This installment of Moving Patterns is a first: an interview with a scholar about their work. Depending on how this little venture is received, I may turn interviews into a semi-regular feature.
How do serial narratives in film and TV work? What makes a serial narrative hang together? Franchises and shows as distinct as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Twin Peaks: The Return, Stranger Things, Doctor Who, and Mr. Bean all rely on strategies and techniques for connecting individual installments or episodes. But can we catalogue these strategies? Document these techniques? How many different ways are there for tying one installment to the next?
These issues are front and center in my current book project, entitled Serial Bonds: Storytelling and World-Telling in the 007 Franchise. But I am hardly alone in trying to solve the riddle of serial narratives.
Radomír D. Kokeš–he prefers to be called Douglas–has been exploring these questions for several years now. He is assistant professor in the Department of Film Studies and Audiovisual Culture at Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia. Over the last decade, he has emerged as a force in Central European film and media studies. He is the author of two books which have sold in the thousands. No mean feat in a country with a population of ten million. His first book touches on the basic principles of film analysis. His second offers an answer to the “serial narrative” question.
Douglas’s best-known text is an introductory one, Rozbor filmu (Film Analysis), 2015 (here is an English précis). He launched an accompanying blog, where he regularly comments on recent releases, analyzes films, shares industry related news, and periodically updates readers on the goings-on in the life of his pooch, Gromit. Oh, and don’t miss his enormous (and growing!) database of film-shot counts, which collects his measurements of over 3200 films!
His research is important to those of us invested in the “serial narrative” issue because it focuses on poetics–the making of works of art, the forms they take, they effects they have on viewers, and the contexts which shape these things. For years, a central concern of his has been the development of Czech film style and narrative form, from its beginnings (ca. 1911) to 1933. But his interests reach well beyond his country’s cinema.
One of his current projects has a transnational flavor, emphasizing a recent storytelling trend which traverses numerous national contexts, one he calls the spiral narrative.
Douglas’s fascination with narrative form began with bachelor’s degree, and continued on to his doctoral work. The latter led to a scholarly monograph, Světy na pokračování: Rozbor možností seriálového vyprávění (Worlds to be Continued: Analysing the Possibilities of Serial Narrativity), 2016.
When I visited Brno a few weeks ago for a lecture series, I had the occasion to chat with Douglas about Worlds to be Continued. It occurred to me almost immediately that we were posing similar questions, but approaching them with slightly different tools.
Despite these differences, we agree that recent calls to abandon the study of seriality as a formal principle are premature (I address this elsewhere). Serial form–the serial features of texts–remains for Douglas, as for me, a vibrant area of scholarly inquiry.
Worlds to be Continued has yet to be translated into English. So I sat down with Douglas and asked him a few questions about book’s methods and major discoveries.
Worlds to be Continued proposes something that I don’t believe we have in English: a cross-media, transnational poetics of serial narration. Certainly, your main focus is on TV. But here and there you extend your study to film series as well. What would you say is the book’s major intervention in–its most important contribution to–the fields of film and TV studies?
Let me step back a bit. Perhaps the most peculiar thing about my project, for an English-speaking audience, is the diversity of titles I include in my research on fictional seriality. Consider the television shows I examine in the book: The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror and Kieślowski’s The Decalogue. Then there’s Star Trek: The Original Series, Columbo, and Mr. Bean. I include CSI: The Crime Scene Investigation, House, M.D., Dallas, Stranger Things, and South American telenovelas–not to mention Alias and 24. I also study The X Files and Doctor Who, with their ever-changing narrative strategies. For American television scholars these series would all be part of the history of television and its various formats, but it might seem counterintuitive to understand such a diverse group of works as one aesthetic phenomenon or one narrative tradition.
Not so in the Czech context! In Czech culture, we label all of these works with one term–they are all serials–and we intuitively understand them as one general narrative phenomenon. “Serial” is inherently heterogeneous as a category. Some seventeen years ago, this very heterogeneity is what motivated me to research the serial, to pose research questions to which there were no answers–and no satisfactory tools for answering them.
