I Am Grey: The First Great Story-Arc Show

Prison Beak
The Sopranos
Veronica Mars
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Battlestar Galactica
Six Feet Under

The above are just a couple of examples of the recent renaissance in season-long-story-arc based television series (or even multi-season) that have become immensely popular with viewers, and have spawned an entire sub-culture on the internet as plot developments, twists and turns and characters’ choices are scrutinized for meaning and criticized in the type freedom that is really only available by sitting at home in front of your own computer.  The internet has become the world’s biggest office cooler…

“They’re really dead, they’re in purgatory they just don’t know it yet…”
“Glory is a much better big-bad than Adam…”
“Holy crap – how’d Lee get so fat!?!??”
“Isn’t it obvious that Wesley and Fred have waaaaaay more chemistry than Wesley and Fred…”
“Johnnycakes???  #^#&@!! Has this show ever Jumped the Shark…”
“I bet you that Peter’s going to voluntarily blow up New York…”

Most times the commentary is out of excitement and interest in the subject matter, because really it is FUN to try and figure out where things are going, and as you become invested in the characters people start to care about what happens.  Too often though there seems to be a tendency to bash shows and plots in really ugly ways.  Fortunately, I think most of what I’ve read on vox has been the excited and constructive type.

But recently, I realized that there was one arc show that came way back in the pre-internet 90s that I think is in my mind the best example of how to pull off a great story arc, and I don’t think it gets nearly enough credit.  It broadcast 1994-1998 and unlike some very high-profile shows from its day (The X-Files and Twin Peaks) never had network backing.  And unlike those shows, it ultimately delivered a great story from inception, development, climax to finale.  That show was Babylon 5.

Over five seasons, the show covered both the epic and personal stories of people caught up in an interstellar war between the care-taking old-ones (The Vorlons) and the forces of chaos and anarchy (The Shadows) that would eventually decide the fate of humanity and the galaxy.  Series creator J Michael Straczynski has described it as a “novel for television”.

In terms of science-fiction TV, it was a huge departure from the “Star Trek” model – the station was often dingy, the humans definitely weren’t the galactic leaders, nor were they necessarily “the good guys”, and there was no Federation to bring peace throughout the quadrant.  In tone, it’s clearly the antecedent of today’s Battlestar Galactica.


I’m not going to go into details about the plots or anything, but I encourage anyone that likes good storytelling (especially good science-fiction storytelling) to put this series in their Netflix queue.  Endure the first half of the first season – it’s a bit stilted as the series was finding it footing, but in there are the seeds of what’s to come, and I will put seasons 2 through 4 up against anything.  Period.

Of all the shows that are making really great tv these days, I think that LOST has the potential to deliver characters and story equal to or surpassing that of B-5.  Maybe “Heroes” though I worry that its not constructed well for a multi-season arc.  The X-Files had its chance but got bogged down in conflicting and inconsistent storylines.  Babylon-5 closed the deal.  If you haven't seen it, give it a shot.

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7 thoughts on “I Am Grey: The First Great Story-Arc Show

  1. As soon as I read the title I knew what you were referring to. B5 was the one show that my family and I would never miss, rain or shine, we recorded it or watched it whenever we could. I still remember tearing when JM threw the switch in the last episode. My only regret about the show was the 4-5 season questions. Since the network wasn't certain they would bring the show back, he sped it up and tried to wrap things up, only to have an extra season.zooty zoot zoot.

  2. EZ — I remember the Season-5 "will it or won't it happen" dilemma. I left it out of this post, b/c knowing that wasn't central to liking the story — but it is one reason I think I like 2-4 more. S5 seemed like more of a prelude to "Crusade" — and though I still liked it a great deal, I think 2-4 are more solid.
    Makes you wonder what the full five-season arc would have looked like, doesn't it?

  3. I hadn't seen or heard about that. I've enjoyed some of the stand alone movies, but since they've usually had just a small selection of the cast in each and the stories are by nature less-complex, I haven't loved them as much.
    Still, going back would be a lot of fun.

  4. I always liked Babylon 5, although I know I missed a lot of it I was generally able to keep up to speed when I did see it. One of the things that I really liked about it was that everything looked and worked like things in the real world. For example, the ships were dirty and worn out and the guns actually came out of the hull when they were activated. This added a bit of realism to everything, which is something that Battlestar Galactica has certainly used to it's fullest, Battlestar is currently my favorite show by the way.

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