Comments on the Pages
I see the point behind your careful address of the question (‘how indicative is a small group’s behavior for broader tendencies’), still I would be glad to have your ‘definition’ on this small (fan) group, as the behave you describe tells more about a specific fan consumption of television than about general viewer reactions. (Does this come maybe in a later chapter?)
“especially in discussing how Soap innovative serial sitcoms in the 1970s” –> there seems to be a missing verb here.
Your choice of the word “formulaic” is an interesting one in this context; 24 was pretty much all formula, of course — it just wasn’t the expected formula. Maybe it’s the difference between formulaic and algorithmic — both use formulae, but one is generative and the other is… not?
There’s something interesting in your simultaneous resistance to the suggestion that complex television narratives have become “novelistic” and use of the term “poetics.” I recognize, of course, that poetics applies to far more than poetry; what allows it to do so without undermining medium specificity? (And on the other hand, what prevents “novelistic” from similarly permitting one to discuss narrative in a fashion that might still be medium-specific?)
Perhaps they might even be motivated to do so here!
Is the extension in the third sentence, “both in academic pubs and on blogs” necessary? Your writing is your writing, no?
Those parentheticals get a little cumbersome. Plus, the second verb in each pair is at least as important as the first to me, as I assume they were to you; the parentheses dampen that import.
The TWW reference here seems a little obscure: you’ve nodded to your reasoning for using it (that you felt in 2000 that it was atypical, whereas Revenge’s techniques go unnoticed), but for contemporary readers, I think it needs a little more setup than this. Either that, or maybe use an example from a more widely viewed show? Contributing to this is the vague way you describe it; it’s harder to get a sense for why it’s a relevant reference when you can’t quite remember the sequence even if you were a TWW viewer.I’m floundering a bit: basically, the two series are so far afield from one another, that comparing them is useful only if either a) the reader has seen both of them, or b) they are described with enough detail to be able to get the comparison without having done so. And I’m not sure either test really passes in this par. fwiw
(CommentPress ate my carriage returns!)
Also, the title of the ep is “What Kind of Day Has It Been?”
I wonder if “Complex Television” is the best term for what you are suggesting. It suggests a contrast with “simple television,” which seems odd to me. Following the multitude of story lines on a soap opera hardly seems simple. Old production and distribution models also do not seem simple, even if they are less complex than current modes.”Complex television” is also mulltiply ambiguous (which perhaps you intend), but the term doesn’t capture the *storytelling* aspect that it appears you will emphasize. Maybe something like “complex televisual narratives” is closer, but an awkward phrase.Setting these aside, your real focus seems to be on “a new mode of television storytelling.” This suggests a single new mode, which seems false. 24, Alias, Community, Lost, etc., may all be complex, but (and you might prove me wrong here) they all seem to be complex in different ways. Perhaps “new modes of teleivision storytelling”?
I really like the Revenge example here. It’s an excellent choice for the introduction to frame how commonplace these techniques have become.
Hmmm – that makes sense (and I highlight 24′s formulae, if not algorithms in another chapter). I do think “formulaic” in this context does suggest the TV norms of conventional routines & structures. But if other people think it needs clarifying, I certainly can.
This is a big question – I’m wondering if you’ve read on to the next chapter & if that satisfies the concerns you raise? It’s hard to layout the term & all of its… complexity here without getting bogged down in the weeds. I could certainly indicate that these issues will be addressed in the next chapter, but I try to avoid too much self-citationality like that. What do you think?
True, but I do want to validate blogging as a mode of scholarly communication.
Great question! My answer is that there’s a long tradition of poetics as a mode of formal analysis that goes beyond poetry, so by the time it gets to me, the connections to poetry are tenuous & less weighted. I know no similar tradition of “novelistics” beyond the literary, although I may be wrong. Would it be worth iterating this in a footnote or the text? Or does that seem like a weak rationalization?
I was going for a parallelism, where my research as an act of consumption (and production) is highlighted. Perhaps it doesn’t work.
Yeah, this is a delicate balancing act. I hope that I make these points clearer in the Orienting Paratexts chapter – maybe we can return to discussing it when we get there in my serial rollout?
That makes sense – I’ll try to clarify the reason for the West Wing reference, and describe it better for unfamiliar viewers (and correct the ep title!).
Indeed there is!
Absolutely, and it should be so validated. I’m just not sure adding it this way doesn’t actually belittle it in a strange way. As if it’s been tacked on.It’s a hard question, I’d say.
I’ve always used parentheses to denote information not central to the idea of the sentence, which seems like the opposite of what you want to convey. Maybe a slash between each? Or a hyphen? You could introduce them in Table 1. ;)
Just a typo correction:An ‘s’ is missing in the last word of this sentence: “In the past 15 years, television’s storytelling possibilities and practices have undergone drastic shifts in medium-specific way.” Also, in the following sentence I think it should be “almost a cliché” instead of “almost cliché.”Are these kinds of nit-picky comments also helpful in this format, or would you prefer to save that for a later stage of revision and focus on content-related questions here?
It should be “complement,” not “compliment” in the first sentence.
a minor stylistic remark: “with” occurs three times in the first sentence which somehow disrupted my reading flow
story –> points.”while a conventional formulaic approach is viewed as a commercial failure”: i think i would like this better if it was phrased in a more qualified manner, like the preceding “can succeed”. perhaps: “can fail commercially”?
the distinction between form and content in this paragraph seems a bit rigid to me. “not interested in analyzing such meanings”: but aren’t those meanings connected to the formal complexities you’re interested in? doesn’t narrative complexity correlate with particular representations, isn’t the militarization/heroicization of the female body in _Alias_, or the discourse of conspiracy in _24_ at some level connected to the aesthetic choices and formal affordances of these shows? i understand why you don’t want to read these programs as “reactions” to 9/11 or the “war on terror”, but this paragraph sounds a little bit like it’s deliberately outsourcing these issues to other scholars so it can better celebrate the medium. i wonder if this is necessary: granting a complex medium the respect (and admiration) it deserves, i think, includes granting it complex critique (and a critique of complexity). i understand that you will address some of these concerns in the chapter on “evaluation” – and i remember that your evaluation of _Mad Men_ had a lot to say about the form-content-intersection (the form of its content, the content of its form). perhaps this interrelationship between form and content could be addressed here already, even though it’s only the introduction where of course you have to paint with broader strokes?
okay, this paragraph is saying now what i wanted the previous one to say. perhaps i misread paragraph 8 (as distinguishing too strongly between formal complexity and cultural meaning)
i like the parentheses – especially the final one (“and rewatched”), which breaks the mold and turns out to be a punchline, almost, in the way it complicates the reading/writing, passive/active structure
american tv certainly differs from other tv cultures, but i don’t know if i would locate this difference in its striving for narrative infinity. telenovelas work the same way, and there are never-ending-soaps even in germany. (was it eco who said that (potential) endlessness is a defining feature of all serial forms, not just tv?)
why oh why is everyone so afraid of canonization? there’s nothing like a good canon debate!
one harsh word about Dallas and i will stop reading immediately!
Please do continue to nit-pick – while I try to catch all style/copy issues before posting, getting many eyes to catch mistakes & make suggestions is great help!
I see that you later partially retract this, but I get your point. Maybe just change “not interested” to “not focused”? In part, this is just a standard caveat & turf-marking statement, highlighting what I won’t be doing here. But it also is trying to rhetorically highlight how we can study formal questions without claiming that politics aren’t important, which some scholars have argued.
I’ll qualify it, but the difference is that in US, infinity is the norm, while it is exceptional most other places (like German endless soaps, or the British Eastenders). Most telenovelas are actually designed with a set run time, with sequels if they turn out to be particularly popular.
I’ll only mock the “it was all a dream” season…
While the West Wing reference makes sense as an early example, I think the show that actually made this kind of storytelling (“multiple flashbacks to various timeframes”) appear commonplace, and, more importantly, acceptable to viewers as “normal TV storytelling,” is Lost. Give it credit! After Lost, EVERY TV show has used these devices, but after The West Wing, only a few.
One of the challenges of the book is to make it not just use Lost as my go-to example. I hope nobody will be able to claim that I underrepresent Lost’s place in this story in the larger context of the manuscript!
(Sorry if this is hyper nitpicky.) Your point regarding the storytelling device in the West Wing scene now seeming cliché seems to echo the point made in para 6. I wonder if it would be worth avoiding the use of the word “cliché” in both paras. (As is, it struck me as maybe a little repetitive.)
Makes sense – and not nitpicky at all! Thanks for commenting…
Writing “not focused” should do the job, I guess.Anyhow, Jason, I wonder if your short diagnosis on 90s television studies could be somehow misleading here. Caldwell’s work in the 1990s already thematized the neglection of form or formal aesthetics in TV studies. So I would somehow underline Frank’s comment: What is the epistemological challenge for a study centered on form when it comes to questions of “content”? Given the fact that contemporary TV shows of different genres share so many recurrent subjects, motifs or objects (just think of the prominence of surveillance technologies, torture, therapy etc.), it is clearly something I would expect to have an effect on TV formal means and formats. Maybe it could be productive to replace the “old” distinction of form and content by a new one: that of media and form, as Luhmann would suggest.
it should be “as the nexus”, not “at”…
Hmmm – I’m torn here. On the one hand, this paragraph does what I think it should: stake the terrain & justify it. I don’t want it to be a major new argument (like shifting from content to medium), but I also don’t want it to come across as outdated. I think Caldwell’s talking about a very different model of “form” so I don’t really build on his take on visual style & production modes.
Phrases like “methodological contextualization” and “associated paratexts” reduce the seriousness of your work here. If open scholarship is to be truly meaningful, the trappings of academic obfuscation can and should be dropped.
Thanks for commenting – obviously we all have different standards of obfuscation, and I’m trying to thread the needle between accessibility and contributing to scholarly dialogue using the terms typically used in that conversation. I’ll definitely be revising for clarity, so pointing out specific parts that seem unnecessarily opaque is helpful.
Just wanted to second Frank’s suggestion here.
“drastic shifts in a medium-specific way” strikes me as a bit awkward. How about: “drastic shifts that are specific to the medium”?
I feel like there’s a “but” missing after the final sentence… Yes, we might explore them in this way, _but_… Or am I misreading this?
In a way, the idea that narratively complex TV turns its viewers into armchair narratologists has an interesting correlate implied here: complex TV also rewards scholarly approaches like your own, in that the “operational aesthetic” that they cultivate encourages the analytical practice of poetics as you define it: i.e. they are designed expressly to make us ask “how does this work?”
This is of course one of those things that is subject to all sorts of Gestalt shifts, depending on how long you look at it or how often you repeat it, but: the first words (“Poetics have been”) constitute one of those phrases that just look weird (as would “poetics has been” as well). Anyway, how about something like “Poetics as a practice has been” (or instead of practice: analytical approach or whatever)? (Note that you use the singular verb a few sentences later: “Historical poetics situates…”)
“with innovations in media form are not viewed as creative breakthroughs of visionary artists” = “where innovations…”?
“interplay between industry, technology, and the creative choices of filmmakers”: since you’ve got three things here, replace “between” with “among”?
“For some questions of viewing practice, such as processes of comprehension and memory, a cognitive poetic approach is well-poised to understand some of the ways that viewers engage with television serials.” –> I respect that you’re sketching broad outlines here rather than trying to explain everything, but I still feel like this sentence is overly vague, due in large part, I think, to the repeated “some”. The first qualification seems enough: you make clear at the beginning it’s only _some_ questions you’re talking about, but with respect to those, it seems OK to say the approach is “well-poised to understand the ways that viewers engage…” (i.e. without the second qualifying “some”).
Good point – thanks!
I’ve changed it to “where complex and innovative storytelling can succeed both creatively and economically, while a show with a safe, conventional approach can be viewed as a commercial failure.”
