What’s a Serial?

In the world of episodic television drama, there are two categories under which most series fall:

  • Procedurals
  • Serials

These are their stories.


A procedural series is one in which each episode acts as a self-contained story and, by definition, follows a “procedure” specific to that show for arriving at a resolution. It’s pretty straightforward: a team of main characters are introduced to person X to whom some unmentionable tragedy has occurred (murder, rape, illness, prosthetic theft, etc.) and they must somehow uncover the how, why, who, or where surrounding the matter by the end of the hour — call this the “case”. The case is considered the “A-Story”, while the dilemmas of the recurring characters, if any, serve as secondary “B-Stories”. The most common kind of procedurals on television are police procedurals (such as Law and Order: SVU, and Without A Trace) or medical procedurals (like House, and Bones). These shows are particularly popular on the syndication circuit since they can be aired and viewed out of order without creating annoying storyline confusion for the audience. Sitcoms are a type of procedural, and for this reason, they are the most profitable, thus making up the bulk of television.


A serial or serialized television show is the inverse of a procedural in that the “A-story” of the episode concerns on-going character conflicts and/or storylines (as-of-yet unresolved) of the series/season in an attempt to resolve or discuss the heavy themes on which the show is based. While some serialized shows may feature a “monster-of-the-week” (a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dexter), that conflict is secondary (B!!) and serves as a reflective pool by which the characters, relationships, and themes of the show can be furthered explored. Unlike procedurals, these shows are best watched in the order in which they are aired. Since the advent of DVR, TiVo, Netflix, and TV on DVD, serialized television has been on the rise as these devices allow viewers to watch a series at their own pace and without missing episodes which would otherwise leave them out of the loop.