From Academic Kids

Note: This article is about serials in literature and the audio-visual media.

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Serial is a term, originating in literature, for a format by which a story is told in contiguous installments in sequential issues of a single periodical publication. By extension, it also came to apply to a film issued in the same installment manner over a period of sequential weeks at a single movie house.

In recent times, the term has been used to define any radio or television production with any continuous evolution of a unified plot and set of characters character spread over multiple episodes and even years (see, e.g., soap opera ). The unity of plot and contiguity across numerous episodes, and the contiguity of these episodes, distinguishes a radio or television serial from a radio or television series.


During the 19th century, many popular writers earned a living from writing stories in serial form for popular magazines of the day. Many of Charles Dickens' novels were originally published in this manner, for example, and this is the reason many of them are so long - the more chapters he wrote, the longer the serial continued in the magazine and the more money he was paid. Other famous writers who wrote serial literature for popular magazines include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the Sherlock Holmes stories originally for serialisation in The Strand magazine.


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Poster for The Perils of Pauline

Poster for The Perils of Pauline, (1914)

A serial, or cliffhanger, was a popular form of movie entertainment that dated back to Edison's What Happened to Mary? of 1912. Usually filmed with low budgets, serials were action-packed stories that usually involved a hero (or heroes) battling an evil villain and rescuing a damsel in distress. The villain would continually place the hero into inescapable deathtraps and situations, or the heroine would be placed into a deathtrap and the hero would bravely come to her rescue, usually pulling her away from certain death only instants before she met her doom. The hero and heroine would face one trap after another, battling countless thugs and lackeys, before finally defeating the villain "once and for all"...even though the villain would almost always get away at the end, to return at a future date.

Many famous cliches of action-adventure movies had their origins in the serials. The popular term cliffhanger was developed as a plot device in film serials (though its origins have been traced by some historians to the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle), and it comes from the many times that the hero or heroine would end up hanging over a cliff, usually as the villain gloated above and waited for them to plummet thousands of feet to their deaths. Other popular cliches included the heroine being tied to a railroad track; being lashed to a log in a sawmill, lying on a conveyor belt and approaching a gigantic whirling sawblade; or being trapped in an abandoned mine shaft, watching as the burning fuse of a nearby bundle of dynamite sparked and sputtered its way towards the deadly explosive. The popular Indiana Jones movies are a well-known, romantic pastiche of the serials' clichéd plot elements and devices.

The serials were filmed in separate parts, and each chapter (a typical serial usually had fifteen of them) would be screened at the same theater for one week. The serial would end with a cliffhanger, as the hero and heroine would find themselves in the latest perilous situation from which there could be no escape. The audience would have to return the next week (and pay admission) to find out how the hero and heroine would escape and battle the villain once again. Serials were especially popular with children, and for many youths in the first half of the 20th century, a typical Saturday at the movies included a chapter of at least one serial, along with cartoons, newsreels, and two feature films.

Silent Era

Famous American serials of the silent era include The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine. Some major studios of the silent era, such as Vitagraph and Essanay, produced them, as did Warner Brothers, Fox, and Universal as well as a firm later amalgamated into MGM, Pathé. Several independent companies (for example, Mascot Pictures) made Western serials. A serial version of Tarzan was also made by a minor studio. Europe had its own serials, notably the French Judex and the German Homonculus.

Sound Era

The arrival of sound technology made it costlier to produce serials, so that they were no longer as profitable on a flat rental basis. Further, the Great Depression made it impossible for many of the smaller companies which had turned out serials to upgrade to sound, and they therefore went out of business. Only one serial specialty company, Mascot Pictures was in fact able to make the transition from silent to sound filmmaking: Universal Pictures also kept its serial unit alive through the transition.

In the early 1930s a handful of independent companies tried their hand at making serials, but managed only two or three, including the once-prolific Weiss Brothers. The Weisses bought a little time when Columbia Pictures decided to take a try at serials, and contracted with them (as Adventure Serials Inc.) to make three chapterplays. They were successful enough that Columbia then established its own serial unit and the Weisses essentially disappeared from the serial scene. This was in 1937, and Columbia was probably inspired by the previous year's serial blockbuster success at Universal, Flash Gordon, the first serial ever to play at a major theater on Broadway; and by the success of that same year of the newly-created Republic Pictures, which dedicated itself to a program of serials and westerns, eschewing major productions in their favor. The creation of Republic involved the absorption of Mascot Pictures, so that by 1937, serial production was now in the hands of three companies only - Universal, Columbia and Republic, with Republic quickly becoming the acknowledged leader in quality serial product. Each company turned out four to five serials per year, of 12 to 15 episodes each, a pace which they all kept up until the end of World War II when, in 1946, Universal dropped its serial unit along with its b-picture unit and renamed its production department Universal-International Pictures. Republic and Columbia continued unchallenged, with about 4 serials per year each, Republic fixing theirs at 12 chapters each while Columbia fixed at fifteen.

