Serial Boxes

20Jan10

Last summer, I was invited as a keynote presenter for a conference on serial form at the University of Zurich – I blogged previously about the conference and my presentation. Now the conference organizers are publishing the proceedings, translating all of the English papers into German. Since I spoke off an outline, I needed to write up the whole essay, which involved a lot of updating and rethinking in light of my recent Lost rewatch, taking most of my non-grading work time in December and early January. Below is a draft of the essay, entitled “Serial Boxes: The Cultural Values of Long-Form American Television” – as always, any feedback is welcome!

The 2000s have been a remarkable decade of transformation in American television. New textual forms have emerged, with both the rise of reality television as a core genre and the pervasive spread of serial narrative across a wide range of fictional formats. Domestic technologies have shifted, from the spread of high-definition TVs and digital broadcasting to the growing adoption of DVRs. The internet has become more central to the television medium, with both official and illicit downloadable shows, transmedia narrative extensions, and the rise of sites like Hulu and YouTube as alternative ways to view a wide range of programming. The industry has grappled with these technological changes, lowering the ratings threshhold for success while establishing cable channels as a viable outlet for first-run programming that has yielded some of the most innovative developments in the medium’s history. It seems safe to say that no decade has seen more transformations in television as an industry, a textual form, and a technology since the 1950s.

One development that seems less radical, but I would argue may be as important as any of these other transformations, is the rise of TV-on-DVD box sets. Releasing television onto home video formats is certainly not new to the 2000s, as many shows were released on VHS and Laserdisc in the 1990s and even 1980s. Although the shift to DVD might be more of an acceleration of degree rather than a transformation of an entirely new kind of distribution, the ways that DVDs and their popularity allow television to be consumed and collected has drastically changed the place of the television series in the cultural landscape as well as altering the narrative possibilities available to creators. This essay, building on the foundation laid by Derek Kompare’s excellent analysis of the TV-on-DVD phenomenon, tries to grapple with the cultural shifts occurring in the wake of this model of distribution and consumption, using some personal experiences to explore what they mean for scholars, teachers, viewers, and storytellers.

We can witness key aspects of this transformation by comparing two academic television video collections. In the 1990s, I entered the world of media studies as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. In Vilas Hall, we had a collection of videotapes that were recorded from the airwaves and shelved for pedagogical and scholarly access. This was a highly erratic collection of borderline legality, subject to the happenstance of whomever had been able to set a VCR to record a program. Moreover, the collection had an ontology that is distinct from today’s shelves of DVDs: these tapes were an archive of an event, an example of recorded flow capturing a moment designed to be ephemeral. These recordings were bound to an original time and place, marked by the station identifications and advertisements as belonging to a broadcast, with the flow between programs as a strategy designed to yield high ratings and audience continuity. In short, those tapes were what television had always been, but frozen in the amber of an archive.

In contrast, the shelves of my current academic library’s video collection at Middlebury College, cataloged under the Library of Congress call number PN1992, are a testament to the transformation of the past decade. We have hundreds of DVD sets of television series arranged in alphabetical order, placing The Twilight Zone between 24 and Ugly Betty―far from any network executive’s idea of ideal hammocking. These boxes live on the shelf detached from their original contexts of broadcasting, schedule, commercial breaks, and historical moment. What I find most remarkable is how unremarkable this seems today. We have accepted the idea that a television program is now a tangible object that can be purchased, collected, and cataloged, just like books, musical albums, and films. This is a comparably new concept, and I’d argue a transformative one for television scholars, producers, and viewers.

Kompare highlights this transformation as a shift from flow to publishing, outlining the history of this development in terms of industry, technology, and dominant mode of consumption. I want to expand on this latter idea, particularly concerning the aesthetic dimension of boxed sets. Aesthetic issues concern both the form of the DVD set and its content – the box itself has become a site of signification unique to the home video era. While television programs in the broadcast era lacked comparable tangible paratexts like movie posters and book jackets, in the last decade, the design of DVD sets has constituted a key site of extratextual meaning. The packaging for these boxes help establish their meaning, both as an object to be owned and a narrative to be experienced.

As Jonathan Gray discusses regarding the Lord of the Rings DVDs, boxed sets recontextualize the ephemeral media text into a collectable media object, sized perfectly for the bookshelf and appropriate for placing next to their literary siblings. Just this placement redefines our video collections from the archived flow of homemade videotapes to authorized and legitimate published cultural objects. Cover designs inflect our understanding of the series that they house, allowing the box to emphasize some cultural elements over others, creating a framework for understanding a text even before it is watched.

