AAAI 2009 Spring Symposium on Intelligent Narrative Technologies II: Call for Participation

Narrative is a pervasive aspect of all human societies. Human beings make sense of the world by constructing stories and listening to the stories of others. In addition, stories as a form of entertainment play a central role in our social and leisure lives. As a result, story and narrative have become a key interest for Artificial Intelligence researchers. Indeed, the role of narrative as a primary mechanism for organizing human experience has been recognized in many fields, spawning multidisciplinary research that encompasses philosophy, art, psychology, cultural and literary studies, drama, and other domains.

This symposium sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (in cooperation with Stanford University’s Department of Computer Science) aims to advance research in narrative technologies by bringing together relevant research communities to discuss innovations, progress and development in the field. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

– Story understanding/generation

– Narrative structure in interface design

– Narrative structure in the design of autonomous agents

– Believable agents

– Interactive storytelling

– Narrative in commonsense reasoning

– Narrative in intelligent learning environments

– Narrative in serious games and edutainment

– Intelligent narrative authoring tools

– Narrative psychology

– Emergent narrative

– Virtual cinematography

– Emotion modeling

– Natural language generation/understanding for narrative

There will be at least two panel discussions on topics such as “Challenges for NLP in narrative research,” “New challenges in developing novel authoring paradigms,” or “Integrating research advances for building complete narrative environments.” If you are interested in hosting a panel discussion, please contact the organizers at

The symposium will include three categories of papers: full papers of no more than eight pages; extended abstracts of no more than four (4) pages; and demo and poster papers of two to four (2-4) pages. To foster more small-group discussions, every accepted paper will be presented as a poster regardless of length. Depending on the number of accepted papers, the full-length accepted papers will be invited to give 20-30 minute talks in addition to their poster presentation. The remaining accepted papers will be given five
minute “spotlight” talks designed to advertise their poster.The full-length talks will be selected to illustrate the breadth of research in this area, and are not meant to indicate a higher “ranking” among the proposals submitted. All forms of participation in the Symposium are highly valued!

For more information contact the organizers at or visit the symposium’s supplementary web site at

PN Second Debate- ‘The Sopranos’ v. ‘Lost’: Debating the Highs and Lows of the Serial Narrative Arts

Project Narrative recently hosted its second debate, centering around the popular television serials “The Sopranos” and “Lost.” The debate featured Professors Sean O’Sullivan and Jared Gardner, whose comments are posted in order of their delivery below.

Jared Gardner and Sean O\'Sullivan debating

Profs. Jared Gardner and Sean O’Sullivan

For streaming audio of the debate, as always, visit

‘The Sopranos v. Lost’: Sean O’Sullivan’s opening statement on ‘The Sopranos’

The Sopranos vs. Lost: Debating the Highs and Lows of the Serial Narrative Arts


                        I dwell in Possibility –

                        A fairer House than Prose –

                        More numerous of Windows –  

                        Superior – for Doors –

            I begin my remarks today by quoting the words of that obscure TV hack writer, Emily Dickinson, and I do so for two reasons.  First, because serial narrative, at its best, traffics in possibility more fully and creatively than any other medium; this form of publication continually makes us wait between parts, to imagine the possible, to speculate about what these numerous windows and superior doors might be, to poke around this edifice of negative capability.  My second reason for citing the Belle of Amherst has to do with her pugnacious preference for possibility, temptingly translatable as “poetry,” over prose.  Given our presumption—not entirely inaccurate—that serial television is a grandchild of the serial novel, the inclination has been to align, say, Deadwood with Dickens; indeed, I have made that move myself in print.  But there are two problems with that alignment.  First, it seems to me problematic to treat even serial prose fiction as prose—that is, to treat it in the way we would treat non-serialized fiction; the rhythms, shapes and structures of the serial novel are not the same as those of the stand-alone book.  Even more importantly, the particular way in which the best of serial television operates requires a poetic model of scrutiny, connected most basically to the fact that pictures and sounds—the essential components of cinema and television—are in no way the same thing as “prose.”  Rather, I would argue that we need to speak the language of versification, stanza, and epic in order to crack open serial television—which, again at its best, is not the only the most interesting stuff happening on television right now but the most interesting stuff happening in art.

