In recent years TV series have undergone an unprecedented evolution, not just in terms of creativity but also thanks to the explosion of its production and dissemination.
Back with an annual treat, BOZAR is reviewing the TV landscape with its Are You Series? festival which will take place between the 14th and the of 19th December. In the meantime, here’s a small historical reminder of what we’re talking about.
TV series have become a real social phenomenon. We’ve lost count of the number of new series which appear on our screens every season. There’s a huge variety from light and burlesque to serious, realistic or romantic. With a daily or weekly update, they keep us on tenterhooks between episodes.
Although series have existed since the creation of the television, or almost, they have evolved with society and in this respect act as an invaluable resource because, by reflecting society, they are full of information and details on a given period of recent history. Of course, this social reflection is more of a showcase in the sense that we are presented with society through the intermediary of fiction. However, it is precisely because it is fictitious that it often enables people to better grasp a context through the plausibility of a narrative. It brings together realistic elements and distils them down to represent the essence of our everyday experiences.
We could say that it’s the same for all artistic productions (theatre, cinema, opera, etc.). However, series stand out from other media on at least three levels. On the one hand, they represent a fixed ‘meeting’, making a routine in the viewer’s domestic space and time. On the other, they are conceived, calibrated, filmed and broadcast for this domesticity and are based on a commercial logic that independently ensures (or not, depending on the audience) their viability (unlike public entertainment venues which rely on a collective aesthetic experience which is connected to the viability of the infrastructure). The result is a unique medium, potentially made to be recorded in time, which can leave its mark on the spectator to varying degrees.
The United States, France and the United Kingdom have long been the major producers of series. This continues today even though the market has become a lot more competitive. They have very different production structures: French (public) TV has long lagged behind in terms of series, whereas the American channels that produce them are essentially private. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has a mixed system: the predominance of the BBC (public TV) is challenged by private channels, resulting in a situation that is very similar to that of present day France.
Did you say series?
Series touch on all the genres and all different kinds of narratives: drama, comedy, adventure, science fiction, hospital, spy, detective, the diversity is infinite and genres are as nuanced as the human experience. Their length can vary between 20 and 95 minutes (the current standard is generally around 20-25 or 40-44, or even 52 minutes, not including commercial breaks).
There are several kinds of series:
- Anthologies, yes, you know what we’re talking about! Series with different stories that are introduced by a presenter, like the cult The Twilight Zone and Alfred. Hitchcock presents.
- The classic series, where the common theme which links the different stories is a recurring central character (or several), Columbo or The Untouchables, for example.
- Sagas, like Dallas, in which stories develop from episode to episode.
- The series-cum-soap opera, which combines short stories, which are completed at the end of the episode, with stories which carry on over one or several seasons, like Battlestar Galactica (an example of the space opera genre).
- The sitcom, a situation comedy, is generally 20-25 minutes long and filmed in fixed locations. They use canned laughter and involve recurring characters (examples include Seinfeld and Friends).
- The soap opera is a marathon series, of a sentimental nature, bringing together recurring characters linked by strong relations (e.g. family or sentimental ties), like Days of Our Lives (more than 13,000 episodes!) or, in its high end version, Dallas or Dynasty.
Short history of TV series
The history of TV series really began in 1950s America, a time when a huge number of American households were acquiring a television. It was the era of big series which have today become cult, such as I Love Lucy, a sitcom which tells the tale of the wife of a conductor who wants to leave her chores behind her to do music-hall, with the emancipation of women through work as a theme. Another successful series from the era is Alfred Hitchcock presents, an anthology of thrillers in which each episode is preceded by an introduction from the master of suspense. Many future big names (such as Telly Savalas, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Yul Brynner) started out in these anthologies. Westerns such as Wanted: Dead or Alive, Bonanza, or in a slightly different genre, Zorro, were also a real treat for spectators.
In France, the RTF, founded in 1949 and renamed the ORTF in 1964, primarily produced historical series such as Thierry la Fronde, Rocambole (13 minute episodes), La caméra explore le temps and Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge.
France is also a country which has produced adventure series such as Les chevaliers du ciel, Michel Strogoff and Corsaires et Flibustiers, dramas such as Belle et Sébastien, L'âge heureux followed by L’âge en fleur, Paul et Virginie and Le jeune Fabre, and, above all, crime series which continued well into the 1980s, such as Les Cinq Dernières Minutes, Les Enquêtes du commissaire Maigret, followed a bit later on by Les Brigades du Tigre, or more recently Commissaire Moulin.