For instance, the box for season one of Six Feet Under is particularly artful in its look and feel. The front is predominantly black, with a disembodied pale female face highlighted by bright red lipstick being applied by a latex gloved hand.

Unlike many other box sets, there is not an image of the cast or even a shot from the show – the photo of the cast on the back comes from the pilot episode’s funeral, but it is far less defining of the box than the stark, more abstract front. The cover image helps frame our perception of the show as more about the theme of death and job of funeral director than the realm of family drama that is arguably the show’s main genre precedent.

This stylish thematic emphasis is reinforced upon opening the box – the internal packaging rises up as if from a slumber, with a duplicate of the cover image on the removable cardboard sleeve embedded within an external coffin-like shell. The tagline found within the outer box, “Your whole life is leading up to this,” both reinforces the theme of death and asserts the aesthetic valuation of the series as a groundbreaking television experience. The internal sleeve is much more conventional in design, and certainly could have been sold without the gimmicky external box; however, the clever mechanics and rigid shell of the box emphasizes the HBO series as an object to be valued, where as much care and craft went into making the packaging as the show itself. Additionally, the box’s imagery becomes embedded and altered in the ongoing consumption of the series―before watching the series, I saw the image as predominantly referring to death, but after experiencing the narrative and its emphasis on sexual experimentation and expression, I see the sexual imagery of the lipstick and connect it to my broader cultural conception of Six Feet Under. While this signifying packaging by no means determines how a viewer will react to or understand the enclosed series, it is one of many cultural inputs enabled by the DVD era and thus cannot be ignored.

Such boxes need not be designed solely to elevate a text to a higher aesthetic plane. Many emphasize the comedic and character elements of a series, such as the special editions of Simpsons DVDs shaped like characters’ heads, or play up a show’s sexuality, as with the sensual poses and imagery featured on assorted Desperate Housewives boxes. While the boxes are certainly designed to promote consumption through novelty, beauty, or emotional appeals, they are significant in how we watch, framing many of our first interactions with a show. We also need to remember that the boxes may also be optional for many DVD consumers – the experience of a Netflix renter circumvents the boxes altogether in exchange for generic envelopes, leaving only the image printed directly on the disc itself to frame the digital contents, highlighting the variable reception contexts of contemporary viewers.

While many boxes are designed to appeal to and frame the series for new viewers, some are specifically constructed to speak to experienced “insider” fans. Possibly the most elaborate of such packages is the season five Lost DHARMA Initiative Orientation Kit. Beyond just the 5-disc DVD or Blu-ray set, the oversized weathered cardboard box is packaged to appear “native” to the 1970s era DHARMA setting featured on the series, with additional paratextual bonuses including DHARMA patches, brochures, binder, maps, and VHS tape. This set is clearly designed (and priced) for die-hard fans who have already seen the fifth season, want to imagine themselves as DHARMA recruits, and latch onto additional clues to extend their mode of forensic fandom. Rather than an ordinary cultural object to be shelved alongside novels and musical albums, this type of special edition demands to be displayed, dismantled, used, and discussed – such special boxes function more like their own collectables and toys rather than containers for the discs to enable narrative consumption. In fact, the packaging itself reveals some minor spoilers about the content of season 5, which for many first-time viewers would curtail their enjoyment of the show’s twisty narrative. Even though seeing the box always somewhat precedes consuming its contents, the multiple viewing windows of television programming enables packaging to function as both of Gray’s categories of paratexts, entry and in media res.

While the aesthetics and cultural impacts of box set design and packaging certainly warrant more attention, I wish to turn to the insides of the boxes more fully, considering how the shift toward TV-on-DVD publishing changes the possibilities of serial storytelling and narrative consumption. As I have written about previously, the past decade or so of American television has seen the emergence of a widespread trend of narrative complexity, marked both by the interplay between episodic and serial forms, and a rise in the use of experimental and self-aware storytelling techniques. While I do not wish to rehash the analysis of this storytelling model, it is worth highlighting some of the formal elements that have emerged as more prevalent in television narrative and consider how they have been enabled and encouraged by the shift from flow to publishing via DVDs.

Seriality can be greatly enhanced by the publishing model, as viewers owning DVD sets can mimic the “random access” possibilities of books to consult and replay moments from episodes or seasons past. One of the hallmarks of serial narrative is that the storyworld has continuity and a sense of long-term memory, and thus viewers can reference a work from their shelves to fill-in gaps or refresh their memories of past events or moments, whether from a series of novels like the Harry Potter books or a television serial like The Sopranos. Under a broadcast flow model of dissemination, seriality is dependent on consistent viewing and accurate memories, or subject to the whims of syndicated reruns that frequently air out-of-order.

