Monday, 3 May 2010

Series and Serial: Some Useful Terminology

In my February post "Epic Proportions or Losing Sight of the Scales", I said that I would return to the terms "series" and "serial", and I think it is high time for that discussion now.

I first encountered these distinguishing terms (as such) during my second semester of film studies, almost a decade ago, and I immediately fell in love with their usefulness. It was in a course on television and the discussion was about a shift in the nature of regular sitcoms and crime shows. Traditionally, these types of shows had been series proper, as it were. What I mean by that, or perhaps more adequately what I was taught that term could be used to distinguish, is a collection of stories involving the same character/s and (mostly) the same basic setting, as well. I use the word "collection" here to avoid the word "sequence"; because "sequence" implies a strict chronological order and a (pardon the repetition) sequence of events. A series requires neither.

Don't get me wrong, a series can include some of these elements and some may well have been present already in earlier sitcoms and crime shows (boundaries between different things like these are rarely, if ever, watertight), but the definition itself does not require it. In fact, one of the charms of most series (be they on television, in the cinema or in the worlds of literature and comics) is that you can start anywhere in the collection and then move on to whichever part you happen to fancy next. This is all because the notion of a series – at least in its purest form – also involves an inherent need to maintain a status quo. The illusion of change is promoted over any sense of actual change and characters are not really developing; they are what they are.

The reason for this is, at least partly, that we should easily be able to recognise these characters and never be confused about where they are in their lives or what has happened to them. Each episode or part of the series tells a separate story using the same recognisable characters, and while the stories should in some sense be character-based (or, at the very least, the characters should be made for the specific types of plots the series are telling), they should not be telling an ongoing character story. Because in the strictest sense, a series is not about character development at all. If you want to understand it better, consider TV shows like M*A*S*H or Kojak, or a film series like James Bond. These examples are not really building a sequence of event, nor (generally speaking) do they change much in the character set up.

A serial, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Its entire purpose is to build a chronological sequence of events (although not necessarily narrated in chronological order, I hasten to add), to create a continuing sequence in which a sense of cause and effect is almost inherent. Needless to say (perhaps), this approach welcomes character development. It is by no means an altogether necessary component (one could have a serial in which ongoing plot development is the key), such development would work well and thrive in this type of framework.

Returning to the discussion of my film class, the argument was that while regular sitcoms and crime shows (like M*A*S*H and Kojak) in their very nature had been series, by the 90s these types of shows started to include more and more elements of serialisation. Friends would be a clear example of a sitcom which did this (it was one that was brought up in our class discussion at the time). Interestingly enough, that particular example also showcases very well why television makers wanted these elements included: it was done to add a sense of ongoing drama.

As a result, (more or less) every episode of Friends (to stick with our example) is viewable on its own terms. Every episode tells its own little funny story (or set of storylines, as it usually is) and is a narrative capsule unto itself – in true series fashion. Yet most episodes also include references and sometimes even sub-plots that build up a bigger story (or perhaps even bigger stories) throughout the show's many seasons. While staying true to the encapsulated narrative formula on one level (always given the viewer a full story, as it were), this show and others like it also gave those viewers who followed them something extra – the added dimension of dramatic continuation and development.

The approach was clearly a success, and when handled well, it is very enjoyable. However, today the pendulum has, in many cases, swung very far indeed towards total serialisation. Don't get me wrong, serialisation is not a thing of evil... but let's just say that I am not quite so sure about ongoing serialisation or (for want of a better word) "everlasting" serialisation.

So what do I mean by this new distinction? Well, consider these examples: Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a single novel which was then subsequently serialised by his publisher as three books (later giving rise to an ever-expanding wave of serialised writing within the fantasy genre); BBC's (classic) Doctor Who was made as serialised story arcs (in fact, this show could be described as a series of serials, where each serial is more or less functioning as an episode of a series, whereas each episode within an arc is 100% serial in nature – down to cliffhanger endings, etc); Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland wrote and drew the 12 issues limited maxi series (yes, I know that the term series might seem confusing in this particular context) Camelot 3000, just as the team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons gave us their 12 issues limited maxi series Watchmen around the same time. All of these four cases are clearly serials (all of them represent serialised publication or airing), but they are also limited.

A series can be ongoing, perhaps even "everlasting" (and yes, I am fully aware of the inherent hyperbole here), but it allows readers or viewers to leave with a full story (or several for that matter) finished. The serial, however, strictly speaking gives us one story. Yet again, don't get me wrong. I am neither stupid nor naive enough to think that serials cannot include some sub-plots or contain smaller stories within the story (some of which may well be finished before the main story is), but these stories are never the main event. There is a difference between a set of stories (all enjoyable separately) which adds up to a grand epic history when viewed or read together and an ongoing story which includes smaller stories and sub-plots along the way. The difference (at least in my view) lies in the fact that main story in the latter always is the overall story, the ongoing narrative event; whereas in the former, the main story is (always and ever) the story at hand, or the little story, if you will. And that difference is huge.

Because of this difference, a serial more or less needs to be limited. Although the act of serialisation itself necessitates some sense of ongoing storytelling, it cannot be "everlasting". Without a limitation, the story never ends. And while it could be argued that, in life, no story ever truly ends, there is a strong difference between an open-ended narrative and one that is never brought to its conclusion. The latter (to me) suggests to me either laziness on the part of the storyteller or a great fear of losing the audience. So, in the case of "everlasting" serialisation, we are either to accept being treated with laziness (perhaps even indifference) or to be taken hostages (figuratively speaking) by the storyteller/s – without any knowledge of when we will reach the end... or in some cases even if.

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