Yeah, the “but” comes two paragraphs later. I’ve rephrased to read less “dangling.”
Yes, and this is an issue that I try to address in the Evaluation chapter.
Yes, “poetics” should be treated as a singular throughout – as with “a poetics” as a goal. Thanks for the close eye!
I have just read the first three chapters and this is an awesome work, Jason. I am really enjoying the reading. Thanks for it. First time commenting here. I hope my english could be understood; sorry in advance for any mistakes you can find. I know you have said that you can not analyse every show on earth (“cover every series that might be relevant”) but, don’t you think it could be interesting to include The Shield (FX, 2002-08) in the “Endings” chapter? I think that, from a narrative point of view (also emotionally), The Shield offers the richest (and more compelling) closure an American TV-Series has ever reached.
Just a tiny response: in Spain, for example, infinity is also the norm. And not only for endless soap-operas but for primetime drama, comedies and dramedies.
A couple of quibbles. First, pay-tv has quite literal barriers to access, no? (unless, “commercial” means “with commercials” not “for commerce”?). Second, re: “a television producer’s first job is to avoid alienating potential viewers” — is this still true (“Throughout its history”)? I don’t think your average producer for Adult Swim, Daily Show, Bill O’Reilly, or Jersey Shore necessarily cares about alienating some audiences, do they?
Granted, I haven’t read below this yet, so maybe this will be covered, but the choice of “orienting” is telling, inasmuch as it sort of suggests that there is a correct way to view a text. If one must be oriented by another, it presumes the other knows “their way around” and could sort one’s own confusion out. So I hope you will address the power and meaning implications of this suggestion that the paratexts know their way around (especially when, as you earlier write, they have been “outsourced” to others, and hence may not be penned by the series creators or writing team), and that there is a right way to see a text
Building on my above comment (par. 9, I believe), I wonder if we could talk about disorientation too? After all, Mad Men uses history pretty loosely, and thus I imagine that the experience of reading it next to a timeline of what “actually” happened in the US at the time would create all sorts of meanings that Weiner and his rather historically-indifferent writing team weren’t aware of. All of which gets me back to wondering how orientation, disorientation, and intentionality are related, according to you? I might appreciate discussion of what role intentionality plays for you
Or, to elaborate a tiny bit more, I guess what I’m asking is for you to define orientation. IS it about giving someone the “right” way to see something, or do you see this as a model of contestation, where there is no right answer except for the one that wins out in a battle of various orientations?
“Such intertextual expansion is an invitation to rethink our impressions of the original series, orienting ourselves to a new way of categorizing and grouping the characters.”… and to add mythic resonance to characters. Any D&D player knows that certain character types match different alignments, and thus, for instance, we’re invited now to see whoever is in the Lawful Good slot as a paladin.
It might be worth noting how videogames can orient us spatially (and/or disorient. Anyone who has played the Lost Via Domus game knows how annoying the character navigation is in the woods/jungle). Or even just virtual worlds (talk to your colleague Louisa Stein about the Gossip Girl Second Life world, for example).And I can’t think of examples of TV DVDs that do this, but Lord of the Rings’ DVDs include maps of New Zealand as Middle Earth.
Not a major comment by any means: but missing an “of” in the first sentence between “examples” and “online”
Just a thought here, but you make it sound as though the only two options for viewing the relationship between official paratexts and fan-created paratexts as “same realm of viewing practices” and “opposed to one another.” I’d think that there’s some grey area, where fans may recognize and respect the official paratexts but treat them differently than fan-made ones.
Jonathan, I see this more as individual viewers orienting themselves within the textual universe, not a definitive mode of viewership…but that’s just my reading…
Firefly is a great example of what might happen if a complex narrative is shown out of order by a network. Fox aired episodes out of order (even ordering Whedon to make a new pilot) and the narrative flow was lost
To me, the best example of this practice represented officially are those “meta-moments” in a show when they reflect on their own fictionality. Bones does this occasionally, but Raising Hope and Arrested Development rely on it. Also, see the Buffy episode “Normal Again” which pulls a St. Elsewhere
Just a question now: is there a literary tradition to this? I’m thinking of novels of Tolstoy or Dickens that might have a “cast of characters” synopsis at the start, or even a serialized novel like the Count of Monte Cristo that might recap characters that have disappeared for awhile (apologies – you may have discussed this in a different chapter)
Reading through this paragraph I wonder (and forgive me if you mention it later) if it would be worthwhile to discuss the temporality of the fans’ experiences creating paratexts as well. The edit history of Wikipedia provides a useful examination of the temporal structure of fans’ creation of meaning within the show as well…
Again, minor stylistics, but I’m not a fan of the shift into first person for the sentence “ We watched hours of flash-sideways stories without knowing how to orient ourselves to this fictional world relative to the core storyworld that many fans had invested a great deal of time and energy mapping and documenting. ”
General comment: in this chapter, you introduce the various navigational aids which help viewers to navigate and understand complex series. To my mind, the setup here (and in the previous chapters) resonates with the interdisciplinary field of complexity theory, which, while science-based, has been influential in the humanities. To link this with the key question “how can we make sense of complexity?”, the volume Observing Complexity (William Rasch and Cary Wolfe, U of Minnesota P, 2000) might be a helpful footnote reference.
Well-quibbled. I’ll clarify & caveat appropriately…
As I’ve been writing, I’ve been thinking that I may need to add a conclusion chapter about complexity theory a bit. I really don’t want to have to wade too deep there, but rather offer some potential resonances. Thanks for the citation!
Definitely not my intent – I shall clarify!
Yeah, I meant what Paul suggests – it’s a strategy of consumption & comprehension, not a requirement of a text (although some texts certainly invite it). And many of the orientations I chronicle are definitely not “correct” but rather expansive and transformative.
Excellent example, which shall be added.
You’re asking the easy questions, huh? ;) I don’t get into intentionality here, but do in the just-posted Authorship chapter. I’ll try to contextualize that more here. (And I believe the Mad Men writing team would bristle at being called “historically-indifferent,” as they seem to pride themselves on historical accuracy.
True, but I’m trying to avoid getting too much into discussions of intertextuality within the text – rather I want to look at how paratexts attempt to reframe a text in an expansive fashion.
Good question – I can’t think of any, but I’ll ask some of my literary experts.
Good point… but do you think Lt. Daniels is a paladin?
Excellent point – I’ll connect that in the Transmedia chapter.
I think I nod toward this later, and a bit in the Complexity in Context chapter (in terms of how DVDs change TV screen time, for both text & paratext), but not sure if it goes in enough depth.
Yeah, it’s inconsistent. Thanks!
“such these”: one word too many? — when i read the title of this chapter i wondered if “paratexts” would be enough. now i see that you distinguish between “orienting paratexts” and “transmedia paratexts”. makes sense. still, the contrasting of “orienting” and “transmedia” seems to mix two different categories (the counter-term to “orienting paratexts” would be “disorienting paratexts”, the counterterm to “transmedia paratexts” something like “monomedial (or media-inherent?) paratexts”). i think your emphasis is on intra-diegetic orientation provided by viewer-created paratexts … perhaps just call this chapter “audience orientation”, “viewer orientation” or “orientation practices”? just a thought.
i like this paragraph (and it kind-of makes me wonder if we’re not living in a tommy westphall universe after all) … but the scope of the term “orientation” is enlarged quite a bit, no?
perhaps it might be interesting to ask how such audience activities also help a series to chart its own (unknown) future – and how it helps producers to orient themselves in the field of possibilities (and constraints) that’s an unfolding narrative. “charting a moving terrain”: i think this applies not only to viewers but also to producers and writers, and to the ways a series relates to itself. in other words, i think i would like to hear more about the inter-action (in terms of ongoing orientation) between a running text and running paratexts. serial narratives as feedback narratives: does this complicate the notion of mysteries being solved (i think jonathan gray asked a similar question regarding “correct” vs. “incorrect” reading/orientation)?
“meta-discussion of fandom”: i wonder did all contributors actually assume that there was a standing puzzle to be solved (i.e. discussing right/wrong decisions) or were there also practices assuming that this might be a game that moves as you play it?
fascinating subchapter. perhaps some words in the end (or throughout) about the types of “orientation” generated by the community’s interaction with the television series on the one hand and its theorizing about/ordering of its own interior interactions on the other?
i’m not sure if you want to establish “spreadable media” vs. “drillable media” as a difference in type – or perspective? the latter would make a lot of sense to me: die-hard fans, intensely focussing on their object of engagement, probably tend to regard the unfolding series as a standing & hopefully rewarding puzzle, a mystery to be solved (and a disappointment if it offers no such solution) — while, when we take a step back, observe the series in relation to other series, to its immediate media environment, its cultural conditions, and in interaction with its die-hard fans, we might be more drawn to descriptors that stress spread and sprawl? if so, “drillable” and “spreadable” media are not opposites (“rather than”) but, relating to the same phenomena, perspectives?
“but rather as opposing vectors of cultural engagement”: i guess i was talking about “spread” as an observational stance above, not as a form of engagment. if you phrase it like this, it makes sense to talk about “vectors” going into different directions.– as for “legitimacy”, i feel tempted to quote david simon’s word of wisdom with which you started: “just be.” — (and might there be a slight performative contradiction between “we need to” and “shift our normative stance”? or what do you mean by “shift”: find another, better normative stance or get rid of the question of normativity altogether. i’m all for the second option & think that, in that case, the best way to get rid of normativity is to not even pay it too much attention. same with questions of legitimacy ;-)
ps: and i don’t mean the game of wiki-interaction which seems (asfar as i know wikis) to be usually very aware of its own fluidity and malleability. what i mean is the fans’ assumption about their object of engagement: do the contributors mostly act in the roles of “onlookers” who assume that their various interactions (shared pleasures, quibbles, contestations) refer to a stable text – or is there also an understanding that they might actually be players/inter-actors with and within the larger moveable game that is the unfolding development of the series “lost”?
For the most part, I would agree that place-based authenticity is largely observed by those who are natives of a given city.However, two points:1) Attempts to establish spatial realism as tied to specific places are often incredibly transparent – when a show moves to a new setting (like, for example, Glee setting Nationals in Chicago), viewers who are aware the show films in Los Angeles (which is an increasing number of viewers in an Internet age) might look to see what strategies they might undertake to establish place-based authenticity. In the case of Glee, the only effort I saw was a single bucket of Garrett popcorn, which I only identified as Chicagoan because it had appeared on the set of Happy Endings, which is equally faking Chicago. As a result, while we might not observe minute geographical incoherence (such as Homeland citing real D.C. locations while shooting in N.C. equivalents), we CAN observe signifiers of place designed to mask larger incoherences, which could lead viewers to be skeptical of the show’s spatial geography more generally.2) While I am aware that neither you nor I would be a “general” viewer in this sense, the reason I know about most of the above examples is because people made it known via Twitter – heck, that’s what has me here writing this comment at this particular point in time. Message boards, social media, and post-air analysis have all allowed for spatial realism to spread beyond those who actually live within a particular place, and as I look toward my own project specifically focused on space/place I find myself seeing more and more conversation on this subject. Granted, I’m looking for it, and run in circles where it would be more prominent, but I do think that the transition from “recognition” to “transmission” is becoming more common.
You sort of speak to this in paragraph 21, and get to it a bit with fantasy here, but what is the value of spatial ambiguity to a series like Lost? And how is that value perceived by audiences? It seems like there’s a tension there, in that spatial ambiguity seems to give writers the license to change the story as they see fit, leading to some of the conflict between fans and creators over the notion of “master plans.”I think of Lost particularly because the spatial ambiguity gave the series the ability to randomly introduce both a Temple and a Lighthouse in its final season, but in both instances some fairly vocal fans rejected those locations based on their perception of the space of the island, or what we could consider an accumulated diegetic place-based authenticity. Paratexts played a big part in establishing this, but does the freedom of ambiguity undo some of that work through the primary narrative’s willingness to add new locations willy nilly?
