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Epic Performed: The Poetic Nature of TV Series

Marco Segala
p. 39-56

Abstract

In this paper I aim to test a general interpretation of television series as narrative epics, in the sense defined by Aristotle’s Poetics and canonised by Renaissance literary theorists.

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Termini di indicizzazione

Keywords:

poetics, epic, tv series

Parole chiave:

epica, poetica, serie televisive
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Testo integrale

Aristotle provides a prism through which different kinds
of imaginative writing may be viewed and evaluated
(Anthony Kenny, Introduction, in Aristotle, Poetics, Oxford, 2013)

Introduction

  • 1 On Canudo and his analysis of cinema, see Vancheri 2018, chapter 6.
  • 2 Cardwell 2022: 286 recalls how TV series have suffered the “long-standing distrust of aesthetics an (...)

1After its appearance in the 1890s, it took less than twenty years for cinema to be acclaimed as an art: already in 1911, the Italian artist and critic Ricciotto Canudo coined the expressions “plastic art in motion” and le septième art.1 Thanks to this ennoblement, cinematography has always been and still is a subject worthy of philosophical investigation and an autonomous field of aesthetics. By contrast, it took half a century for television to be considered more than a subsidiary medium. For a long time, it had appeared as a non-selective receptacle of mixed content and advertisement – and unworthy of philosophical interest. Not even television narrative shows attracted the philosophers’ attention: television fictional narratives were seen as pale relatives of motion pictures, but they appeared incomparable with the quality of cinema and empty of aesthetic value.2

  • 3 Jacobs 2000: 28.
  • 4 Creeber 2013: 6–7. See also Thumim 2002.

2Today there is a tendency to rectify this view and to acknowledge quality and aesthetic features in television dramas of the 1950s. Jacobs recalls the late 1940s discussions about the aesthetic and stylistic “passivity” of television and challenges the still existing “prejudice” that “the true qualities of the medium can only be activated by writers writing for ‘television as television’”.3 Creeber admits that in the 1990s TV shows reached an aesthetic value that prompted an “aesthetic turn” in television studies, but he also calls for an adequate aesthetic appreciation of early television that should not borrow its conceptual values from cinema.4

  • 5 See Rossini 2016: 43–42. Anderson 2005 explains how episodic series best served the interests of TV (...)
  • 6 See for example the substantial presence of TV series in “The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture (...)

3It is a fact, however, that these new perspectives have appeared only recently, after that in the 1990s television drama overcame its traditional low cultural status thanks to serial narrations that rivalled with cinematic productions, made sensation among the public, and became a fascinating subject of investigation. The novelty came from the rebirth of serialization. Eventually, producers and authors rediscovered the enormous potential of trans-episodic narration and dismissed the classic episodic series – which had dominated American TV primetime for almost forty years and relegated seriality (mainly in the form of soap operas) to the less prestigious (and funded) daytime programming.5 The extension of horizontal narration offered new possibilities to verticality, and both plot and characters would benefit from the format. TV series became a cultural phenomenon and soon an object of analysis, research, and conceptualization. Media and comparative studies opened the way, and philosophy followed. At first, the focus was on philosophically interesting TV series,6 but in the 2010s philosophical investigations of TV series as an artistic object per se – and not merely as an appendix or a species of the art of motion picture – have appeared.

4There is still reluctance to view TV series as an “eighth art”: given the cinematic nature of the medium, identifying their artistic specificity with respect to the cinema is a challenge. This paper aims to propose an interpretation of TV series as autonomous from cinema. Its key notion is that the TV series is an instantiation of epic, as analysed by Aristotle’s Poetics and canonised by Renaissance literary theorists. In order to make this argument persuasive, I shall summarise the recent theses on the autonomy of TV series from cinema (section 1) and introduce the “need for seriality” as a notion that epic can satisfyingly explain (section 2). Sections 3 and 4 will delve into Aristotle’s Poetics in order to establish which features of epic are able to explain television seriality. Among these, I shall focus on dramatis personae and the exceptional engagement with characters that the audience of TV series experiences (section 5). Section 6 will unwrap the thesis that epic is the salient feature defining the aesthetic autonomy of serialised TV series and offer a tentative interpretation that includes episodic series.

1. Differences between TV series and cinema

  • 7 Carroll 2001: 15.
  • 8 Ivi: 19.
  • 9 Ivi: 24.
  • 10 Carroll 2008 and 2013. He defends an anti-essentialist interpretation of TV seriality that has its (...)

5In 2001 Carroll wrote a provocative paper against “the putative ontological differences between TV and film”.7 He provided a cursory glance at the TV series and listed its most evident differences from the film: the former is an open, ongoing narration that tells multiple stories, whereas the latter presents a single and closed story.8 But he dismissed these differences as “matter of contingency”9 and recalled that also cinema can employ the serial format (Star Wars, for example). Carroll seems to have maintained his position in his more recent books on the philosophy of cinema, where he explains his views by referring indistinctly to both films and TV series.10 But challenges of his reluctance to weigh an aesthetic independence of TV series from movies have appeared. They emphasise how some artistic features pertain exclusively to TV series, determine their appreciation, and make them different from cinema.

  • 11 See Lackey 2019.
  • 12 Carroll 2008: 134.
  • 13 This view by Lackey 2019: 548 adds to Carroll’s remark about soap operas, which have “indefinitely (...)
  • 14 Nannicelli 2019: 956.
  • 15 Nannicelli 2016: 67-82.