Narrative causality doesn’t link episodes in all of these titles, but in all of cases, the creators constructed these shows with the expectation that people would return to their television screens regularly and want to see the next part–and people did. Despite appearances, even The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, and The Outer Limits are not loosely connected strings of self-contained stories, but represent internally ordered works that viewers return to for just that reason (and no other). So how is this done, even though the individual episodes appear separate? How are they constructed artistically to bring people back? If it’s not specific characters, what does it? The way the narrative works? What about the imagined world into which the viewer is invited? Is that it?
If these questions apply to The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, then they should be asked of all these other works. Whether a show relies heavily on narrative causality to link episodes or not, we can observe an equal interaction between parts of episodes, episodes as parts of an extended whole, and the more or less long-delayed promise of the definitive whole. This was the first important step of my research: to think of all these seemingly unrelated works as a single narrative tradition that has been with us for thousands of years (think of The Illiad and The Odyssey).
Anyway, why did I focus on television? For a simple reason: in television, this tradition has long been the dominant form of narrative across cultures and national markets.
My central research question was this. If this heterogeneous set of works constitutes one aesthetic phenomenon of fiction, built on the premise of continuation, how can we use television fiction to capture, describe and explain it? There are three levels here:
(a) what, theoretically, are the possible connections between episodes?
(b) what are the creative possibilities in the production of such fiction?
and (c) how do we design a detailed analytical framework able to reveal the distinctiveness of particular works (i.e., shows)?
For the reasons I have suggested, these questions seemed appropriate for forms of “fiction to be continued”–for serial fiction, even though many of the works I examined would not have been viewed by American TV scholars as “serials” but as “series,” “anthologies,” “cumulative narratives,” “flexi-narratives,” and so on.
My research eventually became more specific, and I believe it offers a new perspective on how to view all of serial fiction. I posed a number of additional questions:
If it is not necessarily the stories that are told across episodes, what is the fundamental continuing stuff of serial fiction? What should a poetics of serial fiction emphasize analytically? How can we analyze serial works as unified at any point in their development if we don’t necessarily know or can’t anticipate the ending? How do we posit the viewer as an active entity who responds to the cues provided and on whose knowledge the creators of serial fiction rely? How, in our analysis, do we account for the gradual nature of serial fiction as mediated by episodes? Indeed, reviews or criticism of television series usually emphasize the overall impression, somewhat ignoring the episodic construction and elliptically focusing only on long-held motifs–considering how the work ended and what proved vital only in retrospect.
I believe my book addresses both these additional questions and the overarching three-fold question above. Indeed, I designed it that way. The introduction is methodological and formulates the project itself, but more crucially, the three parts that follow address each level of the central research question.
The first section examines serial fiction as a theoretical system and approaches the episodes under investigation from the top down, using them to explain the abstract relationships behind their construction. The second section of the book is more fundamental. It explores the various possibilities of serial fiction. It approaches seriality from its material, from the bottom up, as it examines preferred registries of artistic or creative solutions within several types of seriality. It also looks into crime fiction as a specific mode of fictional world-making. The book’s third section is analytical and discusses two very different works in great detail: 24 and Mr. Bean. These two analytical chapters attempt to offer the greatest possible degree of aesthetic sensitivity towards the works analyzed and the explanations presented.
So, to finally address myself to your question!–I based my research on a large sample of hundreds of works, including diverse countries of origin (North American, South American, European, and Asian), from the 1950s to 2016, each representing different genre traditions. The aim was not to be historical. Except for the final two chapters, my book somewhat lacks a historical dimension. I wanted instead to understand how serial fiction can be examined as a single transnational narrative phenomenon.
But I have to admit that I am tempted at some point in the future to take a more “nation”-focused approach to this question–to thoroughly understand, for example, the historical poetics of serial fiction in Czech television production. Although this tradition is rich, it has so far only been described through a cultural lens, exploring only the ideology represented in the works, not a poetics one.
At the same time, I hope that much of what I have learned about television seriality can be used as a starting point for thinking about seriality in cinema or other media. One must proceed with care, however. There are crucial differences to keep in mind. Postwar film series, for instance, mostly work with much longer temporal gaps between installments than television. Thus, a significant new factor comes into play. It doesn’t necessarily affect what I’ve found about the systemic connections between episodes, but it might lead to different registers of preferred creative solutions to the same problems. This can be seen in the use of cliffhangers, for example. They are far less frequent in postwar film series, and work differently than in television seriality.
