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From Dickens to LOST, part 1: What Makes Serials So Great?

September 30, 2017

 

I’d never anticipated quoting Benedict Cumberbatch, but here it goes: Discussing the differences between television and cinema, he told The Guardian that the lines “are beautifully blurred now between what big- and small-screen is”. He put it more plainly a moment later: “Fuck it ... If it’s good material, it’s good material.” He should know something about this subject, having starred in Sherlock, a show that can be described in the same terms as its title character: flawed, deeply complex, and loveable. Sherlock is just one in an ever increasing list of high-quality serialised shows now widely described as a golden age of TV. This modern passion for episodic shows traces its lineage back through the history of television and cinema to books.

 

Serials go back to the 17th Century, to the invention of the printing press. The cost of producing books was high, rising with the length of the book, so serialisation was a cheaper option. This gave birth to works such as L’Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé, the immense “novel of novels” (comprising many subplots and a broad cast of characters that orbit a central narrative) published in six instalments over two decades. But the form found its feet in the 19th Century, with the rich novels of Dickens, Thackeray, and others, their books filled with subplots, huge casts of characters, and meandering forays into political and philosophical ideas of the time. So let’s bring to light the devils in the details and examine more closely what it is that makes serialised stories so great.

 

 

“Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet.”

~ Stendhal, The Red and the Black

 

The popularity of serialised stories in Victorian Britain was the result of more people living in cities, rapidly increasing rates of literacy, and improvements to printing technology that made production cheaper. Essentially, more people could read and afford to read, and the publication of monthly instalments created communities of readers who loyally followed the adventures of favourite characters. Serialisations performed the important social tasks of bonding people and giving them new ways of engaging with society; in discussing different views of characters and their actions, from orphans to pickpockets to wealthy widowers, readers were also discussing the politics of their time. When readers gossiped about Mr Pickwick’s incarceration in Fleet Prison due to the antagonisms of unscrupulous lawyers (The Pickwick Papers), they were taking part in satire against the legal establishment. When readers were shocked at descriptions of poverty and shown criminals more fleshed out than middle-class caricatures (Oliver Twist), they were reacting to a widened view of society around them.

 

The same still happens today. Olivia Laing wrote that “a monster is fear assuming a form”. TV series from Stranger Things to The Walking Dead give shape to social anxieties, and in doing so provide viewers with vehicles for discussion and metaphors with which to probe reality. It has been argued that Stranger Things is a commentary on homophobia, with the Upside Down standing in for The Closet into which gay people are stuffed and slowly die, and the otherness of the nerdy protagonists, bullied in every episode with homophobic slurs, representing how homosexuality stands out from an often aggressive norm. The Walking Dead’s examination of what society offers us is made (condescendingly) clear in the episode ‘Them’ when Rick tells his group, “We are the walking dead.” Here, the show wore its social commentary on its sleeve, announcing that a central question of the show is “What makes us human?”

 

Of course, such questions are asked by novels and standalone movies, but only serials (whether televised or literary) can investigate in satisfying detail the wide variety of possible answers. Each episode can act as its own vehicle for exploring different and sometimes contradictory approaches to a particular theme.

 

 

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” 

~ F Scott Fitzgerald

 

A cleaning woman in 1847 was stunned to discover that Dickens, “the man that put together Dombey”, would be visiting her employer. The woman couldn’t read, so she was asked how she knew Dombey. She revealed that she and the lodgers where she lived came together on the first Monday of every month for tea and a reading of the latest instalment of Dickens’ story. Thanks to the uniting passion of this group, an illiterate working-class woman became intimately acquainted with literature. Today, groups of disparate people meet weekly to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones, then go online to blog and participate in forum discussions about the show, before watching one of the many internet shows dedicated to dissecting the story. (The Screen Junkies’ “Watching Thrones” feature includes a rundown of favourite scenes, a segment they call “Raging Throners”.)

 

These communities that share a collective appreciation for stories have undergone a transformation over the last sixty years. This change can be grossly simplified as one from counter-culture to mainstream, from a few social outcasts discussing comic books to the success of Stranger Things, or from the term “nerd” as an insult to geek culture proudly self-identifying as such. Here in the twenty-first century, these communities have expanded in global scale and popularity; thanks to the internet, communities once restricted to schools and libraries now span continents, and the people talking about superhero movies and fantasy novels are not only obsessed fans but their families and friends, and probably yours too.

 

I think Lost had a pivotal role to play in this (and in the inauguration of the so-called golden age of television). Alan Sepinwall wrote that Lost “didn’t invent internet discussion of TV shows ... but it may have perfected the art”. When Lost started its run, Twitter did not exist and Facebook was not yet a verb, but the show was the focal point of worldwide, weekly speculation. As executive producer Carlton Cuse said, “[Lost was] a show that was perfect for discussion and debate, just at the moment where the internet was evolving into a place where people were forming communities.” A cornucopia of platforms for allowing viewers to engage with the mythology (and, no need to be coy about it, for making the studio a metric shit-ton of money) blossomed over the course of six seasons, including games, podcasts (another technology in its infancy), and a meticulously detailed wiki.

