Series, ubiquitous and forever


Probably the series in nature best known to the general public is the Fibonacci series, made popular by – amongst others – the Da Vinci Code (book and movie).
Now the mathematical concept of series can easily be explained as the sum of the terms of a sequence. Finite sequences and series have defined first and last terms, whereas infinite sequences and series continue indefinitely.
The terms of a series are often produced according to a rule, such as by a formula, or by an algorithm. For an infinite series, one needs tools from mathematical analysis, and specifically the notion of limits, to get a better grip on and understanding of the specific series in question.
I still remember being taught about Fourier analysis at university.
But mathematical series are not what this piece is about. The discussion at hand is about something quite different: television series. And though there are some surprising similarities between the two kinds of series, currently  popular television series have started to display a number of new, conspicuous and rather unexpected features.

Until recently in the population of television series, one could discern the two types,  definite and indefinite.
You used to have the finite series, so called mini-series, quite often based on either a novel or a historical event or figure, with a limited number of episodes, as well as a moderate cast of actors (e.g. Pride and Prejudice, Napoleon, …).

At the other side of the spectrum you had the everlasting series, labeled as the sitcom, normally depicting the everyday life of a neighbourhood, season after season after season, with the same actors until those either retired or dropped dead on the set (e.g. Coronation Street, Neighbours,…).
Between those two extremes, you also have a hybrid form, the format series, where new events or side characters are being introduced in a template structure – commonly with a fixed cast of (star) actors –  that is identical for all episodes (e.g. House, Bones, Grimm, …).

The formula to create popular series turns out to be as difficult to find as the one for producing blockbusters for the movie theatres.
And the notion of ‘limits’ is clearly of vital importance, both for the content as well as for the duration of television series.

Popularity may be gained by employing already popular actors, having witty and/or funny dialogues, introducing intriguing plots and riddles, dishing up either very familiar recognisable situations or in complete contrast presenting the slightly frightening unknown.
It is however extremely difficult to strike the right balance between the familiar, yet predictable versus the strange and/or surprising. The familiar mustn’t become tedious, just as the strange mustn’t deter the viewers.
Having the same group of people within the span of a few episodes experience ever more improbable events may end in crossing an invisible and probably unforeseeable border where the viewer no longer wishes to accept being led by the script writers.

In an ever changing world, with a changing population of viewers , who are used to being exposed to all sorts of video games, some new features have propped up in the domain of television series.
In the past, it was not considered to be off-limits to reintroduce a character, written-off in an earlier episode or even season.
After all, female actors could become temporarily unavailable due to pregancy. Male actors could fall ill or have other projects going on.

Now these days, killing of the protagonists, the stars of a series has become the exemplary practice. And once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.
No, its not because the viewers got tired of them, nor is it because the actors have other plans. The reason is not that the broadcaster or production house wants to get rid of a all too demanding superstar.
‘House of Thrones’ set the tone for this trend and maybe that explains the motives behind it. The series is based on a not yet ended series of books instead of on one novel or a known number of titles, where the author intentionally finishes off one main character after another. As far as books have already been published, actors may sleep on both ears. For the future, their fate rests in the hands of the author. For actors, this is not such an uncommon predicament, since traditionally they already lived on as characters by the grace of script writers, production houses and broadcasters. Only extreme popularity could save them from a premature exit.

In the past it was also enough to tell the story of the moment, as an almost zen-like experience. Nobody wanted to bother with all the details, the fuzz, the humdrum of everyday life. Show the essentials and unconsciously we’ll fill in the details for ourselves, thank you.

Oh, of course, Tolkien created his elvish languages for his Lord of the Rings saga.
And Star Trek gave us Klingon.
These days, certain types of series seem to be obliged to create a whole world, a whole universe with planets and stars, races and nations, languages and dialects.
As the plot unfolds, creating  only the present is not sufficient.
The series must have a past, a present and a future.
The past is  filled in with a rather detailed history, full of dates, facts and figures.
Some series even go back to the prehistoric age of myths.
As for the future, prediction does the trick.

Even if the number of seasons is limited, television series have become ubiquitous and forever.


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