Saturday 1 February 2014

TV – V (2009-11): Series and Serials

This is my second look at V, since I've now finished both seasons. Before getting into the review, recent TV SF programmes have made me ponder the way in which these are constructed and in particular the difference between series and serials. This is largely ignored these days, when every episodic programme is referred to as a "series" (and divided into "seasons" rather than "series"), but there is a distinction that is worth bearing in mind. A series consists of self-contained episodes with a common background and characters but with a complete story in each episode, so they can be watched in any order. A serial is one continuing story which is chopped up into short segments to fit the needs of TV programming, so it is essential to watch them all, in the right order; if you try to start half-way through you won't have a clue what's going on.

In practice, most series tend to have elements of serials within them: those like Star Trek or the X-Files usually have some minor continuing plot threads running through them (developing relationships between characters, for example). Some series occasionally incorporate stories that take more than one episode to complete, so in effect they have mini-serials within them. Others have a roughly equal mix between the two, in that each episode contains a mini-story but the continuing plot threads are equally important (from what I can recall, Farscape was like that). Finally, a few programmes evolve over time: Fringe, for example, started as an X-Files type series but continuing plot threads which were of minor importance at the start gradually came to dominate, so that by the final season it had effectively morphed into a serial.

I find that serials are generally more satisfying than series – like enjoying a well-planned multi-course meal rather than lots of separate snacks – but I imagine they are more of a risk for the TV companies. The problem is, the viewing figures at the launch are probably as good as they're going to get; new viewers are less likely to join later because if they've missed the start, they won't understand what's going on, so the viewing numbers are only likely to decline through the duration of the programme. Series don't have this problem so if the initial episodes are well-received they can gather an audience over time. I suspect that this makes long-running serials more vulnerable to being closed down than series.

I should add that serials are also more of a risk for viewers, who may become hooked on the story only to find the programme is cancelled before reaching a conclusion. This is more of a problem in the USA than the UK, simply because planned programme runs are generally much longer. In the UK, serials usually consist of only a few episodes that are all made together, and are shown as one continuous "season". One exception was the BBC SF serial Outcasts (reviewed on this blog three years ago), which ran for one season of eight episodes and finished on a multiple cliff-hanger, only to have the planned second season cancelled due to poor viewing figures. In that particular case I can't really argue because the show was riddled with flaws and plot inconsistencies, but I found it strangely fascinating and was sorry it was cut off.

Which brings me back to V, another serial that was closed down earlier than planned, after 22 episodes. In this case it seems unjust, because it is right up there with the best TV SF I've seen. It's got everything: alien invasion with vast starships hovering overhead; strong characters, very well played, who develop throughout the story (the scene-stealer throughout being the manipulative and deceitful alien leader, an amazing performance by Morena Baccarin); a great plot which is thought-provoking, tense and dramatic, with a lot of uncertainty about who the good guys and the bad guys are (or those changing from one to the other); and twist after plot twist keeping viewers on edge of their seats.  It's also aimed at adults, which means there's an intelligent script containing some severe moral dilemmas, the setbacks for the heroes at least match the triumphs, and the good guys are not invulnerable, or always right, or always virtuous. It just kept getting better as it went along and deserved to be highly successful, but the initial viewing figures had dropped by half at the end – possibly because the good guys were having such a rough time that it certainly doesn't qualify as comfort viewing.

Ironically the final episode does indeed achieve a dramatically satisfactory ending, just not what viewers would expect. Had the serial been planned to end in that way it would have made TV SF history for the originality and audacity of its conclusion; so it's still very much worth watching, even in its curtailed form.

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