Of course, serial television does not require a publishing model of dissemination. The most prominent serial narratives in the history of broadcasting, daytime soap operas, have received almost no commercial release on home video and can be seen almost exclusively in their daily scheduled flow without reruns. However, soap fans have their own techniques for ensuring access to the narrative past, whether through elaborate communities of home taping and trading, the intergenerational sharing of narrative knowledge, or the use of paratextual publishing with magazines like Soap Opera Digest. Additionally, soaps themselves are highly dependent on their own mode of internal referencing of previous story information, creating an aesthetic value of redundancy and repetition. Compared to soap operas, many prime time serials like Lost or Battlestar Galactica exhibit a distinct lack of redundancy and internal reminders, making the ability to selectively rewatch on demand essential to many of today’s narratively complex series.

The DVD publishing model also helps viewers grapple with more experimental storytelling strategies typical for many complex narratives. The increased use of atemporality, flashbacks, internal repetition, blurs between fantasy and reality, and shifts in tone and genre all challenge viewers who are accustomed to American television being a highly conventional narrative medium. If the goal for most television storytelling for its first few decades was to create episodes that could be viewed in any order by a distracted viewer with only casual attention – a strategy that many programs pushed back against, but was certainly encouraged by the industry – today’s complex narratives are designed for a viewer not only to pay close attention to once, but to rewatch for depth of references, impressive displays of craft and continuities, and appreciate details that require the liberal use of pause and rewind. Complex comedies like Arrested Development encourage the freeze-frame power of DVDs to catch split-second visual gags and pause the frantic pace to recover from laughter. These televisual strategies are all possible via scheduled flow, but greatly enhanced by viewing multiple times via published DVDs.

Having control of when and how you watch also helps deepen one of the major pleasures afforded by complex narratives: the operational aesthetic. Deriving from Neil Harris’s analysis of P.T. Barnum’s public entertainments, the operational aesthetic takes pleasure in marveling at how a cleverly crafted bit of entertainment is put together, highlighting a meta-appreciation of a hoax or contraption. I extend this concept to the act of watching narrative television, as viewers simultaneously immerse themselves in a fictional world and step back to consider how the story is constructed – in essence, it is taking pleasure in both a story and its telling. The random access control of DVDs greatly enhances and enables viewers to engage the operational aesthetic, allowing pausing, rewinding, and slow-motion close study to ferret out narrative clues from twisty mysteries like Lost and Alias, and replay past moments to highlight exemplary moments of narrative construction. One such moment is in the season two finale of Battlestar Galactica, where there is a remarkable ellipsis jumping one year forward in the course of a single shot. This moment was so shocking and affecting that I needed to pause and rewatch it upon the first viewing, and have repeatedly returned to it via DVD as a marvel of narrative engineering in creating what might be thought of as a narrative special effect.

The archival presence of DVD boxes certainly opens up new possibilities for television storytellers, constructing complex narratives that can be better appreciated through rewatching and close study. But it also creates challenges for producers, knowing that ardent fans will be studying their stories for clues and continuity―and in conjunction with the greater public activity of fandom in the internet age, any gaffes or blunders will be highlighted and discussed at length. Looking back at the live broadcasts of the 1950s, often hailed as television (first) golden age, it is clear that the aesthetic values offered by such dramas and comedies were tied to their liveness and connect with the theatrical tradition more than the cinematic. The sense that anything might happen and the feeling of presence enabled by live broadcasting allowed viewers and critics to overlook the inevitable mistakes and occasional sloppiness of a given performance, and accept the stark limitations in visual variety and setting that in-studio live broadcasts require.

While the shift to telefilm production long proceeded the rise of DVD boxes, the arrival of widespread home video completes the shift from the aesthetic values of liveness to recording. Rewatching and close analysis of television existed prior to DVD, but it was a marginal cult practice in the broadcast era, typified by trends like The Nitpicker’s Guide books to various Star Trek series. Digital fandom, both via DVD and fansites, moves such practices out of the margins and into the mainstream, making sites like Lostpedia widely consulted references to decode Lost‘s complex narrative. As Henry Jenkins discusses concerning Twin Peaks fans using the emerging forum of online Usenet boards in the early 1990s, fans saw home video and networked communication as essential to their fannish practice―he quotes one fan from Usenet writing, “Can you imagine Twin Peaks coming out before VCRs or without the net? It would have been Hell!” Today, the idea of parsing a complex narrative like Twin Peaks using analog videotape or text-only Usenet might seem equally Hellish to another generation.

