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"Silo" Is Attempting Something New That No Serialized Show Has Attempted Before
(Unless you can think of an example that has not occurred to me lol)
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According to new data from Parrot Analytics, the Apple TV+ show Silo is a hit! Or a hit relative to most AppleTV shows. The iPhone-maker’s streaming platform is so small that aside from Ted Lasso, most of its shows don’t make the streaming charts.
There are multiple ways of measuring streaming performance and Parrot is only one of them so it’s still yet to be seen how it did on the Nielsen chart, but nevertheless…impressive!
I like Silo. It’s a serialized mystery show about people in a post-apocalyptic dystopia who live underground in silos. They’ve been there for hundreds of years and no one knows why they’re down there or what happened. Who built the silo? Why? The protagonist works to unravel these mysteries. It is based on a series of books that were published about ten years ago. They were a big hit, but like most people, I didn’t read them. I only know as much about the mystery as has been revealed so far on the show. It will presumably take multiple seasons to unravel the entire mystery.
This post really isn’t about the plot so don’t worry about spoilers but the post is about spoilers.
The first season is going to end in a few weeks, and then it will take at least another year for the next season to drop. And again, I imagine that it will be years and multiple seasons before we get answers to the core mystery. I know myself well enough to know that I can get impatient and odds are that at some point after the first season ends, I will cave and go to Wikipedia to read about the revelations to come because they’ve already been out there in books for years.
I’m curious how it will go for Silo. I’m sure the producers of the show have thought about this as well. They probably looked for precedents, which got me wondering: what precedents are there?
Have we had a serialized mystery television show before that extended for multiple seasons and was based on an existent literary work that contained all the answers and was easily googleable?
I don’t think we have. This is new. The cool thing about new things is that they test untested beliefs and give us new data points that can confirm or rebut our assumptions. In this case, the numbers for Silo over the long term will potentially tell us something new about how audiences engage with this very popular genre.
But first: Am I right that this is unprecedented?
A brief review of potential contenders:
The most famous high-concept mystery-type show is Lost, which was an original production so no one outside of the writers’ room knew anything in advance. There are lots of shows that are based on books and even if they aren’t high-concept mysteries, they still have developments people yearn for. Game of Thrones is an obvious example of a show that people obsessed over and, at least in its first few seasons, you could theoretically spoil by reading the books or looking at Wikipedia. But then the show passed the books and diverged from them. The actual end of the show was not something you could spoil for yourself.
Then there are lots of book series that have been adapted, which really are self-contained by season and don’t have one overarching mystery. Jack Ryan is one of these shows. You can’t spoil the overall mystery of the show because each season is just one mystery that reaches a conclusion at the end of the season.
It’s not a television show (yet), but the Harry Potter films are somewhat similar to what Silo is attempting. The final book came out midway through the film series, and millions of people read it, and millions of people who didn’t read it either exercised self-control in avoiding plot summaries or didn’t. The movies came out every few years at a clip roughly similar to a TV production schedule. But this comparison begins to falter when you think back to the actual situation. The final book came out in 2007. The final two movies based on that book came out in 2010 and 2011. You only had to exercise restraint for 3-4 years. If the book series had been completed when the films started being released in 2001 the ask that you avoid spoilers would have been a lot bigger.
And even then, I’m not sure how many people who loved the film series but didn’t read the books actually avoided those spoilers. I didn’t. I’m sure lots did, but it was sort of hard to do given the saturation obsession everyone had with those books back then. And it didn’t have a core mystery that needed to be solved! It just had a conclusion like every other drama.
There are other film series that are similar: Hunger Games, Divergent, even Lord of the Rings, I guess. And LoTR is a good example of an adaptation that wasn’t ruined by people knowing in advance what was going to happen. Those books are so famous and so widely read that a huge number, maybe even a majority, of people who went to see those movies were not waiting with bated breath to find out what happened to the ring.
But none of these examples have the serialized mystery premise that Silo has.
I asked the kind people of Twitter for their favorite Lost-type show just in case I was forgetting a more apt comparison, and they had lots of good suggestions, but none that really fit better. There are lots of shows with mysteries (the X-Files, Twin Peaks, Manifest, even Mad Men) which were not adaptations, and there are mystery adaptations (Tinker Tailor Solider Spy) that were miniseries. The former you couldn’t spoil, and the latter didn’t ask you to wait multiple seasons. Westworld is a mystery-type show that is adapted from an earlier work, and though I haven’t seen the original film or some of the later HBO show seasons, people on Twitter say it was very different, so that doesn’t really count either.
The most similar example I can think of is The Leftovers, which was based on a Tom Perrotta novel that I haven’t read, but apparently, the first season of The Leftovers is pretty close to the book, but the subsequent seasons were original to television.