You’re right that this is a bit of category mixing. It could be Inward-Looking vs. Expansionist Paratexts to be more consistent, or Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic. But I want Transmedia Storytelling because that’s a well-established term I want to engage with. The problem with the non-paratexts variants for this chapter you mention is that other chapters will certainly touch on “orientation practices” broadly conceived (especially the Comprehension chapter), while this one is exclusively about Paratexts.I’d appreciate “orientation” from anyone on whether the current divide is okay, or other ideas for renaming.
Great point about the spread of spatial discontinuty (or its recognition) through social networks – definitely part of how many watch. As for those markers of authenticity, I wonder if fans catalog such things online somewhere?
Yeah, I’m trying to suggest how tools typically used for orientation (maps, tours) can have multiple functions as well. Does the last sentence seem insufficient for that point?
Good point – I think the backlash to the island’s geographic inconsistency (or flexibility at least) is very much an isolated phenomenon among fans trying to resist the fantasy genre leanings that the show embraced. It’s hard for me to fathom griping that the lighthouse should have been seen in previous seasons based on geography, but accepting that a guy could turn into a smoke monster after going into a glowing cave – it’s all a question of genre verisimilitude!
This is a good question that I’ll expand a bit upon. I think I deal with it somewhat in discussing Lostpedia below, and I can clarify in the Authorship chapter as well.
Very good question. While there are certainly variations, I believe that there was a general desire that the game was set-in-stone with clear established answers to the show’s mysteries. At the same time, fans wanted the producers to be able to respond to viewer demands, but that was less over mysteries (what is the smoke monster?) and more about characters (Juliet & Sawyer 4eva).
Right – I definitely mean “dismiss” more than “shift.”
The opening title sequence for Game of Thrones does not change each week. A total of four different maps were created for use in the first season, with different maps being deployed as the series expands its use of fictional locations. For further clarification see: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/secrets-game-thrones-opening-credits-179656
Useful clarification – thanks!
And the result, I would argue, of endings like St. Elsewhere‘s or episodes like Buffy‘s “Normal Again” is profound viewer discomfort, perhaps because they remind us forcibly that the world we’ve invested so much time and energy in isn’t real. The viewer knows that, of course, but the idea of it being fictional even within “the fictional worlds of television,” as you say, is somehow very disturbing nonetheless.
I think you might touch on this in chapter two, but this begs the question of to what extent the internet makes complex television possible. It’s one thing to say that the internet is a logical place for these sorts of paratexts and discussions to take place, and another to say that without a space for these paratexts and discussions, the type of television you’re discussing here would be, if not impossible, then far more difficult for its viewer. The pleasure of a puzzle text is significantly heightened when there are other people with whom you’re trying to solve the puzzle.
I appreciate here that you identify the gender of the users (insofar as that’s possible on the internet). My experience is that male and female fans often (though by no means always!) experience fandom in very different ways, and there are parts of fandom that seem strangely gender-segregated. (Doctor Who fandom is an interesting example of this, since Classic Who fandom appears to be predominantly male, in contrast to New Who fandom, which has a strong female component. In 2010, I attended a long-running Doctor Who convention in LA, and many of the male fans were visibly annoyed that their con had been overrun by fangirls.) But in any case, it seems that paratexts like Lostpedia are places where male and female fans have rather more interaction, perhaps because of the many different types of analysis that take place all in one space.
While some viewers are disturbed by such propositions, others embrace them, as with the Tommy Westphall Universe theory or Buffy fans hypothesizing about whether “Normal Again” might be more “real” than the rest of the series. The different reactions to such meta-moves speaks to a range of viewer engagements that seem to flourish.
I do talk about this in the Complexity in Context chapter, but I’ll reiterate here as it’s a crucial point.
I think that in theory that’s true, although Lostpedia definitely did skew more male, especially as in later seasons.
That doesn’t surprise me, given your description of its development over time.
I have a hard time understanding why drillability and spreadability should be viewed as “opposing vectors of cultural engagement”.
Maybe there is a need to distinguish between the practice as enacted by a fan or a viewer – spreading a media, like a video, or drilling into a text – , and the potential of any media to offer /encourage spreadability or drillability. A fan can very well drill by creating an analytic video and posting it on the web, and hope it will spread, at least among fans.
Producers /marketers of a series strive to create material that will spread -such as teasers geared at the larger audience – as well as material rich and complex enough to entice a more devoted audience to deeply engage with it. From their standpoint, these two strategies are not so much “opposed”, but complementary, but do require some trade-offs, as budgets are inherently limited.
I think we agree here – by “opposing vectors” I mean to emphasize the different directions that such practices take (broad spread vs. deep drill). One franchise can certainly embrace both, but rarely with the same textual fragment or paratext – Lost offered a lot of opportunities to drill down, and others to spread out, but I can’t think of one element that did both. I’ll clarify this point (and thanks for commenting – sorry for my delayed reply!).
As a side note, it would be interesting to confront this categorisation to the average viewer’s lived experience: one that uses online paratexts but that is not a hardcore fan (yet) . What does s/he make of this seeming opposition of fan-made vs industrially controlled orienting paratexts ?
I have a hard time wrapping my head around this notion of “orientation”. This chapter encompasses practices – and the related ressources – that enable a viewer to make sense of a tv series (such as a character guide), as well as “drilling” practices that reflect a deeper engagement – that may manifest itself through forensic fandom and consumption of all transmedia content -. Are the latter really part of “orientation” practices ? Not sure I am making myself clear here, but I feel there is a major difference between what a “mainstream viewer” could do, like checking out wikipedia to get a plot summary, and the kind of practices a fan could enact, such as actively speculating on a dedicating fan forum or consuming all official paratexts attached to a specific show.
“Bordwell outlines specific cinematic modes such as classical Hollywood, art cinema, and historical materialism” Did you deliberately left out ‘parametric’? (not if I wouldn’t understand that…)
“we might consider narrative complexity as a distinct narrational mode, as suggested by David Bordwell’s analysis of film narrative” I thought that Bordwell always lowered the relevance and significance of narrative complexity (see, among others, his Film Futures (2002) and Buckland’s distinction in his Puzzle films’ Introduction (2009))
This isn’t a useful comment, still I wanted to share my fav example on viewers’ memories and eventual frustration related to serial narratives. This is from Stephen King’s Misery:- Cliffhangers.- I know that, Mister Man!They also call them serials.I’m not stupid, you know!Anyway, my favourite was Rocket Man,and once it was a no-brakes chapter.The bad guys stuck him in a caron a mountain road, knocked him out,…..tore out the brakesand started him to his death.And he woke up and tried to get out,…..but the car went off a cliff before hecould escape, and crashed and burned,…..and I was so upset and excited!And the next week I was first in line.They start with the end of the last week,…..and there was Rocket Man tryingto get out, and here comes the cliff,…..and just before the car went off the cliffhe jumped free, and all the kids cheered!But I didn’t cheer.I stood right up and started shouting…..”This isn’t what happened last week!Have you all got amnesia?”"They just cheated us!This isn’t fair!He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!”
Another associative comment (as complex tv shows play a lot with mysetries…): Shklovsky on ‘Chekhov’s gun’: “In a mystery novel the gun that hangs on the wall does not fire. Another gun shoots instead.”
What about separate and address the (subjective) ‘time of engagement’ of participation / of forensic practice, etc. This could make sense especially if you differentiate serial viewership and its specific weekly pleasures from the binge-consumption of DVD’s boxed aesthetics (see the difference of time-investment of forensic activity between shows consumed differently).
“the market for complexity may be more valued on television than film.” I see your point, still I’m not completely convinced about this.
“the prestige of these programs furthered the channel’s brand image of being more sophisticated than traditional television” Last week I tried to argue that most non-American viewers know nothing about this branding as they don’t watch these programs on television. Non-American audience doesn’t know / care about the network or channel brand (for them the little channel-’stamps’ are nothing else but irritating extra-diegetic visuals that cover some part of the screen).Furthermore: Even if local tv channels do their best to minimize the time difference between the shows’ original premiere and their own programming, most of the viewers (the forensic ones you are writing about) download the next episode the following day. I’m wondering if you want / are able to address this difference in viewership.
I really like this part, however I would be glad to see a bit more elaboration on the claimed difference between reflexive self-awareness of modernist cinema and operational reflexivity.Or, what is the difference (if there is at all) between your Lost-example and Hitchcock’s operational reflexivity in his Rear Window? See Lisa’s / Grace Kelly’s words: “Let’s start from the beginning again, Jeff!”
“we want to be competent enough to follow their narrative strategies but still relish in the pleasures of being manipulated successfully.” See Fincher’s extension on this: “What people want from movies is to be able to say, I knew it and it’s not my fault”
I’m personally quite interested in David Milch’s work, and, unless I missed something in your list of shows to be discussed, I don’t think one of his creations or writing credits has been listed. Was NYPD Blue more or less complex than the X-Files, for instance? Deadwood than the Sopranos?
I should have kept reading! What interests me in part about Milch is the complexity of his creation combined with his willingness to engage in heroic exegetical labors about it. The feature in John from Cincinnati where he painstakingly explains the dream episode to the assembled cast, who are obviously bored out of their minds, is a fine example of this.
Milch is definitely an interesting figure. I think NYPD Blue is a hybrid show, certainly with less formal experimentation and long-arc storytelling than X-Files, but still groundbreaking in its own way. Deadwood’s innovations seem less structural than tonal, so I really don’t deal with it much throughout. And I haven’t watched John from Cincinnati.
Yeah, I was just listing examples, not being comprehensive. As for the Bordwell’s take on such films, he definitely places the puzzle film as a subset of classical narration. I’m mixed on this depending on the film. But I’m trying to take his concept of “mode” and apply it to TV storytelling, not make direct parallels with the specific modes of film he discusses.
Nice – I haven’t read Misery in decades. Reminds me of my favorite quotation about cliffhangers: ”It wasn’t a cliffhanger, but that’s the cliffhanger – the fact that it wasn’t a cliffhanger. We made you think that we were leading up to another cliffhanger, and that’s actually the cliffhanger.”-R. Kelly, organic intellectual, on his brilliant commentary track to his masterpiece, Trapped in the Closet
Good point – I don’t want to draw a line between Screen Time and Engagement Time (or the like), as I think they’re more similar in type. I think I’ll add the following sentence in the next paragraph to emphasize this element:”Additionally and importantly, these gaps allow viewers to continue their engagement with a series in between episodes, participating in fan communities, reading criticism, consuming paratexts, and theorizing about future installments, all vibrant practices that I discuss throughout the book.”
It’s a great point, and could be quite important to the industry if foreign distribution becomes an even greater part of the revenue pie. Of course the market to distribute globally is impacted by branding – the international distributors are more likely to pick up an HBO property than Spike TV, because the former has more of a reputation within the industry – even if the viewers abroad will never see the distinction. Perhaps I’ll add a footnote discussing this.
I think Hitchcock’s reflexivity is quite similar, although less pervasive (and due to the lack of seriality, not inspiring similar gap-filling engagement). A moment like Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho could be seen as a narrative special effect, as it so clearly calls attention to how you’ve been tricked into thinking she’s the main character. I’ll add a sentence, but probably can’t afford more space to it.
i’m not sure i follow the argument from sentence 3 to sentence 4 (after footnote 12). first you say that many tv innovators started their careers in film – and the first names mentioned are directors -, but then you say that television is attractive to these people because it’s less director-centered than film. i think the emphasis is on the writers here, who work better with producers than directors, but in that case putting david lynch and barry levinson first is a bit confusing.