Additionally, the presence of DVDs makes the published version definitive and canonical over both the original broadcast and typically shortened syndicated rerun versions. Publishing can enable continuity corrections and edits as needed―for instance, the Lost episode “Orientation” features a photograph of Desmond and Penny, but it was shot before Penny was cast as an actual character and thus features the image of another actress. In the DVD version of “Orientation,” the photograph is replaced by an image of Sonya Walger, who was later cast to play Penny. Again, such details would be insignificant in the flow era, but for fans encouraged to freeze-frame and parse the images of Lost, details matter and DVDs allow producers to make such course corrections over the course of a series. And in some cases, DVDs can include footage cut from original broadcasts for time or content restrictions, making some limits of the original transmission medium irrelevant upon publishing. Thus while the broadcast original is what makes a program effectively an example of “television” as it’s traditionally understood, the DVD version serves as the long-term record of a series as it will be understood for years to come.

Published DVDs typically come bundled with paratextual materials beyond just the box design and layout. Commentaries from directors, writers, and cast, behind-the-scene documentaries, and copies of promotional materials are all commonly included as part of the box set. Such features contribute to the centrality of the operational aesthetic, providing viewers with insights into the craft and construction of these narratives. As producer and writer Ron Moore often mentions in his commentaries for Battlestar Galactica, such materials are designed for people who want to see “how the sausage gets made,” not for the casual fan interested in simply consuming the episode. For complex narratives whose mythologies inspire forensic fandom, DVD bonuses are a ripe site for paratextual expansion and exploration, as with Lost season 5’s extensive packaging and interactive feature Lost University.

The educational angle in the Lost University, which provides actual academic lectures on issues raised within the show, such as the physics of time travel and philosophical references, points toward the cultural elevation as enhanced by boxed sets. Like critical editions of literary works and scholarly commentaries on classic film DVDs, television boxes constitute the televisual text as a legitimate object of scrutiny and in-depth study. Although no television DVD that I know of has yet to enlist scholarly commentary and documentaries on historical contextualization as part of its bonus features, it is clearly a possible and perhaps even inevitable development given the rising cultural cachet and legitimacy of television programming as an aesthetic and cultural form.

Today, much of American serialized television is viewed as a legitimate narrative art form, comparable to other more traditionally valued media, such as film and literature. While for many traditional art forms, like paintings and sculpture, scarcity of access can elevate a work’s aesthetic value, mass media can grow in perceived value through increased access and viewership. While the legendary “Golden Age” live anthology dramas of the 1950s are hailed as early masterworks of television, it took the recent DVD release of the Criterion Collection set of key dramas like Marty and Requiem for a Heavyweight to allow most critics and viewers to value these landmark texts based actual viewing rather than critical reputation. Many of the most lauded series of the 2000s, like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica, had slight viewership in their original broadcast, but gained viewers through DVD purchase or rental.

The physical collectibility of DVD boxes adds to its aesthetic positioning―the ability to shelve a television series next to a classic film or novel creates the possibility of aesthetic equality in a way that the ephemeral system of broadcasting never did. Probably the most critically beloved television series of all time, The Wire, has been hailed as a modern day Dickens or Tolstoy, a claim that is bolstered by its status as a bound collectable object much as the 19th century novel gained cultural legitimacy in its shift from serialized to bound form. The serial publishing of Dickens and Tolstoy certainly garnered these authors both popularity and acclaim, but had they not been bundled and compiled into published novels, War and Peace and Bleak House would probably be regarded less as timeless masterpieces and more as ephemerally tied to their historical moment, if remembered at all.

This pattern extends to other serialized media as well. The monthly publication of comic books mimic the ephemeral flow of broadcasting or serialized fiction; in the 1980s, acclaimed series like Cerebus and Watchmen were bound and republished as graphic novels, raising their cultural legitimacy and aesthetic possibilities. Likewise, Louis Feuillade’s serialized short films of the 1910s were generally overlooked upon their debut, but were elevated into the cinematic canon when they were compiled into longer features and shown at La Cinémathèque Française in the 1940s. Like earlier bound volumes of serialized novels, comics, and short films, the emergence of the boxed DVD set has enabled contemporary television to be judged and valued as part of a larger aesthetic field, and television’s rising evaluative stock over the past decade has been fueled by positive comparisons with other narrative forms, such as the literary and cinematic.

