All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Three)

HJ: From an audience point of view, the greatest enthusiasm for serial texts seems to come mid-stream when there are many different directions for interpretations and speculation. Why have so many serial texts had difficulty sticking the ending?

FK: As with all living things, the end is a sad affair, at best a moment of relief, but hardly ever an occasion for joy and celebration. I’m exaggerating, of course, but only slightly. As commercial products—and that’s an important “preposition” of this material: its openly commercial nature—popular series would like to go on forever. A successful television series is renewed; that’s the mark of its success, as Jason Mittell says: being successful means being able to continue.

Of course, all parties involved know that there is no such thing as real infinity, not even for very successful prod­ucts. All television series must end sooner or later. But when they do, this almost never happens because everything that was meant to be told has been told now. On the contrary, in most cases, television series do not “end” at all, in any strict sense of the term, but they simply disappear. This shows them as what they are: popular commodities, profitable only for so long. The narrative simply doesn’t return from its seasonal commercial break.

Sometimes a series knows in advance that it will be written off, but the result of such knowledge is often some flimsy sense of finalizing structure, usually imposed in a rather forced manner. In fact, it was relatively rare until recently that final seasons would be announced as final seasons—and even in that case, carefully prepared closure typically consists in making the series look retroactively like a multi-part work, and even then, there are often oblique options for future continuation. (Miniseries are different, of course, but only at first glance, because they, too, are frequently serialized now with a second season.)

All in all, there is no satisfying ending to a story that is structurally premised on its own return and continuation. Long-running mystery series—like Lost, where the secrets proliferated along with the show’s various narrative identities—will never be able to answer all the questions they have spawned. Even largely episodic programs, like sitcoms, reach a moment of narrative crisis when the final episode arrives. Seinfeld reacted to this challenge by brilliantly looping back to a remote beginning, but many people didn’t like that either, because they wanted the show to go on, not to eat itself up.

So, Sean O’Sullivan has a point when he says that satisfaction is not such a useful concept when we talk about serial storytelling. But then it’s an empirical fact that many viewers are dissatisfied or angry or sad when their favorite series disappears from their daily lives. In terms of audience attitudes, there are probably two extreme poles here: there are those audiences who would like to see their series as self-contained artifacts, closed and coherent “works,” like bourgeois novels, and so they expect a certain resolution in the end, a final “payoff” for all the time they’ve invested in watching or reading. And then there are those who relish precisely the challenges of storytelling on the go. Those are perhaps the ones most likely to engage in public storytelling themselves, be it fan fiction, be it audience activism, be it some more bureaucratic or academic type of narrative account keeping.

These para- and post-textual activities can go on for a long time after a series’ core text has stopped moving forward. And interestingly, this type of receptive production often tends to perform a switch from valuing satisfactory storytelling to valuing satisfactory world-building, because the pleasures of world-building are potentially endless too. This is what you discuss in your contribution to the book: an imaginary map will never be completely filled with information. There will always be blank spaces for future exploration.

HJ: How might a better understanding of how seriality works contribute to our grasp of transmedia storytelling?

FK: I would say seriality has an almost natural affinity to transmedia storytelling. Popular series are not easily contained within their core texts and media. Again, this has to do as much with their commercial mode of existence as with their narrative practices, because both are related and mutually reinforcing. Christina Meyer writes about this in her chapter on the Yellow Kid, one of the first serial comics figures. And Con Verevis in his chapter points out that remade blockbuster films in the digital age are almost necessarily intermedial.

Of course, when a story is told across media, the challenges of recursive sense-making proliferate tremendously: serial continuity management and serial self-observation are confronted now not only with a constantly growing number of episodes but also with different technologies of storytelling. What’s interesting about this process is how it can prompt serial storytelling to become explicitly modular. This is especially visible in contemporary trends, so I’m tempted to say that modularity might become the most likely form of seriality within our digital media ecology.

And again, there will be viewers who will cherish modular consistency, hoping (and even demanding) that a story’s transmedia manifestations fit into each other like the pieces of a puzzle—and there will also be viewers who will be fine with parallel processing, seeing modules as building blocks with different functions that can be rearranged or ignored in changing constellations. In both cases we can expect very intricate and controversial “canon” constructions to evolve. Of course, much of this has been prepared and pioneered by the expanding Star Wars universe.

HJ: Audiences have long used the gaps in the flow of serial texts as points for discussion and speculation. How might today’s social media contribute to these forms of engagement? Does binge viewing alter the dynamic by which consumers engage with serial texts?

FK: A number of issues are at work here. First of all, I would say that any type of large-scale reception practice does indeed alter the dynamic of popular seriality, especially when it concerns the temporality of story engagement. So, yes, eliminating the time gaps between episodes potentially changes both story consumption and storytelling. In the case of Netflix original series, with their full-season dumps, the result is paradoxically to slow down the reaction time for collective discussion and serial self-observation, because this business model shifts seriality from the level of the episode to the level of the season.

But that’s not an entirely new phenomenon. After all, this is what serial storytelling does, in terms of social practice: it organizes time and it does so for very large collectives, virtualized collectives. What we call “binge watching,” for example, is only the latest—perhaps we should say: the timeliest—manifestation of serial culture’s interest in continuous reception and production.

But in the history of mass media, every new medium has provoked such discourses of addiction and substance abuse, all the way back to social-hygienic concerns about novel reading in the 18th century. And I’m not saying this to mock the motivation behind such concerns; as with anything that we feed our bodies, there are good reasons to think about questions of dosage and long-term effects. But historically, there is nothing inherently disruptive about binge viewing or social media. These developments are evidently attuned to the current techno-state of our physical existence.

So when we think about audience-text-hookups, I find evolutionary accounts more convincing than revolutionary ones. The self-understanding of serial audiences really coevolves with the affordances of serial media.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).