Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television
Discussions of so-called “Quality TV” and the narrative complexity seen to characterize the best of contemporary serial television productions often trade on categories of distinction derived from comparisons with “respectable” cultural forms (e.g. the novel as a model for “serious” engagement); these discourses value an intellectually demanding, heady sort of appeal that is opposed both to the narrative simplicity supposedly characteristic of older televisual forms (strictly episodic forms, melodramatic soap operas, etc.) and to the baser appeals of contemporary “trash TV” (e.g. the basically voyeuristic interest encouraged by reality TV). Interestingly, though, graphic scenes of sex and violence proliferate across contemporary television series, including shows widely valued for their cognitive demands; today, bodies are put on display, violated, tortured, dissected, and ripped apart in ways unimaginable on TV screens just a decade ago. In this presentation, I argue that these body spectacles – which range from clinical/forensic to brutal/gory to pornographic – challenge us to rethink the basis of television studies’ formal and normative distinctions. In particular, the complex mental operations valued as correlates of narratological complexity must be seen to take place side by side with a range of more corporeal responses on the part of television viewers. Finally, I propose an alternative view of televisual complexity and serialization: appealing to the body as much as the head, contemporary television will be shown to involve a serialization of bodies (both onscreen and off) that constitutes a central affective mechanism for engaging viewers week after week in long-form serial television.