Serial Thriller

I have been greatly enjoying, as I wrote last week, the television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This has gotten me thinking about the pleasure of serial forms of art–namely what we find in literature and television. Many great works by canonical authors were serialized in newspapers, such as those by Dickens or Tolstoy. A neuroscientist or psychologist could explain the psycho-physiological processes in the brain, but I’d like to take a literary stab at explaining why we like episodic entertainment. Why is this such an important, time-tested way of engaging with an audience? 

-A premise that hooks us in. There is something that grabs the reader from the get-go. The stakes are high, there is something about the situation that makes us want to know more.

-Investment in the characters. How else do we get into a story if not through the characters? Is the character an underdog or victim? Hero(ine)? Or is it an ensemble cast, perhaps a family that has some sort of a crisis? We need to feel allied with these persons immediately, or at least one, so that it is enough for us to want to follow her/his/their journey(s).

-An intriguing plot. This is very crucial. How does the writer unfold the story neatly, little by little, with expert pacing? How does each episode or chapter or section deliver just the right amount of drama at the right time? It takes extreme skill as a writer to know exactly how much to give the reader or viewer, the right “dose,” so to speak.

-An engaging story. This is closely tied to the premise, but even if the premise is strong, if the story doesn’t deliver and hook us in, we will lose interest.

-Knowing when to cut us off. I almost feel that the writer has to take us up to the top of a mountain to the point where we could fall over the cliff, and then to stop that particular episode or chapter. That way, we are completely hooked and the greatest amount of dramatic tension is generated.

-Multiple plot lines, most often. We are reading character A’s journey toward getting married, but also about character B’s illness and impending death. Alternating A’s and B’s plot lines keeps us very intrigued, so that way when the episode drops off with A, the writer picks up with B.

-Playing with our anticipation and expectations. We are waiting for next week’s installment, wondering if Mr. X will be sentenced to jail or if Mrs. Y will get the opportunity she has been longing for. The wait gives us a chance to reflect on the various possible outcomes, and when we get the next installment, we might be completely surprised as to what happens.

What could we criticize about this kind of art? Well, one could easily say it is formulaic, and that would be very true. Make sure the right amount of dramatic tension happens in each part of the series, a classic Freytag’s Triangle. Some might argue that it is teasing the reader or viewer, and perhaps even a weakness on the writer’s part, not being able to continue with the story or plot line, but having to break it up. It also relies on very traditional narrative forms, and so metafiction or non-traditional narratives would not work well. Finally, each segment or episode has to fit a particular length or time limit, and this might not always be useful. Sometimes a particular scene has to be drawn out to give it more emotional weight. So this serial/episodic manner of telling a story relies heavily on structure. 

There is room for both, the traditional and nontraditional narratives. We like both for different reasons. In the modern world, we see serialization globally, be it in telenovelas, Hindu myths made into TV series, or dramas on Netflix. Traditional narratives and serials give us a deep-rooted sense of familiarity, the artistic equivalent of comfort food, be it macaroni and cheese, rice and lentils, or kimchi jjigae.

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!