The great artistic innovators, throughout time, have always pushed the boundaries of their chosen medium. From Tarantino to Pratchett, Nolan to Miller, part of the key to their genius has been an awareness of the artistic potential of their medium and its unique limitations. Specific use of camera positioning, for example, is something a book may draw inspiration from, even seek to emulate in certain respects, but is part of a series of key distinctions between media that define their potential strengths.
So what mass power do television serials have that other media does not? I’m told frequently these days that we’re living through “the golden age of television,” and I’m certainly tempted to agree. Thanks to the advent of streaming services like Netflix, the television-scape has been, to some extent, re-defined, and led to a sort of renaissance of the serialised, long-form drama. A welcome break from a decidedly chunk-based consumer culture, the long-form serial is a curious meeting point of a bite-sized, episodic format, and the long-haul, slow-burn story. It’s out of this new ground, this confusion, this blurring of conventional expectations and tropes, that some of the more unique creations came to fruition.
Practically speaking, it’s easier to sink time into a series because it’s comprised of a number of smaller chunks, and therefore far easier to commit to watching than one longer film, despite the fact that over course of a series, you expose yourself to far more screen time in total. And this seems like a basic point, a boring point even, but it’s fundamental to understanding the success of television in general – high total viewing time over a long period. It’s for this reason that television has possibly the greatest potential for interesting characterisation out of any other medium. The sheer viewing “tonnage” is colossal – similar to a book’s but with one vital difference: because a series is released steadily over a long period, it forces a gradual progression and a slower burn. It’s impossible to speed watch a series if it’s still being released, and in that respect it more closely resembles, perhaps, the process of getting to know an individual in real life, allowing for a more organic experience. Think of Breaking Bad, in my view perhaps the greatest example of long-haul characterisation in history – you engage with Walt as a character for five years, watching him slowly progress from nervous teacher to hardened, amoral criminal, and engage with a number of subtle and nuanced personality shifts. Would that sort of characterisation be possible with another medium?
Now, variety is the name of the game. It’s not just characters that benefit from television’s unique structure, it’s also the potential for wider and diverse commentary. Take Black Mirror, for example – each series is comprised of a number of episodes with a loose thematic (and mostly dystopian) link, but precious little else between them. It’s an anthology series, effectively, and it allows an array of diverse messages to be conveyed efficiently and separately. The writer can explore a vast selection of potential concepts without the wasted time. They are, to all intents and purposes, a large series of very experimental mini-films – ideas can be brought up once, played around with, and left with the audience to consider.
Historically, TV was also seen as the perfect ground for comedy, its episodic nature allowing for isolated hilarity that is enjoyable without wider series context, but also the possibility of a longer-running story. What we see these days, with shows like Bojack Horseman, another Netflix creation, is a blending of the historic comedy-episodic television style and the dramatic serialised style. It’s an interesting dynamic whereby each episode is, at once, self-contained, but also part of a wider dramatic whole. Comedies use the episodic manner of the show to its full comedic potential, but are also genuinely hard-hitting in an emotional sense, using the full potential of serialised progression over time to instil their characters with believability and raw, emotional power. Bojack is hilarious on an episode-by-episode basis, but it’s also shockingly depressing and utterly miserable in some respects, and I can’t think of another comedy that has come close to achieving this. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s both one of the funniest shows I’ve ever watched, but also the single most emotionally poignant. And that’s no small task.