I read an article a while back about the way that shows are produced and written for a weekly release (the traditional method) and a full-season release (new to streaming platforms). The article didn’t make claims about quality or superiority, it just clarified why some seasons are longer than others, why some shows have more episodes, and how the pacing, plotting, and character development can change between the two forms. The crux of it was that, by being able to drop an entire season at once, a show wouldn’t need to remind its viewers of important information as frequently as a weekly show would. Because it was meant to be consumed quickly, it could skip over a lot of the “last time on” type information and the “I’m going to remind you of this thing we encountered five episodes ago because it’s actually been four months for us.” Stories take longer to tell if you have to tell them in pieces and can’t reference the old information, or you have to tell stories without as many elements that are reliant on past information. It’s not better or worse, just different.
As I’ve watched old cartoons, some I previously watched parts of, some I only heard about, and some I watched in their entirety, I’ve thought about this. The experience of being able to watch an entire show from start to finish in a few sittings (depending on the show, of course) fundamentally changes the experience of it. A lot of older shows had to contend with the “can’t leave people behind just because they missed an episode outside of season finales” issue while that’s never a problem on a streaming platform. If I want to watch every single episode of the Pokémon anime, I can absolutely do that. I’ve been doing that (I’ve been sick and it was readily available to me via “autoplay” after the thing I actually chose to watch ended) and I’ve noticed how pretty much every episode has the same structure. I have bounced off shows like this in the past, that had the same structure every episode, where nothing new happened or changed except the look of the things being chopped up. Samurai Jack is a good example (couldn’t even make it through season 1). But I didn’t bounce off Pokémon and I started to wonder why.
Well, part of it is definitely because I was sick and not really paying attention. Any show is easy to watch when you’re halfway dozing off due to the toll a mild fever and horrible nausea took on you. But that was only a few hours out of a pair of days. Most of the time, I was lucid and following the show. I skipped a lot of episodes I remembered clearly from back in the day, but as I watched and noted how similar the episodes were, I also realized that the show deviated from the pattern a little bit with most episodes and then entirely in some episodes.
Most of the time, the protagonists show up somewhere, encounter something that halts their forward progress, explore the situation a little bit, the “villains” show up to complicate things further, the protagonists or newly introduced side character resolve the problem, and then the characters move on. There’s a lot of variance that can happen within that pattern, but it largely holds to that. Until they completely toss it aside to show that the “villains” are just people with complex pasts and motivations (without apologizing for or excusing their evil behavior) who frequently prove themselves just as compassionate as the protagonists, if perhaps a bit more selfish in their choices of to whom they extend that compassion.
This isn’t the only break to the pattern, of course. Sometimes the central conflict arises between the protagonists. Sometimes there isn’t one conflict but a couple smaller conflicts meant to shine light on one aspect of a character to remind the audience why they’re a protagonist. Sometimes the conflict is between the “villains” and other, more dangerous villains who aren’t as potentially kind-hearted. Most of the time, the “villains” aren’t trying to actively hurt people or harm the world at large and sometimes a villain emerges who is and the “villains” rise up to help the rather naïve protagonists defeat this greater evil.
I’ll admit that I might be willing to give Pokémon more credit than most other shows because I’m more familiar with it and I know the show has more going on than it’s early seasons would suggest (holy 90s, batman), but the show has been running almost as long as the games have existed. There has to be a reason it has lasted this long beyond just the popularity of the Pokémon games. It might just be the strength of the franchise as a whole, but it wouldn’t have gotten there without the show. After all, Digimon had a popular show and a fun game, but it has pretty much vanished at this point.