6One of these features involves authorship: it is easily identifiable in cinema, but not in TV series. Directors and writers change from one episode to the other, and it often happens that the one who has conceived the series is merely mentioned as “creator” or supervises it as a producer, but her actual role in the show is not always clear.11 Another difference regards the narrative structure: whereas the typical movie “tells its story in one uninterrupted sitting”12 with a beginning, a middle, and an end, TV series can extend at will their middles, and their ends are not necessarily determined by narration exigencies: “they do not end, they just stop […], the ends of TV shows, their final episodes, invariably lack the sense of a decisive ending”.13 Nannicelli has examined this peculiar aspect of TV series and observed that “the medium-specific feature of temporal prolongation achieves distinct artistic effects”14 with more magnitude and efficacy than film. Indeed, TV series elicit an exceptional emotional engagement with characters, stimulate the power of surprise, prompt sustained and vigorous suspense, foster cognitive and aesthetic pleasure, and reach an unprecedented variety and concentration of comedic effects.15

  • 16 I mean “story” as defined by Gaut 2010: 233: “a representation of a series of linked events”.
  • 17 Shuster 2017: 2.
  • 18 Cardwell 2022: 286.
  • 19 As argued by Bandirali, Terrone 2021, chapter 1.

7According to these readings, it appears promising to investigate TV series as an art form that is distinct from cinema, even if it shares with cinema the essential feature of being a work of moving images that tell stories.16 Shuster has contested the “impulse […] to assimilate these [TV] shows to something else, to make sense of them by using some already existing paradigm”. His argument is that “understanding these shows as bringing something that exists outside of television into or within television” would be misguided. On the contrary, “we need to understand these shows – this type of television – as the emergence of something new as television”.17 TV series are “valuable in their own right, offering us narrative absorption, emotional engagement and aesthetic pleasure”.18 They are not – and should not be considered as – megamovies.19 It is true that the process of legitimation of television, prompted by the quality of serialized dramas, have rested on those technical improvements that have “cinematized” television, but the quality of the audiovisual performance does not explain the quality or the aesthetic nature of TV series. And it is also true that both films and TV series integrate narration and the dramatic mode, but they have distinct ways to exploit them – as I will discuss below.

  • 20 See for example its efficacy in explaining the quality evaluation of a TV series (Bandirali, Terron (...)

8To thwart this persisting temptation to go back to cinema, Bandirali and Terrone have started from the apparent distinction between films as audiovisual structures and video art works as “concepts expressed through audiovisual structures” (Bandirali and Terrone 2021: 24) to argue that “serial television is ontologically closer to video art than to film” (Bandirali and Terrone 2021: 26). Hence, the thesis that TV series are conceptual narratives – an attractive interpretation with strong explanatory power.20 As a narration, TV series are distinct from video art and as a conceptual form, it is distinct from cinema. Indeed, appealing to the conceptual content and intentions of TV series highlights its aesthetic independence from cinema, where, by contrast, conceptualization is often a mortal enemy of aesthetic quality.

2. Need for Seriality: A Brief History

9While the definition of TV series as conceptual narratives provides an enriching insight to our comprehension of their aesthetic nature, it does not explain another evident feature of them: huge, popular success. In terms of celebrity and popularity, TV series are closer to cinema than to conceptual video art. Certainly, one could dismiss the theme of successfulness as irrelevant within an aesthetic inquiry, but the fact that TV series have become objects worthy of aesthetic scrutiny is not unrelated to their fortune.

  • 21 Shuster 2017: 13 observes that “television series are exactly interesting exactly because they – br (...)

10I suggest that this manifest success of TV series would not be satisfactorily and fully explained by sociology and economics. It deserves a philosophical interpretation. And to build such an interpretation, we should focus on the serialised narrative structure of TV series. It is their typical and distinguishing feature when compared with le septième art (even if there is seriality in cinema, too); nevertheless, we should not omit to consider that serialisation can also be a qualifying ingredient of literature.21 It is this ubiquity that encourages the view that serialisation satisfies what might be called the human need for seriality – narrations diluted in time, based on recurring characters, and stimulating curiosity and expectations.

11Before proceeding with the elaboration of this view, it may be helpful to quickly establish its perimeter. The seriality to which I refer is that of serialised shows. It also appears, even if in a contracted form, in seasonal anthology series (like Fargo and True Detective) and mini-series. An episodic anthology series (Black Mirror is probably the most famous) appears to be beyond the perimeter of the serialisation I am thinking of, even if it elicits as much fidelity as a serialised series. Instead of characters and dilated narrative, it is its main concept that mesmerises the audience and creates expectations. Nonetheless, when I evoke the need of seriality, it seems wise to stay within the perimeter mentioned above.

  • 22 The analysis of the reasons for this need would bring me far from the main subject here. See Baroni (...)
  • 23 See Bernstein 2018 and Goudmand 2016 on seriality in the 19th process of composition and publicatio (...)
  • 24 Parrinder 2006: 29. My reading here is focusing on those elements of the novel that are related to (...)
  • 25 Ivi: 29.
  • 26 Ivi: 35.
  • 27 Zatti 2003 warned about the confusion deriving from the entanglement between “romance” and “novel” (...)