            Okay—at this point, you may be a little confused by my references to, and my mystical interest in, the “possible.”  You came to hear a little smack being talked; and I’m happy to oblige.  I should acknowledge, by way of transition, that I will not be directly claiming that Emily Dickinson had Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Brenda Chenowith (to invoke a whole raft of series that are better than Lost) in mind when she put ink to paper here—but why, as an imaginative artist, shouldn’t she?  Tony, Al, and Brenda are three of the great complicated fictional characters in the history of American possibility.  Now, complicated fictional characters, I should explain to Jared and all Lost enthusiasts, are made-up creatures who bear some semblance to actual human beings.  If have you have been watching Lost, you have not seen anyone resembling an actual human being for a long time.  Perhaps these are located on a long-hidden Dharma station on the island; but I’m not holding my breath.  By contrast with Tony, Al, and Brenda, Locke, Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Said are not so much characters as amalgams and vectors and avatars, or plotted diagrams of behavior and response.  The flashback (and now flashforward) structure of Lost claims to balance, in each episode, the rip tide of plot with an individual attention to one of these, well, “characters,” I’ll say, for lack of a better word—but in each instance of time-shifting between present and past, or present and future, the show hews to a schematic notion of psychology, one that actually flattens out each character further, each time we bounce back and forth.  By contrast, the fictional characters—again, made-up creatures who bear some semblance to actual human beings—of The Sopranos and Deadwood and Six Feet Under get muddier, harder to figure out, the more we know them.

            The “some semblance” part is crucial, of course.  Tony, Al, and Brenda are as much fictional as real, if not more fictional than real.  But the lie that we have been told so long about what we should desire from fictional characters—that they learn stuff as they go along, that past events automatically trigger specific present responses, that they are “reliable” or “understandable” in some epistemologically fixed ways—is exactly where Tony, Al, and Brenda deviate from the template, and therefore appear to deviate from the “plausible” or “real.”  But of course real people do not learn stuff as they go along—or, they do and they don’t—and real people do not have direct conduits between memory and behavior, and real people are understandable sometimes, and not understandable at other times, to the consternation of anyone who has ever met real people.  (Again, I would be happy to introduce Jared to some specimens, of which there may be some in this very room, after the debate.)  It is precisely the fact that Tony and Al and Brenda are all over the map, when it comes to things like “consistency” (the hob-goblin of the well-made story) or “likability,” or “reliability,” that makes their series worth watching again and again.

            Lest you think I am just invested in some old-fashioned idea of “people,” to the exclusion of other considerations, allow me to touch on two other areas of Lost’s deficiency.  The first has to do with music—an issue that may not seem vital, unless you think of television as a medium of images without sounds.  Lost, as you will know if you have seen five seconds of the show, features a ubiquitous score, composed by the mysteriously celebrated Michael Giacchino.  This score tells us a number of useful things: when we should be scared (and how much we should be scared), when we should feel sad (and how much we should feel sad), when we should feel comforted (and how comforted we should feel), and many other things that real people are reputed to experience, but which the music must repeatedly cue us to, since watching Lost dims our sense about what real people may or may not do, if they exist at all.  This aural strategy is of course inherited from the cinema.  But this is not just cinema tout court (I get to use phrases like that, since I’m playing “high” here).  The heavy scoring of cinema is a legacy from the 1970s and 1980s, when people such as John Williams—most definitely not a real human being—were given license to score the hell out of films, to keep us in a constant state of alertness about what it is we are feeling or thinking, right now, whether we know it or not.  Lost’s use of symphonic scoring underlines what I consider to be the series’ new-fangled old-fashionedness, that is the ways in which it dresses up a series of conventions (such as conventions of character and psychology) with the razzmatazz of time shifts and plot twists.  You see, people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—nefarious men who have made John Williams very rich—are extremely worried that you will not understand what is going on, on the level of affect, at every moment of their films; the makers of Lost, while quite happy to have us not understand what is going on on the level of fact or logic, are equally concerned about our potential affective wanderings.  By contrast, The Sopranos uses no score.  While the song “Woke Up This Morning” always plays over the opening credits, a different song plays over each iteration of the closing credits; scattered through each episode (and I do mean scattered, compared to the insistent music of Lost) are bits and pieces of music, all pre-existing, ranging from 18th-century Italian song to rock to rap to country, most often diegetically—as music within the reality of the world presented—musical parts that exist in some kind of conversation or argument with the people, places and events depicted.  This radically different use of music forces us to shift modes, genres, cultures, and centuries—unlike the corn syrup of Michael Giacchino—in ways that are frequently unanticipated, and quite often for reasons that remain unelaborated.  If, in theory, Lost asks us to think about clues and solutions, The Sopranos asks us to think about…well, it’s hard to finish that sentence, since what The Sopranos asks us to think about changes so frequently from episode to episode, and moment to moment.

