The going line on serials is that “it’s about the characters.” Especially at the inevitable moment when the anticipated ending doesn’t deliver the relief or “payoff” its audience had hoped for, authors usually reply that it was always about the characters, anyway. How I Met Your Mother is maybe the best example of this character-based mode of seriality. Ostensibly, the story is moving toward a pretty specific resolution: Ted meets the mother. But if you watch the show, it's probably not because you care about the final chapter—instead, it’s because you buy the relationships and you want to spend time with this specific group of friends. The story jumps around in time, and there are callbacks to earlier moments, but they never really add up to anything bigger than themselves. Since the endgame isn’t particularly compelling, the journey becomes more exciting for its own sake. This isn’t all good, though—when the show does get around to moving the “master narrative” forward, it often feels forced, or like it’s taking our attention away from something we’d rather be thinking about.
All of this musing on HIMYM is my extremely roundabout way of getting to its opposite number on the serial spectrum: The Event, which I finally got around to watching today on Hulu. The plot is so twisty, particularly with no less than ten title cards indicating how the story is jumping around in time, that I didn’t even have time to think about whether I bought any of the characters or not; as soon as I started to think about a character, the story had jumped to the next one. As near as I can figure it, the story focuses on a group of people whose lives get derailed by some vast conspiracy, possibly featuring Kerry Weaver as an Alien Queen (but maybe that's just my desire talking). This makes for a fun puzzle—both trying to figure out the titular Event and attempting to discern the show’s different narrative influences. LOST and 24 are the names that are getting thrown around the most, but I see The X-Files just as much, particularly in the size and scope of the conspiracy that seems to be behind the story. (Didn’t it turn out to be good aliens vs. bad aliens?)
It’s the way the series plays with time that holds the most promise for how long it might continue to be fun before inevitably burning out. Serials are structured around gaps—particularly the gap between installments, but also the conceptual gap between different plot threads, etc. The Event feels like it’s all gaps, so in some ways it’s the perfect serial. At the same time, without characters to keep me rooted to a story, I’m not sure how long I can keep going with this before it floats off into the ether of my DVR. For now, though, kick-ass twists in the final act like the swirly blue energy ball that apparently EATS A PLANE are more than enough to keep me coming back for more.