Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Epic, Serial, Episode: The Sopranos and the Return Voyage of Television

Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Epic, Serial, Episode: The Sopranos and the Return Voyage of Television

Article excerpt

My aim in this essay is to extend an argument, published a few years ago, that called for a continuing investigation of what we might call the deep history of seriality. In that earlier piece, I claimed that serial storytelling, and especially serial television, should be seen as congruent with the structures and practices of poetry (O'Sullivan, "Broken on Purpose"). My claim borrowed from Brian McHale's proposal, via the work of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, that "segmentivity" operates as the defining feature of poetry-as "narrativity" operates as the defining feature of narrative, and "performativity" operates as the defining feature of performance. Segmentivity, "the ability to articulate and make meaning by selecting, deploying, and combining segments" (McHale 14), inheres throughout poetic form, from feet to lines to stanzas, relying on "spacing" and the "negotiation of gap" to create prosodic shapes. This model corresponds directly, I argued, with the practices of serial storytelling, and specifically serial television, where units such as the shot, the "beat" (television parlance for scene), the storyline, the episode, and even the season serve as segmented units of construction, playing off each other in distinct ways. The built-in dialogue between meter and rhythm-between a posited structure that the artwork obeys and the actual enactment of the material of that artwork-obtains in both poetry and serial narratives, with principles of "countermeasure" (McHale 17) playing off one level or scale against another; the TV showrunner David Milch has phrased this as the tension between the "spin" and "drive" of serial storytelling (HBO, Deadwood). These correspondences result in poetic devices such as anaphora and caesura functioning televisually in terms of repetition at the beginnings of episodes, and in interruptions at the level of episode or season. On a structural level, I suggested that the innovation of the thirteen-episode season aired without interruption over thirteen weeks-a form hrst deployed when The Sopranos debuted on HBO in 1999-might be compared to the sonnet, as a recognizable but flexible shape that allows simultaneously for expectations of norms but also disruptions of those norms, much as Robert Frost toyed with established rules of the sonnet form. That thirteen-episode shape became the default mode for many subsequent series, including more recently in shows made for Netflix, which imitate that prosodic shape, originally produced for a three-month calendar of weekly appearances, at the service of the very different distribution model of the instantaneous "drop" of an entire season.

I propose here to introduce another verse inheritance into conversation with the "sonnet-season," an inheritance that brings into focus, along with the lyric mode implied by that analogy, the category of poetic narrative that might seem more congenial to serial storytelling: epic. Serial television, especially in its newest incarnations, inhabits all three of the traditional genres of poetry simultaneously: the lyric (as I have argued in connection with the sonnet), the dramatic (in that it is performed by actors), and epic (in its scope and emphasis on narrative). Epic might seem the most natural fit of these, given the category's emphasis, among other things, on storytelling sprawl and a wide range of characters. But this essay aims to go beyond a loose association between the gigantisms of epic poetry and serial television. Rather, I will suggest that one epic text in particular serves as the breeding ground of many of the practices and elements that have come to be associated with serial storytelling: The Odyssey. By significant contrast with The Iliad-its predecessor in terms of storyworld events, whether or not it was composed earlier-The Odyssey foregrounds such issues as the tension between the episodic and the continuous, the intimate and the vast, the familiar and the strange, and the propulsive and the recycled that would become the hallmarks, millennia later, of narratives distributed by installments. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.