Finally we come to my personal favourite brand of television series, the serial. In the first half of the 20th century you could go to the movie theatre and view serials which were essentially a small movie around 15-20 minutes long, every week you would go to the theatre and see the next part (or episode) of the serial and they would usually run for about 12-15 parts, sometimes they would even have a sequel or two in the following years. This model is the basis of the serial television series, instead of viewing them in the theatre you obviously watch at home on your TV and the “sequels” that followed have now become seasons.
The serial tv series really began in the late 1990s/early 2000s at HBO with shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’, and has since expanded widely to the point where Netflix is releasing a new serial every other week and honestly making it hard to keep up. Similar to the serials of old, series now usually peak their episodes per season at 13 so as to not exhaust the writers and draw out the characters in the show to a 23 episode arc per season (that’s where you get episodic TV). Serials where created at a time where TV was getting somewhat pedestrian and the only two types of television that existed at the time were episodic and the occasional mini-series, the serial serves as a happy medium between the two, giving characters multiple seasons in which to develop but also not drawing out their stories to the point where the show’s existence becomes invalid.
Some of the best leaps forward in TV have come from the invention of the modern serial, leading to the focus of any given show really being on the “showrunner”, this has bred creators like Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), Kurt Sutter (The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, and the upcoming Mayans MC) Noah Hawley (Legion, Fargo) and Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Taboo) who have revolutionized TV and helped bring mainstream movie star talent like Tom Hardy and Ron Perlman to the small screen. Serials have even given amazing new life to the comedy genre, giving unique creators to tell their story like Donald Glover (Atlanta), Lena Dunham (Girls) and Louis C.K. (Louie). Serial TV has opened up the storytelling platform to anyone with a unique voice to tell their story in a format that stays entertaining and yet spans years of time.
Serial Films. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/serialfilms.html
Perhaps the most similar to film as you’ll get on television is the Mini-Series, essentially sold as an 6-10 hour movie (depending on the episode number from series to series), a mini-series is similar to an anthology in that it tells one small story in a season, the difference is that there is only ever one season. A lot of television series suffer from from overstaying their welcome, unfortunately there are even some great shows that do this, serials can often try to milk story from characters who long since should’ve been put to rest, episodic series usually always overstay their welcome and anthology creators can often run out of creativity and produce poor content. However with a mini-series there is virtually no risk of this happening, the series says what it has to say in its short run and then gives us a satisfactory conclusion that we can be content with (although there are rare exceptions where a mini-series becomes a serial show due to fan demand).
A disadvantage of the miniseries monetarily is that due to the limited number of episodes and the small pocket of time the series exists in when it is aired, less people will end up watching because there is less time for the word of mouth to spread. This puts more pressure on the showrunners to make the show exceptional so that people will come back to it and spread the word, which I guess if it proves to be great then the limited amount of episodes forcing creators to make great content comes at somewhat of an advantage also.
One great thing that mini-series has brought to the current television landscape is that seeing as they have such a small episode count, it has attracted bigger talent to the small screen and since opened the floodgates of having movie stars create and mold a character on TV allowing the TV landscape to grow exponentially.
In my almost careered experience with watching television shows I’ve encountered all of these types of television series and by far my least favourite is the Episodic television series. The episodic series in a nutshell is basically a show that usually contains upwards of 20 episodes per season and the characters in the show deal with and defeat a new problem every episode. A prime example of such a show is basically any show that is on the air that has an abbreviated title i.e. NCIS and CSI etc.
The problem I have with these series is that at a certain point in the show (and it’s usually pretty early on in its run) you realise that the characters in it are invincible, every week for 20 weeks a year they manage to catch a serial killer, rapist, child molester, gang criminal or whatever other scum of the earth archetype the writers cook up for that week. There is a certain satisfaction to sit down for an hour and watch a crime be solved but for someone such as myself, I want more out of my television shows. A series model like this allows for no compelling or interesting antagonists and we don’t ever really feel like our hero or heroes are in any danger. Sure every once in a while they might kill a character off to keep things fresh but even then it all becomes routine.
Now you might argue “hey, wouldn’t 20+ episodes a season allow for more character growth than a 10 or 8 episode season” and to that I would say it’s possible but rarely ever the case. Comparing a series like NCIS to a series like True Detective, in the span of 8 episodes True Detective became one of the most heralded crime series (and TV series in general) of all time, because of the attention given to the characters and the strain it puts on them that they DON’T catch the bad guy in the first episode. Whereas if you’re catching a killer a week on NCIS your characters are essentially rock stars or Gods, and God isn’t interesting unless he bleeds.
Many say that TV is the better form of storytelling nowadays, as opposed to film. TV allows you the opportunity to deeply develop your characters, navigate complex storylines and tell a story in almost real time. However there are downfalls to the medium and there are with all things. Putting reality TV to the side and focussing on fictional dramas, this next series of posts will discuss the upsides and downsides of the scripted series as well as looking at all forms and models of it.
