The idea of “satisfaction” privileges narratives that seek to fulfill a promise of wholeness or containment. Such an idea runs counter to the gapped, partial, and suspended work of serial narrative. This essay considers the perils of satisfaction as a goal or byproduct of seriality, examining how serials in practice—from Middlemarch and Great Expectations to Lost and Mad Men—theorize and complicate our sense of resolved conclusion, and how they articulate the ungovernable excess of energy and possibility that serials, at their most narratively engaged, inevitably generate.
While the psychoanalytic concept of transference is often the analytic crux of the interactions of the consulting-room, its structure also illuminates what transpires for readers and viewers of serial narratives. In Scenes of Clerical Life, Middlemarch, and In Treatment, the serial form prompts the back-and-forthness of transference and countertransference, much like our own fluctuating engagements between world and fiction. Ultimately this essay argues that the power of Victorian realism lies in its capacity to generate transference.
Friday Night Lights, the 2006-2011 television series about a Texas high school football team, owes a debt to readers of Victorian fictions of everyday life and provincial fiction. Habituated to the quotidian, readers of Victorian fictions of provincial life are arguably the best equipped for understanding the critically-acclaimed television series, for in it, like the fiction that precedes it, hardly anything of moment happens. Plot and telos are hardly the point; the series locates its energies in the stuff of everyday life rather than in the logic of suspense. Recent work on the provincial novel helps us understand the politics of FNL in a way that goes beyond its own explicit themes of race, class mobility, and education. That both the Democratic and Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency in 2012 used the fictional team’s mantra—“Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose”—suggests the extent to which the ideas of the show tapped into a politics about nation. Paradoxically, the show’s deliberately provincial scope allowed it symbolically to unify the nation.
“Dickensian” has become a buzzword in recent TV criticism not only because the term connotes a large character ensemble, but also because it connotes a diffuse ensemble. In TV series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, many characters live and work so far apart from each other—whether in different neighborhoods of a city or different regions of the globe—that they fail to recognize how their actions affect each other. Through its wide spatial scope, this type of macroscopic “stranger narrative” explores a type of ethical confusion that is a byproduct of globalization. Namely, these narratives reveal to readers or viewers how they might be connected to and responsible for people they don’t even know.
Critics have often assumed that realism betrays its dedication to ordinary reality when it takes on lots of narrative and political excitement, but this article argues that realism works best when it combines humdrum routine with narrative shock. Levine claims that the nineteenth-century novel invented a paradoxical realist technique that has been adopted by contemporary serial television, which she calls “the shock of the banal.” Representing daily routines in ways that render them unfamiliar, funny, or strange, realist fictions strive to make ordinary experience feel extraordinary. This essay explores the formal, historical, and political implications of “the shock of the banal” in Adam Bede, Bleak House, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and their echoes in The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire.
The contemporary success of serial television as a dominant long-form narrative artwork presents both perils and possibilities for critics interested in analogous forms in previous eras. TV dramas that viewers can follow from season to season generate a sustained, often years-long, engagement between viewer and depicted world, a very different relationship between viewer and artwork from that which governed viewer relations to pre-TV Hollywood film—or indeed to the Victorian novel, even when serialized. Broad issues of contingency and intention, as well as more nuanced questions of ensemble participation and commercial broadcasting logic separate serial TV from the long-form narratives of the nineteenth century. In offering up parallels between how serialization worked in long-form narrative arts of previous eras and how serial television works now we risk overlooking how those structural differences shape the meaning of any particular work.
It has become a truism that contemporary multi-season TV dramas are inheritors of the methods and aims of Victorian serial fiction, or, as the New York Times editorial page put it in 2006, that if “Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it.” While not absolutely denying the validity of such assertions, this essay reconsiders them. Sergei Eisenstein’s 1949 essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today," now a locus classicus for thinking about the links between nineteenth-century fiction and twentieth- and twenty-first-century cinematic media, first formulated a model that has remained influential for considering Victorian fiction, and especially Dickens’s novels, as offering a “pedigree” and parentage for filmic media. But through a reading of several test cases of contemporary neo-Victorian adaptation, broadly construed—including Dickensian references in The Wire, South Park’s animated Great Expectations adaptation episode, and references to George Eliot in Kazuo Ishiguru’s novel Never Let Me Go—this essay questions and complicates Eisenstein’s paradigm of the Victorian novel as parent to contemporary media.