As I delve into comparative television analysis (one of the single nerdiest clauses I’ve ever written), one of the most prominent decisions made in the writer’s room that has emerged is the show runner’s choices on a series’ serality and how it affects the over-arching theme. My spell-check keeps telling me “serality” isn’t a word, so I guess I should start there;
The basis for this vocabulary comes from one of my favorite books about television analysis, Jason Mittell’s Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Storytelling. Upon finding this book in my college’s library, I was immediately drawn in by the tools and glossary he created to specifically acknowledge the narrative complexity and forms utilized by modern day show runners to establish parameters with which to evaluate television norms, and by extension, irregularities. In his book, Mittell states,
“At its most basic level, narrative complexity redefines episode forms under the influence of serial narration- not necessarily a complete merger of episode forms but a shift balance…Complex television employs a range of serial techniques, with the understanding that series is a cumulative narrative that builds over time, rather than resetting back o the steady-state equilibrium at the end of every episode” (p. 18)
Per Mittell, serality defines a series’ reliance on continuity’s significance to the arc of the storytelling; are shows more episodic, meaning most plot points are introduced and solved within the same episode, or cumulative, meaning the each episode plays into a larger sense of growth over time. There is hardly a perfect example at either end of the spectrum, as television relies on both first-time and returning viewers in any given show, however there is a certain tendency to lean on either side of the scale which I believe vastly affects the overall theme of a series (or vice versa). Some notable episodic shows may include; “Seinfeld”, “It’s Always Sunny”, and “Arrested Development” which tend to either completely restart their character’s situation within each episode or at least rely on independent events rather than a eventual outcome to drive the nexus of the series. On the opposite side, shows like “Lost” or “Twin Peaks” mainly depend on the engagement of an audience over time to reveal some sort of solution to an issue that build over episodes, and occasionally seasons. (p 25)
As television has continued to be viewed through binge-able platforms online, the relationship between individual episodes and their season through-line has continued to evolve as an artistic choice for writer’s to make when developing a series. In the coming weeks, I will break down a total of 10 series (mostly comedic, but with a few dramas to keep things in a more broad perspective) and evaluate how their episodic or serial tendencies affect the message and impact of each show and how their inception (pre-, post-, or mid- streaming revelation) influenced the continued viewership of the series. Below, is chart with the summary of my findings on each series’ relationship with episodic and serial storytelling. Moving forward, I will dissect each evaluation and compare the ways in which different shows use varying modes of storytelling to effectively convey the series’ message.