Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Evolution of the Serial Format In Dick Tracy and Jessica Jones

Seriality has a long and intricate history spanning a variety of different technologies. The history of seriality can be linked as far back as the novels of Victorian-era authors such as Charles Dickens and Jules Verne. The earliest serial films began to emerge in the second decade of the twentieth century, but reached their height in the 1930’s with productions such as Dick Tracy. Over time, serials moved into comics, radio, and television. Serial programs are still produced today, becoming a popular approach for television shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

While the concept of seriality has existed for a long time, it has evolved with changes in technology and audience. The 1930’s productions made for weekly releases in theaters, such as Dick Tracy, are very different from modern productions made with the expectations of online streaming and recording of episodes. The introduction of streaming services such as Netflix has allowed the production of a variety of new serials, including Jessica Jones.

Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy both follow the same basic premise on a narrative level: a detective trying to outwit a dangerous criminal. Jessica Jones is a Private Eye, while Dick Tracy is a vaguely defined FBI agent or “G-Man.” Dick Tracy’s main opponent is a mysterious criminal leader known only as “The Lame One,” while Jessica Jones is trying to outwit a mysterious psychopath with mind control powers named Kilgrave. In both cases the detectives find themselves locked in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with their nemesis, encountering a variety of challenging obstacles along the way.

The Fire Trap ends with Dick Tracy being tied up and locked on a burning ship, leaving the viewer to return the following week to find out how he escapes

Dick Tracy was released as a serial film in 1937, with episodes being shown in theaters once a week. Jessica Jones was released in its entirety on Netflix in 2015. Although they have a similar premise and explore the same themes, these two productions are drastically different representations of serial format. A discussion of these two in relation to each other allows a means by which to explore the structural, technological, cultural, and economic changes that have affected seriality, and how it has adapted over time.

Changes in the serial structure are largely connected to new business practices. In the 1930’s, serials functioned as a means to encourage audiences to return to the theater on a regular basis. It would have usually screened with several other programs including newsreels, cartoons, and a feature film. Even if the viewer was mainly attending for the feature, they would still be seeing the other programs before it started. Running a serial once a week encouraged audiences to return to the theater and buy tickets to the next episode of their favorite serial adventure.

The introduction of online streaming services allows for a new business model not available to theaters of the 1930’s, specifically one which allows for binge-watching. Netflix is based instead on a monthly subscription, wherein an audience pays a fee once a month and is able to access their entire catalogue. Because the viewer is already paying for the subscription, it becomes irrelevant how many episodes of a show they watch in succession. Netflix no longer has to charge for individual episodes to ensure that audiences retain their subscriptions. Instead, the main draw for viewers is access to an extensive and routinely updated catalogue.

Like Netflix, the old Hollywood serials relied on trying to attract a continuous audience, but changes in technology leave them with different goals. The Old Hollywood serials were made to draw people towards the theater and to encourage viewers to attend on a regular basis. Television did not yet exist as a form of technology, limiting the format to radio and film. Different business models are required in order to adapt to changing technologies, and with them the structures of different serials have to adapt.

Seriality has had to change with variations in technology that have presented different methods of distribution and viewing practices. One of the main reasons why popularity of the repetitive 1930’s film serials eventually began to fade was the introduction of radio programs. Radio was initially seen as a means of appealing to women, who were seen as being domestic and listening to the program while doing household chores. In the 1950’s, seriality moved from radio to television, which resulted in a series of new programs being produced to accommodate the new technology. The later introduction of VCR finally offered some control, as audiences could now record and play back episodes of their favorite shows. Online streaming provides access to an entire series at once.

Serial films of the 1930’s were structured around a distinct formula based on repetition and recycling. Scott Higgins, in his book Matinee Melodrama, argues that each episode of a serial was based on a five part structure: an action sequence which resolves the previous cliffhanger, a short expository sequence to establish any important information, a main action sequence, a second expository sequence, and finally a third action sequence that sets up the cliffhanger. Unlike films of the 1930’s, serials generally favored action over narrative progression, minimizing exposition to short sequences and only establishing whatever information was immediately relevant.

As a result, serials were based heavily on recycling and repeating ideas while creating the appearance of variety. Many early films, Dick Tracy included, were produced on low-budgets and had to find ways to re-use sets. Character development was also minimized, with psychology being glossed over in favor of stock characters that could be re-used across different narratives. This is very different from the approaches taken in modern serial form.

