Before we get started: In the next two posts we’re going to delve into several movie trilogies and series that have been out for years (and in some cases decades) and are pretty culturally ubiquitous, yet I feel the need to give a *spoiler warning*. So, if you haven’t ever seen Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Godfather, Back to the Future, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or The Hobbit… well, you’ve misspent your youth and probably are the butt of jokes of not only your friends and family, but also complete strangers. So after coming to terms with this, you should be aware that plot points for each of these films will be mentioned in this post and the next.
I should also note that there are probably actual definitions out there for film trilogies and series based upon film theory. But I’m ignorant of those theories and am going to instead examine both based upon my own definitions. And those definitions hinge around the Throughline, Dramatic Question, and the Serialized to Episodic spectrum.
As we’ve discussed before, television shows exist on a continuum of Serial to Episodic shows. Serialized shows are the ones that employ throughlines over the course of a series; narrative threads and plot points that are explored over numerous episodes rather than stand-alone episodes. That is why serialized shows are notoriously difficult to pick up mid-season and need to be binge-watched in order to get everything out of them. Because for serialized shows, the ORDER of the episodes matter.
Episodic shows, on the other hand, are self-contained episodes and the series can be picked up and enjoyed at random. Order DOES NOT matter for episodic shows, because the only real continuity from episode to episode is the presence of the reoccurring characters. Each episode can be thought of as a continuing adventure for the characters, adventures that just sort of occur rather than heading in a specific direction.
Again, all shows exist on a spectrum from Serialized to Episodic, and even the staunchest serialized show still has one self-contained storyline per episode, while episodic shows like Frasier will deal with multiple-episode arcs like Niles leaving his wife. Yet though that arc went on for several episodes, one could still jump into those episodes at random and enjoy it independent of the arc.
For serialized shows, this is much more difficult if not nigh impossible.
I dare you to imagine Mad Men as a traditional sitcom with a laugh track. Dare you!
I bring Serialized and Episodic shows up again not because of my creeping senility, but because I maintain that in their purest form a proper trilogy is akin to a serialized show, while a film series is more episodic.
Series (Part One)
On its most basic level, a series just means that there’s more than one film. So really, any movie with a sequel is technically a series. That also means a trilogy falls under the umbrella of a series. That said, they’re still sort of a special case:
From their name alone, it feels like trilogies should be pretty easy to identify. They are obviously made up of three movies, but three movies alone does not a trilogy make. Really, it comes back to throughlines, as I think The Godfather will later demonstrate.
But before we dig into The Godfather, let’s look at why a trilogy is such a natural unit of measurement for films: Because trilogies are basically the 3-act screenplay on a more massive scale. Your first film is your basic act one, with an introduction to major characters, setting up the world and core conceit; finally breaking to act two by promising more adventures to come even as it wraps up. The sequel then takes on the role of act two, further expanding the world and adventures as it plays with the ideas and characters established in the previous film. This is generally why the second film in the trilogy finishes up on a downer ending or cliffhanger: because this is the Dark Night of the Soul* section of act two. And your third film pretty much encapsulates the finale as it wraps the trilogy up.
But back to the distinction between a trilogy and a series of three movies: It’s the throughline, in that a trilogy will have one and a series may or may not. Much like the first act in a screenplay, the first film in a trilogy asks the dramatic question that the next two films will try and answer.
For Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, the dramatic questions were if the Empire and Sauron could be defeated. Yes, there were other throughlines for both these trilogies, but these specific dramatic questions really constitute the narrative spine that allowed these trilogies to walk upright.
Non-trilogies do not have this dramatic question or throughline because they are meant as stand-alone stories that continue the adventures of the characters without the audience needing to know what occurred in the previous episode. The Godfather is a great example of this in that each film has its own separate dramatic question rather than one unifying one that is dealt with over the course of the series.
Now some will argue that the basic dramatic question for all three films is if Michael will become like his father. And if that’s what you believe the overarching dramatic question is, then let me ruin it for you by saying it is emphatically answered by the end of the first film...
