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.