I’m not a big fan of trying to ape other media in RPGs, especially to the extent that some games do by appropriating terminology like scenes and episodes. I’m not saying that there is nothing to be learned from other art forms, but tabletop RPGs are really their own thing, and have their own different potential. An RPG can’t do everything that a novel can do, and the reverse is also true: a tabletop RPG can do things that a novel or movie can’t.
That being said, other media can be amazingly inspirational for tabletop RPGs (hence the proliferation of “Appendix N” style lists). They can serve as examples for settings or characters. They can provide a common language. There are not that many movies, TV shows, or even books, that really capture the dynamics of a D&D party though. Even The Fellowship of the Ring, which was probably the most direct inspiration for the D&D adventuring party, doesn’t really capture it.
There are a few TV shows that come pretty close though. The ones that come immediately to mind are Lost and The Walking Dead. These two shows both feature a group of disparate characters that don’t necessarily share a common purpose, but that are thrown together and forced to cooperate in order to survive a hostile environment. Much of the story revolves around exploration, survival, and resource management. Another thing these shows share with D&D is (mostly) a lack of dependence on any single character. Characters can and do die, and the story continues.
Lost, of course, follows in a long tradition of castaway and lost world stories (Robinson Crusoe, The Lost World, Land of the Lost, etc) and I think this tradition is worth revisiting for tabletop RPG inspiration because of how well it fits structurally. I might even include the post-apocalyptic genre within the lost world genre. Can anyone think of other TV shows that fit the experience of a D&D party well?
There are two other common TV show structures which are often copied for tabletop RPGs, but usually to poor effect in my experience. The first is the “ship crew” approach (Star Trek, Farscape, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, SeaQuest DSV, Stargate, Firefly, etc). The second is the “department” (or police procedural) approach (X-Files, Fringe, Law & Order, any legal or police drama you can name). These setups are commonly used for genre shows, and so are often inspiration for fantasy and sci-fi games. The department structure works particularly well for episodic presentation because each show can be a self-contained case with beginning, middle, and end. Thus, people can follow the characters over episodes if they want, but don’t really need to start from the beginning of the series to follow an individual episode.
The dependence of the ship crew approach on specific characters makes it an awkward fit with open-ended scenarios. Such a show can’t really survive the loss of too many characters, as generally the meat of the show is the soap opera interaction of the characters, not the plot or setting (some people might disagree with me here, but I stand by the point, even for shows like Star Trek). How long would any Star Trek (or clone show) last if the characters started to drop like flies? One thing that can be profitably learned from the department approach though is starting and ending at the same place, thus making shows (sessions) self-contained. This is very similar to the “start and end at the tavern” trope of much traditional play.