Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

TV Show Mythology

Posted by Neal on February 2, 2010

As we’ve approached tonight’s final-season premiere of Lost, I’ve been thinking about the use of the word mythology to refer to the body of knowledge that is revealed over the course of many episodes for a TV show that has long-running story arcs. (I mentioned wanting to look into it a couple of posts back.) Not only has mythology developed a specialized meaning for weird TV shows, but that meaning is now spinning off its own idioms. Fans talk about “mythology episodes” of Lost, Fringe, and Alias (and their opposite, the “stand-alone episodes”). In last week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, resident Lost analyst Jeff Jensen talks about showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof realizing that a main character needed to “download a huge piece of our mythological puzzle” as they wrote an episode, and in a sidebar, the collocation of mythology and download appears again.

But where and when did our language acquire the specialized meaning of mythology that gave rise to terms like downloading mythology and mythology episode?

I first became aware of this meaning for mythology in reading articles in sources like EW about The X-Files in the 1990s, and since that time, the term has continued to be used primarily in discussions of … well, let me quote from Glen here. I asked him his thoughts on the term, from the perspective of someone in the business, and he had some good stuff. He wrote:

I think it’s still restricted mainly to shows with a fantastical element (that is, science fiction or fantasy)* in the long-term story arc. Grey’s Anatomy and The Sopranos may have long-term story arcs, but I doubt they get many people referring to their “mythology.”

Glen also had, I think, a better, more precise definition of this kind of mythology than mine. In his estimation,

“mythology” is being used to mean what we usually call “canon” — that is, facts and history that are established in text on the show, hence constituting a constraint on future storytelling.

Put that way, the definition isn’t so removed from one of the extended uses noted in the OED

c. In extended use: the received wisdom concerning a particular subject; the collective or personal ideology or set of beliefs which underpins or informs a particular point of view.

By this point, though, we’ve shifted far enough semantically from the original (or at least, earlier) meaning of mythology that it could equally well describe any show with this kind of “facts and history”, and it looks like it may be starting to. I was able to find a few hits for “Seinfeld mythology” and “Simpsons mythology” (although The Simpsons so self-consciously ignores previous episodes that using mythology when talking about it is almost a joke). And in fact, Glen found a handful for “{Sopranos, Nip/Tuck, Law & Order} mythology”. However, he found zero hits for “Grey’s Anatomy” mythology”, and I found zero for “Days of Our Lives mythology”.

Soap operas have the longest-running TV story arcs of all, so why wouldn’t mythology have developed its specialized meaning for them? One probable reason is that mythology started out with such a strong connnection to stories of the supernatural and fantastic that more-or-less realistic shows like soap operas weren’t fertile ground for such a meaning to develop. Glen has another plausible reason:

I also have a sense that “mythology” is used most often for shows that also have stand-alone episodes. That’s because fans (and creators!) need a means of referring to the special subset of episodes that deal directly with the long-term arc. This hypothesis certainly fits The X-Files and Fringe (and yes, we do refer to “mythology episodes” around the Fringe writers’ office). Lost may be an exception to this rule, inasmuch as almost every episode relates to the mythology.

In searching the Google Groups database among the* newsgroups, it does seem to have begun when I started noticing it, with The X-Files, in 1997 or 1998. But suspect I may not be mining this database in a way that will produce all the relevant texts, so I’m interested in your antedatings, if you have them. Commenter Stan Carey said he seemed to recall talking about Twin Peaks in terms of mythology (or maybe even “mythos”) in the early 1990s. On the other hand, posts like this post from “Devious Weasel” on seems to point more toward a mid-90s origin:

Just dug out an old issue of Cinescape from the end of the third season [NW: this would be 1996] where [Chris Carter] is referring to the fact that [Gillian Anderson]’s pregnancy forced 1013 to develop the mythology a little faster in the second season than they would have liked. For some reason I don’t think this is the earliest reference I’ve seen to the term, but it is the earliest I have available to me.

What are some other (scripted) shows you’d describe as having a mythology? What shows would you say don’t have one?

*Glen adds: “Interesting fact: in the industry, people commonly use the word ‘genre’ as an adjective that refers specifically to sci-fi, fantasy, and other ‘weird’ genres. Lost and Fringe are genre; Law & Order is not genre, even though you might think that ‘cop show’ is a genre.”