But both Game of Thrones and The Leftovers were obligated to create original answers to the premises established in books by necessity since the GoT books just weren’t done yet, and The Leftovers has no sequels.
There is nothing stopping Silo from just being a strict adaptation of the literary series but the fact that the premise is so enticing and television production turnaround times are so long that people are going to have many, many opportunities to satisfy their frustration with the slow pace of plot developments.
Now, spoiling the show for yourself might be something you regret. It will surely make the experience of watching the show in the future different. But maybe not! I mean, I spoiled the end of Harry Potter for myself while waiting for the films to come out and I still loved the films because the films are fuller and more captivating than a Wikipedia summary.
Who Cares, Ben?
Well, Hollywood probably cares, and if you are someone who likes watching the things Hollywood produces, you have an interest in them producing things that are good and successful, so you should probably care at least a very tiny bit! I’m not saying you should write a doctoral thesis on the subject, but reading a substack post about it doesn’t seem wholly irrational!
It’s something that the show writers need to think about because they should optimize their storytelling for the world that exists. A show people watch because they literally just want an answer to a question might look very different from a show that assumes most of them already know the answer.
There is a belief in certain circles that people enjoy being frustrated by shows like Lost. You get to play detective, and you and other fans of the show can experience the unraveling together over a long period of time. But unless I’m forgetting a show, that premise has never been tested as much as it will be by Silo.
The Wikipedia page for the book series has already blown up. It notched almost 700,000 page views in May. Not all of those are from people watching the show, but most of them are, and that represents a significant chunk of whatever the viewership numbers are for the series.
The books have also climbed the Amazon charts. The first installment, Wool, is #2 at the moment in post-apocalyptic science fiction and 254th overall.
My expectation is that more people will read the books and even more people will read the Wikipedia, and by the time the show gets around to telling us who invented the silo and why virtually everyone who gives a shit will already know the answer.
Apple, which has a lot of actual proprietary data on the viewership numbers, knows this. The question then becomes, is that a problem, and if it is, is there something to do about it?
I don’t think it’s an existential problem, but it probably is a long-term risk that would need to be disclosed if Silo were a public company that had to issue quarterly financial statements.
The big thing they could do if they want to do something is deviate from the books. So far, it seems like it has been pretty faithful (I checked!), but we’re only a few episodes into what will probably be a 50-episode adaptation. But deviating comes with the twin risks of pissing off the fans of the books and maybe making bad choices that suck. Game of Thrones and The Leftovers had no choice but to deviate from their books, but if they had chosen to just for funsies, I think people would have been upset! And though deviating can suck (Game of Thrones), it also can be great (The Leftovers)!
A less drastic thing to do would be to let the show’s focus evolve beyond the mystery a bit more so that the value proposition to viewers is not strictly “we will eventually tell you who made the silo.” I’m not 100% sure how you’d do that in this case since the mystery is so central to the show. But that’s why I don’t get paid the big bucks as a fancy Hollywood showrunner!
The smallest thing they could do, which they hopefully have done, is to plan out the show’s multi-season plotline in a way that breaks the mysteries up by season. Like, in this season finale, they’d answer the main question: who made the silo. But then in the second season, we would have a new Big Mystery that would be revealed in that finale. And in the third season, etc etc… Presumably, the books are already segmented like this in some way but when fans of the books were stuck waiting for the sequels, they had no choice but to wait. The show fans will have a very tempting way of scratching the itch.
How the viewership numbers for the show evolve over the course of the series will represent exciting, groundbreaking new data of how much tolerance people have for being tortured by serialized television shows.
Whatever the results, I hope Hollywood executives watch the performance and let it inform their decisions about shows in this genre in the future.
I’m curious what you think? Do you watch it? Have you read the books? If you do but haven’t, have you spoiled the end for yourself? Have you considered it? Do you think in 18 months, when the second season ends on a cliffhanger, you might? Is there a show or example that I’m not thinking of? Are you a beautiful woman who has fallen in love with me through my writing and would like to pursue a romantic relationship? That last one is sort of unrelated to the rest of this post but it’s an evergreen question and if so you should also leave a comment.
Yet! Get in touch, Hollywood! I’m the sort of outside-the-box thinker you should have on your team!
A film series that is based on a book series that did a very on-the-nose version of that is The Maze Runner. In the first film these kids are trapped in a maze and want to escape and spend the film doing that and then the film ends with them realizing that the maze was…somewhere weird. I don’t remember where. Underwater? On the Moon? Something like that. Then in the second film it’s like “why are we underwater?” So maybe the first season of Silo will end with them escaping the Silo only to discover they’re in an even larger silo! In a box! With a fox! On a train! In the rain! and every season will just be about escaping from the next nesting doll. The problem there is that that gets old pretty quickly which is why the box office returns for the Maze Runner movies got lower and lower with every sequel.