TV series

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - TV series



Histo-geographical placement

From the nineteen nineties, most in USA.

Type of story

Television Series.

Parent Theories

The study of TV series consists in examining to which extent existing narrative theories such as Aristotle's dramatic arc or Genette's discourse/story distinction apply to TV series, or on the contrary if these theories should be extended to accomodate the specificity of the episodic format.

Child Theories


Brief Description

While the genre of TV series, and some of its sub-genres such as soap operas, are historically under-rated, it is now agreed among theoricians that TV series are the locus of many narrative innovations that seem to challenge existing narrative theories and thus deserve much attention (Bowles, 2000). Many studies exist regarding the social aspect of TV series, but much less has been studied concerning their narrative aspect (Mittel, 2006). From a narrative point of view, the main characteristic of TV series is their episodic nature. Instead of being watched in one single session as a film, TV series are split into a series of fixed length episodes, usually about one hour. This single characteristic has several consequences, that we will overview below.

Differences and repetitions

TV series do not have only one way for organising the narrative accross a series of episodes. In terms of discourse/story distinction, there is limited anachrony in TV series. The succession of narrative events presented to the viewer roughly correspond to events that occur in the same order in the story. However, what changes is how various narrative arcs are distributed within the whole narrative. Formally, four cases can be distinguished

  • A new arc is started and finished within a single episode, and this episode only contains this arc. This is the case of the proper series (in contrast with serials, see below), procedural dramas, or in short procedurals. The typical case is the crime drama, where investigators face a new case for each episode. All episodes have the same "crew" of recurring characters, often in the same setting. New characters are introduced that are specific for a given episode. The same narrative structure is repeated, often in a formulaic way, for each episode. In the extreme case, there are no common characters shared between episodes, as in The Outer Limits. In other cases, only one main character remains (Columbo), while in other series use a cast of several recurring characters.
  • Several arcs start and finish across the whole series. An arc can start in episode 1 and finish in episode 4, while another arc started in episode 2 and finishes in episode 7, etc. This is the typical case of soap operas. Soap operas have this distinctive feature that the story never ends (Bowler, 2000). Because new storylines start over and over while old ones finally resolve, the viewer is engaged in a continuous story that is perceived to go on forever. Soap operas do not have narrative closure.
  • A large arc is combined with local arc. More recent TV series (Alias, Veronica Mars, 24) combine arcs that are confined within an episode with a large arc that find its resolution in the last episode. The local and global arcs are naturally interwoven, leading to a subtle mix of the pleasure of the local narrative closure and the global slowly progressing narrative (Mittel, 2006).
  • Finally, a few TV series only contain a large narrative arc. A large story is simply split into a succession of episodes, which take most of their value from their insertion within the whole series. This if the case for example of the 1972's Le Avventure di Pinocchio, from L. Comencini.

Importantly, there are no clear boundaries between the forms exposed above. Typically, procedural crime series' from the 1990's incorporate, to a variable degree, larger storylines, usually the storyline of the cops' personal life (Hill Street Blues, Without a Trace, The Shield). From the purely repetitive forms of the 1960's series (The Avengers) to multi-plot modern series (Lost), there exists a large room for variation that TV series are constantly exploring.


Surprisingly, although TV series are a quite popular genre, they now offer a considerably high level of narrative complexity, that J. Mittel considers as a "distinct narrational mode" (Mittel, 2006). This complexity is firstly made possible by the total length of a TV series (a season) compared to a film. This complexity is first measured by the number of story lines co-existing in a single episode. In The Shield for example, one episode typically contains one or more police cases, several inter-cop plots, a global political plot and one or more familial plots. Some TV series even start with four or more plotlines, which develop and bounce until the end of the episode (Mittel, 2006). Complexity is also visible in the character development. Across 20 hours of drama, characters can not only be rich and multifaceted but they also can also slowly and finely evolve. For example, in ER, the young inexperienced Carter becomes a leader in the hospital. Other forms of complexity are experienced by particular TV series, such as the extensive use of flashback (Lost), real-time 24 hour story (24), multiple identities (Alias). Narrative complexity is certainly not the privilege of TV series but what is typical to modern TV series is that they carry this complexity almost systematically while remaining a popular medium. These shows do sometimes require certain competencies to be decoded by popular viewers. But the viewers actively engage in such activities (Mittel, 2006), especially when they use other media, typically Internet, to gain help.

