Detective storyworlds: why do you keep watching?

By Antoine Dechêne

A few months ago, my wife and I were having one of our numerous chats about the latest TV series we were watching. We are indeed insatiable consumers of TV shows and loyal spectators of Netflix. Although we don’t have similar tastes, we more or less watch everything together. There’s one show, however, that I have stopped watching for quite some time and that she is still following: The Walking Dead (AMC 2010- ).

My wife, even though she finds many flaws in the show, could not simply “quit,” and has now watched the second half of season 9. Discussing the latest developments in the series, I discovered that most of the protagonists were gone. I’m not referring here to the evermore-mainstream device of killing off important characters early on in series like in Game of Thrones (HBO 2011-2019), Breaking Bad (AMC 2008-2013), Z Nation (Syfy 2014- ) and, of course, The Walking Dead itself. Rather, I’m talking about the impact that the abandon of the series by its most central characters can have on its audience. Yes, I learned that Rick Grimes, the emblematic sheriff and leader of a surviving human-group for nine seasons, after the downfall of approximately all the characters that accompanied him, including his wife and his son, is presumed dead by the members of his community. The spectators witness his rescue in a helicopter and are left to wonder where he is carried away. The next episode takes place six years later and no one seems to know what happened to the charismatic leader of Alexandria. More curious still is the unexplained and perhaps narratively inexplicable disappearance of Maggie. A major protagonist since season 2, Maggie has been, with Michonne and Carol, one of the female pillars of the community and her unexpected disappearance,[1] unlike Rick’s, leaves no open door for a possible return.[2]

Hearing about this latest turn of events, I could not help but ask my wife: why are you still watching when even Rick is gone? After reflection, she simply answered: “I’ll stop watching when Daryl dies.” Daryl Dixon is indeed one of the very few characters from season 1 still alive. But is that truly the limit? What will happen when he dies or disappears? My wife may stop watching the series, but what will be the public’s level of acceptance?

My wife’s response points at the limits of a series, and by expansion, asks the question of what ultimately makes a series popular. Is one character all it takes to keep spending time in front of the screen? If so, should not Rick or Maggie’s departures have saddened, frustrated, or even repelled a lot of spectators past a point of no return? Will the post-apocalyptic world based on the comic book series, the Georgian and Virginian scenery, be enough for the public? In other words, is The Walking Dead universe, regardless of its inhabitants, enough to sustain the same audience? Can it go on forever? 

My paper, published in the first issue of new journal Crime Fiction Studies, tackles these complicated issues by focusing on a specific genre, which, at first glance, or at least in its original occurrences, gives prominence to plot and denouement rather than to characterization and worldbuilding: detective fiction. I argue that contemporary detective series, following the example of the rest of serial narratives produced today, have had an increasing and ongoing interest in the development of complex storyworlds. In other words, I believe that the audience’s interest does not solely lie in the unraveling and resolution of a plot, but in the immersion in a world they like. To exemplify this, the article addresses three major series: Longmire (novels and Netflix TV series), True Detective (HBO 2014- ), and the Belgian series La trêve (RTBF, Netflix 2016-2018).

The analyses reveal the glocal nature of detective fiction as a genre in the field of world studies. Glocalism is a concept introduced by David Damrosch to account for a peculiar “mode of literary creation and circulation” that combines “global patterns with local themes.” Detective fiction is glocal because it exports “local situations abroad” and imports “global situations at home.” It is both stylized (based on a shared and recognizable set of rules) and localized (located in a particular place and time, rooted in the social and cultural contexts of the different countries where it develops). This article focuses, then, on the increasingly important role played by storyworlds in detective fiction so as to better apprehend the genre as a glocal phenomenon in a cultural era of mass media production.

[1] Both Rick and Maggie’s departures were not that unexpected for the true fans of the show who attentively followed Andrew Lincoln’s and Lauren Cohan’s working agendas and knew that the two actors had been negotiating to leave the show for some time.

[2] There even has been some discussion about a new spin-off series based on Rick alone.

Teri Williams
Teri Williams
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