Modern serials, Jessica Jones included, arguably invert the formula. Action becomes secondary to character development. Whereas the characters of 1930’s serials lacked any depth and mainly served to provide a thin context for action, psychology becomes crucial to the modern serial. Jessica Jones places a strong emphasis on getting to know its strong but emotionally troubled protagonist on a personal level.

Jones’ search for the mysterious Kilgrave (David Tennant) serves as a means of exploring her psychological processes. This is also true of the supporting cast, with a lot of the narrative focusing on Jones’ relationship to her best friend Trish Walker and Lawyer Kate Hogarth (Carrie Ann-Moss), both of whom are faced with psychological challenges of their own. The supporting cast also receives extensive psychological profiling, offering details to their background, relationships, and personal lives.

The first two episodes focus purely on establishing Jones as a character and her background with the story’s main antagonist. Kilgrave himself is reduced to flashbacks, being seen once from behind in the first episode, which visualizes a witness’s account of his relationship with Hope Schlottman; and in the following installment through a series of flashbacks which show his prior efforts to control Jones. These episodes focus purely on exposition and psychology, presenting a stage against which to frame the narrative.

The first episode focuses exclusively on establishing Jones as a detective, with important plot developments delayed to the end or following installments.

Cliffhanger endings are a tool which is used to provide an easy connection between installments and to draw the viewer from one episode to the next. Ordinarily this is structured around an unresolved plot thread which requires the viewer to return to see the outcome. The most famous aspect of the 1930’s serial structure is their constant use of cliffhanger endings. Each episode generally ended with the main character faced with a dangerous situation with the expectation that the viewer would return to the theater the following week hoping for resolution.

These cliffhangers were often contrived and unoriginal, and in many cases recycled. Four of Dick Tracy’s fifteen episodes end with an aerial chase which results in a vehicle crashing. The first instance of this ending, Bridge of Terror, sees Dick Tracy crashing a biplane into a bridge, with the resolution amounting to him and his partner climbing out of the wreck unharmed. The resolutions to the later plane crashes (and zeppelin crash, in The Stratosphere Adventure) mostly involve the characters simply parachuting to safety.

In the last of four aerial chases, The Stratosphere Adventure ends with Dick Tracy unconscious aboard a burning zeppelin

Jessica Jones displays a greater variety of cliffhanger endings, which function differently from those of the 1930’s serials. Instead of ending each episode with Jones facing a life-threatening situation, the endings are often structured around unexpected developments, leaving the viewer with questions, or building anticipation for later plotlines. Hope Schlottman’s unexpected murder of her parents sets up the question of how Jones will prove she was being mind-controlled.

Jessica Jones is also fond of psychological and emotional cliffhangers. Many episodes end with sudden twists or developments that display a sense of anticipation in the viewer, as well as concern for what may happen in the future. Several cliffhangers revolve around developments related to Kilgrave—the collection of photographs he has of Jones, the reveal that he has been getting information from her junkie neighbour, and the reveal that Kilgrave has purchased her childhood home. Each of these set up important psychological developments by showing how obsessed Kilgrave is with Jones. This has the added effect of making the viewer uncomfortable and leaving them wanting immediate resolution. It also provides tension for the viewer by leaving them concerned for what Kilgrave is planning to do to Jones in the next encounter.

Unlike Dick Tracy, these moments function to construct anticipation for long-term narrative developments rather than immediate resolution at the beginning of the next episode. Hope Schlottman’s murder of her parents leaves the viewer to question how Jones will prove that she was being mind-controlled, a plot thread that is not resolved until eight episodes later. When it does reach its resolution, the show plays on the viewer’s expectations through a twist—Jones is unsuccessful in finding any evidence, and Schlottman instead opts to kill herself so that she can no longer be used as leverage against Jones.

This sudden development functions on an emotional level, shocking the viewer who had been set up to expect a more optimistic resolution, but it also creates a sense of anticipation. Until now, Schlottman has been used as leverage to keep Jones from taking action against Kilgrave. With her death, Jones is free to take action against him. Delaying this moment to near the end of the season builds up anticipation of their final confrontation and Jones’ eventual victory over Kilgrave.

The closest instance to a traditional cliffhanger ending occurs when Luke Cage’s bar explodes with him inside. It does set up a crisis to be resolved in the next episode, but unlike Dick Tracy the outcome is less certain. In the 1930’s serials, it was always a guarantee that the hero would escape from their current situation unscathed. No matter how many times Dick Tracy ended up in a plane or boat-related accident the audience knew he would find a way out; the question was how he would escape. To a viewer watching Jessica Jones without the knowledge that Cage later gets his own series, the question becomes whether he will escape at all.

