08 November 2014

Where Serials End Up

Someone else considering the workings of serial fiction this week was Linda Holmes, writing for NPR on the public-radio-related podcast Serial, reinvestigating a murder.

Holmes notes how many listeners are trying to view the podcast through the lens of the recent limited television series True Detective, Fargo, and Lost. In other words, they’re asking for a clear conclusion even if (as in two of those examples) it ends up disappointing a lot of the audience.

Holmes writes:

What’s good about this wrinkle, and what seems healthy about it, is that it raises the question of what stories are for. Must there be a lesson or a moral? Must we sense a particular idea about life at the end, and can it be futility? If you raise a question, do you have to answer it? In real life, of course, Chekhov’s gun need not come to anything in the third act just because it was shown in the first. If this makes a good true story but would not make a good piece of dramatic fiction, why is that?

Assuming people do find the [Serial] ending satisfying despite what almost must be its messiness, is it possible that a piece of serial crime reporting with no conclusion will point to the idea that we've perhaps become overly obsessed in judging an entire piece of storytelling on whether we get the perfectly symmetrical, flawless, balanced, wry, doubt-drowning ending we deserve?
I find it telling that Holmes’s essay doesn’t mention what until recently was the necessary name-drop in any article on quality television: The Sopranos. That show famously ended without resolution, just a sudden black screen. And people were pissed. So it fits right into Holmes’s thesis.

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