“constraints like these make television distinct from nearly every other medium”: perhaps it’s worth mentioning that cartoons and comic books, but also dime novels & “Heftchenromane” often work on a similar model – and have often used these constraints as incentives for medium-specific innovations as well
again, comics – and other forms of popular seriality – would be good examples for the “infinite model” of storytelling. and again, i’m not sure if this is what most distinguishes american commercial tv from tv cultures elsewhere (or from other serial forms). i take your point, earlier on (re. my comment in the introduction), that commercial perpetuation plays a more important role in american tv than in latin america or germany, but even in public television, the fate of a series (if it’s not a mini-series) is strongly dependent on ratings. i could name countless examples of series in german tv (even before the introduction of commercial cable channels) that “kept running as long as they generated decent ratings”. still, there’s a decisive difference between american tv and other tv cultures, but i think it has to do with a different (often much more playful) professional ethos of commercial creators in america (and, perhaps, with a validation of storytelling competition that is less established in european popular culture)
i think miklos kiss has a point but the telling exception is HBO: i would say that more and more european viewers are quite aware that an HBO show is an HBO show. also, reviews in newspapers increasingly tend to make references to channels, and not just HBO (AMC is becoming a well-known brand on the international market as well)
“making it up as they go” as “a clear aesthetic condemnation for a complex narrative where unity and continuity is a value”: i’ve always wondered about this. “unity and continuity” aren’t the first terms that come to my mind when i think of “complexity”. couldn’t enjoyment of complex tv also reside, exactly, in the cleverness with which the producers “make it up as they go”, i.e. in their complexity management (how they react to unforeseen viewer engagements, how they let themselves be carried away by certain possibilities of their story and then manage to reign it all in again) rather than by the methodical unfolding of a master plan? the question (or complaint) would not be, “did they just make it up as they went”, but: “how well did they keep up with their runaway narrative”? operational aesthetics indeed. (of course i know that many viewers were disappointed by the ending of “lost” precisely because they wanted more unity and continuity and closure. but i wouldn’t discount that other viewing stance, especially as one that enjoys the very complexity of complex serial storytelling)
just as a footnote, along the lines of the question raised after your göttingen workshop on this scene (“competency for what?” and the “stress test” paradigm): i wonder what you make of the hectoring, hectically working, and completely self-assured therapist (who, it seems to me, doesn’t just “suspect” that Josh is lying, but who seems to know exactly which flashbacks are true and which are not, as if he’s the strategically hyperventilating but ultimately trustworthy showrunner himself)?
i think this is an excellent introductory — or core — chapter for the book. i know the original “velvet light trap” essay quite well (having (co-)translated it into german) but i like this one even better. i like how it ties together all the key-terms of the following chapters, and how it streamlines and brings up to date the arguments of the earlier piece. the only thing i would have liked to see added (and what could perhaps still be added?) is some engagement with the concept of “complexity” itself — not necessarily as a systemic term, even though i think that systems theory might provide some interesting insights into the specific types of narrative “unity” and narrative “continuity” (and also operational aesthetics) that are made (and unmade?) by ongoing, feedback-oriented, multi-authored, serial narratives (as opposed to more traditional notions of unity and coherence). and i think i would introduce the framework of digital culture and procedural literacy earlier in the chapter & would love to read more about it; in terms of complexity “in context”, both ideas seem very important to me.
@Jason: it’s an interesting question how far an international distributor’s programming preferences overlap with the viewing preferences of the audience. The other day I was listening a radio interview with a programmer of the Dutch national tv channel who named a lot of American series they plan to bring in, but never mentioned these shows’ channels.I can imagine a (near) future, when American TV channels will be streamed live and globally. Then viewers’ awareness of channel branding will be globally equal. @Frank: “the telling exception is HBO” Exactly, because there is, for example, a European HBO (contrary to Fox, AMC, etc.) which naturally advertises its shows tied to its channel brand.
Makes sense – I reworked it.
Agreed 100% that there are competing pleasures & goals here. I do think that the most vocal fanbase wants to believe that a serial is guided by a controlling vision (previewing thoughts to come in my Authorship chapter), rather than we’re watching an improvisatory unfolding. I’ll caveat a bit here.
In the part of the paragraph that begins around ‘This is not to suggest…’, might it be useful to make reference to the epigraphs that The Wire uses at the start of each episode – especially given that, if I’m not mistaken, the one for ‘The Buys’ is ‘The king stay the king’, and thus relates to the moments you isolate? This would reinforce your argument that the unity of the programme’s episodes come from mood/tone/theme – the makers can be seen to signal this through this particular feature.
Great point – thanks!
Since you judge the DVD to be “as or more important” than the other developments, I wonder: what about the advances at the other end of the technological apparatus, i.e. flatscreens, widescreens, and HDTV? The large-scale adoption of these new TV sets falls into the exact time frame under consideration here. In a way, current TV screens are in themselves a more complex display technology–they allow more information/pixels to pass through the bottleneck of the cable. Briefly addressing these, you could extend the analogy to novelistic canonization: the quality of the display (fine printing / expensive plasma screen) may support claims for higher cultural value of the content.
In the middle of the paragraph: “processing” and “processes” in one sentence.
Yes, this is an important simultaneous development. Newman & Levine have a good account of this in terms of cultural value. But I’m not certain that HD has led to innovations in narrative strategies, as much as opening up new visual pleasures, encouraging potentially new genres (or modes of presenting those genres), etc. I don’t want to distract by raising the other technology, so I may just bury this in a footnote.
Just a thought, but I wonder if this definition of narrative complexity here has the potential to be a little misleading. I appreciate that the merging of serial and episodic forms has enabled much of the narrative complexity to which you refer; but, as you say in para 8, narrative complexity is not wholly dependent on the presence of serialisation, and you demonstrate this further within the chapter — in some of your discussion of narrative spectacle, for example. So might it be worth briefly defining (in para 5) this “broader mode of complexity” that you refer to in para 8?
This is one of the landmines I keep hitting – I want to define narrative complexity broadly, as I’m not interested in policing the boundaries of the category to debate whether X fits or not. But I also want to be precise enough to make it clear that it’s not just a loose moniker with no explanatory power. I’ll tinker with this paragraph…
“portray an subtle but crucial narrative event” -> _a_ subtle but crucial…
Maybe you’ll get to this later, but it’s interesting that even clear-cut narrative statements can harbor enigmas on a non-diegetic level. For example, a main character (unambiguously) dies on Grey’s Anatomy, and we know that this really (i.e. dietetically) happens; still (and the show has trained us this way), we may wonder whether the actor is now out of the picture, or whether his or her character won’t be back for lots of flashbacks (or maybe hallucinations on the part of another character)…
I do tackle this a bit in the Character chapter, especially in how viewers map real-life actor knowledge onto the show’s narrative, as when a character leaves a show in disgruntlement & is unlikely to return. Not sure if that sufficiently addresses your excellent point.
(New commenter; this is fascinating stuff)I’m thinking about this “operational aesthetic” in relation to what was, perhaps, a *failed* puzzle narrative (Doctor Who’s sixth season’s “Who is River Song?” arc, which I realize is outside the bounds of your survey for for being British but certainly fits your model). Showrunner Steven Moffat had clearly conceptualized the season as a puzzle arc, but online fandom solved the puzzle very early on; having been engaged thus far in the operational aesthetic, I was convinced unto the very bitter end that there was no way the solution to Moffat’s puzzle would be so obvious, and when it was, indeed, what everyone had predicted, I was sorely disappointed. In this case, I was able to follow *how* Moffat was doing what he was doing, but it all seemed needlessly complicated, since in the end, he failed to successfully manipulate his viewers – or at least, he failed to successfully manipulate his most invested viewers; I’m sure there were plenty of casual viewers who were surprised by the revelation. I think this highlights both the narrative risk involved in the puzzle arc (because if it fails, the whole plot arc fails with it), as well as the division it draws between a show’s most invested viewers and its more casual viewers (who are, in my experience, often confused and disgruntled by an overly complex puzzle arc).
This is a good point, and one I address some concerning Lost in the Transmedia Storytelling and Endings chapters. While I talk about Doctor Who and the River Song arc a few places later in the book, I don’t address this question directly. I would say in general, any puzzle arc is bound to to be solved by forensic fans in advance and/or leave them disappointed for not offering a satisfying solution – the most successful arcs are those whose answers might be less surprising but are still sufficiently satisfying in the execution that fans overlook the lack of twisty-ness. (For me, River Song paid off in that way.)
Thanks for joining the conversation!
Great stuff, thanks ! How would you distinguish between this “new mode of viewer engagement” and the “Why Do They Do It?” columns that appeared regularly in Photoplay Magazine in the 1910s-1920s which encouraged film audiences to spot all kinds of inconsistencies in Hollywood films, narrative, realistic, and so on ? I’m wondering if “puzzle films” and now “complex TV” have not just made apparent something in audience reception that’s been more or less there, but un-named, throughout the history of Hollywood films (including the classical period): a gaze that enjoys the bare bone mechanics of film. The reason I’m asking is because I’ve built my entire Doctorate dissertation (written in French though) around the possibility that “operational aesthetic” describes very well a potential engagement of Hollywood audiences at least up to the 1920s. Again thanks for the stimulating insights !
Just a typo: It’s Krabapple.At least you didn’t call her Crandall! http://www.snpp.com/episodes/4F09
And by Krabapple, I meant Krabappel.
This is a great point – while I don’t know those columns from the 1910s, I think you’re definitely correct that this is not a fully new mode of engagement, but rather one that has proliferated in the online environment. No doubt that such impulses have always been part of some viewer experiences – Dickens replied to various nitpicker readers, and the concept of operational aesthetic comes from 19th century theatrical & carnival culture – but it is much more prevalent and public today, making producers more conscious of engaging with such fans. Thanks for the comment!
For a lecture, I had to elaborate a map of the narrative structure of some of the main storylines in the first season of ‘The Wire’. For my surprise, I discovered more stand-alone plotlines than I have imagined (I have imagined “zero”, of course).Perhaps, the most evident one (albeit not for a main character) happens in “One Arrest” (1.7.), when Detective Santangelo must clear one unsolved case by day’s end (funny Jay Landsman recommends him to consult Madame LaRue, a psychic, in order to get fresh information).
As Miklos pointed out in a previous paragraph, I guess that here, in Europe, the change of paradigm has been caused by downloads (legal or ilegal, that is not the point here) much more than by DVDs.It is much easier to share a digital file than a DVD; and when you share it (that is, when you make a digital copy of an .avi or .mkv file for a friend)… you don’t lose yours, so to speak. Everyone can watch this morning (via torrent or direct download) the episode 3.4. of Covert Affairs, released last night in America. I think it is a really great leap for the consumption of American TV here in Europe. That’s really a global audience, instantly.Now you can be your own “programmer”, for even TV-Series that would never arrive to any television channel in your country.This has created a very interesting path of distribution for not very big hits: active viewers download american or british episodes, they generate a lot of buzz on the web and, months later, some TV-Channel broadcast those same TV-Shows that some active fans (and cultural elite) have been speaking about. (It is a bit more complex, I have just tried to put it in a nutshell).
In the last paragraphs you have been talking about how some TV-Series push the boundaries of complexity and reach “a level of awareness that trascends the traditional focus on diegetic action”.Again, it is obvious that you can not talk about every TV-Series, but perhaps you can be interested in some episodes of “Supernatural” (CW, 2004), kind of a Buffy’s and X-Files’ daughter.As I have studied in an essay within the book “TV Goes to Hell” (ECW Press, 2011), one of the most singular narrative strategies in Supernatural –especially from the second season onwards– is the rupture of the illusionistic mirror that characterizes traditional fiction. It is a highly reflexive/metafictional show. In fact, in the sixth season, (in the episode “The French Mistake”, 6.15.) Supernatural offers the most ambitious self-referential episode I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the book edited by Lavery and Abbott covers only the Kripke era, the first five seasons. I can send you my chapter, if you want.