Formal awareness

The consequence of the always more complex storylines is that viewers engage in the reflective activity of observing how the narrative is constructed (Mittel, 2006). A few series even adopt a formal narrative concept as their main theme, which is readable in the title itself (24, FlashForward, Daybreak). Interestingly, viewers experience both the immersive pleasure of following the actions of rich characters and the formal satisfaction of seing how several plots combine, how suspense is maintained, how characters are crafted, etc. They experience both F-emotions (fiction) and A-emotions (artifact), to follow Ed Tan's terminology (Tan, 2006). This kind of pleasure also grows because of the pervasive nature of TV series (see below), since viewers can discuss the show between episodes, in face to face or Internet forums.

Aesthetics of Interruption

If the dramatic arc crosses the episodes' boundaries, the narrative is necessarily interrupted. This interruption is part of the writing of the TV series and follows some rules specific to each show. A classical way to interrupt is the cliffhanger, which consists in interrupting the narrative at the point of maximum suspense. Another usual device is the "recap", that sums up the previous episodes ("previously on 24"). Another form of interruption, particularly salient in the US, is the commercial break (Kozloff, 1992). Shows written for North American TV include this constraint right at the beginning of the scenario construction, so that the cut from and to the commercial remains smooth. Sarah Kozloff introduces the notion of schedule time, which extends the concepts of story time and discourse time in the discourse/story distinction made by Genette (Kozloff, 1992). The schedule time is the time when the show is scheduled. Not only the frequency of episodes but also what appears during the interruptions: breaks, announcements of the next episodes, etc. Schedule time is nothing but the time associated to the third level of narrative introduced by G. Genette, namely the narration level. But Genette had not discussed the time at this level, or how it could be a narrative device as well. Noteworthy, when discourse time and schedule time dissociate, the schedule time is not fully in the hands of the author. In books, it depends on how the reader organizes his reading sessions. For TV series, it depends on the television broadcaster, which incorporates a supernarrator, personified by various means (logos, voice-over narrator, etc.) (Kozloff, 1992).


Between two epidoses, there is not only other TV broadcasting but also life itself. This has several consequences.

  • First, between two episodes, the viewer thinks of the previous episode and anticipates the next one (in the case of serials), and this process is repeated each week. This creates a great attachment to characters and their stories, as humouristically illustrated in the Nanni Moretti's movie Caro Diario (Dear Diary), where an Italian intellectual, on the remote island of Stromboli, asks American tourists across the valley about the future for characters from a soap, since the corresponding episodes have not yet been broadcast in Italy.
  • Second, this interest is shared between viewers, in particular via another medium, the Internet. Through the development of what is coined "fan culture", viewers of TV series can share their views, understanding, interpretations about a given show. This phenomenon also supports the narrative complexity and formal awareness discussed above.
  • Third, actors of the show have their lives too, which interfere with the show. When a main character dies in the narrative, it is often interpreted as "the actor decided to quit the show". When a character gets pregnant, it is because the actor got pregnant, and the viewer can check this in the people press (for the first broadcast). In some cases, this interplay is voluntary reinforced, when private lives of actors are "staged and strategized" to maximize the impact of the show (Bowles, 2000).
  • Fourth, because the episodes of a series are often shot continuously, while previous episodes are broadcasted, they are able to incorporate recent real events that happen during the series. For example, a few months after 9/11, TV series were incorporating this major event into their stories.
  • Fifth, some series offer interesting "reality effects" for certain episodes. For example, in Ally McBeal, characters are fan of the singer Barry White, whose songs are often heard during the show. In one episode, Barry White appears as himself in the bar where the characters usually meet, and sings. Another case is the crossover: a plot initiated in one series find its resolution in another series! This rare case is confusing and forces one to think in terms of "how did they do that?". This illustrates how the boundaries of the fictional world are more permeable in TV series than in other media (Kozloff, 1992).


Finally, the narratives developed by TV series tend to emphasize the interrelation between characters, rather than the plot itself. Many TV series evolve around families, groups of friends, neighborhoods, professional teams (hospital, police station, law firm). Historically, this can be explained, for soaps at least, by the fact that women were the main target audience, and women prefer these kind of shows (Bowles, 2000). But it is certainly the extreme length of the whole narrative that makes it more suitable to character-centered drama. In classical drama, every detail has its role, its meaning in the whole story. In a 20 hour drama, there is little chance that the viewer remembers the details that happened 10 hours before in discourse time and much more in schedule time. But building rich characters is efficiently obtained in TV series by small steps, in an impressionist way, by confronting the characters to a multitude of situations.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

The features of TV series discussed above are remarkably related to Interactive Storytelling and more generally digital narrative.