I am tempted to immediately follow up about your book, but before I do, I have a “meta” question for you. In some corners of English-language media studies, the study of seriality is increasingly the study of serial cultures–the discourses and dynamics that circulate around and between media texts. But you emphasize serial form. The texts themselves. Why, in your judgement, is poetics, the study of form, essential to the study of seriality?
Maybe poetics is needed because we still don’t understand seriality as a form in many ways? It is remarkable that serial fiction has been one of the most common and widespread forms of narrative culture for hundreds of years but has not yet been systematically explored based on a detailed analysis of a representative sample of these works. I’m not just talking about film and television studies, where systematic research into the forms has long been marginal and, with a few notable exceptions, has long relied primarily on pioneering work from the 1970s and 1980s.
Although the study of form has a long and intense tradition in art history, musicology, theatre studies, and literary studies, even literary scholars have contributed little to the understanding of serial forms beyond (some valuable) partial studies and working categorizations, and those who do this work keep it on the margins of their more general research. And this is despite that fact that, for example, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Honoré de Balzac wrote many of their most important works as literary serials for the contemporary press!
In film and television studies, things are a little better. We have Scott Higgins’s valuable Matinee Melodrama, a section of Robert C. Allen’s book Speaking of Soap Operas, Jeremy Butler’s book Television Style, Kristin Thompson’s Storytelling in Film and Television, François Jost’s contributions on television narrative, Jason Mittell’s contributions on complex American television, and various “sub-studies,” case studies, and dossiers on the history of serial television forms or particular genres.
My decade-long research on television seriality and the book is still just a first step, although it has carried me through my entire academic career. I devoted my BA, MA, and doctoral theses to it because I could not find compelling answers to these questions. As such, the process mainly meant a painstaking effort to learn how to ask the right questions, and which paths to take and, especially, which ones not to take. I started tackling serial form because I wanted to discover the very secrets of construction that made particular serials fascinating to me – and I found the secrets elusive at first. I searched university libraries across Europe but found nothing that provided me with satisfactory answers or tools.
After a few decades of research, we know a little more, but still woefully little, especially concerning the history of forms. In general, I think that literary and film narratology is too obsessed with its own tools, fancy boxes, smart conceptualizations, and the very history of its own concepts. Narratologists have told us surprisingly little about the history of narrative forms, creative practices, and the particular tools needed to study these things in its sixty years of existence. Another issue is that the means of narratological analysis are often too robust and complex, to inflexible to address the specific history of works, of problems, and of artistic solutions. This is also the case elsewhere in film and media studies, with the approaches we take to the Hollywood film, modernist cinema, slow cinema, puzzle film, complex TV, and quality TV.
In my book, I tried to offer categories that are flexible and explanatory enough to be historicized. On the one hand, they assume creative activity which is variable, grounded in distinct historical circumstances; on the other hand, they work with the assumption of specific spectatorial activities–and are derived from the analysis of particular, historically situated works, although they allow for the inclusion of paratexts as shaping factors, too.
I am honestly surprised by all these proclamations of the “turn” to serial culture because I have always had the impression that research into serial culture, on the contrary, has dominated television research since the beginning. It would be foolish and undoubtedly ridiculous to say that issues related to serial culture should not be researched. But for heaven’s sake, why does such research treat questions about seriality from a formal or textual standpoint as something ready-made and outdated, something to move on from. To where, exactly?
The other disciplines I mentioned above have been engaged in the history of forms for hundreds of years, after which they have made a “cultural turn.” Fair enough, but they have not abandoned research into forms and structures (and diachronic research on narrative forms, I might add, is still more in the developmental phase). Film and television studies, still in their infancy, have not even laid the groundwork for something to turn from!
So, yes, I think empirically based research on audiovisual forms is essential because no one, even now, knows much about them. We need to stop settling for top-down mechanical comparisons using what we already happen to know, be it American television formats or Hollywood modes of storytelling. We need to go back just to the material, the audiovisual texts–to the films or television shows.
Ok, back to the book! You place a lot of stock in the concept of serial “worlds.” What is a fictional world in your approach?
