Monday, February 15, 2010

The dead-end "dead" serial discussion: It's not happening

I've talked a lot about serialized television lately, and it seems like a lot of TV critics and scholars have the same thing on their mind with Lost coming to an end.

In the past few weeks, a slew of articles and columns have hit the web about the topic, with some writing the serials eulogy.

Simply put: Those people are wrong.
Though I myself said there won't be another serialized series like Lost, and it's fairly obvious that the series' end is somewhat like the end of an era, the island-bound drama is still an extreme example. But that didn't stop Broadcasting and Cable's Marisa Guthrie from wondering if serials would die with Lost:

As the economics of television have become increasingly challenging amid viewer fragmentation, back-end potential has become even more critical. Unlike crime procedurals, which seem to run endlessly on ad-supported cable and in syndication, serials have always been a much tougher sell in the syndication market.
And this week, Aaron Barnhart of the KC Star painted a similar picture, this time noting the poor ratings for various broadcast network serial series:
[O]ther critically acclaimed serial dramas are taking it on the chin, even on cable channels, where smaller audiences can keep a show afloat long after a big network would ordinarily cut it loose.
As a major fan of serialized television who has lost some probably-in-hindsight-not-good series because they were too convoluted or too complicated, too fast, I get it. I've already said it in this space. Ratings for most of the serials on broadcast television are down and it's hard to sell them into syndication. I mean who the hell wants to watch one episode of 24 randomly on WGN? Nobody I hope.

But just as I said 12 days ago, serialization and the serial is not going away. It might be moving in a cyclical pattern on the broadcast networks, but it's still alive on cable. Every single one of the big series on cable -- Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, Big Love, True Blood, Dexter -- is a serialized television program. Period. And aside from Damages, those series have all had good-to-great ratings for cable. And as TV By The Numbers points out, serialization television DOMINATES DVD sales. And I'd guess that Netflix streams or rentals tell a similar story. And this all matters.

So seriously, can we just let this talk go? Yes, Lost marks the end of an era, and era that was started by 24 and continued by Lost. But all the series that cloned those formulas or attempted to pull from them back then were failures. So to write a eulogy now seems like a way to start an imaginary discussion or argument that is not there. 

Those two were the biggest and most extreme examples of serialization. When they go, so will those extremes. But television has been dealing with the after-shocks of their debuts since 2001 and 2004 respectively. It's not a story now just because the two of them might be gone. 

Update: One thing I forgot, that someone who read this noted to me: It also seems like people have such a limited definition of serialization anyway. Like I noted above, 24 and Lost are extreme examples, but hell, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and even Gossip Girl feature a certain type of melodramatic serialized story. It's not some epic mythology like Lost, but threads continue pretty closely to where it left off in the previous episode. I feel like that's an obvious thing to say, but maybe not?


  1. And this all matters.

    Oh, if only, Cory. I, being someone who loves serialized television and who strongly believes that it is not even close to being dead, obviously agree that these types of metrics (DVDs, NetFlix, Rentals, etc.) are incredibly important to how we measure the success of a particular show. But there are many who don't, and they have a point: the "traditional" metrics by which we measure television, as outdated as they are, are not serial television's best friends.

    Accordingly, I think this argument gets more interesting at a creative level, in that it becomes less about the metrics of what networks deem successful and more about how the serialized drama is, or is not, evolving. And on this level, I don't entirely blame people for bringing up this topic at this point in time: FlashForward and V have had their moments, but both shows have had creative shuffling behind the scenes (twice in FlashForward's case) which makes them a risky gambit for ABC, both suffering mightily from their efforts to present a premise which gives the impression of depth rather than something which would actually be sustainable (for the record, V is the more compelling long term series of the two, but we'll see if ABC thinks the same come May).

    However, the failings of these serial dramas have nothing to do with ratings, at least in my view, but rather their inability to navigate what is a delicate formula that Lost, frankly, got lucky in finding like it did. It was novel in a way that kept people around while the show worked through some growing pains, and nowadays the bar is set a lot higher not just on the network side but with viewers as well.

    I don't know if you had a chance to read it, but Kurt Sutter responded to a TVByTheNumbers post earlier today, where they were contextualizing the slow ratings for Caprica and Damages. And he pretty much took the ratings out of their stories: he pointed out that Damages' audience isn't a fanbase, and that the show's "success" was manufactured by FX by building the brand around a movie star (which likely made his bosses at FX a little hot under the collar), while he argued that Caprica is a show still trying to find itself and which relies too heavily on some themes that Battlestar already dealt with (giving old fans a sense of deja vu). In other words, every show is different, and their struggles are never, ever going to be entirely based on some sort of massive shift away from any particular form of television narrative.

    The real story is how traces of serial narratives are creeping into procedural models: The Good Wife is a prime example of a show that manages to straddle that line, and even shows like The Mentalist (being run by serial showrunners like Rome's Bruno Heller) are engaging with more adventurous recurring storylines to some degree. HIGHLY serialized dramas might be going out of style, but the ramifications of 24/Lost go beyond immediate copycats to their trace effects on the industry, and that story is likely too subtle and nuanced for these types of reactionary pieces.

    In short, unlike this comment, some interesting food for thought here, and some good perspective on an issue where many seem to be losing the plot (perhaps due to the serialized nature of the discussion at hand) - great stuff, Cory.

