Posted 28 March 2008 in Books by Catriona
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for a serial, especially if the characters attract me from the outset. Then I want to spend more time with them, and serials are the most effective way of doing that.
(Re-reading works as well, if you’re that way inclined: I am. I’m a voracious re-reader—and re-watcher—where Nick is not. He will re-read—and I have induced him to re-watch by, unpleasant as it sounds, essentially getting a little sulky if I’m not able to watch things more than once each—but he prefers to move on to new fiction and leave the old material behind. I can’t do that. Partly, I suspect, I have a poor memory. But mostly, I suspect, I just like to get back into a particular fictional world. One of my ideas of a personal hell is being told I’m not allowed to re-read Pride and Prejudice any more.)
But really enjoying something that comes in serial form makes re-reading something of a shadowy pleasure. Because with serial story telling, you can revisit the same world and the same characters without having to re-explore the same plot.
This is part of the reason why I prefer television to movies, speaking broadly. (On that note, I seem to be using the construct “part of the reason” or “partly” a lot—either I’m a complex individual, or I just want to think I am.)
Of course, serial story telling has its disadvantages, whether you’re talking books or television.
One of these is a tendency to drag on. For this reason, I’ve never liked soap operas (well, for this reason and for the fact that they’re, to my mind, absurdly overblown. I’ve read and enjoyed my fair share of Victorian melodrama and sensation fiction, but the modern version leaves me cold.) Let things drag on too long and you’re bound to have to replace some of the actors, which always irritates me.
(The worst example of this, I think, is the initially charming Nicholas Lyndhurst comedy Goodnight, Sweetheart, about the man who had the ability to travel between contemporary London and the London of the Blitz. When they recast both his wife and the woman he fancied in the 1940s, the whole tone of the show changed, and not for the better.)
I suspect this is why I’ve always had a soft spot for the sort of television shows that maintain their setting and focus, but don’t emphasise the melodrama of personal relationships, like Law and Order at its peak—ah, Jerry Orbach. How we miss you—and the original template of The Bill, which is now a show well past its prime of episodes such as “Burnside Knew My Father.”
The other major problem I have with serial story telling is the tendency to either go broadly off the rails at some point—alas, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer still remains my benchmark for this. I loved the opening three seasons, thought the next two had some fine moments, and frankly disliked most of the last two seasons—or to get cut off in their prime—and, sticking with the Joss Whedon theme, Firefly is a good example of this.
Any good work of fiction will make me wish that it hadn’t ended, which is where a tendency to re-read comes in handy. A really well-written piece won’t make me wish it had never ended, not if it’s beautifully constructed, but it will make me wish that I hadn’t read or watched it quite so quickly.
But, somehow, this is worse with serial stories, because they induce in you a sense that they will keep going, so the inevitable end becomes harder to cope with. (Television shows are still the best example of this, because their end can be so abrupt and unexpected. Really well-plotted television will bring a season to some sort of ending, but that doesn’t always make up for the abrupt loss of an overall story arc. Can you tell that I’m still bitter that David Milch wasn’t allowed a fourth season of Deadwood?)
But—not to make a mockery of this entire post—there’s a disadvantage to serial story telling that rests entirely with me, not with the form; I’m just not good at dealing with delayed gratification when it comes to stories.
In order to balance a desire for serial story telling and a desire for more-or-less immediate satisfaction, I bless two inventions in particular: trade paperback reprints of comic-book series and DVDs.
With the exception of Fables, I don’t read any comics in their monthly instalments: I find the cliffhangers too frustrating. (Perhaps, at age 31, I should have just got over this, but I suspect that my tendency to respond emotionally to texts is part of what makes me successful at the kind of work I do.)
And while I watch live television and enjoy plenty of programmes that I have no desire to own on DVD, there’s a certain satisfaction to having an entire season of something to work through at my leisure; I would never have survived watching Deadwood or Dexter live to air.
So while I’m glad that Jane Austen didn’t write serials, I’m also glad that studios and (especially in the U. S.) cable companies are starting to put money into writing and producing high-quality television, so I can have at least twelve or thirteen hours of fun, instead of just two.