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March 17, 2009


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Andrew R.

Well, I'm very pleased that in the last few years we've seen network (and even cable) TV series increasingly being run as loss leaders for the sales of the DVD's. In a way, I think it's a return to the serialized story-telling that one encountered on the large screen up until about the mid-20th century.

If the American public can get used to set-length TV series that have a beginning, middle, and end, I drool at the prospect of what we can have.

finger wagging

Of course, that means that we should all do what we can to buy rather than torrent said serialized TV so that there is in fact a financial incentive for its makers to produce more of the same.

/finger wagging

The New York City Math Teacher

You mean, miniseries? Like if they made extended TV versions of novels, like North and South, The Winds of War, Roots, or Brideshead Revisited?

Or are we talking open-ended-forever soup opera serials? There is something to the closed-endedness of the novel narrative that is.... important.

Doug M.

NYCMT, let me separate out three things here.

1) The mini-series designed for TV. I distinguish here between, on the one hand, book adaptations; and on the other, traditional TV series that were originally designed to be open-ended.

-- That last distinction is not always clear, since some series -- The Sopranos, Buffy -- start off open-ended, but then in their last season or two are written for closure. But I think that series written for closure from day one are distinct and distinctive.

The closed, complete mini-series that isn't a book adaptation is relatively recent. I can't think of the earliest one, but I don't think there were many before the 1990s.

As you say, the closed-endedness is very important. I can testify that the last few eps of Avatar are generating a HUGE amount of narrative tension among certain five- and seven-year-old boys. And this is driven by the certain knowledge that the story /ends/... Aang and his friends are going to win or lose, and there won't be any take-backs.

The not-book-adaptation is important, too. Books have their own tropes and their own rhythym. TV that's made for TV is just different.

2) Increasing narrative complexity. Modern kids TV is using more and more stuff like flashbacks, cutscenes, stories-within-stories, divergent but interspliced storylines, lampshade-hanging, and even unreliable narrators. All of these have appeared before, sure -- you can find most of them in Rocky and Bullwinkle, fifty years ago -- but now they're becoming common, even standard.

Note that this is related to point (1): a closed and complete narrative allows and even encourages this sort of thing.

3) Related but distinct: the increased use of what I might call TV Tropes. I was mildly surprised that Avatar never had a mind-switching Freaky Friday episode; it's almost de rigeur these days. But they do have all sorts of other things, from The Almost Kiss to You Did The Right Thing. And these are done with the certain knowledge that a large minority of the audience will recognize them as such.

We are going to see a lot of ways to do these things badly. But Avatar does them pretty well. Within the limits of being a cartoon aimed at 7-12 year olds.

-- Although, I gotta say... the backstory of the series is that the Fire Lord threw the world out of balance with the genocide of the Air Nomads, from which only young Aang escaped? Well, the final story arc has the new Fire Lord planning to do the exact same thing with the Earth Kingdom: his plan is to burn an entire continent with enough fire to kill everyone on it. And Aang's moral dilemma is, he's a vaguely-Buddhist vegetarian pacifist. He gave up revenge for his murdered countrymen early on, but now he's being asked to kill the Fire Lord in order to /stop/ mass murder. Since it is a kids' cartoon, we know he'll be given a way out, but I'm kind of impressed that they raised the issue and made him wiggle for a while.

Doug M.


Hmm. You'll have to mention when you finish the show, because I've always thought there was one major unanswered question...

Although really, one would think Ang has killed at least one person, if only as a glowing energy being who annihilates fleets.

Doug M.

Assuming good behavior, we finish it tonight.

I see your point about Aang's priors, but it's not really clear who was driving the car there; arguably Aang was just serving as a sort of spiritual nucleation point for the Ocean Spirit.

Doug M.

Gavin Weaire

I'm the only person I've ever met who will admit to having enjoyed Scrappy Doo when I was a child.

pretend play school

Hey I love scrappy doo too! you mean that scooby doo adventure?

The New York City Math Teacher


There are some biopic miniseries from the 70's and 80's, and the de rigeur PBS Britfare, but I think you're right about the closed-end, entirely-novel-and-not-adapted-from-prior-novel miniseries not being common until the 1990s.

Remember, I grew up during the age of television deregulation, the end of the fairness doctrine, and media product tie-ins, when WPIX, WNYW, and WOR subleased their afternoons to Hanna-Barbera and Mattel. About the closest cartoon I ever saw to a closed ended series with a story arc was the Japanese product _Belle and Sebastian_, but that appears to have been an adaptation from a novel.

So, continuing narrative complexity at that age came for me largely from books, and I think the first real encounter with consequential character development and multiple viewpoint over multiple episodes must have been the Weis and Hickman extruded fantasy product (starting in 1984?). Oh, Anne of Green Gables. Little House on the Prairie. The Great Brain. Those were big. I never got into comic books, so my awareness of seriality, development, and backstory in comics is mostly by report and theory.

Of course, all of these narrative novelties can be found in Homer, too.

Do the skills developed by following complex narratives in pantomime translate to reading comprehension and enjoyment of same in plain, unadorned text? I ask not to zing, but to genuinely enquire.

Bernard Guerrero

"WPIX, WNYW, and WOR subleased their afternoons to Hanna-Barbera and Mattel. About the closest cartoon I ever saw to a closed ended series with a story arc was the Japanese product _Belle and Sebastian_, but that appears to have been an adaptation from a novel."

???? I seem to recall WPIX running endless cycles of "Star Blazers" and (I'm blanking on the actual name) "Phoenix Force"? I'm sure that was late 70s.

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