The Value of Overarching vs. Episodic Plots in Popular Shows


These days, we see more and more sequels, remakes, and reboots in the media, rather than stand-alone films. This pattern is also visible in Network Television, in the form of episodic shows or overarching plot lines. Why is it that a show like Criminal Minds is so different, structurally, from a show like Squid Game, and is one objectively better than the other?

In order to compare these two styles, we first need to understand what the difference is. Episodic shows have a different plot each episode; the characters, setting, and overall idea stays the same, but the actual plot in each episode doesn’t build off the one before it. Classic examples are sitcoms such as The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, and Seinfeld. Alternatively, a show with an overarching plot is when each episode continues from the one before it, and the storyline is not resolved until the end of the season, or, in the case of multi-season programs, even the end of the show. There are definitely shows that have some overlap between the two, making it harder to tell which type of plot it is. Some may argue that Grey’s Anatomy is episodic because of how the overall plot repeats in each episode, while others may say that the show is overarching because of how some of the characters seem to develop and grow throughout the entire show. Notably, shows such as Supernatural have used a mix of both “types” of show styles, starting the first few seasons off with an episodic plot, and then, as the show gains popularity, turning the show to a more consistent and developed plot. This ability to switch could be indicative of a show’s success and possibly it’s quality, considering the impressive fifteen seasons Supernatural ran for.

There are other, less noticeable differences between these two types of shows. One easy way to spot these differences is by looking at characters. When a show’s plot builds and isn’t resolved until the end, this causes the characters to grow with the plot. The audience is able to witness noticeable character development from the beginning to the end of the show. Contrastingly, episodic shows usually cannot help the characters grow, because the plot itself isn’t growing. When the storyline changes from episode to episode, it’s hard for the audience to keep up with shifts in the characters. This is why episodic shows host the same setting as well as characters throughout the show. Though some may find comfort in seeing the same characters with their unchanging personalities from beginning to end, there is definitely something to be said about witnessing a character grow as a person. It is a wonderful feeling when you finish a show and look back on how the characters evolved, and this is also more reflective of real life. 

It’s difficult to tell which type of plot is more successful commercially, since the two are so different. One day, Criminal Minds is in Netflix’s “Top 10”, and the next, a show like Outerbanks takes its place. The length of each show also plays a big role in their success. Popular episodic shows usually have many seasons, most likely because they can. When a show repeats the general idea every episode, it’s easy to pump out seasons. On the flip side, programs with a drawn-out plot are mostly shorter, sometimes falling short of two seasons. Overarching story arcs cannot be too long, since there is the risk of running out of ideas or not resolving the storyline quick enough to please the audience. 

Enjoyment of the different styles is typically reliant on the viewer’s mood. Episodic plotlines serve as great “comfort” shows, something we can watch gradually for months without having to worry about forgetting key plot details. On the other hand, searching for a show with an overarching plot is more appropriate when it comes to watching TV nonstop. Although binging is fun, so is the ability to be detached from the heavy character development that occurs as a result of a show with a more continuous plot. But even better than preferring one over the other is the ability to enjoy both.