12I propose the expression “human need for seriality” because it seems appropriate to describe a phenomenon that appears as ubiquitous in Western culture and literature.22 One century before television was invented, seriality had been offered by literature through the feuilleton.23 Dickens, Dumas, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Melville, and James composed some of their masterworks as serial stories. But even the one-book novel – published in its entirety – often shows the characteristic of seriality by assembling an episodic structure that affects its protagonists and their transformation. In his history of the novel, Parrinder has described three forms of narrative that have dominated literary fiction from the dawn of modernity: “the journey novel and male Bildungsroman, the novel of courtship, and the family saga and extended novel-sequence”.24 All of these forms developed a pattern of fiction that exploited serialisation and powerfully distinguished “prose fiction from drama” and the theatre.25 On the one hand, their original models in prose fiction were Decameron, an episodic anthology series avant la lettre, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Don Quixote de la Mancha, all of which exhibit features of seriality.26 On the other hand, their original models in poetry were chansons de geste and the chivalry romance, the epic poem and the picaresque, which had dominated literary production from the Middle Age to the dawn of modernity – they eventually disappeared when the novel and prose fiction won the readers’ favour.27 This kind of literature, too, exhibited a serial structure that pursued the aim of making the reader craving for a new episode, with its new adventures and turns of events that challenged characters and moulded their personalities.

  • 28 Benjamin observed the connection between epic and the novel: “in the course of centuries the novel (...)

13This sketched and extremely concise history aims to recall that seriality is a form of narration expressed by different kinds of media. Before TV series, its traditional medium was the literary text in its different forms, and all of them – even the novel – inherited from epic.28 This is the main claim of this paper: epic as the ultimate origin of telling stories in a serial form. Indeed, if we go even further back in the past we reach the classics of classics, the models of the epic tale: Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In my interpretation, they are the archetypes of Western seriality. Is it blasphemous to connect the Iliad to contemporary TV series? If we think of Game of Thrones, probably not – notwithstanding the huge differences between the literary text composed almost 3000 years ago and the celebrated HBO show. But asserting such a correspondence requires a more precise understanding of what epic is.

3. Aristotle on epic

  • 29 I refer to the Oxford edition of the work: see Aristotle 2013.

14The first and most significant considerations and definition of epic were proposed by Aristotle in his Poetics.29

  • 30 Poetics 4.1449a5–10.
  • 31 Poetics 24.1459b10-15.

15Aristotle maintained that epic was the original form of literature, and comedy and tragedy derived from it.30 The epical roots of theatre are still evident in the similarities between tragedy and epic: both tell stories based on characters or events and require “reversals, discoveries, and sufferings, as well as intelligence and style”.31 Moreover, epic did set the example of excellence in poetry thanks to Homer. Because of his treatment of intelligence, style, and management of both events and character, in the Poetics Aristotle often evoked the excellency and exemplarity of Homer’s poems.

  • 32 “Narrative may be borne throughout by a single narrator, or with variation as in Homer. In dramatiz (...)
  • 33 Tragedy “has six elements on the basis of which it is evaluated, namely, the story, the moral eleme (...)
  • 34 Poetics 5.1449b20.

16Beyond such similarities, however, Aristotle proposed a clear distinction between epic and tragedy: the proper character of the former is narration, whereas the latter employs the dramatic mode – which defines the fact that it is “performed by actors rather than told by a narrator” –32 and includes two elements – music and the staging – that are absent from epic.33 They “differ also in length: tragedy tries so far as possible to keep within a period of twenty-four hours or thereabouts, while epic, in contrast, is unrestricted in time.”34

17The key to narration is the elaboration of a story in episodes, and what Aristotle said about episodes is worth noting, because it defines the peculiar character of epic with respect to both playwriting and historical narration. He insisted that episodes must enrich a story, which provides the fundamental baseline of the episodes. This aspect is what distinguishes epic from historical narration. The episodes chronicled by historians are not part of a story, they

  • 35 Poetics 23.1459a25-30.

call for an exposition not of a single action but of a single period of time, with all the things that happened to one or more people during it, each with only a chance relationship to the others. The sea-fight at Salamis and the battle against the Carthaginians in Sicily occurred simultaneously, without converging on a single goal; so in successive periods of time one thing may come after another without any single outcome.35

18Perhaps Aristotle should have been less harsh on historians, considering that in the fictive world of television seriality this kind of potentially infinite episodic telling without any thread defined soap-operas.

  • 36 Poetics 23.1459a25.

19In contrast to history (and soap-operas), epic should present a story that, like in tragedy, must be “based on a single action that is whole and entire and that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”36 But whereas in plays episodes are short, epic develops episodes that

  • 37 Poetics 17.1455b15-20.

lengthen out the poem. A summary of the Odyssey is not at all long. ‘A man is away from home for many years; he is kept under surveillance by Poseidon and isolated. Meanwhile affairs at home are in such a state that his property is being squandered by his wife’s suitors, who are plotting against his son. After being shipwrecked he returns home, identifies himself to several people, and launches an attack in which his enemies are destroyed and he survives.’ That is the core of the story; the rest is episodes.37

20The extension of length and the multiplication of episodes strengthen narration – the main purpose of epic – which in turn makes possible to develop different lines of plot at the same time. While tragedy might go stale because of its uniformity and monotony,

  • 38 Poetics, 24.1459b30-35.