This question invites me to elaborate on the problem I mentioned before: what is told from episode to episode, even in the case of works in which no stories are developed episode by episode? I found the solution precisely by working with the category of a fictional world, which I developed in relation to the theory of fictional worlds. And it is the fictional (macro)world that I consider to be told by the work in progress–either as a universe (one fictional reality, e.g., Columbo) or as a multiverse (several fictional realities more or less similar to each other, e.g., Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Simpsons).
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to be friends–and to have passionate conversations!–with the extraordinary narratologist Lubomír Doležel, who returned to the Czech Republic in his old age after decades at the University of Toronto. It was he, together with Umberto Eco and Thomas Pavel, who created the theory of fictional worlds in the 1970s. The idea of the fictional world as an internally structured semantic entity seemed to me theoretically sophisticated, contrary to the rather intuitive and vague conceptions of diegesis in film studies. At the same time, Lubomír’s impressive concept of world, developed in his famous book Heterocosmica, was too literary-theory-based, logical-semantic, and non-dynamic. It described fictional worlds as relatively static and closed entities with a complex internal order and minimal participation of the recipient in its shaping. Umberto Eco’s conception of worlds in Lector in fabula is also highly inspiring, yet over-theorized, with an over-abundant apparatus and, as analytical machinery, not applicable to anything more structured than the short story.
Unlike them, I was interested in the very process of creation and constant transformation of the fictional world in its dynamic interaction with the cognitively active viewer. What’s more, I wanted to develop a concept that would be able to maintain both a static and a dynamic base. Here’s what I mean.
The idea of a fiction world should be able to explain the systemic character of the world as an internally structured spatio-temporal entity with particular orders of the possible, the permissible, the axiological, and the known, where each element is functionally connected to some other element. Yet at the same time, it should be able to account as sensitively as possible for that process of constant emergence, disappearance, and transformation in the mind of the viewer–that is, the dynamics of the telling of its stories, and the telling of the world itself.
I therefore proposed a conception that includes the assumption of the natural force of the fictional world, the assumption of microworlds of particular psycho-physical entities (their properties, goals, dreams, or desires), but above all, the assumption of subworlds. What irritated me about all available conceptions of fictional worlds was that they presupposed the interaction of characters with the whole world, which seemed to be uniform in its setting.
In my opinion, a fictional world is usually a rich system of possibly many different areas represented by at least two characters sharing some set of knowledge, rules, values, or goals. It may be a family, a group of friends, a school, a football team, a secret service, a police department, a village, a tribe, a gang, a chess club, or silent film fans. Each of these subworlds may be set up differently, to have its own order. Characters may move between them, cooperate or fight with them, etc. Two men belonging to different football teams, for example, independently of a fierce sports rivalry, become close friends within a chess club. The action in a fictional world is then, in my view, established precisely through the interactions between these domains: microworlds with microworlds (e.g., The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), microworlds with subworlds (e.g., The Bourne Supremacy), subworlds with subworlds (e.g., Battleship Potemkin), microworlds or subworlds with a force of nature (e.g., Unstoppable)–and different interests within a microworld (e.g., A Beautiful Mind). Each interaction of this sort establishes a narrative thread, and interconnected sets of narrative threads generate stories. Though some narratologists have argued as such, I can’t entirely agree that interaction is necessarily based on conflict. Sometimes it is built, for example, purely on a shared goal.
The point is that these are highly flexible categories that can adapt to the artistic setting of this or that work, this or that type of episode linking. As a tool of poetics, they can be maximally sensitive to questions of the construction and shape of artworks resulting from creative activity.
And it is this concept that became my starting point for understanding serial fiction, which I relate to questions of the construction of the space-time of the work. I call this the fictional macroworld –and the stories told take place in its conditions and context. In its ideal form, the fictional macroworld represents the totality of elements and the relationships between those elements from all the serial episodes that have been shown (or could have been shown) up to a certain point, each of which represents an episodic world. However, the principle of seriality–what I call the relationship between the state of affairs in the macroworld at the end of the current episode and the state of affairs in the macroworld at the end of the preceding episode–has been a supporting principle for my poetics of serial fiction. The relative whole to which the current episode is related is then constituted not only by the preceding episode but also by the macroworld’s state at the moment of its ending and thus by everything preceding that ending.
