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Definitions and typology of TV serial narratives

To begin with, let’s try to define some key words. Many scholars have elaborated different systems of classification for TV serial narratives. But, for a few years, I have been using my own terminology in French, which I will translate and try to outline below.

I use three main categories:

1. Formula shows (séries formulaires): storylines are limited to an episode and the series’ basic premise doesn’t evolve through time. Characters don’t change and you are supposed to be able to watch the episodes in any given order

2. Serialized shows (séries feuilletonnnantes): the storyline continues from one episode to the other, for example in soap operas, and you have to follow the order of the episodes.

3. Semi-serialized shows (séries semi-feuilletonnantes): this is a hybrid form of narration which was born during the 1980s and corresponds to almost all the productions of the 1990s. Many scholars have already described these three categories but, for me, there are two kinds of semi-serialized shows and this distinction is at the core of my current work.

3a. Semi-serialized formula shows (séries semi-feuilletonnantes formulaires)(like The X-Files for instance). As in formula shows, every episode is structured around the same formula, but here the characters can evolve, as well as the relationships that exist between them, and  story arcs are built through several episodes, an entire season or even the whole series. Also the formula itself can evolve. It constitutes a starting point and sets the identity of the show but, generally, it is going to be progressively deconstructed or rebuilt on another foundation (on this point see, Vladimir Lifschutz and his concept of “déformulation“: Les séries télévisées : une lutte sans fin ).

3b. Semi-serialized episodic shows (séries semi-feuilletonnantes épisodiques) (such as Lost). In this case, the episode maintains a certain autonomy, but does not apply the same formula. Its autonomy is not solely chronological—it is not just a piece of the storyline as in pure serialized shows—but rather, often, thematical. The episode develops a theme or a character, which gives it a sense of unity and determines a structure with a beginning and an end.

Both types don’t offer the same narrative possibilities. For instance, the first tends to play on ellipses and on secondary characters, whereas the second relies more on continuity effects and gives less room to characters other than the protagonists.

In this classification, I use “formula” following the work of Jean-Pierre Esquenazi (See for instance : Les séries télévisées, l’avenir du cinéma, Paris, Armand Colin, 2010) who defined it as “the strict framework that a TV series draws for itself”, and linked it to the idea of genre. But I limit my use of this term to a specific application of a genre that creates a series of scenes or patterns that you can find in each episode. For instance, in The X-Files, the structure of the cop show is combined with supernatural or science-fiction elements. But it means that in every episode, the viewer will find the same scenes: a crime, an investigation, different hypotheses, etc. These are combined with elements of directing, cinematography, and music which make for the basic identity of the show. Thus, in The X-Files, the teasers have a particular role as they generally introduce the victim without clearly identifying the author of the crime, because the whole structure of the episode will be built on the confrontation between several points of view on this given original event. Moreover, every episode will actualize this concept one way or another.

Those terms are not supposed to be used as definitive labels, but I think they can help to describe the specifities of many serial narratives, especially as they developped on American television. But to understand these forms, we also have to contextualize them in the history of television, which could be the topic of another post in the future.

Among all these kinds of serialized narratives, semi-serialized formula shows are the ones that I am especially interested in at the moment, and they are at the core of this blog. It seems to be the most restrictive type, because it has to compose with the demands of both formula and serialization, but it is actually the negotiation between these two patterns which gives it its scope and its depth.

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