Serial Killers

It’s tempting to think that we live in an age of serial television, since virtually every programme we see features some kind of story development designed to keep viewers coming back week after week. Nowhere is this more evident than US TV drama. Critics have been telling us for years now that what distinguishes dramatic American TV from its British equivalents and cinematic competitors is the ability to tell stories over time. Yet very few US TV drama series have sustainable premises and even fewer have enough story arcs to outlast a shelf life of one season on the air.

This struck me while watching the early episodes of Season Three of Showtime’s Homeland, patiently waiting for the show to justify its continued existence. The series had the requisite twists and turns for a season of thrills and jolts and spent its second treading water by flipping the premise like a trick coin so that viewers basically watched the first season again in reverse. The third season has already drowned in its own uncertainty over the future trajectory of the show. I’m not at all averse to long-running programmes changing what they are, as long as they change into something!

Damian Lewis tries to hide from disgruntled Homeland viewers…

Homeland is a glorified mini-series but so are many of the contemporary dramas we treasure as serial television. Damages and 24 never deserved to get beyond a single season. The plausibility and novelty of both series is dependent on the events in the fictional world of the show never being repeated. Even TV dramas celebrated for their narrative complexity such as The Sopranos and The Wire barely made it past their first seasons. Both shows came to a story impasse at the end of their pilot runs and had to work hard at finding new characters and concerns to explore.

Let’s get some historical perspective here. The trend towards serial storytelling in US TV drama over the last thirty years didn’t arise from a need to tell stories more complexly and truthfully. As soap operas went primetime in the late ‘70s with Dallas and Dynasty, network executives and advertisers alike recognised that cliffhangers and continuing stories could be a valuable commodity in finding and keeping viewers. I’m not saying this didn’t lead to more complex television storytelling (and often the viewers who liked this most were those targeted by sponsors) but serial television had to be sellable to stay prevalent.

Serial storytelling in US primetime!

Serial storytelling is a neat way to illustrate television’s differences from books and movies (at least those that aren’t series). But the truth is for much of its history, dramatic storytelling in US TV was delivered in self-contained episodic form along a more generous, less competitive principle of not alienating viewers who might miss a week occasionally. The legacy of episodic storytelling is still discernible in American TV today. The successful CSI and Law & Order franchises paid only lip service to serial form and the best show currently on the air, FX’s Justified, is based principally around episode-specific stories.

Most contemporary US TV dramas are better described as walking a tightrope between episodic and serial storytelling. In order to attract casual viewers and get syndicated, TV series must have a loose enough storyline to be broken up and watched out of sequence without too much loss. But as the options for TV viewing multiply exponentially and the landscape of dramatic entertainment become ever more fragmented, stories that run across episodes and seasons remain a tried and trusted technique for encouraging repeated viewing and customer loyalty. A step too far each way takes you into daytime or days gone by.

Justified, the last outpost of episodic TV!

AMC currently holds a reputation for producing television that showcases the best of American serial drama, something alluded to in their last two slogans ‘story matters here’ and ‘something more’. But let’s look at the facts. The recently-completed Breaking Bad is a fallacy of serial storytelling, compacting six years of television into two years of onscreen time. Mad Men produces an occasional episodic masterpiece but watching the series continuously quickly gets tiresome, making it preferable to cherry-pick instalments from digitised series archives. The Walking Dead escaped Stephen King mini-series status by the skin of its teeth (pun very much intended!).

A television drama that is genuinely serialised runs counter to so many of the qualities of US TV we hold dear, like individually crafted episodes and storyline resolution. There’s also a lot of lame ducks out there with nowhere to go and no story to advance dodging cancellation each year. 

4 Responses to “Serial Killers”

  1. I don’t disagree with you, yet I think your description of serial television in the US misses the impact of privotal shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dynasty and Dallas were considered in the vein of soap operas, thus not really that innovative except that they brought the excesses of that genre to the primetime. I think Steven J. Cannell’s WISEGUY (1987-1990) and later J. Michael Straczynski’s Bablyon 5 (1994-1997) brought “in series” story arc into the fashion. Indeed after WISEGUY the 1990s saw several season long narrative, in particular MURDER ONE, which has memorable first season (like 24), but could not maintain its audience. I think in considering those series, the core of the current season long story arcs and the creation of complex mythology make a lot of sense.

    • Peyton Place, The Twilight Zone – are my TV memories so old they cannot possibly be of any use to any cultural critic of tv viewing

    • Thanks for the comment Julian and I’m grateful you brought up an era of serial television in the US I singularly failed to mention in the blog. I think in stressing the commercial reasons why serial television prospered in the 80s and 90s I omitted the narratively complex and experimental series that kept it going artistically-to this we could also add Twin Peaks. Ultimately I think the storytelling styles of these shows (Murder One especially) were abandoned or diluted by the early 2000s, which is the time I’m counting ‘contemporary’ from and drama series became more about promoting the image of serial storytelling rather than necessarily doing the work of it…as Murder One and Twin Peaks demonstrate, it’s not exactly viewer-friendly when done properly. Plus I think the idea of an individually crafted standout episode that embodies a series for its viewers and fans have become more important to drama series post-2000. Those names are an essential addition to the historical discussion of serial television, I agree.

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