in epic the narrative form makes it possible to include many simultaneous incidents that, if germane to the issue, add weight to the poem. This gives epic the advantage in achieving grandeur, in offering variety to the hearer, and in diversifying the episodes.38

21Another enticing quality of epic is astonishment, which is much more effective than in tragedy:

  • 39 Poetics, 24.1460a15-20.

improbability […] is more feasible in epic because we do not actually see the agent. The pursuit of Hector would seem ridiculous on stage, with the Greeks, because Achilles is shaking his head, standing still instead of joining in the chase, but in epic it excites no remark.39

22A great quality of astonishment is that it excites pleasure in the audience. Homer was the greatest narrator because he was able to make credible what is false and illogical, favouring “probable impossibilities” over “implausible possibilities.” Incredible elements should stay outside the narrative, but anything would become admissible when the author is talented:

  • 40 Poetics, 24.1460b1-5.

Even in the Odyssey the incredible details in the setting ashore of Odysseus would be manifestly intolerable if treated by an inferior poet. As it is, Homer uses his other talents to soften and conceal the incredibility.40

  • 41 Poetics, 26.
  • 42 In good poetry “it must be possible to take the beginning and the end in a single view” (Poetics, 2 (...)

23Notwithstanding these appreciations of epic, the last pages of the Poetics famously assert the superiority of tragedy over epic.41 The main reason is that tragedy can achieve the purpose of poetry better than epic – the tragedy affects audience more powerfully than epic. Even without music and staging, and merely through reading, tragedy provides more pleasure – and the purification of emotions – through its concentration and unified representation.42

4. Epic and its features

  • 43 See above, n. 18.
  • 44 See Carroll 2013: 122–123; Nannicelli 2012: 187; and Shuster 2017: 78. Carroll thinks of Aristotle’ (...)
  • 45 Bandirali, Terrone 2021: 23-24.
  • 46 Marthe Robert has argued about the privileged freedom of the novel: it “can do what it wants with l (...)

24Before proceeding with the elaboration of my claim about the epic nature of TV series, I must first make good on two subjects. The first is concerned with the meaning, relevance, and originality of the claim itself. The significance of epic for the art of narration and the novel is familiar among historians and theorists of literature and is now recognized by philosophers of the moving image.43 Carroll evokes the Odyssey as an example of the “episodic narrative” characteristic of episodic TV series, Nannicelli recalls the relationships between the screenplay and different literary forms of narration – epic included – and Shuster mentions the “mythological character” of films and TV series as they show narratives that refer to our cultural heritage.44 Even more specifically, Bandirali and Terrone consider Aristotle’s distinction between epic and tragedy as essential to the interpretation of contemporary seriality, which restores the complexity of the novel by recurring to cinematic narrative and synthesising epic and drama.45 My view is more radical. Even if we must acknowledge that TV series are indebted to cinema, drama, and the novel, it is their epic nature that defines them and feeds their captivating charm. I shall provide a characterization of “epic nature” in the following sections, but before I do I want to recall the distinction between epic and tragedy (or drama): the former is extended, complex, and virtually unlimited, the latter is unified and finite. In TV series there are components that pertain to the latter, and which share features with cinema, drama, and the novel; but in the first place, TV series are epic tales. They entertain complex and refined relationships with any kind of unified narrative – they can employ it ad libitum, without proscriptions or restrictions – but they collect and develop stories, characters, and ideas – realities, in plural. They enjoy the same freedom of the novel (and cinema), but in reverse: plurality instead of unity.46

  • 47 Media studies are now developing specific narratologies for TV series, but they remain out of the f (...)
  • 48 On literary criticism in the Renaissance, see Hathaway 1962. On the 17th-century French debate, see (...)
  • 49 Its first Latin version was edited by Giorgio Valla in 1498, but it was not until 1536 that the Gre (...)
  • 50 For a summary of the Italian Renaissance epic, see Mazzotta 2010.
  • 51 Originally written around 1562, their final version was published in 1594 as Discorsi dell’arte poe (...)
  • 52 Tasso was targeting Ariosto’s indulging in the extraordinary. See Javitch 1998 and 1999.
  • 53 Poetics, 26.1462b10-15. On this aspect, Aristotle recalled that differently from Homer “other poets (...)
  • 54 Poetics, 24.1461b20.
  • 55 Poetics, 24.1461b15.

25This leads to the second subject, namely the effective role of Aristotle’s Poetics in the process that has led TV series to revitalise epic in its full glory. I contend that Aristotle’s analysis of epic provides more than an interpretative framework of contemporary seriality. In my view, in Aristotle we can find the kernel of a narratology that would explain the human need for seriality, and from which would originate an aesthetics of seriality and an understanding of its current success.47 Such a narratology would flourish in 16th-century Italy and 17th-century France,48 after Aristotle’s Poetics was rescued from oblivion49 and epic poetry rose and became prominent thanks to Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516), Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), and Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata (1581).50 Tasso’s Discorsi sull’arte poetica51 not only substantiated the dignity and value of epic literature – thus discontinuing Aristotle’s diminishing comparison with tragedy – but also provided a critical reappraisal of Aristotle’s views on epic in agreement with modern taste, culture, and religion. For example, he dialogued with the Poetics to confront the question of the role of marvels and implausibility in epic stories52 and highlighted some of its overlooked theses. Aristotle claimed that from narration – the proper feature of epic – originated the epic’s pleasure. To intensify that pleasure, the greater variety of events and diversity of episodes were the most obvious expedients. Indeed, the epic develops “a plot containing many actions” and therefore “provides material for several tragedies”.53 He also claimed that another substantial source of pleasure comes from astonishment and the introduction of the incredible into the story. Aristotle refused “implausibility and immorality when they are unnecessary and serve no dramatic purpose”,54 but he admitted their presence for moral or social reasons, like “desire for edification” and “prevalence of an opinion”.55

  • 56 Such a Hegelian overcoming was the subject of Lukács and Bakhtin opposed evaluations of the transit (...)
  • 57 On the “contemporary vitality” of the term “epic” and its role in defining written and cinematic na (...)