In this part I’m going to be talking about the Anthology series, in a nutshell the anthology is a series based around one theme or idea that tells different stories with different characters every season, essentially rebooting every 10 episodes or so. One of the most popular examples of this would be the Ryan Murphy’s two FX series ‘American Horror Story’ and ‘American Crime Story’. Murphy is well known for having modernised the anthology series by both; using the same actors across seasons and connecting his separate stories with small details and easter eggs. By using the anthology series template Murphy has been able to tell the stories he wants to tell without over extending the stay of the characters and wearing out their stories to the point where the show becomes pedestrian and loses its reason for existing (which is a topic that will be covered in the next post).
Anthology series even allow for viewers to skip certain seasons if they hear that a particular season is subpar, seeing as the viewing experience will be virtually inaffected and no important details will be missed by skipping a season (although the desired outcome is that every season is great and worth watching).
Ultimately the anthology series is very unique way of telling one overall thematic story but breaking it down to smaller sub-stories and creating a variety of different viewing experiences within the same show.
How Ryan Murphy Pioneered the Anthology Series. (2018). Vulture. Retrieved 18 February 2018, from http://www.vulture.com/2016/02/ryan-murphy-pioneered-the-anthology-series.html
Lynch, J., & Lynch, J. (2018). Ryan Murphy Invented Anthology TV, Then Made Us Wonder How We Lived Without It. Adweek.com. Retrieved 18 February 2018, from http://www.adweek.com/tv-video/ryan-murphy-invented-anthology-tv-then-made-us-wonder-how-we-lived-without-it/
Seeing as the avant garde style of cinema is not my forte nor my preference I researched the types of modern, more mainstream films that take inspiration from art cinema to further my appreciation of the style. A film that came up often was ‘Inception’ and how Christopher Nolan drew inspiration from Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Oddessy’. It also spoke of Kubrick as a mainstream director who dabbled in the avant garde by making ‘2001’.
The famous quote “The good borrow, the great steal” is never more opitimized in terms of filmmaking when talking about Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino learned his filmmaking skills as a self-proclaimed “student of cinema” and often steals and recreates shots from art cinema and contemporizes them in his own special Tarantino way.
There are also examples of great contemporary directors who dabble in independent cinema or art films. A big favourite of mine being Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. After making two beloved comic book films in ‘Blade II’ and ‘Hellboy’, the filmmaker wanted to tell a more personal story and did such by making a period film about a time in history often forgotten in which the characters are Spanish speaking.
The definition of Art Cinema is up in the air, so I chose to view it as anything outside the mainstream and although I may not appreciate experimental films as much, I do take great interest in independent and passion project type cinema.
8 Scenes Quentin Tarantino Stole From Other Movies. (2017, April 29). Retrieved from https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/8-scenes-quentin-tarantino-stole-from-other-movies.html/?a=viewall
I definitely prefer going to the cinema to view a film (uni student budget being a semi-frequent obstacle in that regard). I feel that when I watch a film later on home release or on a streaming platform such as Netflix that I expect less from it and therefore don’t give it the respect it may or may not deserve. When I go see a film in the theatre I am giving it my undivided attention (aside from shovelling popcorn into my face and trying to find the straw to my drink in the dark while keeping my eyes on the screen), however when I watch a film on my laptop or on Blu-ray I know I have the option to pause and go do something else for 5 minutes or sometimes even pausing it until the next day. This leads to a fragmented experience when viewing the film and in turn it leaves less of an impression on me.
When it comes to film techniques that draw me in I have to say that I am a score junkie. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe despite it’s flaws, however, there is one thing that lets me down when I go see the latest Marvel films and that is that there is no distinctive and memorable score to them (a big exception being Alan Silvestri’s Avengers score, among others). When a film is good, a memorable score can propel it into greatness for me. Another technique that I love are long lingering shots that give the actors in the film an opportunity to show their talent in an unending moment. An example that springs to mind is 2016’s Manchester By The Sea, a film that is filled with moments allowing Casey Affleck (specifically) to shine, a film that is all the better for this particular technique because it is harrowingly beautiful in those moments.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is wrought with philosophical questions, social commentary and subtext. Scott’s guess at the state of the world in 2019 from his 1982 perspective isn’t totally accurate of what it appears 2019 will actually look like but the direction the world is headed is very much on course with it. The mere fact that there are off world colonies full of people fleeing the smoggy, dirty world that we’ve made for ourselves proves it because we, in this day are trying to send people to other planets and colonize them. This is subtext in the way that the film does not make a big deal of it, but acknowledges the state of the world as if it is normal and should be treated as such.
The big questions and ideas, though, come from the human/replicant dynamic, the plot of the film being that replicants who are used as slaves become self aware and revolt against their masters and simply seek a life akin to that of a regular human, a wish that the humans regard with an apathetic nature. The humans mock and belittle the replicants and even throw racial slurs their way such as “skin job”. This is quite clearly a retelling of sorts of the days of slavery in the 1800s and earlier.
However, the film also tells the story of men seeking their god to ask the age old question; why?. Not only do the replicants seek to be treated equal, but also to extend their life-span, something that we as people are actively trying to do. The film also poses the question that maybe we might be better than our makers, in the film in Roy Batty’s final moments of life, he choses to save Deckard rather than let him die, and accept his death with grace, something that God is seemingly incapable of.