Your book certainly seems to be a model of analytical rigor–a meticulous, close examination of the formal operations that link texts released in series. I am above all curious about the five functional relations you sketch. What are they, in a nutshell, and what are some examples of each?
Thank you for saying so! Here we are actually going back to the beginning, because the principle of seriality I just outlined allowed me to theoretically grasp the seemingly disparate sample of works–from Black Mirror through Mr. Bean and Stranger Things–as a coherently analyzable, explicable, and internally developing narrative phenomenon. The principle of seriality, as I see it, is a heuristic tool, a theoretical construction, which I divide, describe, and explain based on its transformations into the five types I have implied in these shows, so to speak, from below.
In the case of separated seriality (1), no fictional characters share the state of affairs at the end of the current episode with the state of affairs at the end of the previous one. This is the case for Amazing Stories, Love, Sex & Robots, and Black Mirror. I honestly find separated seriality to be one of the most interesting for me as a researcher, and I regret having devoted only limited attention to it in my book. As I stated, this type is only rarely thought of in terms of continuity, logic of the arrangement of episodes, internal developmental principles, the rather subtle ways it guides viewers’ curiosity across episodes, games of repetition, variation and underlying development principles, and the building up of the effect of a single world.
Sometimes the separated serial serves as a kind of historical encyclopedia (like the history of criminology in Täter Unbekannt–Sternstunden Der Kriminalistik), sometimes as a game with the very principles of fiction (Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction), sometimes as an artistic portfolio (The Ray Bradbury Theatre), and sometimes it is intertwined with the play of a narrator inviting the viewer into worlds similar to their own. But it is also where the rules of their world do not apply, and therefore anything is possible (The Outer Limits, but also The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery). The need to research more subtle principles of narrative embellishment comes to the fore because the viewer is not motivated to connect to characters they have long followed. I could only address this type in comparison with other types of seriality in my book, but it’s a fascinating research topic to analyze and think about on its own.
In the case of a nonsequential seriality (2), the current episode shares at least one fictional character with the state of the macroworld at the end of the previous one, without any direct connection between these episodic worlds on the level of narrative causality or represented fictional time. We find it in most episodes of my favorite show Columbo, but there are plenty of others, like MacGyver, the original Star Trek, Charlie’s Angels and Mission: Impossible.
In the case of a semisequential seriality (3), episodic worlds represent rather closed narrative units, but they include at least one causal line of events, which continues in the state of affairs in the following episode (e.g., CSI: The Crime Scene Investigation, Without a Trace). It is a remarkable type of seriality since the horizontal causal lines running across the temporal flow of the macroworld and the vertical causal lines of a particular episodic world constantly collide. Indeed, each episode is usually forced to introduce a set of exclusive characters who will not return, who have specific goals, and whose story should be concluded. In this respect, it shares many tactics with nonsequential seriality. However, it also temporally and causally connects current states of affairs to some past states of affairs in the history of macroworld, answers or modifies earlier narrative questions, follows the characters’ longer-term goals, expands existing sets of features, and creates new features, questions, and traits. In this respect, it shares tactics inversely with my next type, sequential seriality. It’s a constant negotiation that also allows for considerable flexibility, as shown, for example, by House, M.D., which, except for three episodes, falls squarely in the realm of semi-sequential seriality because its protagonists are always solving a medical case, uncovering a mysterious illness. At the same time, though, with each successive season, those horizontal connections, the long-developed states of affairs in the macro world, come to dominate. We can see a similar tendency in many other works, including Bones. But such shows eventually abandon the tactics associated with this seriality, as we see with later seasons of Buffy or Supernatural. Anyway, poetological understanding of semisequential seriality requires being aware of the constant presence of these two strengths–though, in retrospect, we tend to overemphasize the horizontal ones, despite the fact that particular episodes usually accentuate the vertical ones.