            For the second area of deficiency, let’s go back to the movies, and what I’m calling Lost’s newfangled oldfashionedness.  For all its hype as Television 2.0, or 3.0—or 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 32.0; that’s a little joke for Lost fans—Lost’s serial structure is in many ways much closer to that of cinematic serials from the adolescence of cinema, focused on cliffhangers, action, and a kind of communal audience experience.  Not—to quote a beloved television character—that there’s anything wrong with that.  But I’d argue that Lost doesn’t really explore the possibilities—there’s that word again—of television’s particular serial dimensions in truly innovative or complex ways.  Its process has much less to do with televisual storytelling as such and more with creating narrative universes—drawing on some models that are older than television, such as theatrical serials, and some that are newer.  The newer model that Lost most manifestly incorporates is also a visual narrative that people experience through the television box—namely, the video game.  Again: not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But neither The Perils of Pauline nor Halo 3 explores the particular possibilities of televisual storytelling; and they are likewise completely uninterested in depicting real people.  The logic of the cliffhanger and the logic of the video game are the same—some horrific fate is about to destroy us, and…and then we hit reset, or we prepare for the way in which one installment’s cliffhanger is resolved only to present another cliffhanger, in a loop of the unpredictable which is completely predictable. 

            By contrast, here are two recent comments from David Chase, the infamous creator of The Sopranos, on television and storytelling.  When asked by The Hollywood Reporter about the current television landscape, he remarked: “I still find TV to be a franchise-ridden bog.  There still seems to be a very intense interest in institutions and not as much interest in the existential situation of being alive.”  And in Variety—see, I use only the most academically sophisticated sources—he said, about his show: “What interested us was not the mob hits but the boringness in between.”  The existential situation of being alive and the boringness in between—this sounds like a recipe for Antonioni, or Bergman, or Camus, rather than television.  And indeed Chase has always lamented his long career in television, one in which for many years he took the money and wrote, even as he really aspired to be a mid-twentieth-century cinematic auteur.  We can only be grateful for his long imprisonment in TV, since it forced him both to understand the medium deeply and to loathe it deeply—a tension between formal self-confidence and self-hatred that is exactly at the center of how The Sopranos operates.  By laboring in the “franchise-ridden bog” for his pre-Sopranos career, Chase learned the craft at its most conventional and conservative; and The Sopranos never forgets that it is television, never ignores a basic lust for suspense or blood or amusement, or a sense of shapeliness.  But television serials, unlike two-hour movies or even novels, can do much more than posit the existential, or the boring; they can enact the existential, the uncertain, the contingent—because of their sprawling length, and because of their use of actors who inevitably change and grow and shrink in body size, and because of the unanticipated circumstances of real-world events that have the potential to intrude on the evolving narrative (as, say, 9/11). 