As for the United Kingdom, initially it was dominated by public television, in the form of the BBC, before the emergence of private and local networks (such as ITV, Granada, etc.) in the 1950s. This competition resulted in creative rivalry and apart from historical series or science-fiction, Doctor Who for example, Great Britain produced two monuments of the spy series genre: The Avengers (the first episodes of which were filmed and broadcast live) and The Prisoner, which blurred the boundaries between spy series, societal evolution, burlesque and the absurd which, just like in British cinema, questioned society’s values.
A recipe which combines genres that can also be found on the other side of the Atlantic, in The Wild Wild West, for example, which combines western, adventure, fantasy and satire.
In the United States the 1960s and 70s were dominated by periods of conflict, the Cold War was reflected in the scripting of new spy series such as Mission: Impossible or The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The Vietnam War raged and generated peaceful reactions throughout the United States. The series M*A*S*H ridiculed American involvement in a conflict that disheartened an entire generation of young people. A little later, there was a similar idea in Baa Baa Black Sheep, this time dedicated to American fighter pilots facing the Japanese in the South Pacific during the Second World War (with Robert Conrad, the main character in The Wild Wild West, who also went on to guest star in Columbo, like other actors from the small screen such as Patrick McGoohan).
It was also the era of the space race; the public was fascinated above all by NASA's ambitious programme and the success of the moon landing. In this period there were series such as The Invaders and Star Trek, which don’t just use special effects but which, through the medium of extra-terrestrial civilisations and the adventures of the crew, deliver messages relating to society, such as tolerance and the refusal to accept racism. More generically, transformations of society were explored in legal series like The Accused, in which progressive lawyers defend causes and denounce social injustices and conservative attitudes. The turmoil involving the fight for civil rights shook up American society and this was reflected in television with more diverse casts. The trend continued into the 1970s with series such as Roots, which tells the story of an Afro-American family from the family forefather’s capture and transportation to the horrors of slavery. With Affirmative Action and Cultural Studies, television series became a medium for the emancipation of women, minorities and sexual identities. What's more, the conventional image of the woman evolved thanks to series such as Charlie’s Angels - a crime series tinged with humour and irony - which did away with stereotypes. Series based around superheroes like The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman also emerged, they showed research and technological evolution in a good light, always with an element of espionage.
The same trend can be seen in the United Kingdom with The Saint, The Persuaders, Man in a Suitcase, Department S, or mixed with science-fiction in The Champions. The BBC continued to produce high quality historical series which earned it an excellent reputation, they were reminiscent of filmed theatre, like the unequalled I, Claudius. There was a similar trend in France with, for example, Les Rois Maudits.
The 1980s saw a revision of classical forms of narration and series as they corresponded to a new flexibility in TV watching thanks to the technological developments such as video recording and later DVDs. More channels meant increasing competition, a more international approach to programmes and a bigger range of shows on offer. In other words, the focus was on surprising viewers and building up loyal audiences in a more competitive world. These were the Reagan and Thatcher years with money and power as a backdrop. TV series such as Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, The Colbys, Falcon Crest and Santa Barbara arrived on the small screen, with their multitude of characters and plots, a profusion that was dealt with humorously in sitcoms such as Friends and How I Met Your Mother, a decade later.
In the United Kingdom, two major trends emerged. On the one hand, the production of crime series based on British literature, from Sherlock Holmes to Poirot, extending to the present day with Inspector Morse and Inspector Barnaby. On the other hand we saw the emergence of sitcoms and soap operas such as Me and My Girl and EastEnders.
In France, the 1990s were marked by the arrival of numerous sitcoms produced by AB and aimed at adolescents. Crime series such as Julie Lescaut, or recurring social chronicles like Louis La Brocante, are also started to establish themselves. Summer sagas - epic series inspired by crime, rural or family themes - were also on the up. The influence of the United States was increasingly felt as numerous modern series lost their French idiosyncrasy and mimicked American series: Profilage and Sections de recherche, for example. Finally let’s not forget that with Plus belle la vie France found a soap opera which, unlike the above-mentioned series, had a very "French" tone, distinct from that of the United States.
Following the era of great fictional dramas, the 1990s heralded a double movement in the USA. The first was founded on the deconstruction of classical narratological formulae and the advent of the “politically incorrect”. With on the one hand, the screening of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the story became totally unbridled and freed from its “didactic” corset, denouncing the failings of society. On the other hand, The Simpsons introduced an irreverence that is specific to the small screen and looks like it's here to stay.
