If the Victorian era was the Age of the Serial, then one might call the current era the Serial Renaissance. High-profile serialized television shows like Mad Men or The Wire are lauded as contemporary classics, and big-budget genre sequels like The Dark Knight are tapped for Oscars. With this shift toward seriality, narrative continuity has come to be taken as a given, particularly in contemporary television. As Jason Mittell has suggested, television has come to demand closer attention from viewers, and the new economic opportunities offered by the DVD box set encourage writers, networks, and production companies to create episodic narratives that can be understood as a coherent whole.
We understand this move toward coherence as an uptick in “quality” (more complex is better), but does that assumption hold regarding serials that were never intended to be viewed all at once? The 1930s film serial Flash Gordon is so formally distinct from contemporary television serials that it’s nearly impossible to binge on all four hours (thirteen installments) of a story arc in a single day. The clip I've included here (the end of one episode) is repeated verbatim as the beginning of the following episode, and the open question of how Flash survives his fall into the pit is resolved almost immediately. This repetition was, of course, used to remind the reader where things had left off, but what becomes striking when viewing the episodes in sequence is how quickly each problem is resolved, and how difficult it is to maintain attention through more than a few installments. Since the longer narrative was more of a picaresque than a novelistic serial, however, the only real necessity to reengage readers was to bring them up to date for the action. Furthermore, since the serials themselves were supplementary to the feature film attraction, it wouldn’t make sense to assume that viewers were familiar with an elaborate backstory. The repetition and “flat,” melodramatic characterization can thus be read as a series of gestures that will bring audiences up to speed quickly so they can pay attention to the sensational incidents. Besides which, the kind of sustained viewing that we think of as the norm for serial narratives (a bound novel or DVD set, for instance) was unthinkable for the film serial.
This leaves me wondering: what makes us “tune in next time,” and how does that compulsion vary based on the circumstances of reception? We assume that a dense narrative universe is the mark of “quality,” but does that ignore or denigrate the pleasures of the picaresque, and of the installment as singular event? Flash Gordon, for instance, is released from the pressures of continuity as we currently understand them, allowing for crazy narrative swerves (Shark men! Torture pit!) that might not be possible in a more cohesive ongoing narrative.