            Now, this element of the existential has always been available to, even if it has never really been exploited by, television serials.  It’s the synthesis of the programmatic with not just the existential but with the “boring,” with stuff not happening, with therapy sessions that go nowhere, with dreams of limited explicability, with characters that dawdle or avoid, with episodes that resolutely fail to follow a three-act model of situation, conflict, and resolution—that’s what’s new, not just in television but in any art form.  Not that the boring is in and of itself a narrative desideratum (again, I get to use words like that); but the boring is one of the most prominent aspects of The Sopranos’ most compelling mob story—not the represented battle between New Jersey and New York, but the battle of a medium at war with itself, a string of kneecappings and reprisals where the systems of television serials—the large cast, the interwoven threads, the A, B, and C stories of individual installments—clash repeatedly with aesthetic values that reject all such established patterns and purposes.  Some of the most spectacular incidents in the series’ civil war go by the name of “College,” “Pine Barrens,” “Whoever Did This,” “Long Term Parking,” “Soprano Home Movies,” and “Kennedy and Heidi,” individual episodes that are remarkable not primarily for what happens in them but for the ways in which they tug and pull at the prison of television, as possibility clashes with formula.  By contrast, there are no memorable individual episodes of Lost.  By that I don’t mean there aren’t episodes where interesting stuff happens, or where we find out interesting information—what I mean is that, formally, every episode is the same.  For a show that is all about conflict between different groups, it is a series entirely at peace with its pattern and shape.  Interesting art, it seems to me, is always at war with pattern and shape, even as it is unable to resist everything that pattern and shape promise.

            Speaking of pattern and shape.  In a few strokes, I want to sketch out what for me is the most compelling aspect of the best television serials.  By beginning with possibility and poetry and Dickinson—a writer who is also, it seems to me, both at war with, and in love with, pattern and shape—I want to argue that it is precisely the language of prosody that is most useful in thinking about serial television at its best, and that really it is the tradition of verse, and of verse narrative, that is in some ways the true precursor of The Sopranos and Deadwood and Six Feet Under and Mad Men, even more than the Victorian novel.  Art that is broken, on purpose: that’s how I would define both poetry and serial fiction.  How it is broken, into how many pieces it is broken, what we have to do to collect what is broken—those things are at the center of how they operate.  Here are some directions we could go with this.  Let’s consider first the 12- to 13- episode length of the seasons of shows like The Sopranos (by contrast with the 23-episode megaplex of network shows, including the first three seasons of Lost).  That length is an approximation of perhaps the most battle-hardened lyric form, the sonnet—a chunk of art (14 lines and 12-13 episodes) that’s long enough and also too short.  (“I dwell in Possibility,” by the way, is 12 lines long.)  This 12- or 13-episode arc is an accident of scheduling to which these narratives have had to fit themselves—by trial and error, without the established conventions of the Italian or English sonnet, with their rhymes and octaves and turns.  The serials are experiments in prosody—trying out, adopting, and discarding formal patterns and shapes as they go along—which is what makes these series that I have been lumping together in fact so radically different from each other.  Some prosodic elements that I detect include the quatrain—the particular, often peculiar quality of the first four episodes of a season, and of the first season of a series especially; the caesura, the episode (though by no means required) at some point during a season that offers a kind of break or rupture, not so much in terms of story event (although can be part of it) as in structure and style; the couplet, or multi-episode closing gesture of the season; and simply the weight of a season itself, a form for which there is no precedent in narrative—something less than a novel, something more than a volume. 

            Now, while I have borrowed here some of the technology of the lyric, the epic, as verse narrative, is also a useful analogue—starting even with the metrical atom of classical storytelling, the dactylic hexameter of Homer and Virgil, a line of verse that drifts somewhere between 13 or 14 or 15 syllables—a line of verse that enacts, line after line, the mob warfare between possibility and formula.  I would particular claim The Odyssey as a vital forbear of the television serial, and indeed of The Sopranos in particular, which inherits its predecessor’s anxiety of influence, its commingling of the domestic and the martial, its simultaneously linear and circular movements, its famously abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion, and its overconfident, hypocritical, murderous, manipulative liar of a hero.  And that inheritance is primarily, I am arguing, one that has do to with an art form that cares about the real and the constructed, the fact and the lie, shapelessness and shape, in combustible ways that Lost and its ilk never attempt.  You, Jared, can have Grand Theft Auto and Michael Giacchino; I’ll take The Odyssey and Emily Dickinson.