These two series laid the foundations for a veritable creative explosion in series, which would take ten years to really mature. Another revolution was taking place, one that was marked by a return to realism. It was at this point that the cult series Law and Order appeared on our screens, it continued for 20 seasons and generated several spin-offs: each episode involving a police enquiry which delved into American society, followed by the trial of the accused.
More than ever before, the series served as a mirror as it reflected the discussions and problems of an ethical, cultural, social, medical, corporate or political nature which preoccupied Americans. There was the same concern for realism (“dramatised” to different extents) in other genres like medical series, with Emergency Room, or political series, like The West Wing – the best in the genre – which led to other works in the same style. The arrival of Martin Sheen, who regularly played the American president Josiah Bartlet, was a significant turning point that showed the new power of the TV series, as up until this point it was almost unimaginable that a popular actor from American cinema would agree to act in a TV series. Since the end of the 1990s, it has become commonplace.
The 1990s also saw the emergence of an enduring youth culture in American series, from Beverly Hills 90210 to Pretty Little Liars, in which adolescents take centre stage.
With this second revolution came a less restrictive atmosphere with a radically new tone, like in Sex and the City, which saw itself as a "romanticised" reflection of the reality of urban life. A preoccupation with realism, which could go as far as the crudeness of intimate human relations, like in the poignant Tell Me You Love Me, probably the series which has gone as far as it is possible to go in this domain.
Same introspective tone but more cerebral with In Treatment, in which Gabriel Byrne plays a psychiatrist receiving his patients in his practice.
Science-fiction series were always well represented with Stargate SG-1, Andromeda, X-Files, Earth Final Conflict and the exceptional remake of Battlestar Galactica, mentioned earlier.
The focus on realism is here to stay, to such an extent that numerous series have real public officials appearing as guest stars: Giuliani or Bloomberg, former mayors of New York, Barack Obama, former American president, or stranger still, authentic American chiefs of the general staff as themselves.
With the 2000s a period of transgression began, inherited from the spirit of freedom that had arrived ten years earlier with The Simpsons, and that could to a certain extent already be found in Ally McBeal and Sex and the City, aiming to do away with sexual taboos in series like The L Word or Nip/Tuck, or moral taboos in the series Weeds and Big Love. Crime series, very different from Starsky and Hutch or Kojak, which were the perfect examples of the classic series, turned towards scientific teams like Without a Trace, The Experts, Bones or NCIS. 24 was the symbol of transgression par excellence since violations of the law (including the right to kill) were justified in the name of the greater good. It was the "television series" in its most complete form, in that each sequence created a cliffhanger that the ad break renders palpable in the real time of the spectator through a mosaic of four timed screens. The series was also remarkable due to the fact that it predicted the election of an Afro-American president with the excellent Dennis Haysbert in the role of President David Palmer.
On the other end of the scale to the superhero played by Jack Bauer, the main character in 24, in recent years series have emerged based around an anti-hero, like Doctor House, Californication and The Mentalist, for example, in which Patrick Jane, in the title role, is cowardly, malicious, lying, insensitive, and quite unusually in Hollywood, takes justice into his own hands.
What does the future hold?
Recent years have also been characterised by a new relationship with historical series, one that is very different from thirty years ago. In the 2000s and 2010s, dialogue and history, the elements that defined these series, are now dominated by visual excess and impact. This can be seen in France with the remake of Rois Maudits, in Great Britain with the Tudors, and in the USA, with Rome and Game of Thrones, in its medieval-fantasy variant.
With the emergence of new technologies and the appearance of series on Netflix, avoiding the usual broadcast channels, the choice has once again increased, and so has the diversity of tones and irreverence. But paradoxically, we are also witness to a recycling/adaptation of non-American series by the Americans, House of Cards, for example, brilliantly played by an inspired Kevin Spacey, giving an unusual villainy to the character of the American president, was actually based on a British series. Or Bron/Broen, a Swedish-Danish series that was adapted as an American version called The Bridge, starring the exceptional Diane Kruger, who is severe, precise and full of self-control.
Television series are produced in more and more places, and are becoming increasingly diverse. As such, these days it is much more difficult predict trends in the medium-term, because the market is so open and diversified, and, as we have just seen, unafraid to recycle successful concepts.
In this rapidly changing media landscape, what is the future of TV series? Will works coming from the three major historical producing powers, the United States, France and the United Kingdom continue to make a mark on the rest of the world or, on the contrary, will they face competition or even be improved upon by emerging countries? There will be a visual response during our next Are You Series?, in December.