  2. There is no lack of serialized TV on the air right now, even if it's not either as "extreme" or as hugely popular as Lost. I hate having to choose between the increasingly serialized Supernatural (who has been playing a fun game by starting many of it's episodes like they are stand-alones and then end up tying them into the established mythology) and the reality-hopping in Fringe. Chuck is so much fun and I watch it every week without fail. Lots of shows have picked up from the Buffy/X-Files model of balancing out their serial mythologies and weekly stories. Burn Notice is a prime example, as was Veronica Mars. Then there's Venture Bros., which is now a tentpole for Adult Swim.

    If one needs to find out if a pure serial can still be popular post-Lost, they only need look at how successful the first season of Heroes was. Before it went awry, it had the potential to be a long running and prosperous. It's woes were in it's poor creative turns, not in people tiring of its format.

  3. To a certain extent, serial television's survival is guaranteed by the fact that elements of serial storytelling can now be found in nearly every contemporary television format, from reality to sitcoms to game shows to sports. The best multi-season serial on TV today? Easy, Survivor!

    In response to Myles' comment above, I feel that it's worth pointing out that seriality's “creep” into the territory of the procedural is not just an outgrowth of the current post-everything moment, but rather a trend we can trace back at least as far as the late 1970s/early 1980s. Now, as then, the introduction of serial elements into formats which have traditionally tended toward self-contained storylines reflects a desire on the part of content producers and/or distributors to shift their demographic mix more toward scare quotes quality viewers. At the risk of rehearsing an old argument here, members of the “quality” audience love character development, literate dialogue, and most of all narrative contrivances that make them feel as if they’re working while they’re sitting in front of their TVs. So, by that reasoning, Damages gets a S3 not because anyone’s watching it – as the TVbyThe#s crew loves to point out, more people tune in to 2 am That’s So Raven replays that do to watch Patti Hughes conspire with Jimmy Cooper against various former cast members of The Wire – but because producers and distributors have caught on to the fact that it’s easy to flatter the tastes of middlebrow critics and TiVo owners (and tv studies academics) by constructing programs entirely out of impenetrably (maddeningly) convoluted storylines and TV geek casting choices.

    To steer this back to the question that kicked off this discussion: I don’t think we have to worry about seriality. Seriality can take care of itself. So long as networks and cable channels have something to lose, there will be a place for loss leader serial television that, like Damages and Lost, delivers prestige, if not ratings. But will another serial of Lost’s scale, scope, and ambition come along any time soon? I doubt it. Heck, as far as I'm concerned Lost isn’t even that show any more.

  4. Well, obviously many dramas are attempting to incorporate multi-episode story arcs into their programs. But let's be clear - those aren't serials, those are hybrids, and anyone claiming academic stature for her or his insights into the medium had better make that distinction if they want to be taken seriously.

    L&O built an empire on procedure, and CSI did the same with a tad more character development. Then script development made one of its inevitable corrections in the early 2000s, probably fueled by the success of The Sopranos and to a lesser degree, The West Wing. 24 and Lost were built on the idea that you could completely leave out the procedural and get people to stay engaged.

    It took a couple of years but the sustained success of these shows, as well as an old fashioned soap or two on ABC, led to the feeding frenzy of purely serial programs. After that collapsed, you started to hear a lot of talk about hybrids from creators - procedurals with serial "elements" the understanding being that the viewers interested in a procedural represented your profit margin, or put another way, the difference between being loved by critics and fanboys and being modestly successful in the ratings.

    Even here, however, one needs to distinguish between true serial arcs and storylines that are just an excuse to cast Mark Sheppard for a few episodes. A true serial element must advance core characters' storylines over the course of the show's duration. One reason in hindsight that The Sopranos doesn't hold up is that little was done with Tony after the first season or two. He was stuck playing the same track over and over, which the show unpersuasively argued was sort of the joke. In The Wire, everyone's story advanced show to show, seaosn to season. That's serial.

    Book plug: TASTELAND

  5. You mention critical favorites but the actual top-rated drama series on cable are Burn Notice and reruns of NCIS. While both include a light story arc each season, neither falls anywhere near the definition of a serial drama.

  6. Thanks everyone for commenting, I appreciate it.

    To Myles' point, I completely agree. The reason the "serialized" series on broadcast networks right now are getting attacked isn't all because of their poor ratings, it's because they're frankly not very good. And perhaps of all audience sects, "geek," "cult" or "serialized" fans know when things aren't good, and thus they're tuning out.

    As Max suggested, I think the serial IS evolving, but perhaps it's not evolving in the way that can serve two masters. USA has basically patented the "serial story element for the first and last five minutes of the episode and the rest cases!" formula on all its hits and broadcast series like Fringe and Supernatural play off the X-Files model of 3-4 standalones for every 1 mytho-heavy effort.

    Now, those aren't groundbreaking developments, but it there is more ongoing plot-work out there, it's just not as elaborate as fans of Lost or Damages might like. But on the other side, series like Damages, Lost, 24 or even Caprica aren't going to be good enough ratings or syndication hits to warrant broadcast networks airing a slew of them. So perhaps we're just meeting in the middle somewhere, which is maybe a shame for diehard Lost-style serial fans.