Conversely, there are prevalent causal connections among episodic worlds on various levels in the case of a sequential seriality (4), e.g., Pride and Prejudice, Dawson’s Creek, Invasion, Breaking Bad, Dallas, Stranger Things, and so many others current shows. This seriality, of course, covers a considerable number of strategies, tactics, and traditions, all of which have shaped its development. Much more so than in semisequential seriality, we can see significant distinctions in the possibilities for constructing and telling their worlds, ways of managing attention across episodes, shaping or sustaining short-term or long-term narrative questions, and working with short-term or longer-term goals, not to speak of the expected serial length on the horizontal plane.
Consider, for example, several traditions of building emotionally intense stories and worlds. In North America, it’s the soap opera, while in South America, it’s the telenovela. These tend to be mistakenly perceived as identical, yet they are fundamentally different in terms of narrative and world building. The soap opera is constantly developed associatively, branching out and kept running with an emphasis on the present and immediate future. They can have hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of episodes. In contrast, a telenovela has a predetermined number of episodes–usually between 100 and 200–and a fairly clearly defined conclusion in the form of a wedding. So the entire world-telling and storytelling process is built around finding the longest possible path from point A to point B, during which the heroine often becomes much more successful than she was at the beginning. Both soap operas and telenovelas are remarkable narrative phenomena, but we are still far from fully understanding them as an artistic tradition. Ironically, at least in the Czech Republic, “endless” soap operas are often written by intellectuals. These intelligent, educated, talented people simply follow this type of artistic assignment with utmost responsibility. It’s one of the best ways to make a successful living as a professional screenwriter.
In my book, I offer some ways of analytically capturing the diversity of possibilities and traditions through which macroworlds and their stories are told across episodes in sequential seriality.
Lastly, in the case of a disrupted seriality (5), the standing linear composition of episodic worlds is problematized. Instead of a straight line, it creates a network of relations among fictional elements in both directions between the current and the previous state of affairs in the macroworld. The currently valid state of affairs in a macroworld is rewritten or retrospectively changed. This type of seriality is a parasite on the previous ones because it brings a new challenge into their game: the macroworld simultaneously gets a new future and a different past. In contrast, the earlier version of macroworld’s state of affairs doesn’t exist anymore. As I explain in the book, it is usually a single episode that unexpectedly disrupts, alters, or completely subverts the existing macroworld hitherto following semisequential or sequential seriality–and after this “attack,” the work often returns to the means of semisequential or sequential seriality.
Consider, for example, the famous twist in Dallas. The essential character Bobby dies, and for several dozen episodes, the macroworld unfolds from the fact that he is dead. However, at the end of the next season, Bobby’s wife Pamela wakes up in bed, goes to the bathroom… and finds Bobby in the shower! The viewer is forced to fundamentally rewrite their construction of the macroworld, which is all the more depressing because they don’t know when Pamela actually fell asleep. The point, however, is that from the next episode onwards, Dallas again unfolds as sequential seriality–into which one episode, in the spirit of disrupted seriality, has introduced unexpected chaos. Anyway, not many works deal with disruptive seriality consistently. To some extent Alias and Lost do, some later seasons of The X Files take it up–and to a significant degree Day Break does.
I differentiated all of these five types of seriality according to degrees of interconnection and the way the fictional characters in the macroworld of the current episode relate to the state of affairs at the end of the previous episode. Such a criterion is not historically or locally based. It is a homogeneous determining condition. Above all, it does not presuppose the validity of one type of relationship for the whole series. Shows like The X Files, Doctor Who, and The Batman systematically change seriality types as they unfold.
On all these points, my approach represents an alternative to existing categorizations and typologies, such as those of Umberto Eco, Omar Calabrese, Angela Ndalianis, or Jeffrey Sconce. These five types of seriality represent the explanatory center of my book, especially the first two parts. In fact, the two systemic dimensions of serial fiction and two dynamic dimensions of serial fiction are explained step by step through these five types, with many dozens of examples and fine-grained analyses being part of the explanation.
Some critics of “formalism” argue that this approach tends to isolate creative choices from surrounding contexts. But your book doesn’t just analyze serial texts. It proposes that certain backgrounds–like the “cultural encyclopedia,” as you call it–are pertinent to the study of seriality. Would you say more about the backgrounds you explore in the book?