I for one would love to receive that chapter (firstname.lastname@example.org) and will look up Supernatural season 6. I’m rather intrigued by this sudden burst of reflexivity in modern TV/film…
Yes to that added sentence. That is the element which TV 2.0 needs to tackle utilizing a more controlled second screen experience. Unfortunately, the only ones who can do this properly are the Production Companies and networks… but they’re not yet willing, or pressed by collapsing ad rates desperate enough, to tell their stories “outside the box.”
Following Frank’s and Miklos’ comments, I would add that, in my anecdotal experience, HBO also becomes a catch-all label for premium cable shows abroad. I have heard German friends, for instance, refer to shows like Breaking Bad as “HBO.” HBO, then, has clearly succeeded in branding itself abroad in a way other American cable networks have not (yet).
In looking at the ways in which the author casts its shadow onto the text, David Simon and Kurt Sutter are the two most recent elements of interest, I would say.
Simon because of the energy and drive he employs in trying to pre-define its work and claim ‘auctoritas’, both in terms of models and inspirations; he is certainly not an elusive author, and his real life assertive and intense personality almost manages to ‘kill’ the implied author of his work by overtaking our perception of it. This is also due to the unusual nature of his most important work (The Wire), so intellectually charged and carrying almost from its inception the burden of being ‘the best show ever’. The Wire’s reception has always been structured in a heavy ‘top-down’ pattern, even more than other HBO shows; it’s so embedded in the series’ DNA that such a strong connection with its primary form of authorship is easily understandable.
Sutter, on the other hand, might be the first author to provide a meta-narrative evolution of his own role. We always note how the last decade (with a bit of help from the 90s) has brought to prominence the anti-hero figure, and Sutter has taken this to a whole new meta-level positioning himself as the first equivalent of the anti-hero at the level of authorship. An agent who not only assumes the new perception of authors but builds on it, giving a narrative connotation to his presence that results in what we know very well in the Twitter-sphere and with his blog.
I believe these two case studies constitute an evolution in the study of televisual authorship. Whedon’s authorship is probably still a product of the 90’s, Moore’s is heavily shaped by the genre element, while Cuse&Lindelof are a full-blown mass market phenomenon of the 2000’s (crucial but also crossing over to other fields).
This might be a good place to mention Babylon-5′s creator. On the one hand the show features a very strong writer model, given that jms not only created a broad world, but also wrote so many episodes. On the other hand, there’s the active fan world, both in resource creation (Lurker’s Guide) and active discussion with jms (email, Usenet).
I agree that both Simon & Sutter are great examples of these issues. Simon enters into the public conversation via traditional media (op-eds, interviews, lectures) but creates a bold persona that almost denies his status of TV writer, while Sutter is all about self-defining through his own media presence & performing an exaggerated identity. I think especially concerning season 5 of The Wire, Simon’s personal story became so linked to the story that it colored many critics’ opinions.
Thanks for the comment!
JMS is a great prototype for this, using old “new media” to engage fans directly, as well as having a publicly known “5-year plan” for the narrative. Incidentally, I think back on how the concept of having such a plan for a TV series seemed ridiculous back in the 90s, while in recent years the assumption is that any hyper-serialized show should be planned out. Thanks for helping to start the conversation!
If you want this book to have appeal to non-academics, you must unpack the prose. Although I realize this is a book proposal and therefore density makes sense, if you want to draw readers in more, it is essential that you give examples to illustrate the terms you use and to give more time and space for each phase or concept to be parsed.
Oh, the planning. They evolved, they rebelled… and they have a plan! Yes, the shift in perception has been huge. Now there is almost a stigma for those who do not have a master plan set out from the start. It is the mark of authorship, I suppose. The one exception in the past few years has been 24. We regard it as one of these ‘new’ texts of the age of narrative complexity (which does not automatically translate into quality, as you have pointed out in the past), and it was indeed cutting-edge, unique televisual storytelling, but it was run basically like a old-school soap opera, making it up as they went along. That’s the core contradiction of 24, and what makes it fascinating (because – for a while – it worked).
On a similar subject, it would be interesting to look at how this new exposed form of authorship deals with ‘intermittence’, or the unfortunate circumstance in which the author leaves before the show’s end. That’s the flipside of the authorship coin – think Aaron Sorkin (one of, if not the most unique and recognizable single voice in American contemporary visual storytelling) with The West Wing, and how it changed the show immensely.
Or even the curious case of Shawn Ryan, who is certainly a primary force in recent years’ serial landscape, but is not the classical author that we have in mind when we think of his ‘classical’ role in The Shield. He switches back and forth from network to cable, he’s the showrunner for a year over there, then he’s over here assisting with this other thing… what does that say about his own fluid, intermittent authorship?
Agreed 100%! The proposal needs to present lots of content quickly. The book will focus a lot more on telling the story & engaging readers. Thanks for commenting!
Great points! I definitely plan on talking about Sorkin & his departure, which caused changes in the show & in the paratextual discourse.
I think Shawn Ryan is an interesting case – he’s regarded less as a singular creative voice, like Whedon or Sorkin, and more as a supremely effective manager of a writing room. In part because he’s a super nice guy (he’s a Middlebury alum so I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with him a few times) & doesn’t place himself in the center of attention with either his writing style or public persona. So he was asked to help David Mamet run The Unit, brought in to rehab Lie to Me, and partnered with Ted Griffin on Terriers (which Ryan says is written in Griffin’s voice). Ryan is more in the mold of the old-school TV producer rather than the contemporary auteur, but some of his shows are marked as more “authored” than others.
I’m not sure how you plan on laying out the chapters, but as a reader and as a scholar, I’d want this historical context sooner. Because up until now, this argument was striking me as rather presentist. I would want this info upfront: how does the formal and narrative paradigm you’re talking about differ from other historical moments, what are the points of continuity, how do other modes of narration exist alongside the one you’re talking about, etc. This is to say — the kind of narrative practice you’re laying out isn’t the only kind of television textuality at work in the medium at the moment. I think it needs some more context, even briefly.
The plan is to have the chapters arranged as listed here, alphabetical beyond the Intro & Complexity in Context chapters. In the Complexity chapter, there will be some history, mostly on the rise of complex experiments in the 1990s, but this is the place for the deeper history of things like the two-parter. For someone looking for more history earlier, they could certainly read this chapter first, but I would imagine that many readers would also rather skip the history. The goal of this structure is to allow & encourage different reading strategies.
Thanks for joining the conversation!
It is understandable that you would avoid spending much time on radio in a project about television, but the History section might benefit from a brief explanation of how the narrative forms of radio shows were transferred to television. Gunsmoke was “Gunsmoke” before it hit TV, and Dragnet the TV series was essentially the radio show with pictures. It could be said that the development of complex narrative strategies in TV marked a shift, not merely from the early years of American television, but from the early days of network radio, when the idea of series (and the sponsors that came with them) took hold.
I love the idea of an iPad version with embedded video! Re: the two-level model, I recommend, if you haven’t seen it, The Exploit by Alex Gallaway & Eugene Thacker.
Re: play, you may find my Flow piece “The Play Paradigm: What Media Studies Can Learn from Game Studies” helpful: http://flowtv.org/2008/12/the-play-paradigm-what-media-studies-can-learn-from-game-studies-ted-friedman-georgia-state-university/
What about critiques of complexity for complexity’s sake? I’m thinking here of examples such as the punk attack on prog rock as bloated and inauthentic, and celebration of “simple” 3-chord song structures and blunt lyrics for their directness, energy, clarity, and accessibility for both artists and fans. Does the book presume that complexity per se is inherently a good thing, and that “complex TV” is better than “simple TV”? If so, why? If not, how can you avoid having the implications of the term (sophistication, artistic ambition, cultural capital) naturalize a hierarchical valuation of “complex TV” over “simple TV”? Is there room in your discussion for shows that are complex yet aesthetic failures (Flash Forward?), and shows that are simple yet aesthetic successes (maybe an intentionally primitivist show like Lucky Louie?)
I’d be interested in a radio background as well. There’s a large body of sf and horror radio, which influence writers in those genres across multiple media, inc. tv.
I totally agree with your last point – in an earlier piece about evaluation, I use the examples of 24 and Everybody Loves Raymond – I much prefer the effective simplicity of the latter to the inelegant complexity of the former. I’m not sure that we’re at the stage where there’s a punk backlash – to extend the music analogy, we’re still in the late ’60s (as I’ve compared The Wire to Astral Weeks and Lost to Sgt. Pepper). I don’t think we’ve seen the too-ornate-for-its-own-good equivalent of ELP yet…
Thanks for the comments!
I agree, and will definitely discuss radio narrative precedents for soap operas & primetime series (like thatAmos n Andy was explicitly framed as a serial). I’ve written enough about Dragnet in my first book, but the norms of the episodic procedural clearly predated TV. Thanks for commenting!
Thanks for this link – I read it a couple of years ago, but forgot about it. Definitely speaks directly to the point I’m trying to explore here.
I would recommend rethinking the title, only because you use the word “Television” twice between the title and subtitle. Even using “TV” would make it less redundant. My suggestion would be to try a play on words. Keep the subtitle as-is, but change the title to “TV Complex”. This would also be a more eye-grabbing title: a simple, large-font phrase that will provoke curiosity.
This paragraph might be a bit long. Shorter paragraphs tend to help you hold a reader’s interest and the proposal format is one that is seeking to keep the attention of someone who has a lot of these to go through. Try cutting it at places that present new ideas, like “Television has embraced genre mixing”. By the way, that should be hyphenated: “genre-mixing.”
On the sentence regarding daytime television structures, make the last clause the first: “Though the relationship between primetime and daytime serials is more complicated than is typically acknowledged, these recent developments…” At present, the last clause is like a tail on the end of the sentence and makes the sentence feel long. If you put it up front, it sets up the main idea of the sentence and allows it to have more prominence in the reader’s mind. It also makes this clause feel less like an afterthought.
Notice that in the above example, I changed “although” to “Though” and added an “is” between “than” and “typically.”
Okay, I’m not sure if you’re wanting the feedback to be this detailed. So, I’m going to stop making notes before I edit the whole proposal! Let me know if this is what you’re looking for.
Good concept, by the way. As a media and pop culture writer, I’d say this is definitely a subject worth discussing!
Speaking of long paragraphs, this formatting hid some of my paragraph breaks. Didn’t want to look like a hypocrite! ;)
Don’t forget technological innovation and its impact at the production level.
Dear Jason, this paragraph is of great interest for me (as the rest of the book proposal of course). I wrote an article recently on the use of cyberethnography to analyze viewers’ practices. I studied the TV practices of BSG’s fans. If you are interested in reading it, I can send it to you.
The title is a placeholder until the manuscript is done, as such things typically get worked over with the press. I’m reluctant to use “TV” for some reason – it feels somehow diminutive!
I’m not sure if copy editing is that useful at this stage (and I fear what a peer-sourced copy edit would look like), but thanks for reading & commenting!
Chad – what specifically are you thinking of in terms of production technology? Certainly the rise of HD matters in terms of visual style & cultural value, but do you see related shifts in narrative form? Thanks for commenting!
I was thinking specifically of Jeremy Butler’s work regarding the shift toward zero degree style in the sitcom. It also strikes me that the timeframe when you began to notice increasing levels of complexity also seems to coincide with the rise of computer editing, which makes me wonder how much the increase in editorial choices has altered narrative form. I can certainly recall examples where an acknowledgement of these choices made their way into episodes.
For example, I might point to the Scrubs episode “My Life in Four Cameras” the viewer is treated to half of the ep shot in multi-camera mode and half in single-camera mode. Of course, this shift in production mode is also paired with the high degree of reflexivity that marks that show. This shift in production mode complicates the episode for viewers by asking them to recognize the creative processes–a level of understanding that presumably will extend to the viewing of all episodes of the program. Other programs, like iCarly, also intertwine production and distribution technologies into the stories that they tell.
