The Real Origin of Serialized TV

Vox apparently doesn’t read much and doesn’t even watch much TV.  I say this because of this completely erroneous article claiming that TV started serialization in movies.  This is of course not true as good serialization has a storied past in the printed word.  Not even that, they don’t even mention the TV precursors to the current serialization trend.

The irony is that the header image for the article is from Captain America, a character from the ultimate serialization format: the comic book.  Now comic books have their roots in an even older serial format having spawned from the pulp genre where stories were usually split up among successive issues of periodical devoted to fiction.  In fact this is how a lot of classic Victorian literature was published as well.  It was a concession to printing costs, which were relatively high, and a way to keep customers hooked.

However, in earlier serials it was usually a matter of taking an existing story and just chopping it up.  That is why I think comic books are a better analogue to modern TV.  In both media you have indefinite length of air time or comic books you are trying to fill with stories about the same characters.  The parallels run deeper as both comics and TV were almost exclusively episodic for most of their history, only recently have they become heavily serialized (by which I mean a longer story arc is broken up among multiple issues/episodes).

For comic books, this change was wrought in the early 80s with the extreme popularity of Chris Claremont’s X-Men run.  There are of course earlier well-regarded story arcs, but stuff like Days of Future Past is etched in nearly ever comic readers mind.  It’s hard to overstate how popular X-Men was at one point.  A comic book is lucky if it sells a 100,000 copies now, but X-Men was pulling numbers in the millions in the 80s and that caused a profound shift in what kinds of stories were deemed likely to succeed.  The other major event was the release of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns which had broad mainstream and critical success.  For a moment it looked like comics, or graphic novels for the snobbish, might stand among “serious” literature.  Of course stories those good are rare and the rush to put out “grim and gritty” stories caused a glut of mediocre imitators and a backlash.  Nevertheless, a push toward more mature, complex storytelling and the proven success of serialized storytelling completely changed the face of comic books.  Today, one-and-done storytelling is exceedingly rare in comic books and charges of “decompression,” extending a story longer than it needed to be, are common among fans.

Now the roots of TV serialization are longer than Vox pretends as well.  I would trace it back to Star Trek and Twin Peaks, but I don’t claim an intimate knowledge of TV history.  This of course ignores the many serial soap operas.  However, considering how long soaps have been on the air, it can’t really be the case that they drove stronger serialization in TV. Star Trek: The Next Generation features to me an inchoate serialization.  Many multi-episode stories rank among the best of the show’s seven seasons, including The Best of Both Worlds which really elevated what was possible in the format.  The two episodes split between seasons were almost like watching a movie, even if the ending was slightly disappointing.  Ironically, its movies trying to be like TV now.  It also featured the Borg, an existential threat that cropped up in many memorable episodes.  Later seasons dealt with a Cardassian war as an omnipresent theme as well.  Yes, it was still largely episodic, but it always had the backdrop of these larger menaces adding flavor.  Deep Space Nine would take this even further with its multi-season Dominion storyline.  Also it is important to highlight that TNG was very popular at the time and TV follows the money.  What I find interesting is that almost assuredly the writers of TNG read comic books and TNG followed hot on the heels of the revolution going on comic books.

The other big early serial was Twin Peaks.  While it had its soap opera tendencies, it was an extremely popular serialized crime drama.  Suddenly we had multiple examples of a genre other than soap operas doing very well with serialization.

Finally, Vox completely ignores the many fantasy and science fiction series that would classify as serials.  Stuff like Harry Dresden which spans over 10 books, most of it with a continuing storyline, certainly qualifies as a serial.  Vox is like the people claiming Interstellar was an ambitious science fiction production when it is in fact a regurgitation of many science fiction plots and would look dated among literature from 30 years ago.  These pronouncements reveal an ignorance of the long history of their respective genres and formats.

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