In The Guardian, Mark Lawson anticipates the arrival of American TV drama series Ugly Betty in the UK next month and looks at the rise of the "TV novel".
Most of American television's recent hits have been structured as "television novels", a phrase first floated by Steve Bochco, creator of LA Law and NYPD Blue, to describe Murder One, his 1995 legal procedural following a single case across a 20-week season, rather than the traditional plotlines resolved within a single episode or, for high days and holidays, a two-parter.
The American audience wasn't ready at that time for the 20-parter but, a decade on, the stand-out dramas - 24, Desperate Housewives, Lost, The Sopranos and now Ugly Betty - all extend a single plot arc across half a year of programmes. HBO's brilliant police procedural The Wire employs novelists, including George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, as scriptwriters to achieve a long, chaptered narrative.
Ugly Betty is typical of the US television novel in that, while each episode has a new central plotline, the major stories are continuous: Betty's relationship with Daniel, and a possible mystery involving the death of a previous editor. The paradox of this new style of television, though, is that series aspiring to tell their stories over a longer time often involve dramatic scenarios with limited potential to develop. In Lost, plane-crash passengers are stranded on an island; in Ugly Betty, a young woman has got the wrong job. These are situations so static they initially seem more suited to a sitcom, the most repetitive kind of fiction, rather than a form that seeks to bring the expansiveness of the Victorian novel to the screen. So, just as Lost has always suffered a tension over how long its survivors could hang on without being found, Ugly Betty is haunted from its opening episode by the question of when the central character will submit to a makeover. But, in resolving these strains, both shows would destroy their central premise.