In both Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy, these structures set up anticipation for the next episode and the hope for resolution, but they are very differently produced. Dick Tracy was released in 1937, at a time when it was being screened at movie theaters once a week. A viewer would have to first learn where and when the film was being played, arrive at the theater on the correct day, buy a ticket, and then return the following week to see the next installment. Jessica Jones was produced and distributed through Netflix. The viewer can now watch from home instead of going to a theater, with immediate access to the entire series.

One detail that offers a significant departure from the format of older serials is the need to construct and expand a world. (Williams 2014) Jessica Jones itself is set within the same continuity as The Avengers, which already is building on the stories set up by several different Marvel Films. This idea was taken further a year later, with the release of a spin-off show, Luke Cage.

Luke Cage, a character who played a major role in Jessica Jones, takes on a leading role in the new series, further expanding the world established by Jessica Jones. The only other direct link to the series comes in the form of Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, who had previously made a guest appearance in Jessica Jones’ season finale, and now becomes a regular partner to Cage. The appearances of these characters work to ground the viewer in the world of the story through familiar faces, even though Luke Cage is largely dealing with a new group of characters and different situations.

The low budget of Dick Tracy requires that a few sets be re-used for filming, allowing a few familiar locations to recur such as Dick Tracy’s office and the laboratory in which he works. There is also the abandoned power plant which is introduced as the Spider Ring’s headquarters in Bridge of Terror and becomes the setting for the final showdown in Brothers United. Beyond this, there is little to establish a consistent or detailed world to be explored and expanded.

The plotlines of Dick Tracy are often disjointed and involve a different situation each week. Aside from the overall narrative involving Tracy’s quest to break up the “Spider Ring,” there is little to connect the plots of individual episodes. The Spider Ring returned each week but their goals always changed, resulting in different plans for Tracy to foil. After immediately resolving the previous episode’s cliffhanger, each episode would move on to a new problem. After identifying the power plant as the Spider Ring’s headquarters in Bridge of Terror, The Fur Pirates leaves this plotline behind in favor of moving to a harbor where the Spider Ring has suddenly started stealing furs.

This trend continues through the following episodes, with each installment introducing new plotlines only to suddenly abandon them. The Ghost Town Mystery suddenly shows the Spider Ring taking interest in a Gold Mine, which only gets mentioned again in The Trail of the Spider—a recap episode which mainly uses footage from previous installments. These abrupt changes and lack of a clear narrative connection beyond its characters makes it much more difficult to construct a coherent world.

The narrative works primarily with stock characters over individuals with any psychological depth. Members of the cast are mostly reduced to a few easily recognizable roles such as Dick Tracy as the investigator (who shows little depth beyond being concerned about his missing brother) and Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) as the comic relief. None of these characters are given much depth beyond their basic role. There is little room to get to know any of them on a personal level.

Even the closest thing to a psychological conflict in the story—the disappearance of Gordon Tracy (who has been kidnapped and brainwashed to serve the Spider Ring) is often glossed over. Beyond Dick Tracy mentioning occasionally that he is concerned about his brother, the psychological ramifications are overlooked, even after the two confront each other multiple times in action sequences. Almost nothing is established about Tracy’s relationship with his brother prior to his abduction.

This is very different from the narrative structure of Jessica Jones. Over the course of the series, she solves several cases, but as the series moves forward the story becomes primarily about her and Kilgrave, eventually building up to a showdown in the season finale. Unlike the “Lame One”, Kilgrave’s motives and goals are far more consistent throughout the series. Instead of jumping from one task to another each episode, Kilgrave instead sets long-term goals that occur throughout the season, most of them related to an interest in psychologically manipulating Jones. Likewise, Jones’ methods of trying to stop him carry across multiple episodes, as does her psychology and personal life. Developments over the course of the series present long-term psychological effects on Jones.

One of the most important distinctions between Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy is the expectations left for the viewer. The audiences who watched Dick Tracy were very different from those watching Jessica Jones. In the 1930’s, going to the movie theater was more or less the only way most audiences could expect to see anything on screen. It was a luxury for many people living in the middle of the Great Depression who were more conscious of how their money was spent. People who went to see Dick Tracy would barely be able to conceive of modern streaming services such as Netflix. Now a viewer at home could have access to an entire series with complete control over how and when they watch it.

Online streaming has led to a practice known as “binge-watching.” A viewer in the 1930’s would only have been able to watch an episode of their favorite serial if it was playing at a nearby theater. 1930’s audiences lacked any form of control over when the serials played. The more modern practice of “binge-watching” changes everything. A viewer today watching Jessica Jones on Netflix is given total control over their own viewing practices. Episodes can be stopped and started as the audience sees fit, and a viewer can watch multiple episodes in immediate succession.

