Before becoming the dominant audiovisual format that we know today, recognized by some as the 8th art, offering us many and many heroes accompanying us on a daily basis for several years and on several platforms, tv series made their timid appearance long after the cinema.
It was at the end of the 1940s that television series were born in the United States. Why then are you going to tell me? Quite simply because it was at this time that television was commercially produced and invaded homes en masse. Of course, above all, without television…. Well there is no TV series!
The appearance of the TV series is therefore the result of numerous technical, scriptwriting and narrative attempts carried out on different media and in particular radio.
You probably know soap operas?
but if, don’t do like there, these stupid things where the same thing always happens like “The young and the restless”, “Santa Barbara” and so on. Well even if it can be hard to hear, know that Breaking bad, X-files, Peaky blinders, Game of thrones and even The Wire are its descendants. Indeed, soap operas were a hit on the radios in the early 1930s for several reasons. First of all because like today’s series they have a very specific target, here the American housewife, the taste for theatrical twists, a multi-episode format to keep the housewife as long as possible and above all the talent to relaunch and constantly maintain the viewer’s attention. Basically the basics of all series today.
This radio origin largely explains why TV series have for years put more emphasis on the script than on the production. Although of course there are many exceptions!
And here I feel that you are wondering
“Hey, but why are they called “soap opera”? »
Quite simply because they were sponsored by detergent brands. Yeah, that’s a disappointing explanation.
Short ! In 1928 General Electric develops its famous W2XB, that is to say a television channel, an electromechanical TV station which will allow the first broadcasts of TV shows but also of the very first television fiction, “The Queen’s Messenger “. Obviously the result is not crazy, the image keeps disappearing and reappearing but the goal at the time was above all to test this technology which was going to revolutionize, for better or for worse, our fashions. of life !
The first golden age
From 1948 we entered the first golden age of the TV series with 4 channels that would broadcast non-stop. This is how we see series of 3 types appear:
- The “soap opera” therefore, of which they adapt the radio versions to the screen while integrating an advertising page at the beginning. (Well yeah the guys are no less stupid than at YouTube huh.)
- The sitcom, abbreviation of “Situation and Comedy”, whose episodes are shot in the studio, live in front of an audience, and which will experience the enormous success that we know of him by educating us until today as “bewitched », « Friends » or even « The office »!
Thank you “I love Lucy” who is responsible for the popularity of the genre until today! And which, moreover, it is important to note, was the work of a woman, Lucille Ball, who then approached the theme of female emancipation through work. Something rare at the time, since sitcoms were above all an opportunity to broadcast a lot of Puritan values to the American public. Remark…. our European values were not necessarily better!
- Finally, the last genre is the Anthology or drama. That is to say, a more dramatic TV series which will mainly consist of more or less filming plays. And we will not regret this format because it allowed the emergence of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman and Sidney Lumet!
Then as soon as the technique makes it possible to record the series, without necessarily shooting live, the format will evolve by trying out different genres such as with “Alfred Hitchcock presents”, or even “The Twilight Zone”. Flagship series of this first golden age, which could be described as an author series, since its creator, Rod Serling wrote ⅔ of the 156 episodes by addressing a lot of metaphysical, philosophical and societal subjects. (Yes I’m a fan!!!!)
But at the end of the 1950s, 7 of the most watched series were Westerns, simply because it was the fashionable genre in cinema at the time. Which proves in passing the strong synergy between the TV series and the cinema.
In short, the series are beginning to have a real purpose, and represent, like all works, the spirit of their time. And at the end of the 1960s, there were clearly 2 currents in this tune that clashed on television. That of the conservative and puritan America of the 50s, praising the family against that of the counterculture and the sexual liberation of the 1960s. And of course in the middle of all that there is a whole gradient nuances, as for example with “Bewitched”, where the image of the housewife changes a little thanks to her magical powers. Without, however, ever questioning her place as housewife, ultimately returning her to the archaic vision of a witch woman.
