Avid Downton Abbey fan Leila Wildsmith explores the curious nature of our love for TV series. Could it be society’s most tolerated addiction?
Was anyone else as excited as I was about the much-loved period drama
Downton Abbey returning to our TV screens earlier this autumn? A record 10.5 million UK viewers tuned in to
watch the first in the new series chronicling the ups and downs of the Grantham family and those who serve them. (Sorry, US viewers, you will have to wait until January!)
America loves Downton Abbey as much as the Brits and it is currently the highest-rated PBS drama of all time. And it goes both ways: a few weeks later, the American drama series
Homeland returned for its third season, pulling a crowd of 6.5 million weekly British viewers.
On both sides of the Atlantic and across the world, these shows draw huge crowds. When it comes to TV series, we are seriously addicted. The first TV series ever broadcast in the US was a drama: Kraft Television Theatre, which began in May 1947 and ran until 1958. Each week it offered a range of TV plays with different storylines and characters, alongside classic stories adapted for TV viewers. The first American sci-fi and children’s series, Captain
Video, followed soon after in 1949. In the UK, the first British sitcom series, Steptoe and Son, was broadcast from 1962 to 1965. These days, series are an expected and established element of TV viewing: it is unusual to turn on the box and see a one-off, special episode. Furthermore, these series cover all genres of programmes: from documentaries and dramas, to sci-fi and sitcoms. No matter what the style of show, the chances are it will appear as part of a series season; they are the most popular and successful forms of TV programmes, as they create familiarity, community, and stability in the viewing world. Perhaps the most enduring of all TV series is the immensely popular American sitcom Friends, which revolved around the lives and loves of six twenty-somethings living in New York. The show was so popular that it lasted for 10 years and spanned 10 seasons. Even now, nearly 20 years since its pilot show aired, 17 episodes are still being replayed every day on Comedy Central.
Let’s stay Friends for ever
It is difficult to pinpoint why Friends in particular (and series in general) are so popular. If, as Robert H. Spier suggests, “we are indeed what we watch. And we watch what we are”, we could consider our attraction to television series to be a reflection of our strongest longings. We are not very good with endings and so we want shows to continue. We like the nature of
a TV series because there is a healthy balance of consistency and variety. Cast members, established characters and overarching ‘grand narratives’ stay the same, but new characters, tragedies and unexpected events add variety. This balance reflects our lifestyles – or rather reflects the lifestyles that we long for. We crave both consistency and continuity while searching for spontaneity at the same time. Put simply, we seek lives that are steady, but not boring and with a little excitement every now and then. In an established TV series we find the life we long for.
Like a drug
We also all have an innate desire to be part of something bigger; we want our lives to have some kind of meaning. TV producers recognise this and present this back to us in the stories we watch.
In the article ‘ Why Today’s TV Series Are So Great’, Brian Petersen, a media and cognition researcher, states that TV series have become “narrative art” and it is this “art” that entices us. At heart, TV series are spun-out stories and we love them, just like our stereotypical prehistoric ancestors who sat around open fires, telling each other stories. But the stories can’t be the same each time:
““When When it it comes comes to to addict-TV addict-TV we we want want a a mash-up, mash-up, not not a a repeat. repeat. Because Because yes, yes, we we do do want want more more of of the the stuff stuff we we already already like. like. But But we we crave crave novelty novelty too. too. And And we’re we’re always always looking looking for for a a bigger, bigger, more more exhilarating exhilarating rush rush than than last last time.” time.” So So says says Michael Michael Moran Moran (writing in The The Guardian). Guardian). TV series have become a drug: an addictive and enjoyable escape from everyday life. But they are a bittersweet pill: we feel let down when characters or storylines change from what we were expecting, as they must in order to produce an increasingly “exhilarating rush”. We are forever disappointed by future seasons: they never quite live up to the high expectations they created. And they don’t attain the ‘novelty factor’ the first series managed – precisely because they are no longer new, but are simply rehashing a now-familiar concept. So, we are left constantly hunting for our next ‘fix’. Like with any addiction, we always want more.
All good things…
Caught in the tension of wanting the same, familiar storylines as a metaphorical ‘comfort blanket’, while wanting the enjoyment and excitement of something new, we seem incapable of deciding what we want from a TV series. And while we are still trying to work it out, the TV producers continue to make series after series of our favourite shows. When a 20th anniversary reunion show of
Friends was suggested, Matt LeBlanc, who played one of the main characters, Joey, said, “Everyone identifies with those characters in their own way and everyone in their own mind imagines what has become of those characters. I just think it’s best to leave it at that.” And it is that which we struggle with when it comes to TV series: for better, for worse, as viewers or producers, we cannot simply leave it at that.