Of course another way to view technology and narrative would be through a transmedia lens. In particular, blogs and Twitter accounts maintained by fictional characters might be of interest. Or, recognizing the ways that HIMYM extends beyond the program through Robyn Sparkles’ MySpace and music videos to Barney Stinson’s authoring of a best selling book might prove fertile grounds for technological exploration. There is also a great scene from the “Kept a Guy Locked in a Trunk” episode of My Name is Earl where a character directly references TVWithoutPity.com and makes a meta-level joke about meta-level jokes.
I hope that clarifies my comment a bit.
Sorry about that formatting. It looks like spaces exist between graphs until you press enter.
Definitely clearer! I’ll certainly be talking about the transmedia technologies in the Transmedia chapter. And the rise of self-consciousness in production form is part of the operational aesthetic, like the mockumentary style, the Scrubs ep, etc. The first point about digital editing is a really interesting idea, but I’ve not seen any evidence to suggest that it’s been an influence in narrative complexity – perhaps the rise of digital editing has encouraged a more streamlined production process, which has enabled more time to be spent on visuals & staging? But I don’t know for sure.
I do know that the ease of video editing seems not to have made much of a difference in the writers room. For instance, Lost obviously had a massive task in maintaining continuity, but Gregg Nations (the continuity guru) didn’t use video clips in his records – instead the continuity database was just a bunch of MS Word files. So the opportunity to use the easier technology seemed not to matter in that instance. But I’ll keep looking for connections…
I’ll add a voice in support of a growing audience in traditional literature courses — noting that televisual texts are now sometimes integrated with conventional material (particularly in studies of serial literature), though the courses themselves may not be marked out as “television studies” courses.
I had a similar set of questions, in part because of the potential circularity of starting with the terms of value established by these works themselves, which circulate within the same discourse field as television studies (i.e., TV does/does not have aesthetic value). Is there a way to get around the problem that the shows in question market specifically to discriminating consumers (which would certainly include how we TV-loving-academics see ourselves)? They do this by differentiating themselves from “conventional TV” on many of these same markers of cultural value — auteurism, aesthetic complexity, highbrow citations, genre play, etc…
“structural constraints based around commercial breaks and rigid schedules”
One of the crucial opportunities this book stakes out is the opportunity to dismantle what most creative artists would see as a false premise. Constraints enable creativity — not the opposite. Think of the sonnet sequence as a case in point: there’s hardly a form more formulaic, repetitive, rigid, and periodic. All of which may produce brilliantly complex art.
Two related issues to address in this paragraph:
Fair use: I’m curious how convinced potential publishers are that video quotations constitute fair use?
Platform: one of the things I think we (scholars) badly need from born-digital monographs is some degree of standardization, so we can find out how to make multimedia arguments well and build audiences for them. I very much like the idea of scholarship that sits closer to — and works within — vernacular communication forms. With those two issues in mind I’d eschew the standalone app model and explore a format already being tested (which might entail rethinking the press of choice…) by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (http://scalar.usc.edu/anvc/) and/or Critical Commons (http://criticalcommons.org/).
Agreed – and I’d point to Sean O’Sullivan’s work arguing that the 13-episode season functions like a sonnet in terms of the macro-structure of the series. And the moments in which the rigidity of routine & structure is violated creates moments of expressive possibilities that seem unavailable in more free-form artistic forms. Thanks for the comments!
In terms of fair use, I’m confident that we can use the video clips as fair use, following the guidelines of the SCMS policy paper from last year. NYU Press seems supportive, but if they back down, we could release the digital version through MediaCommons (which has an agressive fair use policy).
As for the platform, I agree that establishing standards & easily replicable models is key. I’m looking into Scalar (which I’ve been told might be app-able), and if it ever crosses the development threshhold, Sophie is another model. The reason I’m leaning toward an app is that I fear the web-based model of publishing is not well-suited to long-form reading – it seems like many people would rather printout a PDF or webpage than read it on their computer. But the app model seems to growing as a way for many people to read via a mobile device, and would force a digital reader to stay in the platform where multimedia possibilites are active. However, I recognize that everything could change in 6 months, so my mind remains open…
Long-form argument is clearly a key value here.
For this monograph, the real question I have is how much of it should unfold — advance — through multimedia modes and how much via conventional text, as here. I am persuaded by video essays by Laurence Lessig and Michael Wesch that multimedia forms work well for much longer arcs of analysis than we are used to. I found the video essay by your student Michael Suen, on “Storytelling in the Wire“, quite compelling and I’d be very open to a monograph that unfolds in whole or in part in this mixed-media way. It would put the evidence much closer to the argument.
This is a key issue – can I use the video & interface possibilities to strengthen the argument, rather than just using video illustrations (which are certainly valuable but don’t tap the full possibilities of the format)? I’m inspired by work like Michael’s and my colleague Christian Keathley (and his students creating multimedia essays), but am not sure that I have the editing skills to convey ideas that effectively. But it will definitely be something I’ll try during the gap between finishing the manuscript and publishing the digital format.
For the Peyton Place section, I would love to see if you could get an interview with Michael Gleason. He was a staff writer there, did rather traditional series writing in the ’70s, and then wound up at MTM as co-creator and showrunner of Remington Steele — which had a largely serialized character and relationship storyline within a traditional mystery structure where the cases were solved at the end of the episode.
It’s curious to me that he was the only executive producer at MTM at the time of Hill Street and St. Elsewhere who had experience writing serialized drama. I wonder what those dynamics were like at MTM, and whether Gleason’s previous experience on Peyton Place was considered valuable as the serialized form was being developed.
[...] book project, Complex Television, to be published by NYU Press. There is a section on the book proposal, with comments and feedback discussion on just about every paragraph. This is what I think some of [...]
I am particularly interested in this chapter on Comprehension as I am presenting a paper at the upcoming SCSMI conference inquiring into an aspect of memory and serial TV. Is it likely to be available online soon? I would be very pleased to be able to reference it!
It’s unlikely to be ready by SCSMI, but you might want to look at my essay (which will be folded into the chapter) “Previously On,” about serial TV & memory (and originally presented at SCSMI). The blog version is online, or it’s in this book.
Re notes 18 and/or 20, see also Noel Carroll’s essay, “Sympathy for the Devil”, in The Sopranos and Philosophy; for Carroll, we “ally” with Tony because, while he is far from a moral man, we judge him to be the most moral (rather than seeing him as morally superior because we are “aligned” with him). I like your formulation better, but the distinction might merit a brief comment, and at all events, the Carroll reference is very much on topic.
You might include NYPD Blue in the “notable instances” of recasting leads.
The containment of transgressive female characters to comedy is really striking, and the comic tradition of the “unruly woman” might be worth a footnote. I would also argue that resistance to female antiheroes in dramas begins in production, with the special pressures placed on writers to “soften” and “feminize” tough women. D’Acci provides some nice instances of this in Defining Women.
What I mean by recasting is different actors playing the same character, not bringing on a new character/actor (like on NYPD Blue) – I’ll clarify.
Murray Smith cites (& counters) Carroll’s essay, but I should go to the source to reference it & distinguish my take as well.
Great point linking to unruly women & D’Acci’s “softening” examples – I’ll tackle some of these issues a bit more in the Genre chapter, but I agree it needs a bit of fleshing out here.
Another source that might be useful in fleshing out this section on the antihero is Adam Kotsko Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. He makes the argument that the current surge in antiheroes on television can be linked to the break down of society and the increasing effects of negative forms of capitalism that encourage economic inequality as models of happiness.
The focus on masculinity in these shows might also be representative of the fears that many white men harbor that the world as they understood it is rapidly changing and in the process decreasing their sphere of influence and possibility for employment and respect.
I’ll check that out – I read Kotsko’s Awkwardness, and wasn’t too impressed with his take on cringe-comedy. In general, I’m very skeptical with claims that the popularity of any trend is a reflection of some underlying social condition, so I may be a tough sell.
This is a large part of Lotz’s argument in her forthcoming book, so I don’t want to rehash (or “prehash” as it were) too much.
You’ve got the same phrase “comes across as too artificial” in both this and the previous paragraph.
I have to admit, I haven’t seen “identification” referred to as inadequate conceptually before, though also admittedly, my familiarity with it comes from rhetorical criticism (via Kenneth Burke), and I lack familiarity with the details of Smith’s consideration of it. But I wonder whether providing a bit more contextualization of why/how it is inadequate would be useful here.
And, if producers have not adequately or clearly connected those interior and exterior components, there can be all kinds of confusion regarding them and their relationships to each other. Such ambiguity can lead to both the appearance of complexity and to viewer dissatisfaction. Production “quality” in this regard, though that’s not really the word for it, is a key factor in how this aspect of character plays out.
Given your use of “alignment” above, maybe it would be more accurate to say the structure and style of the series “invite” or even “all but require” viewers’ alignment with Dexter; I know several people who won’t watch it because they don’t want the constant invitation to identification with a serial killer the series promotes.
I wonder if a differentiation between actor/producers involved in the conception of a series (Dern) and actors who are added as a producer later in a series’ run as a result of contract negotiations.
Lest I appear to be nitpicking character spellings, it’s “Saul.” And I suppose he’s her friend/colleague in this case.
I feel there’s a missed opportunity for a Fat Lee reference here.
While not a huge success by any means, I do sort of question lumping Brotherhood (which ran for three seasons) in with Kingpin in terms of failed Sopranos clones.
All of this talk of character “change” in its many facets reminds me of my chief frustration with House, M.D., which is that the show set its protagonist up to be completely incapable of change. My experience with watching (and, ultimately, abandoning) House made me realize the extent to which I expect character education at the very least from my shows. It’s possible that not everyone shares this expectation, but I think that a show that sets itself up as complex (and while House doesn’t share some of the very complex plotlines of Lost, it certainly is not entirely episodic in nature) does invoke those expectations of some level of change over the course of its run. Granted, I haven’t seen the last two seasons of House, so it’s possible that in the end, the show did challenge House’s fundamental belief that people can’t change, even in the lesser ways you describe earlier in the chapter. But the first six seasons were an exercise in frustration, as the show kept teasing its viewers with the promise of change, only to flinch away from it at the last moment.
I would argue that Cordelia also is an excellent example of character transformation, but I agree that Wesley is the more dramatic of the two.
I wonder if shows that have an “endgame,” if you will (and I haven’t read the “Endings” chapter yet, so I’m not sure if you address this there), are able to take more risks with character transformation. I think it’s a major weakness of American television that shows are expected to just go on and on and on until all the life has been wrung out of them. Character transformation is hard under such narrative circumstances, because you have to live with the consequences, so to speak. But in a show with a definitive arc and ending point – in a show that functions more like a drawn-out film – perhaps there is room for more transformation. I’m thinking here of the BBC’s Sherlock, which has clearly from the get-go had a character transformation arc in mind (from the “great man” Sherlock is in “A Study in the Pink” to the “good man” he will presumably be by the time Moffat and Gatisse are done with him).
There’s so much backlash (particularly, I think, by female fans) against female characters who aren’t even real antiheroes that I have a hard time imagining any showrunner or network coming up with a *real* female antihero any time soon. The internalized sexism that manifests in response to characters like Doctor Who’s River Song or White Collar’s Sara Ellis (neither of whom is an antihero, but both of whom are willing – nay, eager! – to bust a few balls on occasion) is both routine and appalling.
I think Olyphant was also a producer from the beginning, although Dern was more involved in conceptualization. Not sure this parsing matters in this context.
I’ve added the clause “viewers do not literally think of characters as standing in for them within the storyworld or imagine themselves as being characters, as implied by identification.” Does this suffice along with a citation of Smith?
I’d frame this as “character coherence” – does the representation and framing make sense within the storytelling with consistency and motivation?
Is it worth adding some more on this to an already long chapter?
Consider him referenced!