26The decline of epic and the rise of the novel in the 18th century were characterised by a transition of some features of the former into the latter.56 The long and glorious epic tradition crystallised into the “epic mode”, which has become a term referring to narrative richness and power in both novels and movies.57 I contend, though, that the theses explored by Aristotle and his interpreters have given a new life to epic in the form of contemporary seriality. After thirty years of “new” television series, we have good reasons to assert that the epic has resurrected: the epic way has embodied into a fresh and once again glorious form of existence.

27Indeed, Aristotle added some clarifications to his conception of epic. Firstly, he introduced the notion that mastering narration is the essential quality required to a poet. The multiplication of episodes must not lose sight of the story. Homer had been the greatest poet because of his ability in balancing the story with episodes and their protagonists as the salient elements of narration. Commenting on the Iliad, he observed that Homer

  • 58 Poetics 23.1459a30-1459b5.

did not try to cover the Trojan war in its entirety, even though it did have a beginning and an end, for the story would have been too long and difficult to take in at one view – or if curtailed in length, too complex in its variety. Instead, he singled out one segment, using others as episodes to add variety – episodes such as the catalogue of ships and the like.58

  • 59 Poetics 6.1450b.
  • 60 Poetics 17.1455b15-20.
  • 61 Poetics, 24.1460a14.

28Secondly, the interpreters’ insistence in recalling the Poetics as a theory of tragedy and the plot – “whereby the story is the foundation and as it were the soul of tragedy, while moral character is secondary”59 – has obscured another central feature of the epic: the importance of characters. Rather than telling a story about a character, tragedy employs a “moral character” to tell a story. This is not the case of the epic, which exhibits the prominence of the character over the story. The simple plot of the Odyssey could not be developed into such a long poem without the intriguing and captivating figure of its eponymous protagonist.60 In the epic the characters cannot be “mere dummies”61 – unless the poet and its poem are mediocre.

29Let us summarise the features of the epic that emerge from the Poetics:

30Epic is the original form of poetic expression – theatrical poetry derived from it.

31Like tragedy, epic tells a story – but the former resorts to the dramatic mode and the latter to narration.

32Differently from tragedy, an epic plot contains many actions and potentially provides material for several tragedies.

33Narration is the source of pleasure in an epic.

34When balanced with the story, multiplication of episodes and marvel enhance the pleasure of epic.

35Homer was able to dramatise his characters – epic is open to the dramatic mode.

36A dramatic purpose might allow both implausibility and immorality.

37Epic shows the prominence of the characters over the story

38With respect to the episodic quality of epic, we can add that

39The episodic mode of narration lengthens out the poem and enriches the story.

  • 62 This list of features emphasises elements that are functional to the thesis I am defending in this (...)

40We have now enough material to defend the thesis that epic is a distinguishing feature of contemporary TV series,62 but before handling this subject in greater detail, I want to gain insight into the theme of the prominence of the characters over the story.

5. Characters and epic

41Aristotle observed that the excellence of the Odyssey does not lie in its plot, rather in its main character. About the Iliad, he downplayed the role of the facts – the history of the Trojan war – and praised Homer for his wise selection of episodes that created variety. We should add that those episodes are centred on characters and the episodes’ variety is intrinsically dependent on the interactions and transformations of those characters.

42When referring to the central role of episodes and characters, Aristotle was arguing in support of a clear distinction between narrative modes in epic and tragedy. On the one hand, narration in tragedy pivots around the plot and is exploited on stage – through the dramatic mode, as he called it: performed by actors, action takes place within a short period of time and is supported by music and visual effects. The actors impersonate moral or typified characters, which therefore are not identifiable with authentic individuals. The audience knows them for what they do, their role: a parricide who would lie with his mother, or a couple of young lovers who cannot live their love because of the hate that separates their families. We do not know much about them, whether they like sculpture or sleep well. Even their names and contexts are not relevant: Romeo and Juliet in 16th-century Verona, or Tony and Maria in 20th-century New York. Tragic characters live (and die) according to what is prescribed by a plot – and destiny.