Another key impact of the bound publishing model concern pedagogy―just as novels and films can be taught due to their accessibility and unified form, DVD releases enable different models of television pedagogy. With the limits of the video library at Wisconsin described above, programs could only be taught if they happened to have been recorded and archived. While DVD releases are by no means comprehensive across television era and genre, there has been a massive ongoing wave of releases that has broadened access to a wide range of programming for the classroom. DVD releases can also highlight different versions of a program―syndicated reruns typically cut out a few minutes of a program to add more time for ad sales, so if a recording doesn’t catch the original broadcast, it’s likely that a videotape collection will have incomplete versions of the shows, a problem more acute with older programs that preceded the wide availability of video recorders.

Perhaps even more significantly, the availability of boxed sets enables experiments with serialized pedagogy. In 2009, I began teaching a course focused on the entirety of The Wire, using the DVD set as the core pedagogical text. Diving into a long-form television narrative over a course lasting months is an unusual and seemingly new phenomenon, placing a televised narrative on par with long literary texts like War & Peace or Ulysses and treating the text as a serious cultural work. I know of other faculty who have shown entire seasons of other contemporary serials, including The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, and Arrested Development, suggesting a broader use of DVD sets to extend the scope of media studies to consider the poetics and significance of long-form narratives. While this approach would not work for most series, the possibilities of teaching a television series as a sustained narrative experience to be viewed and discussed collectively effectively broadens the scope of television studies.

Not only does DVD publishing allow programs to be more highly valued aesthetically and pedagogically, bound volumes enable a mode of reception that shifts the viewing experience. For a series like The Wire, the slow-moving plotting, lack of exposition, and vast ensemble poses challenges for a new viewer to appreciate on a weekly basis―there are too many opportunities to forget connections and lose track of the copious details vital to appreciating the complexity of the storyworld. On DVD, a viewer typically watches episodes more quickly in succession, working through a season over a week or two, which fosters a more immersive and attentive viewing experience. Like a bound novel, viewers watching a DVD set take control of the time it takes to consume a long-form narrative, and potentially changes the relationship between viewers and text. We shouldn’t understate the importance of this viewer control, as the scheduling dependence on the commercial broadcast system has reinforced the cultural link between television programming and commerce over art for decades. The ability to watch DVDs on your own time and pace, without commercials or interruptions, helps emphasize the medium’s artistic merits over commercial imperatives.

Compiling a serial allows viewers to see a series differently, enabling us to perceive aesthetic values traditionally used for discrete cultural works to ongoing narratives―viewing a DVD edition helps highlight the values of unity, complexity, and clear beginnings and endings, qualities that are hard to discern through the incremental releases of seriality. A series like Lost succeeds in large part based on the degree to which viewers perceive the twisty looping narrative as guided by a master plan exhibiting continuity and consistency. Because many revelations and explanations are deferred for numerous episodes and even seasons, the long gaps in a serial broadcast can make it feel like the show is avoiding resolution and even “making it up as they go,” a clear aesthetic condemnation for a complex narrative where unity and continuity is a value. While revelations may still take multiple seasons, watching Lost via DVD keeps the pace moving sufficiently as to downplay the issues of deferred resolution and answers. We might consider this drive toward unity and complexity as fulfilled by bound volumes like DVD sets as a boxed aesthetic, tied together and treated as a complete whole comparable to similarly unified forms like novels and films.

Of course, there are aspects of a serial aesthetic that might be lost in the shift to a boxed aesthetic. Lost is a prime example of these trade-offs. Even though the quicker pace of DVDs highlights how all of Lost puzzle pieces come together, this mode of binge viewing does not allow for a viewer to focus on the puzzle-solving process. One of the chief pleasures of Lost is the ludic sense of play that fills the gaps between episodes and seasons, with fans congregating in online forums and wikis to theorize, investigate, evaluate, and debate. The participation extends to the producers as well, with Damon Lindelof and Carton Cuse conducting weekly podcasts, summer events at Comic Con, and frequent press interviews that are dissected by fans for clues and create an insider web of shared references. This mode of forensic fandom is dependent on simultaneous viewership, with everyone at the same point of the story, enabling a collaborative group process of decoding and engagement. Although Lost will continue to be watched via DVD (or the next video publication technology) for years, the broader experience of communal serialized viewing is tied to the original broadcast.

I felt this distinction personally in 2009, as I returned to the first five seasons of Lost on DVD in anticipation of the final season in spring 2010. I was joined by my wife, who had not watched the series in the original broadcast―thus I was both rewatching the show with full future story knowledge (at least of the first five seasons), and watching her watch for the first time. We never allowed gaps between episodes to linger as long as the weekly routine of the original broadcast, or the months between seasons to mull on the significance of the cliffhanging finales. This self-directed schedule made the viewing experience both more immersive and concentrated, and less expansive into the daily routine of thinking about the show and anticipating upcoming episodes. Knowing that suspense could be relieved by popping in another DVD made her less likely to theorize and ponder possibilities than my own experiences in the original broadcast flow.