This speaks to one of the challenges of a lot of serialized or semi-serialized shows – how do you cue audiences in terms of what to expect for character change? House seems to suggest that he might be redeemable, but the premise requires stasis. This disconnect seems to be what led you & others to give-up the show after numerous seasons.
Good point – definitely Breaking Bad was conceived as a more finite story than something like House, allowing the change to be more deliberate and paced. And Sopranos got to a point of stasis, delaying an inevitable end in its middle seasons until it could define the endpoint.
Yeah, I’ll downplay the description. There aren’t really other mob-centered antihero shows to mention that I can think of.
“who is later revealed to be far more conflicted and confident than he seems”—shouldn’t that be ‘less confident’ rather than more?
Sean Bean’s own intertextuality is perhaps worthy of note, since his noble characters (Boromir) always die . It has indeed become a joke that Sean Bean gets killed off–expect it.
Doesn’t Walt’s decision to shave his head also come from the fact that his recent chemotherapy sessions is causing it to fall out? To me the scene always seemed to infer his reasoning as being along the lines of “Well, it’s falling out now, so I might as well shave it all off”, rather than wanting to look more badass. The Heisenberg persona comes later, when he’s forced to think up a name for Tuco to refer him as.
Certainly yes – it’s a combination of a way to look consistent in the wake the chemo, and a way to look intimidating. The shaving is presented as intercut with him taking action against Tuco, conveying the “badass” aspect (even though the name Heisenberg is not yet revealed). It’s telling that for Walt, actions always have a logical rationalization, and an emotional motivation that he can interchange.
Thanks for commenting!
“his sex life perks up” in season one–true, but isn’t this also the season when he attempts to rape her, thinking she doesn’t mean no when she keeps saying no? their sexual relationship in season one is fascinating, and her pregnancy makes it interesting as well.
Yes, this is a complication I should mention. It was actually in the season 2 premiere, but definitely marks the end of his sexual “awakening,” as Skyler lays down limits. It is further complicated by the anti-Skyler attitude of many male fans, who see this moment not as sexual assault or aggressiveness, but Skyler “obstructing” Walt’s manhood.
Thanks for the comment & sorry for my delayed reply!
as beginnings go, these two paragraphs make a perfect chapter opening, i think. it’s always a good beginning that’s simple and clear without sacrificing complexity. difficult to write, too. i’m envious. “viewers frequently enter a series midstream”: there’s a connection here to the discussion of digital culture in the core chapter (and a hint why serial storytelling may be particularly appropriate to, and attractive in, an era of digital synchronization). (of course some would say, this is also how we enter life: always in midstream.) — so, i really like this opening: deft introduction of a major theme–the special temporality of serial narration–without getting bogged down in the philosophical sophistries that often attend discussions of temporality & seriality. don’t change a word! (well, perhaps one: repetition of “new” in paragraph 2, line 7).
“see understand”: one verb too many”teach us how to watch the series”: makes sense. i would like to hear more about how this is different from the teaching modules of digital games. one difference seems to be that a game usually reaches its players as a relatively finished product already (within limits, of course, and “finished” doesn’t mean “closed”, never does). a tv series, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily know where it will be going & what exactly it needs or wants to teach about itself. i often feel that a tv series has to learns about /itself/ over time — it needs to explore itself — it can find itself, lose itself — deal with its own character flaws and unforeseen effects (think sopranos) etc. (the same happens when you serialize games, of course.) i think that all these improvisational and self-explorative aspects of serial storytelling give a special meaning to the “educational” function of pilots, season beginnings, etc.
Hank has not yet moved into his new house with the attic. It would be weird to think of his sister living unnoticed in his old place as well. I don´t think we even get to see it, so the mechanics of her staying there is not at all delineated. In contrast they go into great detail how the arrangement worked in the new place.
i really like the examples you’ve chosen & how you’re using them to explain pilots. only in this second HIMYM paragraph i began to wonder if the argument’s not trailing off. i see how this paragraph ties in important themes from other chapters — and that’s very helpful — but at the same time it seems to lose sight a bit of the educational/inspirational poetics of pilots (and be more about HIMYM as a show). still, interesting to read and important connections to other chapters/concerns. perhaps move the final sentence to the beginning of the paragraph to signal that all of this is still under the heading of “pilots”?
(three cheers for linguistic disorientation & unsubtitled strangeness! that’s how the best teaching experiences start. but perhaps worth mentioning — in terms of /what/ alias teaches us when it teaches us to watch it — that linguistic disorientation here is all about being tortured by powerful foreigners.)
“A pilot is always a promissory note for what is to come, more than a blueprint to be followed, and much can change as a series develops”: this takes care of my comment above. still, i would say that concerning the “educational” poetics of pilots, there are a lot of interesting implications worth pursuing & still contained in this sentence, “much changes as a series develops”
was there really something sinister behind MV’s glossy surface? it was a great show, and it’s been awhile since i watched it, but i don’t remember it as being heavily invested in inside/outside dinstinctions. but as i said, it’s been a while
i mean Miami Vice (MV) not VM (veronica mars)
“a brief frisson of pleasure” … love it.
very convincing close reading. and i like how the subchapter broadens the textual analysis onto some overarching cultural questions, re. gender and seriality. i think i would have liked to see something like this for the entire chapter, too, not only for the VM-example. do you have the time and space to extend the close reading of “complex” pilots toward a thick description of pilot complexity? i.e. what’s the cultural work of some of the expository techniques and attendant themes you have surveyed (initial disorientation and its gradual resolutions, complex tv’s affinity for scenes of therapy and torture, time/space-experiments, the overtly experimental setup of many shows: what type of (media) “education” is taking place here, since the 1990s? what are these shows teaching us when they teach us about their intrinsic norms? what are these intrinsic norms doing beyond their own storyworlds, what are some of their extrinsic — and joint cultural — practices?) that’s a handful, i know, but your analysis is such a perfect setup for these questions that readers might be curious to hear a few hints, at least, in this direction?
“learning experiences” i mean
sorry again for the double post – sometimes the comment doesn’t seem to go through, so i tried to recreate it & then the first one will show up again hours later. just delete one (haven’t figured out yet how i can delete my own)
Great point about the comparison to game tutorials. As for the change over time, indeed that’s true – I think one thing pilots do is lock-in the initial concept of a show as a reference point for both viewers and producers. For some programs, it’s a reference point that a series moves past (most commonly sitcoms), but for others, it’s a struggle to keep continuity of plot & tone from the initial concept. I’ll elaborate.
Yeah, it has to do with some quirks in the spam filter. Happy to monitor & delete!
Makes sense – balancing the examples & the thread was tricky in this section.
Right. But… it is implied in a later episode that all the crazy stuff that Hank was noticing is Steph’s doing. So I take it as implied that Steph was squatting with Hank from the start of the season, even if the mechanics were not spelled out. Thanks for commenting!
I’d say that it’s less about inside/outside, than MV highlights that there’s a corrupt & dangerous element underneath Miami’s surface beauty.
[...] we judge pilots? I’ve written at length about this — in fact, go to my book Complex TV and read a full chapter all about the poetics of pilots! In that chapter, I suggest that the two goals of a pilot are to educate viewers on what the show [...]
[...] primera temporada de Louie me dejó frío. ¡Y mira tú después! Como condensa Jason Mittel en su nuevo libro, un piloto tiene dos funciones: educar a los espectadores sobre cómo debe ver una serie y animarle [...]
Random note on opening credit sequences: while most elements of a pilot are made for the combination of executives and audiences, credit sequences—in either longer or short forms—are almost never attached to pilots when they screen for executives/critics, and sometimes pilots go without opening credits when they reach audiences as well.
Wondering if a similar caveat regarding audience reception of pilots needs to go with the Pushing Daisies paragraph before this?
Is there an element, then, of mitigating complexity here? I always read the Awake pilot as a pretty clear case of “Here’s a complicated premise, but here’s a more traditional police show to go with it.” Of course, it and Pushing Daisies both have VERY complicated premises that make such a scenario different from the more matter-of-factness of Medium, but I think Awake more than Pushing Daisies lays the groundwork for a more “typical” generic code in its pilot.
It should be noted, though, that Justified’s pilot ends up owing much more to the show’s future trajectory than this sentence suggests, given that Boyd features prominently – in many ways, the show went BACK to the pilot after abandoning it during Goggins’ movie shoot, albeit fleshing out Boyd’s character considerably in the process. I also wonder whether Dollhouse’s eventual, delayed serialization might also be worth mentioning, given that Whedon eventually got enough rope to go (close to) where he had originally intended.
Great point – for instance, Homeland‘s pilot has no credit sequence (thankfully!).
Pushing Daisies actually started quite well in the ratings, as its pilot was the top-rated of the season, and it sustained decently until the strike killed momentum.
I think a lot of the difference is in tone: Awake plays as a fairly straightforward police/family drama hybrid, with this supernatural overlay (like Medium, but with more of a mysterious rather than paranormal explanation). Pushing Daisies calls attention to its whimsical fantasy, making it hard to treat the cases as actual mysteries in a detective story, what with the narrator, visuals, dialogue tone, etc.
Both good points – will edit accordingly!
Wondering if there’s room here for further context on your last sentence: how are they distinguished? How has this stigma manifested? If you’re not going to analyze this here and instead do so elsewhere, it seems a bit of a non sequitor in this location for me without a specific example or case study.
Is there a distinction to be made here between “borrowed” and “evolved?” While I understand where you want to make a larger case for disconnecting seriality from the soap opera as a direct evolutionary development, I’m not sure if it’s possible to make the case that “borrowing” has not occurred at any stage in a series’ development. To suggest that Battlestar Galactica is an evolved form of the daytime soap opera may speak to the discourse you’re working against here, but to suggest that an episode like Season 4′s “Deadlock” borrows from soap opera seems less contentious to me.
In addition: given that McClain’s comments are without any further context, is it really contentious to say that some nightime shows have borrowed from the daytime structure of storytelling? It would be one thing if she was explicitly referring to a specific show, allowing us to break down her logic, but it feels like a very generic, thin statement to consider as part of this discursive claim (particularly since the piece you’re citing is so fluffy in general). I’m not saying these claims aren’t out there, because they are, but I’m not sure if this is the best example.
I would also note, in terms of ways of catching up, the streaming of soaps like Days and General Hospital on Hulu (which of course is the same model Prospect Park is using to relaunch AMC and OLTL).
While I would agree that the daily vs. weekly schedule shifts the level of engagement encouraged by a particular program, there are still incredibly active fan discussion forums, Twitter conversations, Tumblr communities, etc. around soap operas, with many of the same kinds of engagement we see with primetime series. As much as I think the distinction can be made in terms of how much paratextual engagement/speculation manifests—especially taking the break between seasons into account, which is an important point here—I find “vast experiential differences” to be a bit of a generalization.
I like what this paragraph is doing, and really like the notion of melodrama’s impact on these masculinist genres, but I do wonder how we register this effeminate layer within the discourse of quality Newman/Levine identify. In other words, if serial creators, viewers, and critics all deny links between primetime serials and melodrama, does this effeminate layer actually register as feminine, or is it rather subsumed/marginalized within a broadly masculine discourse?
To tie it into the Lost paragraph below, I absolutely agree that Lost’s melodrama is a key part of its appeal, and my relationship with the series. However, at the same time, I would argue that much of the tension around the finale was between those who embraced the show’s melodrama and those who did not, a tension that operated within conceptions of the series driven exclusively by its narrative mysteries and forensic qualities as opposed to its character development. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t assert Lost’s inherent melodrama—Ryan’s point here is a great one, and your conclusion in the following paragraph is right on with my perception of the program—but rather that the ability of this melodramatic reading to rise to the top of the “stew” is on occasion hindered by preconceptions about the program based on those puzzles/trappings.
