Lost the plot: has the television serial run out of creative lebensraum?

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2010

This week, I’ve mostly been feeling like the only person in the world who’s never seen an episode of Lost. That said, observing the reactions to the final episode has been an enjoyable people-watching spectacle; as an outsider, I can only conclude that, while Lost‘s ending has annoyed quite a few people, it satisfied many others, and compared to the scathing vitriol directed against the closing episode of Battlestar Galactica, the whole business has been fairly civilised.

As a writer and critic who doesn’t watch much television (I don’t actually own one, and haven’t for over a decade), it’s interesting to watch the debate around popular serials for emerging commonalities… and in the more science fictional franchises especially, much discussion is given to the matter of endings, and their frequent failure to fully satisfy the logical and sf-nal mechanics of the plot as well as the need for emotional closure. (It’s worth noting that these complaints are rarely heard outside the sf community, at least in my experience; this is presumably because the genre field has a canon of works which obey the unwritten rules of extrapolation and explanation to draw on for comparison, and because sf tropes are now seen as a convenient toolkit for adding weirdness to TV serials – a toolkit with which the average watcher isn’t yet sufficiently familiar to be able to call cliche or deus ex machina when they see it.*)

But enough of my hypotheses; n+1 Magazine has an interesting and timely article about “how the television serial achieved the status of art“… and how that achievement may mark the end of its creative trajectory [via MetaFilter]. To put it another way: the format may have run out of ways to raise its game and wow the viewers.

It’s quite a long piece, so I’m just going to pull two quotes – though it’s well worth taking the time to read the whole thing. The first makes the point that serial storytelling is actually an old and very successful format from the era before television, and one that helped define what we think of as the canon of classic novels:

Today, we study nineteenth century novels as whole texts, and as a result we don’t think about how they were originally read and written. Novelists, for one thing, wrote on deadline. When Dickens produced The Pickwick Papers in thirty-two page installments, it wasn’t because he preferred thirty-two pages to thirty-one or thirty-three, but because that’s how many pages the Fourdrinier cylindrical paper-making machine could impress at once. Serialization also came to shape plot itself: the end of chapter cliff-hanger (which could be called the “to be continued” effect) was invented to ensure that today’s readers would be tomorrow’s readers as well.

Hold that thought. Now, skip to near the end of the article:

This is the final season of Lost, and while new dramas will continue to find both enthusiastic fans and critical acclaim, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something important is winding down. After all, the great dramas of the last decade are great precisely because they found certain limits of the form, because they figured out what it was possible to do with the available tools. That leaves future shows with few places to go, even when they are excellent (Breaking Bad) or promising (Treme). There just isn’t much new ground available. Mad Men is our current would-be aspirant to television greatness, but that show looks to me like a Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together from bits of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, dressed up and staggering around in a Banana Republic suit. We will someday be embarrassed by the amount of attention paid to that show during its run; perhaps we already are.

Now I’m going to bring on Peter Watts, a man renowned for calling it how he sees it; here, he repeats something that I (and doubtless many others) have been saying for years about television serials.

You know what the creators of epic, multiyear-arc television shows need? They need a novelist or two on staff. Or a playwright. Somebody who understands that an epic tale needs to be planned in advance, that plot is not something you work out after you’ve already written 90% of the story, that you can’t just throw a bunch of kicks and clues into individual chapters unless you have some idea what they fucking mean. It doesn’t matter how gobsmacking your twists are, or how effectively they entice your viewers to tune in next week: the reason we come back is because we want to see how all these intrigues fit together, what the payoff is. These guys can be absolute geniuses when it comes to microwriting: why haven’t they figured out that you gotta use that arsenal you’ve assembled on the mantelpiece, sometime before the end of the tale?

My guess is that they’ve never learned to because there’s never been a need for them to do so. And I find it interesting that the two TV serials I’ve enjoyed enough to really engage with in recent years were not written in response to the production schedule: Dexter, for instance, was based on the novels of Jeff Lindsay, and – despite its initially ridiculous premise – blew me away with its narrative tightness, and Sons Of Anarchy – which has some lumpy moments and clunky cliches, but otherwise moves very smoothly – is on many levels a retelling of Hamlet.

Of course, this could just be me grafting my own preference (for novel-like plots that tie everything up neatly) onto a market where that preference isn’t a prime factor in audience satisfaction. But I think it’s fair to suggest that the microwriting approach to serial television makes the unsatisfying or cop-out ending an inevitability; a novelist can wrap up the tale and then go back an make sure everything fits before the audience sees it, but if you start releasing the story before you know how it’s going to end (or even how long it’s going to run), you’re forced to do things by the seat of your narrative pants.

We keep being told the novel is dying, and that the television networks are struggling to fund good serials. Maybe it’s time the two forms started to meet in the middle?

[ * Though it may sound like it, this isn’t meant as special pleading for sf readers; rather than describing genre fans as an elite, I’m trying to describe them as veterans from the early stages of a culture war that has started to conscript a much wider and less experienced audience. ]


Lost phones

Sarah Ennals @ 21-06-2009

Lost Phones - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

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