Additionally, she could not experience, except through my own recaps, the collective endeavors of forensic fandom that so many Lost fans have shared: decoding the blast door map, the speculation of who was in the Oceanic Six, the podcast teasing of “the frozen donkey wheel,” or the revelations of the alternate reality game The Lost Experience. I also needed to serve as her interface to Lostpedia to look up details or remind us of forgotten continuity, as she wanted to avoid spoilers for episodes she had yet to see. Her experience of watching Lost via boxed sets was inherently isolated from the larger fan community and rich network of paratextual materials, suggesting that the truly ephemeral aspect of the series was not the initial textual broadcast but the experience of serialized spectatorship. When the next generation of media historians look at Lost, all that will remain from the original airing is the program and the archived paratexts―the aesthetic experience of collectively decoding a complex narrative will be lost.

As Lost fans anticipated the final season in 2010, I was not alone in rewatching the DVDs, as many fan sites and communities sponsored group rewatches, structured to provide a scheduled scaffolding for prompting discussion and forensic hunts for more clues. It seems from looking around a few sites, however, that these scheduled rewatches were mostly unsuccessful in generating communal engagement; most structured rewatches petered out after a season or two, prompting little conversation and breaking apart as viewers pursued their own personal viewing schedule. It seems that if we have the ability to watch on demand, we will sacrifice the positive experiences of communal engagement for the realities of personal schedules or the urge to binge. The structure of broadcast flow may be replaced by the control of boxed publishing, but there is a palpable experiential loss that cannot be artificially retained.

Such serialized consumption practices are not unique to television, as readers of 19th century serial fiction regularly discussed ongoing stories as they were released, published critical commentaries within letters to periodicals, and even corresponded with authors throughout the writing process. The experiences of Dickens’s readers who followed his novels through the serialized publication process were unique and unable to be recaptured by those who read his bound volumes; similarly, the serialized television viewing experience is ephemeral compared to the repeatable practice of boxed viewing. As Sean O’Sullivan discusses in relation to both Dickens and Deadwood, the gap between installments is the constitutive element of serial fiction, the space between available story units when both writers and readers imagine new possibilities and reflect on old tales. While a boxed viewer can recreate this gap by self-pacing a series, the normal model of consuming a bound serial is to move forward as time permits, not as dictated by a forced schedule. Although the broadcast schedule is ultimately arbitrary and artificial, it is also productive, creating the structure for collective synchronous consumption and providing the time to reflect upon the unfolding narrative world.

Boxed viewing can also prompt distinctive and even debilitating emotional affects, especially given the particular circumstances of spectatorship. Not only can the forced gaps of serialized distribution enable viewer speculation and contemplation, they can also help temper the level of emotional engagement. Many serialized programs use suspense and immersion to generate the desire for a viewer to keep watching, creating the binging impulse that many boxed viewers find so common and compelling; however, the distance from a story world can help dispel emotional intensity that threatens to overwhelm a binging viewer. For instance, I watched the first season DVD of Dexter in a 4-day binge, compelled by the twisty suspenseful narrative—while I loved the show, the intensity of imagery and disturbing scenes of emotionally scarred children was too much to take in over a short period of time, and has left me reluctant to continue onto the subsequent seasons. Today’s television storytellers need to create programs that remain compelling whether viewed in weekly broadcast installments or binged boxes, a distinct challenge that few shows have overcome.

This wandering discussion of the how the rise of DVD boxes shape the aesthetic, reception, and cultural possibilities of fictional serial television ultimately boils down to a reminder to pay attention to how the mundane conditions of distribution and consumption matter to our experiences and understanding of the medium. It is easy to forget how transformative new systems of media viewing can be, ignoring that contemporary models like DVD boxes are still quite novel and not fully dispersed across audiences. Even while scholars, including myself, celebrate the more innovative, long-form storytelling possibilities that technologies like DVDs help encourage, we cannot forget the important pleasures and modes of engagement encouraged by traditional broadcast flow. In the 20th century, the pleasures and practices of serial literature mostly disappeared into the margins or were displaced into other media; in the 21st century, we should not abandon the sustained values of scheduled flow and serialized spectatorship in a full embrace of boxed aesthetics. Hopefully the two models of viewing and storytelling can coexist for years to come, serving distinct but equally valid cultural functions and values.