We also see series with an anti-communist unconscious, where extraterrestrials infiltrate humanity as in “The Invaders”, or, on the contrary, those representing the fantasy of an America carrying democracy and bringing peace throughout the world. with “Star Trek”
Then the format will gradually be revolutionized with series like “Columbo”, which breaks the narrative codes by reversing them, or even “The Wild Wild West”, “Mission: impossible”, etc.
Okay, it’s interesting what’s happening in the United States, but where we are?
In Europe, it is above all Great Britain which occupies the front of the stage in this regard, and which continues to occupy it well elsewhere. This is how we owe them great classics like “The Avengers” (NO! I won’t make the joke about the guys in tights), “Doctor Who” and “The Prisoner”.
True work anchored in its time and addressing many political and social themes such as the alienation of man in the face of a capitalist and bureaucratic world.
So yes, I don’t often talk about politics on my blog but those who know me won’t be surprised to see me using words such as “capitalism” and “alienation” 2, 3 times anyway! By the way, to stay within the theme, here are some examples of series from this era that say a lot about the political and social context in which they were born. And no, I promise you it won’t be boring!
At the end of the 1960s, the parenthesis of flower power closed around the Vietnam War and an authoritarian policy. Progressives and reactionaries face each other more than ever and inevitably that infuses in a good number of series. And the one perfectly embodying this opposition, is :
“All in the family”, where a young hippie faces his reactionary father-in-law. In the same line we can cite “Happy days” or “Little House on the Prairie” where we feel the fantasy of a past era and above all a desire to return to the pre-hippie years.
But we also see the emergence of feminist ideas such as equal pay or how women can live their celibacy with the series The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Or even an anti-militarist thought in the satirical series M.A.S.H.
America is also trying to face its slavery past with the series “Roots” without offering real roles to African-Americans in the series of the time. Which clearly shows the limits of such a format, always caught up in a societal unconscious where mores take a long time to evolve. A very good example of this is the “charlie’s angels” series:
At first glance we see 3 women who have been able to emancipate themselves from their social status and housewives, by studying and integrating a rather masculine job, policeman. Then it is indeed because they still occupy thankless tasks assigned to women that they emancipate themselves once again from their work by integrating a private agency where they will finally be in the foreground. But despite what seems like a great victory for the time, they are nevertheless, once again, under the orders of a man, Charlie, and serve as objects of fantasy for the spectator during the fight scenes.
In short, there is still a long way to go!
Especially since in 1978 appears a series which will be totally the incarnation of a
America Reaganienne, liberal, paternalistic and reactionary, “Dallas”! And it will last until 1991! And this is how many series will have served as cultural imperialism, soft propaganda to serve us the American way of life as the most enviable, as the horizon to reach! And it hurts to say it but among these we find for example “K2000”, “MacGyver”, “The Dukes of Hazzard”, “The A-Team” etc.
At this time, we also see the arrival of Super Hero series, such as The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. And they meet with great success, demonstrating the need to reassure a population traumatized by certain military defeats such as Vietnam. A population that needed to rediscover the image of a strong and protective America embodying the return of heroes to the country.
But in short! For the moment, the series are still all cast in the same mold and differ a little from those of today. And surprisingly it is a detective series, very little known to us, which will revolutionize serial art: “Hill Street Blues”. Indeed, this series will reinvent the usual narration by bringing much more realism and nuance, by de-idealizing the figure of the American policeman. But it is above all with it that we see many of the narrative springs used in all today’s series appear, especially with the creation of parallel plots associated with the main narrative arcs running over several episodes.
Kind of like X-files. But it is especially with them that we see the appearance of the pre-credits that we love so much when we launch our series of the moment.
We are in 1990 and the series have existed for about 40 years! And as we know, 40 is the age of the midlife crisis, this crisis where we want to relive our youth a little and put subversion in our lives! And that’s exactly what happens with the appearance of series that will no longer aim to reassure us and brush us in the right direction, but that will be ambiguous, acerbic, precisely criticizing all this pop culture that has constructed as a spectator. This is how 2 masterpieces once again revolutionized the genre with The Simpsons by Matt Groening and the mystical-cult Twin Peaks by the great David Lynch.