            Now…that should be my closing line.  But I need to say something more—more important than all of the very important things that I’ve been saying.  The deep truth (or perhaps the deep lie) is that Jared and I are much less antagonists across a divide than a bickering couple, since we have common enemies far more dangerous than the popguns that we can aim at each other.  The most calamitous of these enemies goes by the name of media studies—an academic discipline that was concocted, I would argue, before there was anything worth studying in it.  Let me explain what is deeply dangerous about this discipline, as it currently stands.  For years, television has been treated as if it were a toaster.  You can put a whole bunch of things in a toaster—a slice of bread, a bagel, a waffle—and it all comes out as one thing: toast.  By this logic, everything that comes out of television has been treated as “media,” as homologous texts that can be raided to tell us about “culture” and “values” and “representation”—as if The Sopranos, Full House, The Daily Show, and infomercials were all the same substance.  But television is not a toaster; television is a printing press.  Just as we would mock a bookstore that had only one section, called “Writing,” so we should mock the all-consuming leviathan called “Media.”  That doesn’t mean we can’t study writing, or media; but to suggest that an elegy, a pop psychology book, a computer manual, and an encyclopedia are essentially interchangeable objects, with no formal, aesthetic, procedural or substantive differences, is absurd.  So, my interest in defending the “high” against the “low” today is not to defend The Sopranos against Lost.  Indeed, unlike my co-debater today, I have actually written about Lost; indeed, I have written about it as if it were a “high” text, alongside the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski, perhaps the signature auteur of 1990s European art cinema—about as high as you can get.  What I am advocating, first and foremost then, is a “high” approach to television serials, no matter their name—if they merit such an approach.  I am advocating this not because the “high” approach, which considers form, narrative and poetic history, and the contingent, is inherently more worthwhile than the “low” approach—although I will confess a bias in this regard.  I am advocating this because the “high” approach is virtually absent from media studies as a discipline—indeed, by its nature, media studies finds the “high” approach to be inherently suspect, because it does not flatten out distinctions of shape and style.  To me, the “high” is the possible, and the “low” is the probable.  The probable is fine, if you’re a scientist; but I’m not a scientist, and television serials, at their best, are not science either.  They’re art.  And to discuss art, we need the possible, and the illogical logic of mob warfare. 



‘The Sopranos’ v. ‘Lost’: Jared Gardner’s response on ‘Lost’

Although I have been drafted to play an adversarial role with Sean here, in truth, we agree on more things than we don’t, starting with the vastly understudied vitality and richness of contemporary serial television—and of serial narrative forms in general. Indeed, one of the big questions I bring to Project Narrative today is why narrative theory as a whole has not paid sufficient attention to seriality? And what can we do to change that going forward?

The big area of debate between Sean and myself, however, is an important one, if staged somewhat for the convenience of bringing the larger field of inquiry to the forefront here today. The question has to do with methodology: what tools do we bring to serial television? Sean suggests that those of us interested in addressing TV narrative should apply the same tools, the same questions, we had long brought to bear on literary narrative (and tools which translated easily—too easily, I would say—to classical Hollywood narrative cinema). In Sean’s terms, we should look for formal cohesiveness, for multi-dimensional, well-developed characters, for significant themes and for interpretive ambiguity sufficient to reward our labors by giving us occasion to put our own critical skills on display. A good serial television narrative thus becomes one that can be read like a good novel or a good film—only longer, interrupted by the serial form which for Sean only adds happily to the verisimilitude of the text to Life and the “experience of being alive.”

I share Sean’s distaste for much of what passes as television and media criticism: predictable fill-in-the-blanks studies of representation; sociological surveys of audiences that are only slightly more intellectually rich than Nielsen Ratings; cookie-cutter utopian paeans to Flow, etc. But the solution to the bankruptcy of the first generation of television criticism is not to return to our own well-worn tools, or to try and turn TV into something that looks just like a novel or an Art Film.