Everything that comes afterward is still captivating (at least in the second film), but it’s also all gravy in that your enjoyment of the original film does not diminish if you do not watch Godfather II or III. Now compare that to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings and tell me you wouldn’t feel gipped if you never found out if Luke or Frodo saved their respective worlds. I assume you would throw a fit because, though their single adventure was wrapped up in the first film, the throughline of their dramatic question was still unfinished.
Series (Part Two)**
Series consist of multiple movies within the same shared universe, with all of the modern Marvel movies being prime examples, as well as James Bond and Indiana Jones. And though for many decades Indiana Jones only consisted of three films, I maintain it wasn’t a true trilogy because of its episodic nature in the same way that The Godfather wasn’t.
Because, just like episodic shows such as Frasier, The Simpsons, or any SVU procedural out there, Indiana Jones can be watched out of order WITHOUT affecting the enjoyment of the individual films***. The same is true of all of the James Bond franchise spanning decades: Watching Goldfinger without knowing the events of Moonraker doesn’t diminish the film in the least. Each series can be picked up and watched at random without affecting understanding of the stand-alone storyline.
Because the only real consistency between the films is the reoccurring characters.
In fact, I would argue that the Indiana Jones franchise’s episodic nature is one of the contributing factors for The Crystal Skull being so terrible: It was trying to impose serialized continuity upon an episodic franchise.
And in the case of The Godfather, HBO went and did something interesting in that they created one big supercut that spliced all three films together in chronological order. I find this interesting because it begs the question if all three films have to be watched in order since it opens with all the flashbacks from The Godfather II. Mind you, I have no answer to this since I think I quit about three hours into what was a ten-hour movie, but you get the point.
So on the spectrum of Serialized to Episodic, Indiana Jones and James Bond probably rank as the most “purely episodic,” with The Godfather a smidge closer to the serialized pole, as well as other series I haven’t ever bothered to finish like Fast and the Furious and the Borne franchise.
The Marvel universe is intriguing because it consists of series within series. And by that, I mean you have characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor carrying their own series that then fold into each other with The Avengers series. And while there are definite serialized throughlines like the Infinity Gems and the events of Avengers Two affecting Captain America: Civil War, my comic book-averse mother-in-law has pretty much demonstrated you can watch many of these movies out of order and still enjoy them. Sure, you’re not going to get as much out of them unless you’ve seen the others, but you can still sort of pick them up randomly and enjoy the spectacle.
Harry Potter is another odd duck in that it’s definitely a series because of its eight movies involving Harry, and now a new series beginning within the same Potter-verse. But the events of the movies involving Harry were very serialized, with throughlines begun in the first movie that have direct effect on the final one. They all built upon plot points of previous films. So though it’s the second longest in terms of number of movies in a series/ franchise (Marvel takes the top spot, I think, with Star Wars and Fast and the Furious each with eight films at the time of writing this), it by far has the most serialized elements.
Which just goes to show that there’s always a continuum when it comes to Serialized vs Episodic.
So there you go, the Throughline, Dramatic Question, and order of the films are really what distinguish a series from a trilogy, and all along the Serialized to Episodic axis. As such, all three pieces should be taken into consideration as you start your new novel/ trilogy/ series. Will it be a serialized trilogy with all three acts broken out ahead of time? Or perhaps an episodic series with new adventures popping up each new book with little connectivity other than continuity?
And tune in in two weeks where I break down the Good, Bad and Ugly of the existing trilogies. Not to give too much away, but I’m going to be discussing Star Wars a bit. Because I seem physiologically incapable of going a single post without doing so.
* And in the case of the Nolan's Batman trilogy, it was The Dark Knight of the Soul (wah-wah).
** I think "Part Two" of a series is technically a pun.
*** Hell, my friend recently informed me that Temple of Doom actually takes place before Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I originally wrote as "Lost Arc" because I've been talking about throughlines for far too long.