Serial narrative as delayed disappointment (Part 1)

I’ve been wanting to blog-out some simmering thoughts I’ve had about the state of serial narrative today, particularly on television. This was partly inspired by a post on Just TV, and partly from some reflection on my dissatisfaction with television serial narrative these days. Life intervened, in the form of a bout of nasty flu-like infections, and the subsequent picking of the pieces. So, about a month later (but with the benefit of having taken in February’s TV output), here goes.

One of the most engrossing and frustrating things about serial fiction is narrative sustainability. That is, the ability to successfully continue narrative momentum across multiple segments. We take in almost all of our serial fiction in one of several standardized forms, each with particular sub-forms, which further organize how we experience them. For example, serial literature, like the Harry Potter books, not only comes in books (of ever-increasing lengths; thanks, JKR), but also in chapters within those books, as well as subdivisions within chapters. Comics today are typically organized in multiple-issue “arcs” which effectively function as chapters would in novels. Each issue is divided into a fairly standard number of pages and a relatively unrestricted number of panels. On television, series divide into seasons, seasons into episodes, episodes into acts (of relatively standard length on commercial TV), acts into scenes, and so on. Regardless of the medium, smaller narrative chunks organize our experiences of the whole.

All well and good, but completely arbitrary. Word counts limit literature. Dwindling page counts limit comics. Minutes, commercial breaks, and episode orders limit television. Each of these forms, despite expressing a pretty wide generic and stylistic spectrum, is delimited by a pretty narrow formal range. In the US, most serialized TV shows are still expected to run in seasons of 20-24 episodes. If successful (i.e., attract enough Nielsen-monitored viewers), they get to come back and do it again the next year. If really successful, they get to keep right on doing it for many years.

The perpetual problem is that stories, in all these media, have to squeeze and/or stretch themselves into these standardized forms. Thus, rather than unfold at whatever length/pace might be ideal, they’re forced to capitulate to convention. I should point out that this applies as well to non-serialized media forms: feature films generally run between 90 and 120 minutes, typical sitcom episodes run 21-25 minutes, etc. In addition, other aesthetic conventions (i.e., not only narrative ones) affect storytelling: when is a close-up a better choice than a long shot?; how does the score channel emotions?

The problem recently is that story and media form haven’t meshed particularly well in some prominent media texts. Lost is probably the most cited example of this issue today. It’s continued to pile up mysteries and clues over (to date) 59 episodes, and while it has resolved a few narrative enigmas (e.g., what the hell is in that hatch?), it has almost always introduced more along the way (e.g., what is the Dharma Initiative?). While the series’ showrunners, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, have tried to reassure viewers that all will be resolved eventually, more and more viewers have thrown up their hands and quit the show.

As much as I admire the show, I have to admit these ex-viewers have a legitimate point. Lost is a super-high-profile experiment in the limits of television serial narrative. While many other series of the past decade or so have engaged in similar longform storytelling that took years to resolve, they’ve generally done so with more cohesion with their narrative packaging. Babylon 5, for example, had a five-year plan from the get-go, and the broad strokes of the entire saga laid out in advance, and plotted (mostly) evenly over its five seasons (e.g., every season represented an entire calendar year of story time). Even The X-Files, for all its eventual fumbling of its big enigmas, was able to effectively pivot its overall story at key points (e.g., Scully’s abduction and cancer) largely by also telling completely self-contained stories (i.e., the “monster-of-the-week” episodes, which I always preferred). More mainstream serial dramas of the 1990s and 2000s (e.g., ER, Homicide, Northern Exposure) adapted a similar strategy, overlapping their character’s narratives, while still allowing room for some more-or-less self-contained episodes.

This has generally not been the case with Lost. Every episode explicitly adds to the overall mystery by dribbling a few clues (or, at times, pouring a bunch down). There are no stand-alone stories to break up the run (though “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” from last week comes pretty close). Accordingly, the big question is: just how long is this story going to be? To use a literary analogy, are we still in the early chapters, or are we somewhere in the middle? There’s no clues from the text itself on this count. Indeed, the best indication comes from Cuse and Lindelof, who are apparently negotiating with ABC to try to wrap it all up at the end of a Season 5 (that’d be in May 2009). However, networks aren’t generally in the business of plotting the end of hit series in the middle of Season 3; remember the 20-24 season order, and the call for more, more, more if the show is successful?