Derek Kompare, “Publishing Flow: DVD Box Sets and the Reconception of Television,” Television and New Media 7, no. 4 (2006): 335-360.

Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010).

See Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (Fall 2006): 29-40, for an overview of this narrative mode.

Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), discusses the use of narrative redundancy in soaps as a core facet of its narrative poetics.

I discuss the way prime time serials cope with long term memory in Jason Mittell, “Previously On: Prime Time Serials and the Mechanics of Memory,” in Intermediality and Storytelling, ed. Marina Grishakova and Marie-Laure Ryan (Forthcoming, Walter de Gruyter).

Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

I discuss the operational aesthetic more fully in “Narrative Complexity” (2006).

Henry Jenkins, “’Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’: alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery,” in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 51-69.

I have discussed the cross-media comparisons surrounding The Wire in Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 429-38.

For more on Lost‘s issues with the perception that there is no master plan, see Ivan Askwith, “’Do you even know where this is going?’: Lost’s Viewers and Narrative Premeditation,” and Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” both in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009).

See Jennifer Hayward, Consuming pleasures : active audiences and serial fictions from Dickens to soap opera (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997).

Sean O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction,” in Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, ed. David Lavery (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006).



14 Responses to “Serial Boxes”

  1. As per usual, some fantastic stuff in here. A few thoughts spring to mind.

    1) First off, I think your examples are plenty strong, but your own experience with Friday Night Lights seems perfectly situated to capture these ideas. You didn’t get to experience the period of intense critical dissection and fan dissatisfaction with Murdergate, and instead of week-long delays while the show slowly brought the arc to a close you got to blaze through it comparatively quickly. And then, while most viewers embraced the third season as a return to form, your experience had placed particular value on the serialized nature of its narrative, so the lack of continuity was the problem rather than the solution to a problem.

    2) LOVE the analysis on why “Rewatch” projects always fail. While Alan Sepinwall’s Wire rewinds are successful thanks to his own breadth of analysis which serves as a point of discussion in and of itself, the ability to keep a pace of one episode a week with the accessibility of DVDs is nearly impossible (I went through four seasons before Alan finished one, for example). I think you nicely capture the irony that in an era where collective viewing is enhanced and expanded through the internet, concurrent technological improvements have made television in some ways more individual than ever before, which makes recapturing that initial post-episode discussion almost impossible (although, I have seen some people catching up on a show like Mad Men or Lost actually go back and comment on my old reviews of the episodes, so some do what they can to try to at least understand or analyze the initial response).

    3) I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how HBO DVDs, in particular, are organized in terms of their menu structures (at least in the Wire/Six Feet Under/Sopranos era). The detailed episode synopses, and the presence of the “Previously On” and “Next On” options, make me feel like I’m watching an archive of an episode rather than the season as a whole, which has always seemed somewhat strange to me. It seems like HBO wanted to make their shows seem different, and wanted to emphasize that these aren’t just normal TV shows, so they did everything possible to make experiencing them on DVD seem a comprehensive experience. Just a stray observation of how the menu can serve as yet another introduction to the show involved, is all.

  2. This is a great essay, and I’m particularly struck by your description of the time lapse at the end of Season 2 of BSG as a “narrative special effect.”

    I know from your “best of the aughts” that you haven’t yet watched *Mad Men*, and this post makes me think more than ever that you need to get on that! It’s just as invested in elevating the genre as *The Wire*–maybe even more–and features PBS-style historical documentaries and interviews with academic talking heads as part of that effort. It’s the best example to date, I think, of the productive anxiety re: the shift from “low” to “high” culture.

    Also, I was interested in your description of the affective difference between binging on a show and watching it over time, as it’s originally broadcast. I see what you mean about the intensified emotions that come with immersion, particularly w/r/t a show like *Dexter* or *True Blood* that’s so invested in aesthetic excess and gruesome imagery. At the same time, there’s an emotional element to the ludic play of the extended series too, don’t you think? Put simply, if I spend more time with characters, I feel more attached to them. While the intensity of my engagement might not be so great, I’m invested in the show for so much longer that narrative changes, particularly on the level of character, carry much more weight. LOST is a particularly good example of this, I think (maybe because the characters aren’t as “round” as those in some of the other shows you mentioned). (SPOILER!) I’m thinking of the return of Jin in season 5, for instance. I can’t imagine this would pack the same punch when he had only been presumed dead by the viewer for three days instead of four months. I’m curious–what was your wife’s reaction to this moment? Plus, I do think there’s an emotional factor that gets lost when the show undergoes the ontological shift you described and is no longer an event.