In theory, there are practices that could be seen as early precursors to binge-watching. Serialized Victorian novels could be compiled together into a complete story. Readers of newspaper comics such as Superman could cut out the strips as they were published and subsequently read through them to produce a continuing story. Some movie theaters would also opt to schedule programs in which multiple episodes of a serial would be shown in succession, especially in the 1960’s when nostalgia could be used as a marketing factor.

A variation on this practice which became popular in the 1950’s is the made-from-TV film, a practice wherein multiple episodes of a TV series were edited and re-released theatrically as a feature film. In theory, this would allow the viewer to watch multiple installments at once and experience a somewhat complete narrative, but the editing practices involved make this different from modern binge-watching. Instead of watching the original series, the viewer is instead seeing re-edited footage from different episodes brought together in order to create the appearance of a contained narrative. In order to fit the program into a feature-length runtime, large portions of each episode could be cut, taking out much of their original contexts.

Ramar of the Jungle, originally released as a TV series in 1952, later saw several "movies" produced by combining several episodes

One of the main reasons why binge watching has become especially popular today is that the audience has complete control over how they watch their shows. Previously, the only way to binge-watch a show was if a theater or television network had programmed multiple episodes together. Even while watching 1930’s serials, a viewer can can start and stop it as they see fit due to re-releases both on DVD and online.

Unlike the made-from-television movie, the viewer is watching the show in its original installments rather than a re-edited short version. Even when watching multiple episodes of a serial in a theater, the viewer could only see what had been programmed. This was a practice that would have been alien to 1930’s audiences, but quickly became an attraction for Netflix. Jessica Jones was a show produced with the intent from the start of being released in its entirety for binge watching.

The 1930’s audience would have been more accustomed to going to the theater. The Great Depression was going on at the time, and a large portion of the viewers were working-class Americans. They lacked control over what they would be seeing when they attended. Theaters of the era usually had only one or two screens, so ordinarily a viewer would only be buying a ticket to whatever was currently programmed, which would often include newsreels, cartoons, a serial, and a feature film.

For viewers interested in following a serial like Dick Tracy, this would have created a much stronger need to attend the theater at the correct moment in order to see what would be happening next. Audiences within the 1930’s were used to lacking control, and likely tried to save some of whatever money they had to attend the theater each week. The introduction of binge-watching makes this redundant for a modern viewer, even one viewing Dick Tracy, who knows they can start the next episode as soon as it is convienient.

A 1930’s-style serial would not work in a modern context. Audiences today have access to a global network, and are able to watch programs from home. The advent of streaming sources such as Netflix and the popularity of binge-watching has made viewers more accustomed to being able to watch shows instantly. Audiences of the 1930’s, who lacked internet access and could only watch movies by going to the theater, would have been more patient. A modern viewer would struggle to wait for a resolution, and today could easily learn what happened before they even see the next episode.

Narratively, serials of the 1930’s would not work as well when run today. The modern audience of Jessica Jones is used to seeing strong psychologically driven protagonists. The use of stock characters would be frustrating and ineffective at compelling viewers to continue watching. The contrived cliffhangers would leave viewers more annoyed, and the choice to delay narrative progression in favor of action would make the films seem even more infuriating especially when episodes are binge-watched.

Seriality has existed in a variety of forms. In the 1930’s, it was presented through a series of weekly installments. Today, people can record episodes of television programs or access an entire series through an online service and watch multiple episodes in succession. Changes in business practices and distribution methods have resulted in access to different audiences with different expectations. Because of this, the serial structure of shows like Dick Tracy has been replaced by Netflix programs such as Jessica Jones.

By comparing Dick Tracy and Jessica Jones, it is clear that they are reflective of differing business practices and technologies available at different times. The disjointed weekly installments of Dick Tracy are structured very differently with different audiences in mind. Where the serials of the 1930’s required a viewer to return weekly to the theater at a pre-designated time, modern services like Netflix allow a viewer to watch an entire series at once from home.

This new structure reflects a change in viewership, which has become accustomed to different technologies. The audiences of Jessica Jones who can watch the entire series lack the patience of the audiences who returned weekly for Dick Tracy. The change in business model from individual theater tickets to a subscription fee has allowed viewers to binge watch, a practice not possible for audiences of the 1930’s.

It is likely that in the future, seriality will continue to evolve with new technological developments and with it so will audiences and business practices. New distribution methods will allow audiences even greater access to different shows and will result in new viewing practices and expectations.

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