By the mid-50s, however, episode television series and the sale of older serials to TV syndicators by all the current and past major sound serial producers, together with the loss of audience attendance at Saturday matinees in general, made serial-making a losing proposition.

Peak form

The classical serial has a first episode of nearly 40 minutes in length, and begins with reports of a masked, secret, or unsuspected villain menacing an unspecific part of America. This episode has the most detailed credits at the beginning, often with pictures of the actors with their names and that of the character they play. Often there follows a montage of scenes lifted from the cliffhangers of previous serials to depict the ways in which the master criminal was a serial killer with a motive. The candidates for being this villain are presented, and the viewer often hears the voice but does not see the face of this mastermind commanding his "spearpoint villain," similar to a sergeant, whom the viewer will see in just about every episode.

From eleven to fourteen weeks thereafter, an episode nearer 20 minutes in length was presented, in which the spearpoint villain and lesser thugs commit crimes in various places, fight the hero, and trap someone to make the ending a cliffhanger. Many of the episodes have clues, dialogue, and events to lead the viewer to think that any of the candidates were the mastermind. As serials were made by writing the whole script first and then slicing it into portions filmed at various sites, often the same location would be used several times in the serial, often given different signage, or none at all, just being referred to differently. There would often be a female love interest of the male hero, or a female hero herself, but as the audience was mainly children, there was no hugging and kissing.

One episode, near the end of this run, was often an "economy episode" in which the characters reminisce about their adventures so as to introduce showing those scenes again. This type of episode usually had a cheap, mechanical cliffhanger, like a time bomb rather than being unconscious in a runaway vehicle.

The last episode was often a bit longer than most, for its tasks were to unmask the head villain, who usually was someone completely unsuspected, wrap up the loose ends, and end with a triumphal proclamation, followed by a joke -- and sometimes a kiss.

Production practices

The firms saved money by reusing the same cliffhangers over the years. Mines or tunnels flooded often, even in Flash Gordon, and the same model cars and trains went off the same cliffs and bridges. Republic had a Packard limousine and a Ford Woodie station wagon used in serial after serial so they could match the shots with the stock footage from the model or previous stunt driving. Three different serials had them chasing the Art Deco sound truck, required for location shooting, for various reasons. Male fistfighters all wore hats so that the change from actor to stunt double would not be caught so easily.

Exposition of what led up to the previous episode's cliffhanger was usually displayed on placards with a photograph of one of the characters on it. In 1939, Universal brought the first "scrolling text" exposition to the serial, which George Lucas used in Star Wars in 1977. As this would have required subcontracting the optical effects, Republic saved money by not using it.

Stylistic differences between the studios

The major difference between the serials made by the various firms lay in that the minor studios had their own retinue of actors and writers, their own prop department, existing sets, stock footage, and music library. The early independent studios had none of these, except for being able to rent the sets of independent Western features. As the serials were bought sight-unseen by the lesser theaters for an audience of children, their product often had the worst acting and scripts, the least capable direction, and the most monotonous music ever screened: worse than any film that got reviewed in print.

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The Adventures of Captain Marvel, one of the celebrated serials of the sound era.

Although Republic was not even a minor studio, the serials they produced have been hailed as some of the best, especially those directed by John English and William Witney who widely considered among the most talented directors in the form. In addition to screenwriting many critics thought was quite capable, the firm also introduced choreographed fistfights which often included their stuntmen throwing things in desperation at one another in every fight to heighten the action. In addition, their productions were praised for their production values such as convincing explosions and other disasters as well as more fantastic visuals such as Captain Marvel flying. However, they were also somewhat hampered with limited shooting facilities, such as lacking a their own backlot and props. This often prompted repeatedly using familiar cars and locations from generic settings like same warehouses, stairwells, offices and specialized locations like a certain speedboat rental pier. They were able to get the rights to the newspaper comic character Dick Tracy, the radio character The Lone Ranger, and the comic book characters Captain America, Captain Marvel, and Spy Smasher.

