TV serials are television programs which involve a long narrative which slowly unfolds over the course of an entire show, from the pilot episode to the finale. They are designed to be watched in order, with viewers turning in each week to get the next installment of the story. The serial has very old roots, with many famous novels such as Great Expectations originally appearing in a serialized format, and TV serials are quite varied and diverse, including comedies, dramas, science fiction, and other genres.
The primary thing which differentiates a TV serial from an ordinary television show is the existence of plot arcs. Many serials have a plot arc which extends over the entire show, along with a number of smaller arcs which are played out over the course of a season or a block of episodes. To keep track, viewers of TV serials must watch the episodes in order, and they will quickly lose track of what is going on if they miss or scramble episodes. In some cases, the show may be a miniseries, with a finite end date, and in other instances, the show may have no specific date planned for the finale.
Before streaming services, which offer a way to watch tv without an antenna or cable, there were very few options to catch up if you missed new episode premieres. Some avid television fans would tune in later in the week, hoping the network would air the episode again, while others resorted to recording the serial on a cassette tape in the VCR.
Unfortunately, for those who were away during the programming, the latter option required someone to manually record the episode, as automated scheduling via DVR was yet to be available.
By contrast, episodic television involves episodes which can be watched alone. New viewers may have trouble adjusting to the characters and setting, but they will be able to follow the story and enjoy the plot of the episode. This type of television has become increasingly popular, since some networks fear that viewers have trouble following the extended plots of TV serials.
Soap operas are perhaps the epitome of the TV serial, with plots which stretch over the course of years and decades. Shows like Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Battlestar Galactica could also be considered serials, since they have complex, involved plots which require weekly attention from viewers. By contrast, police procedurals and “case of the week” medical shows can be followed much more easily, as viewing order is not essential.
Although TV serials have been designed for television, they have thrived in the DVD format. Many serials have die-hard fans who purchase seasons as they come out on DVD so that they can watch again, both to keep up on the plot and to appreciate the serial, re-watching favorite episodes and analyzing the characters. Some television franchises which have only performed moderately well on air have gone on to thrive on DVD, which would seem to suggest that viewers are, in fact, intellectually capable of following and enjoying serial television. Fan campaigns to save and promote TV serials have also illustrated the depth of involvement with the characters which can develop over the course of a long-running show.