Over the past couple of decades, a new form of television has taken over our tubes, and for many of us dedicated viewers, way too much of our time. It can be defined as a genre, as well as a specific model of storytelling in television, but its rise to dominance can be seen within many of these renowned series that have been released in contemporary American television. It is this idea of narrative complexity that exists with so many current series, that has completely changed the way we are writing, evaluating, and watching TV today. This new model of narrative experimentation with television storytelling has transformed the way we are looking at the medium’s past, as well as the range of capabilities that are possible for the future.
In recent years, the traditional episodic and serial forms of television have shifted into more complex narrative based programs, transforming the medium for both the producers and consumers alike. Television has been reluctant to explore the possibilities of its potential as a narrative medium, preferring instead to stick close to the shore of linear chronological presentation and objective point of view (Jacobsen, 2006). However, in the past decade, some of the most raved about TV series like The Sopranos and The Wire, have taken on this ‘novelistic’ approach of storytelling, contributing immensely to our viewing pleasure. Jason Mittell’s, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”, tackles this idea of narrative complexity in television today very well, breaking down its distinctive attributes and patterns of comprehension.
“This programming form (TV storytelling) demands an active and attentive process of comprehension to decode both the complex stories and modes of storytelling offered by contemporary television. Audiences tend to embrace complex programs in much more passionate and committed terms than most conventional television, using these shows as the basis for robust fan cultures and active feedback to the television industry.” – Jason Mittell
Prior to reading Mittell’s thorough article, I hadn’t really thought of why exactly these narrative complex TV series had gained such popularity in recent years, but then I got to thinking. Before I was introduced to a few of the most popular novelistic-based TV series, like Entourage and Boardwalk Empire, I cannot say that I was the biggest TV watcher. Sure, I would catch an episode of Seinfeld or The Simpsons every once in a while, but I never passionately followed one particular series. However, once the HBO TV Network magically appeared in my life, my TV viewing skyrocketed. Never before had I been so addicted to a television show, nevertheless, any type of entertainment medium for that matter. The thrilling plots, the intertwined characters, the gripping cliff-hangers, so many aspects of these TV series were keeping me at the edge of my seat and bringing me back to watch more. My newfound love for television was all because of this previous idea of narrative complexity. This model of storytelling television was keeping me engaged and focused like never before, boosting my appreciation for TV considerably. As Jeff Sconce has put it, “U.S. television has devoted increased attention in the past two decades to crafting and maintaining ever more complex narratives, a form of “world building” that has allowed for wholly new modes of narration and that suggests new forms of audience engagement” (Lavery, 2011).
Jason Mittell mentions many factors that have contributed to the rise of narrative complex TV series, but I found the two most accurate ones to be the writer’s role and media technologies. Because of these long-form television episodes/series, television writers are taking advantage of every opportunity to spice up the plot, and draw the viewer deeper into the story world. Television’s structure allows the writers to fit much more content into the scenes, knowing that they can just address the next series of events in next episode. They don’t have to cut out crucial commentary, or leave out scenes because of a time limit, like with films. As Mittell put it, “The extended character depth, ongoing plotting, and episodic variations are simply unavailable options within a two-hour film” (2012). Media technologies have also helped contribute to the rise of these narrative complex TV series. Whether it is webisodes, or message boards, fans are turning to other forms of media to gain more insight and interact with other viewers. It’s a way for these die-hard fans to gain even more knowledge within a particular program, which is very useful in order to follow narrative complex TV series.
“Technological transformations away from the television screen have also impacted television narrative. The internet’s ubiquity has enabled fans to embrace a “collective intelligence” for information, interpretations, and discussions of complex narratives that invite participatory engagement.” – Jason Mittell
Aside from Mittell’s meticulous examination of narrative complex TV shows, I found Heather E. McLendo’s, “Setting the Stage for Lost: A deconstruction of complex television narrative”, to be quite accurate. Although, she has focused specifically on the three elements that contribute to the complex narrative of Lost, I think you can apply them to almost all quality TV shows. The first factor introduced is the mysterious plot, which is this idea of a plot turn that occurs about halfway during a show that increases the drama and furthers the development of the characters and their relationships. The second factor is the slow secretion of the characters, whereas the long, drawn out investment of the characters brings you deeper into the story world and grabs yours attention. Lastly, the third factor is the breathtaking element that comes from the story unfolding before our eyes, and coming together immaculately in the end. The great investment that we as viewers put into the intertwined story world, makes the end result that much more rewarding.
There is no doubting the entertainment value that comes from these narrative complex TV series, however, it can be somewhat obscure as to why exactly we enjoy these shows so much. If you break it down little by little, there are plenty of factors that go into creating successful narrative-based shows, putting them safely in the category of ‘quality TV’. We may not realize it while we’re actually watching an episode, but so much thought goes into each little line of dialogue or prop placement. Bravo, narrative complex TV.
“What does Game of Thrones and Twitter have in common? They’re both told with 140 characters.” – The Great, Matt Loads – (I hope I didn’t butcher that joke too badly)
Jacobsen, C. (2006). How TV Met Narrative Sophistication. Available: http://flowtv.org/2006/10/reunion-the-nine-24-narrative-flashback-arrested-development-the-office-how-i-met-your-mother/. Last accessed 8th Oct 2012.
Lavery, D. (2011). Lost and Long-Term Television Narrative. Available: http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/long-term. Last accessed 8th Oct 2012.
McLendon, H. (2011). Setting the Stage for Lost: A deconstruction of complex television narrative. Available: http://heathermclendon.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Lost-as-complex-narrative_McLendon.pdf. Last accessed 8th Oct 2012.
Mittell, J. (2012). Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, pre-publication edition. Available: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/complextelevision/. Last accessed 8th Oct 2012.