Columbia was the firm that got the most of these name-brand heroes. From newspaper comics, they got Brenda Starr, Terry and the Pirates, Mandrake the Magician, and The Phantom; from the comic books, Blackhawk, Congo Bill, a time traveller named Brick Bradford, and Batman and Superman; from radio, Jack Armstrong, Hop Harrigan, and The Shadow; from the British novelist, Edgar Wallace, the first archer superhero: The Green Archer; and even from television: Captain Video. Columbia substituted animation for more expensive special effects and showed the audience that the cliffhanger would not kill the hero by having a reassuring announcer pose the next episode's menace at the end of the episode. Their scripts had more humor than the others, often to the point of being far more absurd. And even though this was an important studio in comparison to the independent ones, it merely released serials which were subcontacted out to units outside their main production system.

Universal was the studio with the most available resources. It had the best writing, so they made the best use of their contracted actors. The start of some of their episodes has the exposition of the cliffhanger given in conversation, rather than appearing on placard stills. They were able to get the characters Green Hornet and Ace Drummond from radio, and Smilin' Jack, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon from newspaper comics.

Universal also signed on four of Warner Brothers' Dead End Kids to star in three serials. Although Bela Lugosi started working for Universal, his frustration at the greater celebrity of Boris Karloff made him act in several independent serials, but only one for Universal.

Radio & television

With the advent of television and the decline of the moviegoing audience, production of serials ceased due to the decreasing audience (and revenues). But the serial lived on, moving instead to the small screen and the world of TV reruns.

The serial format as we know today actually originated in radio, in the form of 15-minute programs known as soap operas (so-called because many of these shows were sponsored by soap companies, such as Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble). One of the shows that helped pioneer the daytime serial was The Guiding Light, which debuted on NBC radio in 1937, and is still airing today on CBS Television (where "Guiding Light" has been since 1952). Some of the characters in serials have been portrayed as long-suffering (a common theme even in some of today's serials along with the social and economical issues of the day).

Guiding Light and such other daytime serials such as As the World Turns (premiered in 1956), General Hospital (premiered in 1963), Days of Our Lives (premiered in 1965), One Life to Live (premiered in 1968), All My Children (premiered in 1970), and The Young and the Restless (premiered in 1973) were popular in the Golden and Silver Ages of television, and still are today.

Aside from the social issues, the style and presentation of these shows have changed. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s the drama was underscored with traditional organ music, and in the 1970s and the 1980s a full orchestra provided the score, the daytime dramas of today use cutting-edged synth-driven music (in a way, music for soaps has come full-circle, from the keyboard to the keyboard).

The nighttime serials are a different story, though the concept is also nothing new. In the 1960s, ABC aired the first real breakthrough nighttime serial, Peyton Place, inspired by the novel and theatrical film of the same name. After its cancellation, the format went somewhat dormant until the mid-1970s when ABC themselves brought it back with, of all things, a comedy soap (aptly called Soap). Although the show was controversial for its time (with a homosexual character among its cast roster), it was (and still is today) a cult classic.

The era of "primetime soaps" (as they are often called) really began to reach its peak when CBS began to air Dallas (which propelled Larry Hagman to stardom) in 1978. It was with this show that defined the end-of-season cliffhanger (with its "Who Shot J.R.?" and "Bobby In The Shower?" storylines) that is still utilized in today's series (whether it is a serial or not).

In the 1980s, you could find other nighttime soaps as Dynasty (ABC's answer to "Dallas"), Knots Landing, The Yellow Rose, and Falcon Crest. There were some serial shows such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere that did not officially fit into this category, but were nonetheless ratings hits season after season. As the 1990s came to a close, the primetime soap as an official format slowly passed into the sunset.

But the primetime serial constructure can still be seen today in such shows as E.R., The West Wing, 24 and Alias. The term "serial" has become outdated, however, and viewers now speak in terms of these shows making use of "story arcs." In addition, it has been noted that the use of cliffhangers is still prevalent in adventure shows, its just that they are now typically used just before a commercial break and the viewer need only wait a few minutes to see its resolution. In addition, 24 and Alias, as well as other series such as Star Trek: Enterprise have also extensively made use of the traditional end-of-episode cliffhanger format. This often applies to their season finales which often end in a cliffhanger that would only be resolved in the next season's premiere.

In British television, the term 'serial' is usually used to cover what American audiences would more commonly call a 'miniseries'. Many British television serials tend to be high-profile dramas, either costume drama such as Pride and Prejudice (BBC ONE, 1995) or contemporary social drama such as Our Friends in the North (BBC TWO, 1996). In addition, Doctor Who's stories have a limited serial format with the typical episode running around four parts, though some stories like "The Dalek Master Plan" ran as long as twelve. However, the revived series has abandoned the format for standard self contained episodes with some two parters along with an overall plot fr:Feuilleton it:Feuilleton nl:Cliffhanger


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