The best narrative solution to this problem would also be the most difficult business solution: let the story dictate the form and the length. Instead of starting with a cardboard box with 22 compartments…why not build the box around the objects?

Cut to black. “THUD!”

That’s it for now; coming up in Part 2, why even great TV shows struggle with 22 episodes, and how to better design the package.

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3 Responses to “Serial narrative as delayed disappointment (Part 1)”

  1. Chad Harriss Says:

    I’d like to expand a bit on one sentence from this post if you’d indulge me. Derek wrote, “On television, series divide into seasons, seasons into episodes, episodes into acts (of relatively standard length on commercial TV), acts into scenes, and so on.” Specifically, I’d like to focus on the “and so on” aspect.

    One way to approach open-ended serial narratives is by returning to Boris Tomashevsky’s conception of motifs. In his essay “Thematics” Tomashevsky writes, “The story is an aggregate of motifs in their logical, causal-chronological order…The motifs that cannot be omitted are bound motifs; those which may be omitted without disturbing the whole causal-chronological course of events are free motifs” (Lemon & Reis p. 68). This implies that Tomashevsky viewed motifs primarily as complete sentences. Of course, this conception has been altered to refer to words or recurring images, but if we return to Tomashevsky’s conception then we can begin to see how the descriptive sentences within a tale form very specific plot chains, which TV programs interconnect during the presentation. A single scene may include motifs relating to any number of plot chains. Therefore, if we begin the analytical process with the descriptive sentence motif, then we can separate a complex narrative into specific plot chains, which in turn can be studied independently. This makes serial analysis a bit less cumbersome.

    Furthermore, we can also study the motivation for the motif’s inclusion. Here, I would add serial motivation as a subunit of the concept of compositional motivation. Although this concept is not specific to TV, as you note by mentioning Harry Potter, the medium does rely on this concept heavily. So when Fox Mulder mentions the “alien abduction” of his sister Samantha in the pilot episode of The X-Files, this provides a motif that begins a story arc that spans the the nine year run of the program. This seems to illustrate your point. The story dictates the length of the story arc and motifs provide points of connection throughout this arc. TV narratives are far less contained than most books or films.

    In the end, I’m arguing–much like Michael Newman did in his recent piece published in The Velvet Light Trap–that when we analyze structure we need to begin with the smallest possible units of analysis (motifs), then build critiques up from here. If we do this, then peeling back the layers of the structure becomes much easier. This process would also likely show us how a structure, like Lost’s, has become too muddled to comprehend.

  2. Jonathan Gray Says:

    Your MediaCommons posting lured me over, Derek. I look forward to visiting more often.

    Anyways, the world of literature shows that seemingly constrictive forms often produce some of the most enduring art. The sonnet is a nasty form to write in, yet so many mastered it and said great things with it. Shakespeare’s five-act tragedies all get rave reviews, and justifiably so, despite strict adherence to form. So in and of itself, that’s not a problem. But the often complete inflexibility of the system is — it would be as if Shakespeare could write *only* sonnets, tragedies, comedies, tragecomedies, or history plays: by his twentieth play, I’d be wretching, I fear. So it would be nice if TV could find ways to allow multiple different styles. (And I might add that at least sonnets and tragedies end — as you point out, part of the great frustration with seriality to many is the suspicion that there is no form, just endles “and then…” clauses). Perhaps collaborative agreements could be reached with a production company to package shows, a la telenovelas, so that, say, ABC would buy or bid on Lost and Random Second Show as a package, guaranteeing a similar advertising demo and a full 22-24 shows, but not limiting either show to the full 24 ad infinitum? Sounds spacey, but no less odd that the system we’re stuck with at the moment…

  3. Lost gets an endpoint « Derek Kompare’s Media Musings Says:

    […] indicated by my March post on the problems of television seriality (and its much, much-delayed and yet-to-appear follow-up), I think this is a good move on […]


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