Tele-Novel Course Launches Project Website

Submitted by Ellwood Wiggins on

Did you binge on Breaking Bad? Are you holding a vigil for the last episodes of Mad Men? Do you tune in to Lindenstraße or Tatort to catch up on hot social issues in Germany? Do you ever yell at the TV set (or computer screen) when an episode of your favorite show ends in a cruel cliffhanger?

Then you should check out the student projects from a recent Germanics course, "The Tele-Novel: Seriality and Visual Storytelling":

The Tele-Novel Portal.

This course investigated the forms and practices of long-form, serial fiction.  Students worked in groups to analyze seasons of four television shows: Heimat (Germany, 1984); The Wire (USA, 2002-8); Firefly (USA, 2002-3); and Breaking Bad (USA, 2008-13). You can explore the visually compelling results of their research at the link above.

In this course (cross-listed with Communication and Comparative Literature) we examined television serials that transcend the common practice of episodic TV entertainment and aspire on a variety of levels to the complexity and import of great literature (Heimat, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). These are sweeping works of visual fiction that are conceived not as endless serials, but as stories with a beginning, middle, and end. In addition to identifying the marks of aesthetic practice that are unique to this genre, we addressed the social, political, and ethical issues raised in novel ways by the shows. We also investigated the material processes of production of the series: how do economic structures, financial constraints, institutional organizations, censorship (explicit or unspoken), and collaborative labor practices help to shape the final product on the small screen (and in the DVD box)?  In each case, we observed the material and social constraints imposed on writing and production from the outside as well as the rhetorical and artistic creation each series manages to achieve despite (or because of) these external forces.

We began the course with an exploration of traditional genres that have influenced the form and content of the Tele-Novel. Homeric epics, Shakespearean history cycles, and Dickens’s serialized novels can be read as vying prototypes and templates for both the collaborative creative processes and the finished episodic wholes of the Tele-Novel. We also practiced techniques of analysis for both close reading (of the visual and aural fabric of a single scene as it appears on the screen) and for distant reading (of the series as a whole).

We practiced collaborative team-based learning in this course.  The class was divided into ten groups. Each group was assigned one season of one of the shows to observe and analyze in detail and as a whole.  In the pages of its website, each team tells us about the following five aspects of the tele-novel as they relate to its season:

  1. Conditions and Constraints of Production
  2. Creative Achievement of Final Product
  3. The Close Reading of One Scene
  4. A Distant Reading of the Entire Season
  5. Inter-Text (Homeric Epic, Shakespearean History Cycles, 19th-Century Serialized Novels)

The course was taught by Ellwood Wiggins, with stellar TA Olivia Albiero.