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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.

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