In fact, my concept of a cultural encyclopedia is primarily a way of creating a field of negotiation between the creators, the works, and the audience. For me, this encyclopedia is an internally structured repository of information about the real world, represented by particularities and diverse forms of schemas that cover natural laws, history, technology, culture, aesthetics, the arts, and everydayness. Each person’s cultural encyclopedia is different, but they overlap in many ways: what the creators rely on and what the audience benefits from. The premise of a cultural encyclopedia can thus function on several levels, from the mechanically dumb operation of recognizing things to complex understanding of relationships between non/fictional elements, just as we can model different types of spectatorship through it. It is an intuitive but flexible tool for getting just the appropriate cultural background, patterns, or contexts into the analysis.
Moreover, I use the example of Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who to show that many characters exist much more as shared, often highly heterogeneous entries in a cultural encyclopedia than they do as specific texts. We can think of James Bond in the same way. On the other hand, I try to relate many of my findings to a more general knowledge of the principles and history of the poetics of fiction, be it film, television, or literature.
Your sample size in the book is impressive. To write it, you analyzed some 400 shows. Which TV shows, for you, stand out from the rest? Which are especially fascinating for their serial construction?
That’s a tricky question! A lot of them were revelatory for me. I was often intrigued by a particular idea or technique. But I’ll highlight three, though there could be many more. The first of these is the 1980 Czech serial Arabela, an unusually playful, imaginative, and at the same time comprehensible work that manages to surprise both in articulating its narrative and in the complexity of its ever-changing macroworld of two interconnected fictional realities: the real and the fairy tale.
The second is The Octopus (La Piovra), an Italian serial drama that shows the years-long futile struggle of an honest detective against the ever-elusive Italian mafia. It’s the only show I know where the protagonist dies halfway through, but the fictional macroworld created is so elaborate that new episodes continue on for years.
The third show is the already mentioned Day Break, which I consider fascinating not only for its seriality but because it is closely related to my other research project, the analysis of the so-called spiral narratives. Its protagonist, like the protagonist of Groundhog Day, wakes up to the same day over and over again, not as a grumpy weatherman, but as a detective who is arrested for the murder of a prominent politician in the morning, and during the day his girlfriend is murdered. And unlike the protagonist of Groundhog Day, he doesn’t wake up as healthy as the last time, but his injuries remain… It is a bold experiment that failed and was canceled after only seven episodes, although the remaining six were thankfully posted on the internet. It’s a forgotten work, but a genuinely fascinating one in terms of how the creators constantly looked for new ways to tackle the immensely difficult “brief” they set themselves artistically. It is hard to say that they succeeded to the full extent, but it is exhilarating to watch them try it… over and over again.
You published Worlds to be Continued in 2016. You’ve been able to take a measure of its impact, by this point, and perhaps seen others in film and media studies take up the mantel of serial poetics. What are the prospects for serial poetics in the field? What new directions do you find promising?
I consider the most important new direction to be the one I outlined a moment ago: understanding the historical dimension of serial poetics in particular national traditions, which will require careful analytical research. To say, for example, that certain types of seriality dominated in specific periods means that we’ve only skimmed the surface. There is a need to understand the much more refined work with motifs within and across episodes, with the initiation of short- and long-term narrative questions or goals, the relationship between the telling of stories and the telling of fictional macroworlds, etc.
If television or film studies have taken up these types of questions, they have done so at best from an industrial history perspective, rather than from a position akin to poetics–from detailed research on particular works, scene by scene. I have tried to offer some starting points and tools in my book, just as your research on James Bond is going to provide important starting points and tools.
But I think we both know very well all the potentially fascinating areas we have had to leave aside because we have needed to focus on other things. For example, very little has been written about the role of style in serial fiction. In several works I associate with nonsequential seriality, for instance, I have noted the systematic refinement of stylistic devices and techniques as a compositional balancing act against the relative repetitiveness of narrative formula. But how exactly does this work? How often do we see this, and in what ways?
The first season of Columbo, for example, is quite engaging in this respect, but later the emphasis on stylistic innovation fades. Why? How typical is this?
Well, these would be the broad questions I would like to find answers to in the future, alongside many others. Now, after ten years of analyzing seriality, I am researching, in a rather intense way, the historical poetics of Czech silent and early sound cinema, but one day I may return to it.