Eat your Serial

I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve seen any good movies lately. Although the last movie I actually was cajoled into seeing in the theatre was the entirely regrettable Indiana Jones 4. I felt like I’ve been watching lots of movies.

It’s because I’ve been buried deep in a prolonged DVD marathon of some of HBO’s finest serial dramas: The Wire, Carnivale, and The Sopranos.

Since these series are not exactly new, I expect to be called late to the party by proclaiming the serial drama as the storytelling form of the present and immediate future.

Nonetheless, I’ve come to the conclusion that television serial dramas are a superior form of storytelling than the traditional 2 hour film. I’m not arguing that great stories haven’t been told in movies and won’t continue to be told in the future; however, the amount of character development, backstory, subplots, conflicts, rises, and falls you can fit in say, 50 hour-long episodes of a television show just can’t be crammed into a two and a half hour movie.

I’m not arguing quantity over quality. But all things considered equal, (production values, acting, writing, etc.), you can craft a story with greater depth given more time.

Serial content is not just episodic content. Episodic content is nothing new; pretty much every narrative on television is episodic. You never need to know what happened in the last episode of Law and Order or the last episode of Full House to understand and enjoy (well, that may be a taller order) the next episode; the events in the previous episode (usually) have no bearing on the next. These are independent stories told with familiar characters. Such is not the case with a serial drama, which represents one large story arc told in installments. Seeing prior episodes is essential to understanding the context in which the characters operate. But perhaps this is why so many otherwise quality serial dramas ultimately fail on television. It’s too hard to catch up or understand what’s going on if you’ve missed a week or two, or, god forbid, try to join a season half-way through.

The serial drama is a more perfect form presented through the wrong medium. These shows belong not on TV but on DVDs, where they can be watched in sequence (as many or as few as desired), but more importantly, in their entirety. The fact that these stories don’t fit on television is painfully clear in early examples of serial dramas such as Twin Peaks, where NBC tried to get new viewers “up-to-date” on characters through painful exposition with forced flashbacks and recaps. It ended, some would say prematurely, after two seasons.

There’s no reason to limit the serial to drama, either. Arrested Development is a fine example of a serial comedy. It’s telling that this show also failed after just two seasons on television but retains a cult following, and, as any loyalist will tell you, is surely best enjoyed on DVD. How much richer are jokes that require subtle understanding of past events than the generic gags of a 30-minute sitcom whose redeeming quality is merely that it can be understood by anyone devoid of all but the most basic context? Arrested Development is both more challenging and more rewarding than the usual television comedy.

Naturally, I expect serial content to come to the web, and not just as re-broadcasts of television. Perhaps the best example so far is Channel101/Channel102 – every month live audiences vote on whether or not to allow independently-made series to continue for another episode. The result is a library of ‘seasons’ of independent content. They’re short and mostly comedies, but once the production values and writing catches up, I dream of full-length, web-based serial dramas. The O.G. Shutterbugs even has a few flashes of Arrested Development-style subtlety. Has anyone spotted these in the wild yet?