Seriality, the ontological concept behind TV series, originated due to consumerist reasons. When literature printing boomed out at the end of the XIX century, writers –most prominently Charles Dickens– had to look for a way to keep readers invested in their works in order to consolidate this new mass producing machine. Accordingly, splitting long novels into different chapters released over time –and with a proper cliffhanger– hooked the readers and allowed the industry to bloom. A century later, TV has adopted the formula literature popularized and even more recently some shows have appeared that have challenged our understanding about what seriality is supposed to be.
Moving forward, drawing narrative arcs or, simply put, leaving us wanting to know what happens next is what television serials tend to do. Unidirectionally, the story moves from a starting point to an inevitable ending in a straight line –hitting, most of the times, some bumps on the road or taking a detour. Linearity is the norm, even shows that use time travels or flashbacks and flashforwards can only be perfectly put together as a singular plot line –no one thinks about arranging Lost chronologically and actually make sense, it’s a show that no matter how many temporal tricks it assembles, it only moves towards one direction: forward.
There are very few examples in TV’s short history that are able to put on the table such a risky bet as dumping linearity in favor of other forms of story development. However, in contemporary television, maybe due to the increasing complexity of TV series, I can think of two: The Comeback and the fourth season of Arrested Development. Coincidentally, both of them are comedies, a genre that has always been more comfortable experimenting with new ideas, and both of them state their plot intentions in their own titles.
Lisa Kudrow, an actress that became hugely popular in the 90s due to her role in the sitcom Friends (and who’s still probably haunted by that character), plays Valerie Cherish in The Comeback, an actress that became hugely popular in the 90s due to her role in the sitcom I’m It! (and who’s definitely haunted by that role to the point of her personality having been vampirized by her character). In 2005, she lands a new role in the new sitcom Room and Bored at the same time a reality television crew while record her official Comeback to the spotlight (being this also Kudrow’s first major role after Friends). The plot thickens: in The Comeback‘s second season (2014) HBO decides to green light Seeing Red, a quality drama about the problems behind the scenes of the shooting of Room and Bored in which Valerie play a fictionalized version of her already fictionalized self. In other words, season two works at some leves as a remake of season one. Do you see where I’m going with this? The Comeback actual plot is not as relevant as the concept behind the whole series: the cyclical spiral of fame, self-delusion and acting that holds Valerie prisoner in a set of mirrors where we are never sure which side we are actually looking at. There’s no escape, only a continuous comeback to the same empty starting point à la Groundhog Day.
On the other side, Arrested Development had always been a show about a set of characters incapable of growing but with its fourth Netflix season it became a show with a structure also infected with the inability to develop (check this previous post for a more detailed explanation on AD‘s structure). Audiences were invited to watch and rewatch the episodes in random order to acknowledge the threads that joined every plot together into one single plot: the same scene was shown in different episodes from different points of view, scenes we thought ended would continue in later (or previous) episodes, the causes of certain events would be revealed many episodes after its consequences, episodes in media res where there was no clear starting or ending point but a continuous flux of storytelling; foregrunding structure over plot. Hence, linear seriality is bended to become a sort of circular and fragmented puzzle where active viewers had to search for answers somewhere along those 15 episodes.
Somehow, these TV shows remind us of another storyteller master such as David Lynch who in his most daring films (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) also bend the rules of classical linear storytelling to offer us film experiences similar to the viewings of The Comeback and Arrested Development, isn’t the strangeness that Valerie Cherish feels when she looks at her true self acting in Seeing Red the same that we perceive in Laura Dern’s face when she sees a previous scene of Inland Empire on an empty cinema? Isn’t the bait Lynch leaves at the beginning of Lost Highway –”Dick Laurent is dead”– similar to the preview of the unavoidable outcome of every member of the Bluth family in 5 de 4 at the beginning of every of their storylines? Structural and thematic
tricks illusions that defy linearity and bring new interpretations to the table.
As the record in Inland Empire the stories turn and turn, no music, no content, only the sound of needle scraping the record, the engine of the story, spiraling inwards, closer and closer every spin to an unreachable final point that would mean escaping this infinite loop. A new form of seriality.