43On the other hand, narration in epic pivots around episodes that affect characters and modify them, who in turn would originate new situations and episodes, without any restriction of time. The main consequence of an epic narration is that the audience establishes a deep connection with the characters: they become acquaintances, and they are subject to ageing, maturation, success, and failures that resonate with the audience. As Aristotle reminded, the excellence of the Odyssey does not lie in its plot, rather in its main character. The synopsis of Ozark from the Netflix website of the series is not much different from Aristotle’s summary of the Odyssey: “Ozark follows Marty Byrde, a financial advisor wrapped up in a money laundering scheme. When the scheme goes wrong, Marty relocates his family from Chicago to Missouri, where he must work to make amends to a Mexican drug cartel, setting up a larger operation in the Ozarks”.63 It immediately makes clear that at the centre of the drama are Marty and his family. It could not be Marty and his dog or Elizabeth and her driver. If we watch the series, the reason is that Marty and family appear as real persons, we care about them, and we want them to succeed while elaborating more and more elaborate schemes. If Marty and family were killed and other people took their place in the Ozarks to continue money laundering on behalf of a Mexican cartel, it would be a different series. We want Odysseus and his cleverness: without him, surviving the Trojan war, going back to Ithaca, and killing the suitors of Penelope would be without interest. And we want the resourcefulness of Marty and family, not other people, and even less Superman and his powers – the series would stop after ten minutes.

44As outlined in the first section, philosophers have noticed the extraordinary engagement with characters as well as the indefinite lengthening of narration in TV series. Yet, they have not appreciated that Aristotle presented these features to distinguish epic from tragedy and narration from drama. Therefore, they have overlooked the salient role of epic in TV series. It is true that TV series are intertwined with the cinematic art, but they are not a synthesis of narration (as epic) and drama. By contrast, I contend that they are epic that includes drama – epic performed, with actors, music, and visual effects. The dramatic mode is derivative of the cinematic medium, and yet it does not alter the fundamental epic nature of TV series narration. Further, it does not define the nature of TV series.

45I shall come back to this issue in a moment, but first it is important to insist on characters and our uncommon engagement with them as an epic feature that defines TV series. Films (and tragedy) require excellent plots, TV series call for unforgettable dramatis personae who are identified by their qualities and flaws, their constant presence (even in absence), and their interaction with the world. They are not moral or universal characters but persons who become our acquaintances.

  • 64 See for example Carroll 2013, chapter 7 and Bandirali, Terrone 2021: 5-8.

46One could express disagreement with this view and say that several films have portrayed memorable characters or are great because of their characters. In order to make my thesis plausible, I must clarify what kind of narration a film is. Philosophers of cinema generally refer to tragedy in Aristotle’s Poetics and its unified structure – a plot marked by a self-contained narrative and a beginning, middle, and end.64 But a film is not a tragedy. Even if cinema and tragedy share the dramatic mode, as defined by Aristotle, cinema is closer to a literary medium: the novel. Cinematic art could be considered a dramatised novel, and as such, it enjoys the unlimited freedom and openness of the novel, which includes the possibility to be a tragedy, a comedy, and even an epic narrative. When the characters of a movie are memorable or become lovable acquaintances, it is because that movie has picked that peculiar feature of epic and inserted it in its typical, filmic (closed, unified, and non-epic) narrative structure. It is not a synthesis of the tragedy-epic antithesis. The memorable, epic characters of a film do not transform it into an epic: other and more important features persist and define its filmic and non-epic nature.

47Nonetheless, it can happen that extraordinary characters of movies would require more time, attention, and development. In these cases, they become protagonists of TV series –for example, Norman Bates and her mother from Psycho (1960) became the main characters of Bates Motel (2013-2017), and from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) originated the homonymous TV series (1997-2003).

6. Movies and TV series

  • 65 For a thorough analysis of these features and its related unwelcome view of TV series as megamovies (...)

48The main notion this paper wants to argue for is the distinction between movies and TV series. I suggest that epic, as theorised by Aristotle and his interpreters in the early modern period, can support and better articulate the view that cinema and television seriality are different aesthetic forms. Even though it is apparent that they share many features,65 and that cinema can adapt its productions to seriality with films connected as in a saga.

  • 66 Poetics 17.1462a13-15.
  • 67 See Curran 2016: 54-62 and Else 1957: 610.
  • 68 Poetics 3.1448a20-25.

49As briefly introduced above, we should avoid considering cinema as derivative from or cognate to tragedy, even if defining cinema with the notions Aristotle discussed in his analysis of the dramatic mode of narration is informative. It is more compelling to compare cinema with the novel and its creative liberty, which can include references to and structures of the tragedy. Moreover, if we consider cinema through the lens of the novel, which is cognate to epic, we can easily explain why epic features adapt without difficulty to films. These considerations, though, do not entail that TV series are supersize movies or syntheses of epic and drama within the cinematic medium. As Aristotle pointed out, a drama does not become an epic poem if it is not performed but read: “tragedy, no less than epic, produces its effect even without movement; its quality is apparent from a mere reading”.66 Moreover, in some passages praising Homer the Poetics allows an interpretation of the Homeric epic as a drama without staging and music.67 So, both drama and epic narrate stories, but in different ways (“modes”): in epic the tale is expressed by its “real” characters living the events developed from the story, while in tragedy the drama is intrinsic to the story performed on stage.68 There is a difference between tragedy and epic, but it is not a dualism or an opposition – and there is no need for a Hegelian synthesis.

50Aristotle’s line of argumentation is useful to support the view I am defending here. There are intersections and commonalities between cinema and TV series, but there is also an unsurmountable difference: TV series are defined by the epic mode; or, to put it another way, epic is the salient feature of TV series and defines its peculiarity. There can be epic in cinema as well, but it is not required: without epic, cinema lives and prospers nonetheless; by contrast, without epic, there is no seriality. Epic acts as a necessary condition of TV series but not of cinema, and as such it defines a main difference between the two cinematic forms.

