From my unpublished "Next Week at This Theater":
"Generalities about any enterprise – and in particular, the movies – are very, very dangerous"
… silent era serial writer Frank Leon Smith
According to conventional wisdom, the American motion picture serial enjoyed a prominent beginning, a lowbrow but profitable middle, and a sorry end. But is that quite true? Did the chapter serial slink meekly into the night after the release in 1956 of Columbia's Blazing the Overland Trail? As a specific genre, certainly, but the thrill-a-minute action-oriented fare never left us. If what cineastes routinely dismiss as B-Movies were more or less ignored in the oh, so intellectual 1960s and 1970s with their auteurs and art houses, they certainly came back with a vengeance in the following decades. For what is today's summer blockbuster release if not a multi-million dollar serial spectacular? Long on concept and special effects, just like serials used to be, and short on characterization and motivation. Again, exactly like the classic cliffhanger. The only ingredients missing, and, granted, they are important ones, are the cliffhangers and holdover suspense.
The comic book hero, once the exclusive domain of serial producers, is back as well, and if the Spider- Super- and Batmen – not to mention even more recent incarnations of The Green Hornet and Captain America – of today benefit from modern technology – most importantly digital – the FX Lydecker brothers of Republic Pictures provided just as eye-popping wizardry for their audiences. In fact, sometimes more so, and if the Lydeckers' miniatures looked like what they were, miniatures, today's CGI looks exactly like what it is, CGI.
No the chapter play didn't disappear after 1956; it merely took on different shapes. To stretch the premise to its very extreme, movies of today owe more to Nat Levine, Spencer Bennet, Yakima Canutt, William Witney and the Lydeckers, than to Cecil B. DeMille, George Cukor, Jean-Luc Goddard or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. All this, of course, is nothing new to true serial fans, and ever since Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Los Ark (1981) serial historians have compared the chapter play genre with the summer blockbuster. But there is actually an even more direct link: nighttime television dramas.
The debut of the CBS drama Dallas in 1978 changed television forever, a revolution felt even more so today than in the immediate aftermath. Always meant to be serialized, according to creator David Jacobs, even if the pilot five episodes were developed as a series, Dallas eventually brought back the grand cliffhanger – the solution to the “Who shot J.R?” question that opened season 3 became the most watched television episode in history up to that time – although viewers had to wait a whole summer and well into the fall to learn the outcome rather than a mere week.
Up until Dallas, and the 1960s soaper Peyton Place notwithstanding, television companies deemed serialized drama a dangerous proposition, refusing to believe that people would commit to weekly viewing. Miss an episode, and you would miss much of the plot, a sharp contrast to episodic cop and medical shows that did not depend on sequential viewing. But as Jacobs opines in his foreword to the definitive book on Dallas, Barbara Curran’s Dallas: The Complete Story of the World’s Favorite Prime-Time Show,
“[W]hen you think about it, it now seems obvious that continuing drama is television’s natural form .. no other medium but television can tell you stories that keep going, unrolling like ribbons, revealing new aspects, new twists and turns, showing you not only the stories but the consequences of stories.”
Yet, the nighttime television “serial” has always been more beholden to daytime soap operas, where dialogue and character development are generally more important than physical action, than to the classic cliffhanger. But then, in 2001, the Fox Network premiered 24, where the serial-like action blockbuster finally merged with the television nighttime serial, complete with weekly cliffhangers. It was followed by such shows as Lost and Heroes and True Blood, to mention just a few of newer serialized television dramas. And who knows where this trend will eventually lead?