? A flashback ep here, a recovering-on-the-couch ep there. And I’m not talking about moments, like Daredevil’s hallway/stairwell/prison riot fights. I’m talking about episodes—but even if I was talking about moments, do you know which episode contained those moments? Looking at the streaming era, it’s really hard to find standalone episodes that stand out like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Hush” or X-Files‘ “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.”
While I’m not saying that anything in The Mandalorian comes close to touching those two, everyone that watched all of Season 1 can probably rattle off quick descriptions of every single episode. “The One With the Egg,” “The One With the Jailbreak,” “The One With the Fighting Farmers,” “The One With Ming-Na Wen”—contrary to what those short episode lengths would have you believe, The Mandalorian covered a lot more ground than most shows with twice as many minutes.
Baby Yoda is the way. Okay, it’s impossible for every show to have a Baby Yoda, and we wouldn’t want to see what they’d do to him were he to pop up on a horror show like Sabrina. But even on a show that’s a drama, one that’s way more adult than most things on this intentionally family-friendly streaming service, The Mandalorian made room for fun and memes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with levity, and The Mandalorian didn’t shy away from it. But, wisely, The Mandalorian didn’t allow for Baby Yoda to dominate the show the way he dominated Twitter. The show achieved a balance, working in intense visuals (the slasher film pacing of Mando’s one-by-one takedown of the merc crew) and action (how many people did the Mandalorian shoot right in the face on this Disney show?). Hey dramas, don’t be afraid to have fun!
Feeding us memes is the way. Okay, cue the eye-roll at me begging show runners to think of the memes their shows can generate in 2020, but substitute “memes” for “conversation” and you get my point.
Because of Baby Yoda and his weekly antics, The Mandalorian was in the conversation every single weekend for the past two months. In the last two months of the year, a new show on a new streaming service grabbed mainstream attention, and it sure wasn’t The Morning Show. So my Baby Yoda point isn’t actually about Baby Yoda so much as it’s about this weekly release schedule and how The Mandalorian maximized it. Drop a whole season at once and there’s too much for fans to sift through before the next big season of a show drops. Go one at a time, and you get Baby Yoda sippin’ bone broth, Baby Yoda pushing buttons, and so much more—and we’re all better for it.
This is the way.
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