 

The serialised nature of stories means that communities have time and space to grow and to develop their responses to what they are seeing and reading. Your average book group will devote a single meeting to a novel; imagine if they gave several months to an unfolding story. The depth of engagement will of necessity be that much greater, and I count that as a good thing.

 

 

“Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them.”

~ Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature

 

This opening up of forums for discussion naturally led to an increase in audience influence. Returning to Lost, fans often asked what the other survivors of the crash were up to each week while the main narrative unfolded in the foreground, and the writers responded to this curiosity by introducing two new characters – who were quickly killed off after viewers disapproved of the poor way they were brought in. This non-authorial influence on stories has great power, and it is not new.

 

Charles Dickens had to begin somewhere as one of the most loved English writers, and that beginning came when he was twenty-four and writing a series of loosely related misadventures now known as The Pickwick Papers. It was not a success for the first nine instalments of the story. Then, in chapter ten, Dickens introduced Sam Weller, the world-wise working-class man with whom the reading public fell instantly in love. It was the huge popularity of Sam that led to him becoming a staple character as the main protagonist’s sidekick and therefore to the incredible success of The Pickwick Papers.

 

In an alternate reality, Dickens published the book in one go, without the chance to engage with readers and alter the story accordingly, meaning Sam Weller did not stick around, readers disparaged the book, and Dickens gave up on writing. This is just one of the advantages that communities of fans offer writers: feedback that they can choose to respond to, as with The Pickwick Papers and dozens of other notable instances. Fan outrage brought back The Hulk when he was dropped after only six issues; Doctor Who answered an esoteric question about the Doctor’s regenerations in response to rampant fan speculation; an episode of Sherlock addressing how Holmes faked his death featured a brilliant running gag in which characters voiced a variety of theories that echoed the pick n’ mix of fan theories debated online, from a Derren Brown meta-cameo to homoerotic fan fiction featuring Holmes and Moriarty.

 

This won’t always work – trailers for the upcoming Justice League movie seem to be pandering to the fans frustrated by the dourness of previous DC films by emphasising the “humour” of JL, missing the point that levity will not make up for poor characterisation, terrible pacing, obsession with style at the expense of substance, or god-awful plot reversals (“Save Martha!”). Occasionally, an appeal to fans might be little more than a short-sighted attempt to save a meandering or confused story. That said, there is nothing wrong with an author engaging in a sincere exploration of a storyline with the guidance of her readers, despite many deriding the writers of Lost for exactly this, as if not having every single detail fixed in advance is a failing, or as if knowing everything beforehand is necessarily preferable to a more organic, free-flowing creation. Reader and writer together can explore the story’s terrain.

 

In a meaningful way, this democratic approach to storytelling is not only a nod back to the serials of the nineteenth century – it is a return to the oral stories that reach right back to prehistory, which were shaped by the collective input of those retelling those myths over time. As I alluded to in last month’s essay, perhaps some of the ways forward artistically can be found in parts of our past.

 

 

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

~ Søren Kierkegaard

 

In the first half of the 20th Century, serialised novels declined and the model was taken up by radio and television. But our golden age was forced to wait for the advent of VCRs and DVRs; before the ability to record TV and watch it later, viewers had to avoid missing episodes of long-running serials so they could follow along. Once that obstacle was overcome, writers could become more creative and viewers could commit more freely to the investment required in such serials. We find here a growing number of shows such as Buffy that feature villain-of-the-week style episodes augmenting overarching season-long mysteries. Eventually, we reach the extended narratives driven forward week by week with episodes that each unfold a larger story, like those found in 24, Lost, and Breaking Bad.

 

So here we are, at the start of the 21st Century, with original shows from Netflix, HBO, and Amazon consistently raising the standard of what can be achieved with the serialised format. There are exciting predictions made every day about where original series can go and how serialised shows will engage with fan communities. But all anyone seems to be saying of literature when it occasionally comes up is that books should be more like TV by returning to serialisation. Will this really work, however, and is it the most creatively rewarding route that literature might take? I want to explore these questions in next month’s blog, so (unless you are binge-reading these essays at a later date) I’ll see you back here in a few weeks for part two.

 

 

 

 

References:

 

• Honoré d’Urfé, L’Astrée (1607–1627)

• Stendhal, The Red and the Black (1830)

• Olivia Laing, ‘From zombie parades to Stranger Things: why is our culture obsessed with monsters?’, New Statesman (2017)

• F Scott Fitzgerald quoted in College Of One by Sheilah Graham (1967)

• John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (1874)

• Alan Sepinwall, The Revolution Was Televised (2013)

• Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (1980)

• Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1837)

• ‘15 Times Fans Changed Comic Book History’, cbr.com (2017)

• Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard (1844)

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