14 Responses to “TV Show Mythology”

  1. michael said

    that use of ‘genre’ is pretty common in creative writing programs generally. i’ve heard instructors explain that they don’t let their students do “genre fiction” for this or that reason.

  2. The Ridger said

    That’s odd. I think of mystery as a genre. (Then again, I don’t work in the business.) I guess I tend to think if it has its own shelves at B&N, it’s a genre.

    Also thought I’d mention that Russian political writers use that 3rd sense when discussing what the government is trying to do to create a new sense of Russia – for instance, the question of where does Nov 4 fit into the mythology of the country?

  3. Ed said

    i still mostly operate under the canon/non-canon distinction. i personally haven’t followed any TV show besides LOST that has created such a rich story arc that it’s meaningful to differentiate canon events. (side note: i am for unknown reasons a follower of the webcomic Sluggy Freelance, which deals heavily in canonicity, with some comics even labeled as non-canon.) for LOST, i would agree that there is a mythology. to me it seems that the mythology of LOST are the events that would be canon, but never took place onscreen.

    for the record, i am treating a LARGE CHUNK of s6e01 as non-canon until i’m proven otherwise. you’re on notice, Carlton Cuse.

  4. Stan said

    I should clarify the date: although Twin Peaks first aired in Ireland when I was in secondary school (high school), it wasn’t until a few years later, when I took to re-watching it on videotape with some college friends, that I became aware of it having a “mythology”. This was around 1995–1996.

  5. Glen said

    Just to clarify, when I said ‘mythology’ was being used as a synonym for ‘canon’, I was talking about phrases like ‘Seinfeld mythology’ and ‘Simpsons mythology’. But I don’t think this is typical. Usually ‘mythology’ means more than run-of-the-mill canon; it must relate to a long-term and usually complicated story arc. Also, ‘canon’ has a backward-looking aspect; nothing that hasn’t been established in an aired episode is canon. ‘Mythology’, on the other hand, can refer to the big story arc in the writers’ heads, much of which has not been revealed to the audience. In the Fringe office, ‘mythology’ and ‘canon’ are definitely not synonymous.

  6. Stan said

    Babylon 5 (1993–1998) is a good example, I think, because its creator, J. Michael Straczynski, used a sci-fi platform to explore his interest in mythology and religion, among other things. So it deals with the nature and uses of myth as well as inspiring somewhat obsessive investigation of its own complex structure and scripts. (It was conceived and written as a five-season story, “a novel for television”.)

  7. To misquote Dorfl, the Terry Pratchett character: “Either all fiction is genre fiction or none is. I have not decided yet.”

  8. D.a.r.t said

    My hobby is discussing tv shows and books on the internet (mostly sci-fi). I have rarely heard of the term ‘mythology’ in this context, only in the context of actual mythology in a show (false gods, different deities, etc.). The extremely common term I have encountered is, as you mentioned, canon. There is also its counterpart: fanon. Fanon includes the ideas that fans bring into the community, through fanfiction or discussion groups, and which seem to stick around. Eventually some ideas can become so ingrained in the fanon that even writers of the shows include it in their episodes, and then it becomes fanon. There are hundreds of fanon vs. canon debates as to what is “true” and “real” and what is not. In any case, in the circles I visit, I never see it called mythology. Another related interesting word: fandom, as in “the fandom of Star Trek”, and everything else fan-based (fanfiction, fanart, etc.).

    • Neal said

      Thanks for adding to the picture. I can say that I’ve grown quite accustomed to seeing mythology WRT TV shows, mostly in Entertainment Weekly, and according to my brother, it’s common among screenwriters of the right kind of show. Fanon is new to me, although I’ve known about fandom for many years, thanks to a friend who’s been a regular con-goer since the 1980s.

  9. Thanks Neil and all that have commented, I’m still a little confused but enjoyed the article.

  10. press releases…

    TV Show Mythology « Literal-Minded…

  11. […] qui lorgnent vers les genres de l’imaginaire. Comme le note le linguiste Neal Whitman dans ce billet, on parle peu de la mythologie de Grey’s Anatomy, encore moins de la mythologie d’un […]

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