The history of episodic television is told, for the most part, in convenient hour and half-hour chunks. The stories are spawned, explored and wrapped up neatly in the short period between the opening and ending credits - most of the time.
There are the occasional mavericks, shows that feel that an hour, no matter how action-packed, just isn't enough time for the kind of storytelling they want to do. Instead, they build elaborate plots intended to last several episodes, if not the entire run of a show. Currently, the leading practitioners are Desperate Housewives, the suburban black comedy with a mysterious suicide at its center; 24, which spends an entire season telling a single story of espionage in real time; Alias, another spy story rife with conspiracies and character arcs; and Lost, the mystery-filled tale of plane-crash survivors battling mysterious monsters, malevolent forces and one another on the golden sands of a tropical island. Both Lost and Alias wrap up their seasons by answering some - but not all - questions tonight.
But that's just the current crop. This soap-opera-sans-suds format can be traced back to the early days of television. Here are a few notable examples:
WHEN IT AIRED: 1965-66
THE STORY: Jason McCord (Chuck Connors) is a cavalry captain and the lone survivor of a fierce battle. He is branded (hence the title) a coward, and forced to wander the West until he can find a way to clear his name.
RECURRING CHARACTERS: Vet-eran actor John Carradine played Gen. Josh McCord, Jason McCord's father, in several episodes.
HOW IT ENDED: Capt. McCord saved President Grant from assassination, proving once and for all that the branded man was no coward. Oddly, the series continued for three more episodes.
WHEN IT AIRED: 1963-67
THE STORY: Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) is forced underground when he is falsely accused of murdering his wife. While he chases the mysterious one-armed man responsible for the murder, he is in turn chased by Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse).
RECURRING CHARACTERS: Leonard Taft, Richard Kimble's brother-in-law; Fred Johnson, the one-armed man; Philip Gerard, Kimble's pursuer
HOW IT ENDED: The one-armed man, Kimble and Lt. Gerard converge at a television tower in Kimble's hometown. After a thrilling chase, Gerard kills the one-armed man and Kimble is vindicated.
WHEN IT AIRED: 1967-68
THE STORY: A secret agent (Patrick McGoohan) resigns from the Secret Service, falls unconscious and finds himself the "guest" at the mysterious Village. Referred to only as "Number Six," the agent engages in a battle of wills with the Village's proctor, "Number Two," over 17 surreal episodes.
Recurring characters: "Number Two," played by a rotating cast of actors, and the Butler, played by the diminutive Angelo Muscat, who went on to play an Oompa-Loompa in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
HOW IT ENDED: In a whacked-out episode that involved masks, a rocket ship and Number Six's return to his London home - perhaps.
'The Incredible Hulk'
WHEN IT AIRED: 1978-82
THE STORY: David Banner, a radiation-affected scientist (Bill Bixby), finds that moments of anger or frustration transform him into an id-fueled - and inexplicably green - monster. He travels the country, doing good deeds while searching for an antidote to his affliction.
RECURRING CHARACTERS: Bruce Banner and the Hulk, who are really one and the same, and Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), a reporter chasing the strange story.
HOW IT ENDED: Canceled suddenly, Hulk didn't actually wrap up until 1990, when a series of television movies finally put the series to rest. The melancholy last scene found a dying Dr. Banner, who had jumped from a plane as the far-less destructible Hulk, whispering that he was free at last.
WHEN IT AIRED: 1990-91
THE STORY: The body of high school beauty Laura Palmer is found on a river bank wrapped in plastic, and FBI agent - and pie enthusiast - Dale Cooper is sent to investigate. From there, proceedings spiral into the odd, unexpected and existential. Sure, it's about a murder investigation in the weirdest town in America, but only vaguely.
RECURRING CHARACTERS: Twin Peaks featured a large pool of characters that included Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the rebellious Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) and the dead girl's best friend, Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle).
HOW IT ENDED: With Agent Cooper facing his fate in the alternate reality that is the Black Lodge. Did we mention the Black Lodge? How about the Log Lady? Nearly 15 years after its initial run, Twin Peaks remains a show that defies explanation.
WHEN IT AIRED: 1993-2002
THE STORY: Pragmatic FBI Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) teams with the more conspiracy-minded Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) to investigate cases involving the mysterious and paranormal. Though many episodes of this show functioned as standalone adventures, many focused on a complex story involving alien abduction and government cover-ups.
RECURRING CHARACTERS: FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi); the mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) and a trio of amateur investigators known as the Lone Gunmen (Tom Braidwood, Dean Haglund and Bruce Harwood) who offer both information and much-needed comic relief.
HOW IT ENDED: With the bombshell that an inevitable alien invasion was scheduled for 2009. Really, the series finale, like the feature film that proceeded it, left enough doors open to keep the franchise alive. Rumor has it that a second X-Files movie will begin shooting in December. Evidently, the truth is still out there.
'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'/'Angel'
WHEN THEY AIRED: Buffy 1997-2003, Angel 1999-2004
THE STORY: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a young woman fated to protect humanity from the evils of the underworld, most notably vampires. Angel (David Boreanaz) is the vampire with a soul she falls in love with. Over the course of these two series runs, both characters were given complex plots that involved various myths, monsters and prophecies that rarely, if ever, were completely solved within the shows' one-hour formats. Notably, Buffy and her friends often spent the show's season learning about and learning how to destroy that year's "Big Bad."
RECURRING CHARACTERS: Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Buffy's witchcraft-wielding accomplice; Spike (James Marsters), a vampiric anti-hero; Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), a mere mortal often inadvertently in harm's way; Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), the pretty, popular and petulant ex-cheerleader who eventually joins Angel in his spin-off; and Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the "Watcher" assigned to supervise proceedings.
HOW THEY END: Buffy ends with the series setting of Sunnydale sliding into a chasm caused by a final apocalyptic battle and the survivors riding, well, walking, into the sunset. Angel ends just before a similar standoff, with the impression being that the ending won't be quite as happy.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.