Notes on Serial Forms conference
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
June 10, 2009 – 09:08
I spent part of last week on a quick, tiring, but exciting trip to Zurich. I was an invited presenter at University of Zurich’s conference on Serial Forms, a small but well-focused 3-day conference focused on serial narratives across a range of media.
My own presentation was called “Serial Boxes: The Cultural Value of Long-Form American Television.” While I don’t expect any revelations for anyone who reads my blog, I’ve shared my paper below via a narrated slideshow – I didn’t write it out in publishable form (yet), so I apologize for the awkwardness of trying to recreate my presentation while talking to my computer in my office:
More interesting than my own presentation, I had the opportunity to meet a number of researchers whom I’ve not read or seen, especially given the linguistic and practical boundaries that often divide European and American scholars. Alas a number of presentations were in German, so I took the opportunity to wander the city rather than sit in my monolingual confusion for hours. But here are a few notes on English presentations that stuck with me beneath the fold:
Margrethe Bruun Vaage from Norway, whom I’d met briefly at the Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image conference in Madison last year, gave a great presentation on the complexity of character sympathy as embodied in Omar on The Wire. She argued persuasively that our sympathy for Omar, despite his violent and questionably-moral actions, stems both from seeing his emotional bonds with other characters like Brandon, and by his more mannered and stylized presentation versus the more realist tone of the rest of the series. Margrethe pointed out that in season 5, Omar becomes more realistic and less of a superhero in direct counterpoint to how the season takes a more reflexive and unreal turn in its plotting – an insight quite useful for an essay I’m writing on reflexivity in The Wire.
Another one of the American visitors was Jennifer Bean from University of Washington, presenting on silent American serial film of the 1910s, especially starring Pearl White of Perils of Pauline fame. What struck me about this presentation, given that I’m generally pretty ignorant of this aspect of film history, is how the marketing and textual form of silent serials embraced a ludic quality, framing the series as a game to be played by the audience. I’ve always thought that the dominant assumption about silent serials was that the audience were naïve spectators who returned each week to see if the heroine could escape her cliffhanging fate; Jennifer’s presentation spoke to how the films were framed more as narrative variations rather than outright suspense, with embedded contests, participatory options, and reflexive awareness of their own conventionality – all evidence that the operative aesthetic I’ve explored in television narration was present in this earlier form as well.
Glen Creeber, whom I’ve emailed with in conjunction with him editing my contribution for the second edition of The Television Genre Book but never met, spoke about online drama as a form of seriality, tracing back from EmoKid21 and Lonelygirl15 to some more recent examples. He argued that the computer screen is better suited to the intimacy and privacy that have typified serial melodramas, with the large-screen television serving the cultural function of more big-budget spectacular pleasures via DVD as mainstream television grows more cinematic.
My old friend Greg Smith presented a rich poetic vocabulary of how television narratives balance serial and episodic impulses, focusing on tradeoffs and pressures forced by the industrial constraints of broadcasting. He highlighted devices such as the characters of “dummies” and “assholes” as consistent presences designed to create humor and conflict respectively, despite any impulse toward serialized character growth; additionally, he noted that often a character’s goals and growth can make sense for an individual character, but be disruptive to the broader serialized dynamic, highlighting the need for writers to trade-out character functions and relationships. My notes are a list of key terms that I would mangle in trying to reproduce here – we’ll have to wait until Greg publishes this excellent piece of television poetics to get it straight.
Some other presentations from some emerging European researchers highlighted the contrasts between American and non-American production and distribution. Chrian Junklewitz highlighted how American cinema in the 1950s-1960s turned away from series production (which comprised 20% of output in the studio era) in favor of one-off event blockbusters, while Europe embraced the opposite strategy by favoring series as a mode of cost-savings and routine. Ursula Ganz-Blaettler discussed the cumulative narrative strategies of Magnum P.I., showing a great slide showing the near-random order that German television aired the series, thereby disrupting serial continuity. Seraina Rohrer discussed the cultural life of the Mexican film character La India Maria, a lowbrow Lucy-style physical comedienne whose actress gained authorial control as a writer and director later in the series, injecting a political edge missing earlier in the series.
In all, it was quite a nice conference both to expand academic circles and frames of reference. Definitely worth the jet-lagginess that remains three days later…