51The notion that TV series are a subset of the cinematic art is still intuitively appealing, but aestheticians are now pressing for an alternative view. My claim that TV series are defined by their epic nature goes in the same direction. It does not demand to be exhaustive – it points out a necessary, not a sufficient condition, which provides an explanation of the huge success of TV series. They satisfy our need for (serial) stories that the epic originally – and before other narrative forms, as Aristotle recalled – addressed.

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Bibliografia

Allrath, G., Gymnich, M. 2005, Narrative Strategies in Television Series, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Anderson, C. 2005, Television networks and the uses of drama, in G.R. Edgerton, B.G. Rose (eds), Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader, Lexington (KY), The University Press of Kentucky: 65-87.

Aristotle, Poetics, edited by Anthony Kenny, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Bandirali, L., E. Terrone 2021, Concept TV. An Aesthetics of Television Series, Lanham, Lexington Books

Baroni, R. 2007, La tension narrative. Suspense, curiosité et surprise, Paris, Seuil.

Benjamin, W. 2000, The storyteller, in M. McKeon (ed.), Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press: 77-93.

Bernstein, S.D. 2018, Seriality, “Victorian Literature and Culture”, 46, 3-4: 865-868.

Bionda, S. 2001, La Poetica di Aristotele volgarizzata: Bernardo Segni e le sue fonti, “Aevum”, 75: 679-694.

Bruun Vaage, M. 2022, Five theses on the difficulty of ending Quality TV series, in T. Nannicelli, H.J. Pérez (eds), Cognition, Emotion, and Aesthetics in Contemporary Serial Television, Abingdon, Routledge: 160-175.

Butler, J.G. 2011, Television: Critical Methods and Applications, London, Routledge.

Cardwell, S. 2022, A sense of moment: Appreciating television serials from aesthetic and cognitive perspectives, in T. Nannicelli, H.J. Pérez (eds), Cognition, Emotion, and Aesthetics in Contemporary Serial Television, Abingdon, Routledge: 285-307.

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Else, G. 1957, Aristotle’s Poetics: The Argument, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Fusillo, M. 2002, Fra epica e romanzo, in F. Moretti (ed.) Il romanzo, vol. 4: Le forme, Torino, Einaudi: 5-34.

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Hathaway, B. 1962, The Age of Criticism. The Late Renaissance in Italy, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Jacobs, J. 2000, The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Javitch, D. 1998, La nascita della teoria dei generi poetici nel Cinquecento, “Italianistica: Rivista di letteratura italiana”, 27: 177-197.

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Lukács, G. 2000, The theory of the novel: a historico-philosophical essay on the forms of great epic literature, in M. McKeon (ed.), Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press: 185-218.

Mazzotta, G. 2010, Italian renaissance epic, in C. Bates (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Epic, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 93-118.

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Note

1 On Canudo and his analysis of cinema, see Vancheri 2018, chapter 6.

2 Cardwell 2022: 286 recalls how TV series have suffered the “long-standing distrust of aesthetics and philosophy of art”.

3 Jacobs 2000: 28.

4 Creeber 2013: 6–7. See also Thumim 2002.

5 See Rossini 2016: 43–42. Anderson 2005 explains how episodic series best served the interests of TV networks.

6 See for example the substantial presence of TV series in “The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series.”

7 Carroll 2001: 15.

8 Ivi: 19.

9 Ivi: 24.

10 Carroll 2008 and 2013. He defends an anti-essentialist interpretation of TV seriality that has its own merits.

11 See Lackey 2019.

12 Carroll 2008: 134.

13 This view by Lackey 2019: 548 adds to Carroll’s remark about soap operas, which have “indefinitely expandable middles” (Carroll 2008: 134). See also Bruun Vaage 2022.

14 Nannicelli 2019: 956.

15 Nannicelli 2016: 67-82.

16 I mean “story” as defined by Gaut 2010: 233: “a representation of a series of linked events”.

17 Shuster 2017: 2.

18 Cardwell 2022: 286.

19 As argued by Bandirali, Terrone 2021, chapter 1.

20 See for example its efficacy in explaining the quality evaluation of a TV series (Bandirali, Terrone 2021: 35-39), the different modes of seriality – series, serials, anthology series, episodic anthology series (Bandirali, Terrone 2021: 62-65), spin-offs and different versions of the same TV series (Bandirali, Terrone 2021: 72-76), and the feature of serialized characters (Bandirali, Terrone 2021: 92-96).

21 Shuster 2017: 13 observes that “television series are exactly interesting exactly because they – broadly speaking – share several contexts: film, television, and […] even literature”.

22 The analysis of the reasons for this need would bring me far from the main subject here. See Baroni 2007 for his analysis of the importance of narrative tension. Okker and West 2011: 730 recall that “a commentator in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (Dec. 1855) compared the serial reader to a gourmand slowly digesting a multi-course meal: ‘Readers who complain of serials have not learned the first wish of an epicure – a long, long throat. It is the serial which lengthens the throat so that the feast lasts a year or two years. You taste it all the way down’ (128)”.

23 See Bernstein 2018 and Goudmand 2016 on seriality in the 19th process of composition and publication of novels.

24 Parrinder 2006: 29. My reading here is focusing on those elements of the novel that are related to seriality. The novel is much more than that.