Differences and repetitions in IS

Certainly because the IS medium is young, current prototypes have not followed so far an episodic format. But the concept of replayability is quite related. Several IS designers claim that their work are interesting because the player does not play once but is rather encouraged to play again and again to discover and provoke story variations. However, beyond this encouragement, each episode is independent and the global narrative experience is not taken into account (Mitchell and Gee, 2011). The way TV series manage the episodes would suggest that the whole narrative experience of playing a story several times should be taken into consideration, not only in the writing of the scenario, but also in the dynamic management of story events. More precisely, what happens in one session should be taken into account by the algorithms generating events that happens in the following ones. The study of TV series could enrich the so far limited research undertaken on replayability in IS (Mitchell and Gee, 2010; 2011).

Complexity and IS

IS is both complex and simple. It is complex because events are generated by complex algorithms according to complex abstract data structures written by the author. It is simple because underlying narrative models are simple, these models themselves being often inspired by simple (or apparently simple) stories: myths, folktales, etc. With modern audience accustomed to the complexity of TV series, two evolution of IS can be considered:

  • Using more complex story models. This claim might seem vain, since it is already so challenging to implement simple models of narrative. However, by focusing on simple narrative models, the algorithms must reproduce interesting narrative experience with a limited material. More complex models might at the end makes it easier to provide an interesting narrative experience. For example, using multiple plots as in TV series should not only increase the player's possibilities of actions but also increase acceptance of plots that would not be perfectly build.
  • Showing the complexity of algorithms: see below.

Formal awareness

Inspired by feature films and games, IS tended to hide the underlying algorithms and underlying models. On the contrary, other forms of digital narrative such as electronic literature have tended to exhibit the underlying mechanisms. In (Bouchardon, 2009), it is shown, from the analysis of an electronic literature corpus, that many reflexive figures occur in interactive narrative. For example, the piece exhibits how it works, or how it has been made, etc. Traditionally, the former genres, hiding the underlying mechanisms tend to belong to the popular culture, while the later genres, showing these mechanisms tend to belong high culture. TV series blurs these lines and suggests that IS prototypes should depart from the cinematographic and immersive model by showing more the process. More precisely, it suggests to:

  • Before the player starts the story, inform him/her about the nature of the system, the underlying algorithms, etc. This has been experimented in (Thue, et al., 2009).
  • During the experience, exhibit some elements of the algorithms. For example, in a highly interactive system, informing the player of the number of different possible actions might be an option to consider.

Pervasiveness in IS

Pervasiveness in TV series is based on expectations happening between the viewing sessions. In IS, these expectations could be complemented by intentions of actions. Whatever the format of the IS (story replayed, endless story), between sessions the player can reflect on the previous sessions and imagine what could happen if he or she is performing some actions. This is similar to the central idea of IS (influencing the story) but at a higher level of the multi-session user experience.

Character-centered IS

For various reasons, IS systems have been often centered around characters, either in the scenarios or in the algorithms. But contrary to TV series, IS works are short and do not allow a great development of characters. Only when gaining maturity will IS be able to depict rich characters through a long and recurrent exposure to the IS narrative.

Systems/Tools using this theory

  • Gadin is certainly the IS system that most explicitely borrows from the concept of TV series. It implements a never-ending plot, based on the analysis of soap operas.
  • SOAP is also inspired by the soap operas, not in the sense that it avoids closure but because it is based on the social interaction of characters.
  • Other systems implement stories that explore the social relationships between characters, as in soap operas: I-Storytelling with the Friends story, IDtension with The Mutiny story.




  • Bowles, K. (2000). Soap opera: 'No end of story, ever'. In G. Turner and S. Cunningham (Eds.), The Australian TV Book (pp 117-129). St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  • Kozloff, S. (1992). Narrative Theory and Television. In R.C. Allen (Ed.) Channels of Discourse, Reassembled (pp. 61–100). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
  • Mitchell, A., McGee, K. (2010). Motivations for rereading in interactive stories: a preliminary investigation. The Third Joint Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling - ICIDS 2010 (pp. 37-42). Springer-Verlag.
  • Mitchell, A., McGee, K. (2011). Rereading in Interactive Stories: Constraints on Agency and Procedural Variation. The Fourth International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling - ICIDS 2011 (pp. 232-235). Springer-Verlag.
  • Mittell, J. (2006). Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. The Velvet Light Trap, 58, 29-40.
  • Tan, E.S. (1996). Emotion and the structure of narrative film. Film as an emotion machine. Mahwah (NJ): Erlbaum.
  • Thue, D., Bulitko, V., Spetch, M., Webb, M (2009). Exaggerated Claims for Interactive Stories. The Second Joint International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling - ICIDS 2009 (pp. 179-184). Springer-Verlag.