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Why do we watch series?

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

Notes for an entrance on tiptoe into the "new normal"

Succession (created by Jesse Armstrong, HBO/ Sky)

There has been a lot of talk in recent times about the crisis in cinemas, and the new contents that we authors will have to (unfortunately) soon share with an increasingly demanding audience, accustomed by now to a high-end production of the enfants terribles Bezos / Hastings. In Italy, as we all know, film criticism has long since replaced the te deum, as constancy, devotion, and sentiment, and therefore, strengthened by our personal secular prayer, we freely talk about the protagonist of Tiger King - is he really in prison? - on the season finale of "Casa de Papel" - how much American money is feeling! - or about Riccardo Scamarcio who, even when he is a baby 'ndranghetista in "Lo Spietato", however, has its own reason. But what are the deep logics of building a serial story? Why did binge-watching spread with platforms? What are the mechanisms that playwrights use to create empathy, and therefore feel the need to share the heroic or otherwise heroic deeds of the characters?   The screenwriter, the entertainment television author, but also the "simple" communicator almost always use the same storytelling mechanisms. There is a technical background common to all the narrators, declined according to sensitivity.

All narrators know that three moments are essential in order to organize a story:

  1. a clear beginning, which sets the thematic and dramaturgical premises of the story;

  2. a central act that pushes the premises set to extreme consequences;

  3. a conclusion that presumably ends with the construction of a new normality.

The three acts are underpinned by twists (also called "turns", in technical jargon), which mark the stages of the story and allow the attention of the spectator / reader never to drop below alarm levels.   It is the theory of the three acts, by Aristotle's poetics and which, we can go as far as to say, is at the basis of the western storytelling tradition.   But then, is this enough for an engaging story?

The second fundamental aspect is empathy, which allows each spectator to recognize some aspect of himself in the main characters, activating a mechanism of human sharing. Empathy must be carefully measured: on the one hand there are obviously generalist containers, which abound, on the other the great storytellers who make careful use of them, and therefore, memorable.

Empathy leads to identification. But if the primary emotion that we feel in the mother scenes of the film, or of the series, is immediately recognizable, it does not happen frequently that viewers wonder about the deep mechanisms that triggered it. In a period like this, of isolation and solitude, there are not infrequent moods of empathy, and therefore identification, total. An aspect on which, in unsuspected times, authors and psychoanalysts had already questioned themselves, noting the emotional power of the moving image.

Without lingering in sophisms, the reasons for the emotion are actually techniques and linguistics: diegetic construction, for which the world of the story is total and immersive, storytelling logic for which the moments of maximum tension of the character always arrive in studied moments, cliff -hanger (twists in the final minutes). Between theory and practice there is also a gray area that has a cumbersome name, full of aspirations and hopes: talent.

Michele Furfari is an author and television writer. Graduated from the National Film and TV School (NFTS) in London and student of the RAI Fiction graduate school, he has developed projects for the national and international market. 

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