For a while now, I’ve had a real fervour for a very particular kind of anime content – episodic series. This kind of series is best typified by none other than Cowboy Bebop – namely, a show where each episode is mostly self-contained and resolves itself within the space of 20 minutes. Characters and wider-arching plotlines may exist on the periphery – but ultimately, all set-up and resolution is done within one television episode.
The skill at crafting such a lean piece of televisual entertainment speaks for itself. When we think back to the finest episodes of Cowboy Bebop, they remain distinctly vivid – a callmark of a ‘Oh, the one where… xxx… happened…’ – each episode revolving around a singular concept or plotline.
These days, series like this feel rare at best, and at worst – out of fashion. These days, most shows are distinctly serial in nature, each episode rolling seamlessly into the next in service to cliffhangers or wide-reaching story arcs that will take 12 episodes to resolve. The most notable ‘episodic’ series I can recall recently would be Osomatsu San, Space Dandy and the latest incarnation of Lupin III. Comedy invariably plays a role in many of these – although I’d place a caveat in delineating between ‘episodic’ series and ‘sitcom’ style comedies (which are common) where each episode will essentially be a series of skits which return to a status quo.
To really understand the essence of the very best kind of truly episodic show, we have to return to the 90s where these kinds of show were ten a penny. I’ve recently been watching Nightwalker, which recalls the similar Vampire Princess Miyu (the TV version, not the OVAs) – both of which, while never mastering the episodic art as well as the likes of Bebop, both show shades of the same self-contained stories.
The ultimate episodic content will invariably introduce ‘episode-only’ characters or side-characters who each get their ‘turn in the spotlight’ – shifting the focus away from core protagonists for an episode, and allowing us a deeper connection precisely because the episode has to work all that harder to establish our relationship with them for 20 minutes.
In this, we get a sense of the true novelty of episodic shows – that inherently, each episode will be vastly different. While with serial shows, it is usually evident after three or four episodes (the famous three episode test) whether we will enjoy the show as a whole, episodic shows always come with the distinction that they might suddenly drop a truly exceptional piece of storytelling one week that blows everything else out of the water. Space Dandy nailed this very particular joy – and you could watch it safe in the knowledge that even if you disliked one episode, odds are you might love the next.