  3. 3 Jordan Lavender-Smith

    I’ve been a forensic fan of your work for a while now, without ever leaving comments. As always, great stuff.

    What do you think of the following analogy? Intertextual irony (as witnessed on shows like St. Elsewhere and The Simpsons) is to the channel-changing buttons on a remote control as sustained seriality is to the pause and rewind buttons. As you remind us, technological and marketplace shifts allow these narrative experiments on TV, but perhaps we should also note that shows like Lost and The Wire are predominately intratextual phenomena, whereas the cutting-edge trend prior to intense seriality was overwhelmingly intertextual, banking on sophisticated viewers’ spending hours surfing channels. Either way, for better or worse, the market seems to find new ways to reward the massive consumption of these materials. Again, I think your work underlines the ways in which literary phenomena, such as The Wire, are as reliant for their production on Moore’s Law as they are on what we might think of as some weightier artistic ethic or aim. Of course, this shouldn’t deter us from taking these shows seriously as works of art.

  4. I thought the breakdown of why the various re-watches tend to lose momentum was an important point. Moreover, while the focus is on American viewers here, it’s interesting to not that for some international viewers their first experiences of some serials is akin to a re-watch; fans either need localised fan conversations to avoid spoilers or turn to peer2peer networks to try and stay on top of the US schedule. Indeed, season 2 of Battlestar Galactica came out on DVD in Australia BEFORE it was shown on television, so the experience of BSG down under was markedly different to that of US viewers and for many Aussies the season long binges were the first (legal) option available!

  5. @Myles: great point about the FNL link, connecting the dots between my posts for me! I definitely think that my lack of outrage over s2 and less-than-enthusiastic response to s3 were tied to their viewing contexts and detachment from the shared viewing experience. As for the HBO menus, I didn’t dive into that, but definitely HBO’s set-up is awkward (especially when teaching The Wire and not wanting students to read the blurbs before showing an ep).

    @Anne: it’s definitely true that extended serial viewing can allow for deepened emotional investment in characters/situations. My wife wasn’t too freaked out about Jin being gone, although that was in part because she’d seen images of him in s5 materials. What I found was more striking was how much less she was invested in cracking various puzzles without the gaps to fill with Lost-mulling – let’s see how she reacts watching s6 in real time!

    @Jordan: great point about pre-DVD TV creating opportunities for active decoding across the schedule rather than within a single text. Some shows (Arrested Development comes to mind) seem to do both, but it does seem to be a distinctly different set of vectors for fan engagement.

    @Tama: another excellent point – in fact I used your BSG-down under essay in my TV course this past fall, and you make these points so well. I’ll add you to the citations…

    Thanks for all the comments!

  6. Google reader pointed me to your blog as one of my “Recommended Sources” which gave me an opportunity to read your post titled Serial Boxes.

    As one who has produced around 800 episodes of serial drama, albeit in the 90s and oddly enough in Germany, I find it interesting that the genre is now being taken seriously in academe. I have recently started following Henry Jenkins comments on serialty and transmediality and look forward to your future observations.

  7. 7 kvanaren

    This is really basic, but I wonder how much DVDs aid analysis and fan engagement just by making simple naming information about a show more accessible – for instance, episode titles. The title of an episode two months ago is almost impossible to remember, but with the ability to refer to the “Orientation” episode of Lost, you get both a land mark for exactly what episode you mean as well as an additional clue about the content of that episode that would likely have been absent before the DVD. Few shows include the title as a part of the actual episode (The West Wing is one big one I can think of), but it’s the kind of possibly superfluous metadata that lends itself well to speculation and analysis. (Especially for a show like Lost, where Jimmy Kimmel asked Cuse and Lindelof about significance of the space between LA and X in the title of the newest episode.)

    It’s a well-established tool for navigation and thematic heavy-lifting in long print narratives that I doubt became an unthinking, widespread aspect of TV discussion before a DVD boxset could remind you exactly what an episode was called.

    • Great point – I definitely think episode titles are more prominent for both viewers and producers because of DVDs, as well as electronic program guides. I wrote about this years ago in the context of TiVo and kids – my daughters always read the title of an episode before they choose to watch a show, while when I was a kid, I had no idea what an episode was called (or if it even had a name).


  1. 1 Digital Culture Links: January 24th 2010 « Tama Leaver dot Net
  2. 2 Online Degrees: Top 50 TV Blogs
  3. 3 Lost as Religious Text at Inessentials
  4. 4 TV on DVD « Diana does TV
  5. 5 Top 50 TV Blogs | Education Reference Desk

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