Clients always inspire the best blog posts.
So, I have a new client, paperwork pending, that is creating a web serial after years of film and plays. the idea is solid, but I'm teaching her how to write for TV from the ground up...she's never even watched 30 Rock for goodness sakes.
Anyway, yesterday I went to view her read-though and we got to talking about the difference between TV series. Basically, there are two types of television series-- Stand alone and Serial. The difference is based on how each EPISODE operates, not whether the series is continual or a one-off.
(Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Simpsons, Family Guy, etc)
In these series, every episode is contained into itself. You could watch any episode of the Simpsons and not need to know anything about the shows previous. The characters never change, even to the point of being the same age perpetually. However, it's not just animation. In a show like Seinfeld, the character always end up at the same place they started at the beginning of the episode. Yes, they may get new jobs, or have a new boyfriend, but the characters do not develop and evolve from episode to episode emotionally.
These shows work because a conflict is introduced that cause the characters to react, grow, and change throughout each episode, but that change is not carried over into the arch of the series. Watch an episode from season 2 and season 9 of Seinfeld. It's the same people with the same issues, who have not grown in the slightest in the past seasons.
(Brothers and Sisters, West Wing, any SOAP EVER)
This works in the opposite manner of a stand alone episode. Each episode builds on the previous one. The characters change, develop, and interact with the world in a different way over the course of the season, and the arch of the show. For example, The women in Desperate Housewives look at the world much differently now that she did in episode one. When the character develops , the show changes into something new. The story comes from that change as much as the conflicts in each episode.
Now, I should mention that standalones are not necessarily comedies and serials are not necessarily dramas. For example, Scrubs is a Serial comedy and Law and Order is a Stand-alone drama.
The important thing to take away from this is that in serials the character's development is carried over from episode to episode, and in stand alone the characters start and end as the same person, even if they have emotional epiphanies in the episode.
(My classic example is the Seinfeld episode where Jerry learns to have feelings. He starts off like the classic Jerry jerk. Then, he is taught how to feel by his then girlfriend, proposes to Elaine, makes George tell him all the darkest parts of himself, and finally in the end George "scares" him straight. He winds up exactly where he was before.)
So you see, while there may be personal or professional growth for characters, there is never any emotional growth.
When dealing with your show, you MUST know whether it is a standalone or a serial.