Thursday, March 15, 2007

Endings Anyone?

My pal Derek Kompare is operating his smart machine on serial TV...
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.
What's interesting about this post is that this is exactly why I don't start watching things like Lost or 24: They are just a bit too demanding for my life. Their narratives delay delay and delay away, which is no surprise. But I like payoff and I am not really interested in waiting too long. The HBO formula of 13 episodes per seasons seems to be my limit for hour long serial narratives: that's about two or three days of binging for me, which is something I allow myself two times a year.

But truth be told there is something about this form of intensity that I can only sustain for in these kinds of chunks and it has nothing to do with my ADD, thank you very much. I get exhausted after 13 hours of the same narrative arc. Even if the payoff is huge, I am pretty much done after the eleventh hour. Even the greatness that was this season's arc of The Wire was something that I think I could have handled only one or two more episodes. But 24 episodes... that's something else.

But still, I am not that impressed. I know viewers of The Guiding Light who have been fans for the last 30 years. Soaps are notorious for their pace... they tend to be as slow as molasses and they allow the viewer to caress every close-up. It's a different game and, well, much more healthy for long-term narrative embrace. You get low production values but, in turn, you get insane arcs and the ability to enjoy them in a much more leisurely pace. You can miss a day or two and you aren't punished. You can even miss a week and read the plot synopsis in the papers and pick it back up on Monday. That's right, you don't need a DVR or even a VCR and you are back in it.

Of course there are gender issues here with regards to narrative... somehow it's macho to watch all every episode of every season of 24 and The Sopranos, but not so macho to watch several years worth of All My Children. And while it would be easy to explain all of these gender issues all in terms of content and topics, but narrative form is key here as well. Men, in our culture, are notoriously outcome oriented and women are more process-oriented. I would not be too surprised that the audience that is "quitting" these shows tend to have a y chromosone.

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