After all, there is a reason the Humanities and English departments in particular have ignored TV for so long—and not just because TV has only fairly recently achieved the kind of renaissance that authorizes an occasion such as this. The truth is, it was our traditional toolset has blinded us to the richness of television: holding up TV to our traditional lens we could not see anything recognizable, and therefore we decided, as we are trained to do, that it must be “bad.” That we only begin to become interested in serial TV when it looks, as the Sopranos does, like a good novel, suggests that we will only be able to read and value what we have read and valued for so long. As long as we turn to TV asking that it does what we expect of our novels or films, we will only be able to read a small portion of what is happening on the small screen these days.  We will miss the opportunity to finally recover some of the messier (and decidedly unliterary) pleasures and power of this serial medium—and, I would argue, of its many not-so-distant cousins, including serial radio in the 1930s and 40s, the serial films of the silent era, the storypapers of the nineteenth century, and the many Spectators, Gleaners, and Tatlers of the eighteenth-century magazine, most of which have remained almost as resistant to our reading as serial TV in our own time, and for similar reasons.

Let me focus on the contest we are staging today: Sopranos vs. Lost. Although The Sopranos is of course a collaborative work, it retains deliberately the aura of the auteur at all times. Artist Chase is in control of the text, no matter how digressive or opaque it might appear. The fault lies with us, as readers, if we don’t “get it.” Lost is decidedly not the creation of an auteur: it is a collaborative, corporate work from the start, self-consciously set up as a composite of many different media and narrative forms, including the novel (Lord of the Flies), TV (from Gilligan’s Island though Survivor), and serial video games (most explicitly, Myst). I want to focus for a minute on the last element of this multimedia stew: the video game. Because it is the elements Lost shares in common with the serial video game that best mark its difference from The Sopranos. I don’t want to engage here the whole ludology vs. narratology debate with regard to video game studies here, in large measure because I think it is a non-issue: video games are both ludic and narrative, invitations to play (and make stories about playing), and invitations to listen to a story being told (and then make games out of the narrated story).

Lost is a text that similarly plays with that fine line between the ludic and the narrative—attempting, like many video games, to have it both ways at once. It sets up games, sometimes explicitly in the form of puzzles that look an awful lot like the puzzles from Myst. But it also opens up spaces for collaborative gameplay—wikis, discussion sites, easter egg hunts, red herring casting parties, conspiracy theories to weave, fan fiction—allowing the fans to play the game of guessing how it will all come out, even as they also watch how the creators play the increasingly complicated game they have set up for themselves. And the show’s creators clearly approached it as a game from the start, creating a bible for themselves, throwing out as many threads and seemingly irreconcilable problems, as if daring each other to try and find a way to fit it all together. To extend the video game metaphor, it is like watching over Steve Wiebe’s shoulder in King of Kong as he breaks the all-time record for Donkey Kong, while also getting to play mini-games on your own (smaller) terminal at the same time.

But unlike Donkey Kong (which is all about mastering the fine art of repetition in what amounts to a very closed narrative space), the games in Lost are all narrative games, and the fans on the wikis spend an inordinate amount of time tracking down narrative elements: fastidiously schematizing connections, iterations, narrative perspective, foreshadowing, etc. Turns out they were paying attention in their English classes to some of what we had been teaching them—but what they are doing with it is not exactly their teachers’ literary analysis. Mapping out the “foreshadowings,” “irony” and “parallelisms,” and paying rigorous attention to narrative perspective and time, they have constructed vast databases and lists that allow them to mine for secret meanings and clues, searching out algorithms that will allow them to better appreciate and understand the narrative game being played—and to better play along themselves. And it is the playing along at home that sparks not only the code-breaking pleasures of the text, but  also the desire to extend these characters, to claim them (similar to the ways David Brewer has shown that 18th-century readers poached their novelistic characters as part of the textual commons), shipping them to all kinds of unlikely places.

