Change and Thrive: The Evolution of Red vs Blue

The idea of changing showrunners is usually enough to send ripples of terror through a series’ viewing audience, often with at least one reference to sharks. Very occasionally it can pull a failing series out of a spiral, at least for a while.


Conventional knowledge states that a storyteller should come in with a fixed idea of what they want to say, get it out there, and call it a day. That keeps the narrative focused in plot, pacing and themes, and lowers the possibility of things going straight off the rails. Obviously, that philosophy works best with finite narratives – put another way, Breaking Bad would’ve lost quite a bit of impact if, instead of ending when the plot called for it, popularity dictated that the show continue around…Walt’s secret twin brother, or something. Before, it was fairly easy to tell which was which – books and films have closed narratives, and TV has long running situational settings. The lines have grown blurrier and blurrier as strictly plotted shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones chart a clear(ish) beginning, middle, and end; and movie franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe propose an increasingly unlimited playground of plotlines.

And now, the majesty of TIME TRAVEL

Red vs Blue has aspects of those things, but is amorphous enough to stand just outside firm categorization. The show’s entering its third major shift, and it never fails to impress me how well it manages to intuit what it needs to keep from growing stagnant. It started out as bite-sized comedic scenarios with a core cast of characters (two teams in the middle of a box canyon, far busier bickering than trying to kill each other), woven very loosely into an overarching plot that needn’t have any particular tie to reason or dramatic heft. Five seasons of that came to an end, with the logic that the mythos was becoming too impenetrable for new viewers – somehow a goofy comedy show had almost two dozen major characters and almost nine hours of history. So they called it a day, ending on a surprisingly bittersweet note.

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Do You Ever Wonder What Time It Is? Modern Media and Storytelling

Part of me is convinced that someone on the Adventure Time staff is a fan of Red vs. Blue. It’s more a gut feeling than what one might call ‘empirical evidence’ or ‘substantiated by a single shred of proof.’ Both are blazing successes, of course, characterized by a short and loosely linked episode format, but it’s the narrative style that I want to talk about today. In the bizarre mental land that this theory lives in, both shows are sterling examples of the new-narrative for internet long-standers (okay, AT is on TV, but it very much lives in the comedic stylings of the internet).

Back in 2003, RvB started a serialized comedy show and released it onto the wild west of the internet, hoping to attract consistent viewership with the idea that you could come back to one place on the internet each week to see an ongoing story. Well, duh, you might say, but this was back in the day when one-shots were the big thing – even stuff like Homestar Runner just had a core set of re-used characters without any particular interest in narrative. Rooster Teeth’s machinima (stories filmed using videogame engines) project was doing something pretty unusual for the medium at the time – I’d go so far as to say they were pioneers on the subject of narrative machinima (not the first, but formative for sure, not to mention an early work that’s still going). It worked, too. As the story goes, the first episode had more than a million downloads within the first week. It wormed its way into many a heart, though the decade spanning duration of the series means that you tend to find fans who stopped watching around the first three seasons and others who fell in around the sixth (the eleventh just finished airing).

As far as the content of the narrative it, uh…starts a little on the light side. It is a consecutive narrative, in the most basic sense – events that have occurred remain in continuity, and there’s dramatic climax from one season to the next (boy did they love their cliffhangers in the early days). It’s just that those plot events tended to be with a comedic focus, with the stories pursuing what Burnie found to be the best reaping ground for jokes than any kind of deep world building or character introspection. The first five seasons, known collectively as The Blood Gulch Chronicles, more or less stayed that way aside of a surprisingly bittersweet conclusion. When it started up again, things took a decidedly more plotty turn, if one that was content to move at its own pace.

How about Cartoon Network’s current darling, Adventure Time? It’s well into its fifth season now, and I at least would’ve never guessed from the outset that the deeply, deeply weird little piece of surreal children’s media the show started out as would later weave in an apocalypse and plentiful gut wrenching. What is it about the appeal that speaks to so many, and inspired such a similar trajectory?


The Lich is not funny

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