25 Ivi: 29.

26 Ivi: 35.

27 Zatti 2003 warned about the confusion deriving from the entanglement between “romance” and “novel” and recalled that romance and epic were both successful genres at the dawn of modernity.

28 Benjamin observed the connection between epic and the novel: “in the course of centuries the novel began to emerge from the womb of the epic” (Benjamin 2000: 86). Lukács claimed that epic and novel “differ from one another not by their authors’ fundamental intentions” (Lukács 2000: 186). Robert recalled that “the eloquent, passionate, moral and virtuous novel is the epic of a modern nation” (Robert 2000: 63).

29 I refer to the Oxford edition of the work: see Aristotle 2013.

30 Poetics 4.1449a5–10.

31 Poetics 24.1459b10-15.

32 “Narrative may be borne throughout by a single narrator, or with variation as in Homer. In dramatization all the personages play their parts as active agents” (Poetics 3.1448a23–25)

33 Tragedy “has six elements on the basis of which it is evaluated, namely, the story, the moral element, the style, the ideas, the staging, and the music” (Poetics 6.1450a10–15).

34 Poetics 5.1449b20.

35 Poetics 23.1459a25-30.

36 Poetics 23.1459a25.

37 Poetics 17.1455b15-20.

38 Poetics, 24.1459b30-35.

39 Poetics, 24.1460a15-20.

40 Poetics, 24.1460b1-5.

41 Poetics, 26.

42 In good poetry “it must be possible to take the beginning and the end in a single view” (Poetics, 24.1459b30).

43 See above, n. 18.

44 See Carroll 2013: 122–123; Nannicelli 2012: 187; and Shuster 2017: 78. Carroll thinks of Aristotle’s Poetics for explaining “unified narrative” as an alternative category.

45 Bandirali, Terrone 2021: 23-24.

46 Marthe Robert has argued about the privileged freedom of the novel: it “can do what it wants with literature; it can exploit to its own ends description, narrative, drama, the essay, commentary, monologue and conversation; it can be, either in turn or at once, fable, history, parable, romance, chronicle, story and epic” (Robert 2000: 58).

47 Media studies are now developing specific narratologies for TV series, but they remain out of the field of aesthetics. See for example Allrath, Gymnich 2005 and Butler 2011.

48 On literary criticism in the Renaissance, see Hathaway 1962. On the 17th-century French debate, see Giorgetti 2017.

49 Its first Latin version was edited by Giorgio Valla in 1498, but it was not until 1536 that the Greek text was published together with its Latin translation, edited by Alessandro Pazzi. See Aristotelis Poetica, per Alexandrum Paccium, patritium Florentinum, in latinum conversa, Venetiis 1536. Valla’s edition appeared in an anthology collecting works by several classic authors (Georgio Valla Piacentino interprete […] Venetiis 1498), and Aristotle’s text remained almost unnoticed. On Pazzi’s edition, see Bionda 2001; On Valla’s book, see Scarpati 2000.

50 For a summary of the Italian Renaissance epic, see Mazzotta 2010.

51 Originally written around 1562, their final version was published in 1594 as Discorsi dell’arte poetica e in particolare sopra il poema eroico.

52 Tasso was targeting Ariosto’s indulging in the extraordinary. See Javitch 1998 and 1999.

53 Poetics, 26.1462b10-15. On this aspect, Aristotle recalled that differently from Homer “other poets write about a single person or a single period, or a single action made up of many parts. Thus the author of the Cypria and of the Little Iliad. What is the result? From the Iliad and the Odyssey only one or at most two tragedies can be made; but from the Cypria you could make many and from the Little Iliad no less than eight” (Poetics 23.1459b5-10). This passage has been scrutinised by philologists as possibly spurious, but Scafoglio 2007 claims that there are arguments supporting its authenticity.

54 Poetics, 24.1461b20.

55 Poetics, 24.1461b15.

56 Such a Hegelian overcoming was the subject of Lukács and Bakhtin opposed evaluations of the transition from epic to the novel. For an analysis of these evaluations, see Fusillo 2002.

57 On the “contemporary vitality” of the term “epic” and its role in defining written and cinematic narratives, see Zatti 2000.

58 Poetics 23.1459a30-1459b5.

59 Poetics 6.1450b.

60 Poetics 17.1455b15-20.

61 Poetics, 24.1460a14.

62 This list of features emphasises elements that are functional to the thesis I am defending in this paper. I am aware that it is not exhaustive, and experts of the Poetics might find it not nuanced enough. Nonetheless it does not contrast notions expressed by Kenny in his Introduction to Aristotle 2013 and Curran 2016, chapter 10.

63 https://netflix.fandom.com/wiki/Ozark. Accessed on 3 April 2022.

64 See for example Carroll 2013, chapter 7 and Bandirali, Terrone 2021: 5-8.

65 For a thorough analysis of these features and its related unwelcome view of TV series as megamovies, see Bandirali, Terrone 2021, chapter 1.

66 Poetics 17.1462a13-15.

67 See Curran 2016: 54-62 and Else 1957: 610.

68 Poetics 3.1448a20-25.

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Notizia bibliografica

Marco Segala, «Epic Performed: The Poetic Nature of TV Series»Rivista di estetica, 83 | 2023, 39-56.

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Marco Segala, «Epic Performed: The Poetic Nature of TV Series»Rivista di estetica [Online], 83 | 2023, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 26 mai 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/estetica/9196; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/estetica.9196

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