This game in fact requires a remarkable amount of attention to narrative, and ultimately this is where is differs from a video game, where narrative is always secondary to the ludic pleasures (and pains) of the game itself. The “rules” of this game are all narrative rules, and much of the action in the show itself is about storytelling and the power of narrative. In season one, Locke and Jack, faith and reason, compete for the survivors by telling different stories about their futures on the island. Ben emerges later as the master storyteller, able to manipulate worlds through the power of narrative.

Of course, The Sopranos gives us a great deal to think about as well: Why does Chris decide to stay with Tony? Why does Carmella stay with Tony? Why does Dr. Melfi stay with Tony? (Now that I think about it, the big overarching question of the show is why anyone, including the viewer, feels so compelled to hang around). But we are not invited to play with them (and I would argue it is not surprising that we don’t find a participatory fan culture surrounding The Sopranos the way we do for Lost—there is very little Sopranos fan fiction, for example, and no wikis. With The Sopranos we are invited to guess at the answers the way we might guess how Middlemarch will end, but we never imagine for a minute that the answers might or should lie outside of the text itself. The Sopranos is like Middlemarch in many ways, in fact: a great work of literature that just happened to be published serially. But like Middlemarch, we know that a sensibility hovers always with candle in hand above the peer-glass, bringing narrative order to the random scratches.

This is why Sean prefers The Sopranos: he can read it as he would a novel or a narrative film, he can think about the career of its auteur as he would that of a novelist or director, he can accept the text’s many invitations to make meaning out of ambiguity and relish in its refusal to tell him definitively whether he is right—the kinds of invitations texts have been making to readers in our English classes for these many decades. Lost has no auteur—it has gameplayers. And the invitation of serial TV like Lost are much messier than those of The Sopranos, inviting users to explore on their own, outside the text, creating texts of their own, playing along and playing with each other.

When I first confessed to Sean that I liked Lost more than The Sopranos, he suggested that as much as he enjoyed Lost, he just couldn’t bring himself to care about the characters. They were for him one-dimensional marks on a whiteboard being moved around in a complex series of loops and puzzles. My initial impulse was to insist that I for one did case about these characters the way I do about characters in my favorite novels. But the truth is, I don’t (although I did get weepy when Charlie died and I still miss Mr. Eko terribly). I did care about the characters from The Sopranos in that way, however, and I still do. And yet, I care more about the show Lost than I ever did about The Sopranos, and when it is over I will be crushed (whereas when The Sopranos was over I was, frankly, relieved).

And I think this difference—caring about the show, the franchise, the game, as opposed to caring about the characters—is at the heart of our different relationships to these serial texts. When we were trying to goad each other into something resembling a fight, Sean appreciatively quoted to me Chase’s denunciation of the formulaic nature of most TV, in which he argues that true Art  must strive to capture the “existential experience of being alive.” Well, I’ll be honest. I don’t need art to reflect for me the experience of being alive. I’ve got plenty of that to draw on, and plenty of my own life to reflect on—and a small army of therapists to help me. But what I do need, at this particular moment in time, are texts that will help me reflect on what we could call the “existential experience of being in media.” I need texts that help me understand the powers, pleasures, dangers and meanings of these new media that increasingly shape our lives, isolating us into various islands even as, like the castaways on Lost, they connect us to greater and greater networks of power. Game playing and datamining are going to be increasingly central to the existential experience of being alive in media, which is increasingly where we live (and I myself wouldn’t have it any other way). It is for this reason that we cannot and should not ask all our serial TV to simply mimic the narrative strategies of the nineteenth century. There will always be TV that will be happy to oblige, just as there will always be auteurs who wish they were making films or writing novels but found themselves instead trapped in TV. But our students are learning and practicing without us, adapting our toolsets to new media. I say it is time we join the game and start trying to catch up.


PN Bibliography Wiki Launches!

Announcing Project Narrative  ‘Wikiography’–An exciting new way to explore, edit, add, and manage all types of sources on narrative theory. Anyone can visit, but to edit content you must follow the steps to “Join the Space” (on the homepage) or contact Greg at
Click below to check it out!
Project Narrative Wiki Bibliography