2 series that will take 10 years to impose a genre that has become the norm today. And indeed it is clearly thanks to Lynch, who introduced cinematographic ambition through the series on television, that today many great directors want to have their series. Do you remember when I told you that serial art, like all art, says a lot about the evolution of our lifestyles, our sociology, etc.?
Well this is once again what will happen with the appearance of series like Friends or even Seinfeld which this time will focus more on the lives of young single people, since the classic family model has lost some of its superb.
In reality and as with everything, this is mainly due to the fact that these young single people have precisely become the new main target of the consumer society which has found a new niche here. As she also did with the teenagers of our generation by precisely creating the series for teens with for example “Beverly Hills”, “Buffy the vampire slayer”, “Teen Wolf”, “Supernatural”…
Second Golden Age
And I think we can all thank the HBO channel, which historically was rather associated with sports and cinema, for having started producing series, each one more cult than the other. And above all more radical, leaving authors and directors the freedom to create their works. So Netflix can also thank them I think! The cause of all this? Well, as often, money and transgression, because HBO being a subscription channel, it was able to overcome the fear of not pleasing advertisers to offer something completely different.
Moreover, as a cable channel, it is not subject to the Federal Communications Commission, which prohibited sex and vulgarity. Suffice to say that she will take advantage of this freedom without skimping with the Oz series where the prison universe had never been shown with such realism, without any limit.
Will obviously follow, The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under until Game of Thrones today.
In short, since it works for HBO, all the other channels finally get started, making advertisers happy with all these series that we know by heart: “Lost”, “Dexter”, “Dr House”, “Weeds “, “Nip Tuck”, “CSI”, Desperate Housewives…
In England we are entitled to Dr Who and The Office…
The Netflix era
2007 arrives and with it the economic crisis. A crisis that will encourage channels to make sequels and other remakes rather than continuing to innovate. But fortunately or not, it’s not up to me to decide, the streaming platforms are coming, re-bringing a fresh wind to all this and giving a boost of creativity. It must be said that with streaming and other illegal downloads, our consumption habits have drastically changed and it has become out of the question to wait each week for the broadcast of your series on a channel.
of TV! Exception made with Game of Thrones which still manages to stay the course with its many twists which will also make its signature and create a new genre, that of the Blockbuster series.
But in short, with the internet and the attention economy, everything goes faster and precisely our attention needs to be captured in the midst of the hundreds of proposals that we receive per day. This is how platforms such as Netflix, Disney+, or even Amazon Prime Video arrive, offering us entire seasons without having to wait patiently for 1 or 2 episodes each week. And therefore with less risk of being spoiled by an asshole colleague / classmate!
Yes ! Yes, I still have resentment!
And this is how many directors come to find in the series, the new comforter for consumers, the artistic freedom that they no longer have in the Cinema.
In short, the series really gains its letters of nobility and becomes the format of audiovisual consumption par excellence. In particular, she appropriates the codes of her time with, for example, a much more feminist and transidentitarian approach which began in particular with “Madmen” until the famous “Sense8”, “Orange is the New Black” or even “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
We also have a number of so-called “historical” series which are starting to make a name for themselves, such as “Vikings” for example, and which, through their commercial success, reinforce stereotypes or propagate fantasized versions of History. In Vikings, it is the figure of the barbarian who is put forward, in “Downton Abbey”, an idealized aristocratic society is born, while “Game of Thrones”, largely inspired by History,
conveys the image of a still dark and violent Middle Ages.
This should not be seen as a necessarily negative criticism on my part, like other media, historical series allow the general public to be interested in them, and that’s already not bad!
So much for my little overview of the history of TV series. I hope you found the reading interesting.
I leave you until next week with a new Ethereal Stories.
Until then, take care of yourself and your loved ones and see you soon!