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.