Building slightly on the above, how can we understand gender appeals as functioning from a level of branding? In discussing shows like Buffy or Veronica Mars, we’re dealing with shows airing on The WB/UPN, which in itself carries distinct gendered assumptions about audiences. Just wondering how this further frames narrative expectations.
This is more of a nitpick than a critique, but on a personal level Sons of Anarchy’s two female leads, while certainly bounded by a hyper-masculine world, do somewhat distinguish the series from something like Justified. This is not to say they both don’t fit into your conception of complex masculinist dramas, but I guess my instinct here was to start making distinctions.
I’d also note that, by the time this is published, The Bridge will have joined Damages.
The question I have based on this is what other factors keep this reading from becoming more prominent. It’s there where the masculinist discourse around a show like Breaking Bad—reinforced by AMC’s marketing efforts and larger brand identity, for example—becomes part of this conversation for me.
Writing a paragraph about Friday Night Lights and melodrama without discussing the start of the second season seems strange to me, specifically since the second season opens during the summer without football as an anchoring point, thus leaving the melodrama to function mostly unmoored from the football field. As much as I’d agree with you that the series as a whole uses melodrama consistently (and centrally in episodes like “The Son”), if we’re talking about melodramatic excess the start of the second season is both textually and discursively distinguishable.
I’m curious after reading the whole chapter whether this still feels like it needs more. Would just a description of how calling a primetime program “soapy” functions as an insult? I feel Newman & Levine, Allen & others highlight this stigma sufficiently, and there’s not sense in recreating that work.
This was a really tough paragraph to write – there’s not really a strong example of a scholar or critic (or soap industry person) arguing for evolution or borrowing, but just little asides here & there. An earlier draft cited no specific examples, and it felt too thin. I chose the McClain quote because it’s so clear & concise in suggesting a shared conventional wisdom, but obviously it’s not really an argument but an assertion. And that’s kind-of the point – such claims are often stated as if they’ve been proven true, rather than actually substantiated. I’d appreciate any advice on how to make this point without assembling many instances of these asides.
As for borrowed vs. evolved, yes there is a difference. But I’m still not convinced that any “borrowing” is from soaps per se, rather than shared roots in serial melodrama stemming from literature & film. I think of daytime soaps & primetime serials as cousins with shared ancestry, rather than a parental lineage. Should I make that more clear?
Yes, a few sentences on soap paratextual participation got cut in an edit. I’ll revise to include this again.
I’d say that many discourses circulating around these shows don’t deny melodrama as much as the soap opera ties to its form. Certainly most producers talk about character & drama as more important than puzzles & mysteries, and even the most diehard forensic Lost fans love “The Constant” and its romanticism. And I address the tensions in the final season along these lines in the still-to-complete Endings chapter. But Cuse & Lindelof always seemed frustrated with fans who demanded puzzles & answers over emotional payoffs, and pretty much said that such demands would be frustrated in the long-run (as they were). So while not framed in gendered terms, I don’t think that either the show nor its producers were invested in devaluing melodrama or framing it in masculinist terms.
Funny – I have a student writing a thesis on female characters in Justified and Sons of Anarchy, and following her analysis, I lump Ava & Mags in with Tara & Gemma as vital secondary figures in a dominant masculine constellation.
Good point – I’m hesitant to analyze this too much, given that the final eps remain to validate or counter this reading. As of now, it is a counter-reading not a preferred one, but it feels to be growing in prominence in a way that I can imagine rising up in s 5+. So in the words of Walt, I’ll stick a pin in it for later…
Great point! I’ll definitely foreground how s2 changes the melodramatic tone. I think that the style of the show is still non-excessive outside of the football field, but that the plot events fall into the contrived and extreme tradition of melodrama. Much of the disconnect around the Landry/Tyra plot was how out of place those events felt to the style of performance, dialogue, visuals, etc.
I don’t think it needs anything substantial after reading the whole chapter, but I do sort of think that even a brief bit of discourse could help ground it. We recently had students read part of that New York Review of Books review of Mad Men, which is full of such distinction (albeit not from the show itself but within popular discourse).
First off, I do think the question of ancestry/lineage is a good way of framing your argument here.
Secondly, however, I do wonder whether we can actually identify the source of “borrowing.” Evolution we can argue more clearly, in that we’re making external judgments on how narrative forms have developed over time through analysis of those storytelling forms. But, from my perspective, the process of borrowing is caught up in discourses of authorial intent: can we really know if someone is borrowing from one place or another? I agree that we can’t necessarily know that this borrowing came from soaps, but I also don’t think anyone is in a position to convince me that it wasn’t borrowed from soaps. Your argument is that we’re too quick to casually accept an evolutionary argument, that these are common sense assumptions you want to work again, but “borrowing” for me opens a door to thousands of specific instances rather than a more broad evolutionary argument. I think that’s why the McClain case is such a thin one for me: it’s fine as an example of evolutionary logic more generally, but if we’re talking about specific instances of borrowing it opens up a much wider range of arguments and conversations that I don’t know if we can generalize about to the same degree.
I’m not sure Ava registers as a dominant secondary figure in every season, and Mags is only in one, but I take the point.
“At end of the episode” should be “At the end of the episode”
I think “suspense inducing cliffhanger” should have a hyphen between suspense and inducing.
I agree entirely with your effort to reconnect melodrama to contemporary complex television. Let me put on my “filmie” hat and say that I think the same thing is true on the film side.
Bear with me as I spell out the parallel story. Melodrama rose to new heights in the 19th century Western theater, having borrowed things from Greek tragedy (the reversal, for instance), medieval passion plays (the importance of symbolically encoded objects), the Gothic (the sense that something wrong is lurking under the cultured surface of appearances), French popular theater (an emphasis on gesture, spectacle, and music over language), and so on. Nineteenth century melodramatic theater also added a few tricks of its own: the tableau (where action freezes at a picturesque moment of heightened dramatic tension. Cf. Ben Singer and Lea Jacobs) and the “text of muteness” (Peter Brook’s lovely phrase for how melodrama tends to put characters into a situation where they can’t say what needs to be said for fear of greater catastrophe).
At the same time, the 19th century gave rise to the “realist” theater (Ibsen and company) and the well-made-play, whose emphasis on gradual, motivated character change has now become dominant in our definition of what “good” drama is. As “realist” theater rose in status, melodrama began to look shabby because it had a very different goal. Melodramatic theater tried to pack in as many emotional highs and lows as possible (“reversals”) to maximize its impact on audiences, throwing characters into stressful situations with sometimes abbreviated attention to motivation.
Along comes film. Note that most American silent feature films that weren’t comedies were described as melodramas (including a broad range of content: crime melodramas, Western melodramas, family melodramas, and so on). By the time Hollywood was establishing itself as a mature studio system, the M-word was no longer a particularly attractive label for an industry that sought to establish itself as having social legitimacy. But popular audiences were raised on the familiar appeal of melodrama. It’s a quandary. What do you do with shabby melodrama without jeopardizing your hold on popular audiences?
Sound and the studio factory system helped provide the answer. This combination encouraged a proliferation of genres. At the same time, “melodrama” shrank down to a fraction of its former self: the domestic melodrama. By the 30s, Hollywood had even come up with another name for it: the “woman’s film” (relabeling something unpopular is always a good idea; just ask any politician). At the same time the legacy goes to “soap opera,” and my story dovetails with yours.
That’s the story of melodrama as genre. The dirty little secret is that melodrama splintered into a range of narrative techniques that appear in many, many more “legitimate” films…and complex television too.
Consider the tableau. This moment of inaction appears at the climax of the “action-oriented” Western: the gunfighter showdown. It also appears with great regularity in complex television. Look at the many moments in Lost where characters are frozen into a stalemate right before the commercial break, only to have the stalemate broken by one character finally doing something when we return from the commercial. The television commercial provides a variation on the classical theatrical tableau (encouraging us to ponder the possibilities for where the characters will go from here), so there is historical/medium specificity to be acknowledged here. too. Although Lost and High Noon are not melodramas (viewed as a genre), they do rely on narrative devices originally engineered by the melodrama.
Or the text of muteness. A young woman can’t acknowledge her own (black) mother because to do so would endanger her chances of passing (Imitation of Life). David spends the entirety of Six Feet Under’s first season worrying about whether he should reveal his sexual orientation to his family. Will it hurt them? Will they cause David pain with their reactions? Once he does tell them, their reaction is underwhelming, but that’s not the point. Like any good melodrama, we have gotten to watch David suffer for an extended period of time. That’s part of the pleasure of melodrama.
Or melodrama’s tendency to imbue objects with psychological significance that allow them to “speak” when characters cannot. As far as I can tell, this is the whole reason for the existence of lockets: so that characters can open them up and look at them. It’s also why we write letters (or at least we used to!): so that characters can find the letters and find out the truth (Ibsen wasn’t above borrowing this melodramatic trick himself). And on and on…
My point (yes, I do have one!) is that I’ve always been underwhelmed by wimpy definitions of film melodrama as causing “strong affect with moral legibiliity” (heck, what mainstream film doesn’t at least TRY to do this?) or “having a good cry.” Yes, melodrama causes tears, but it (historically speaking) also caused a range of other emotions (suspense being a primary one). (By the way, reading your chapter, I was reminded of Raymond Durgnat’s description of that realist-movement-par-excellence – Italian neorealism – as “male weepies,” an apt phrase that plays into both my story of the competing discourses of realism and melodrama and your story of the gender associations of melodrama. Just look at Umberto D.)
It is at times useful to treat melodrama as a genre if the film includes enough of these tropes (it’s hard not to see Stella Dallas as melodrama). And it’s useful, oh discursive genre man, to track how that term moves across social space/history. And the idea of melodrama as mode is useful too, but it lacks a certain specificity in how that mode gets its work done. My suggestion is that melodrama’s historical development produced a set of narrative DEVICES that are now used much more broadly, including in complex television. That doesn’t make complex television (or film Westerns) melodramas, but it does mean that those more “masculine” texts also rely on the strong, dependable emotional payoffs provided by melodramatic devices. It’s not surprising (since I am bottom-up-narrative guy) that I am advocating that we consider melodrama’s primary legacy as this set of fairly localized storytelling devices that underwrite much of non-shabby film and television narrative. I find that a much more productive, grounded way to think about the continuities of melodrama and contemporary “quality” television than some of the vaguer attempts to explain melodrama by its broadly intended effects.
Thanks for listening. Like I said, it’s a parallel story, so I’m not quite sure if it has an impact on the main narrative you’re telling here, but it’s a historical thread that I think is important.
I like the way you focus on how Soap points the way forwrd in ways that MH2 doesn’t. I wonder if there’s still a step missing here, perhaps revisiting the legacies (or lack thereof) of those other high-profile “nighttime soaps”: Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, etc.
Thanks for the catch!
Yes, I should nod to that, but without going too far down that rabbit hole that other scholars have already excavated quite well. Thanks!
Jason,Would it be possible to elaborate on this idea of gendering narrative? I am curious if it might be possible to argue that certain forms of narrative are considered more masculine or feminine than others? If this is the case then what are the larger implications for thinking about genre and audience for television producers and writers?
Brian – that’s definitely a major part of the Genre chapter that I’ll be addressing. So stay tuned!
Typo: ‘clearly a inaccurate’.
Typo: ‘Boccho’. (Sorry, I think I attached this comment to a previous para by mistake.)
Yes! Perhaps not just tracing a writer’s career across programs but trying to detect their presence within specific episodes. Towards the end of Buffy/Angel I tried to guess the principal screenwriter from the teaser. If the episode employs achrony, Tim Minear is a fair bet; if the dialogue zings in a particular way, maybe Jane Espenson wrote it; if Faith is in the episode maybe Doug Petrie is involved (and, as one of my friends said, if Willow cries, maybe Marti Noxon wrote it!).
I definitely agree that this is something that many fans do – but I’ve heard Espenson talk about how often times fans will approach her quoting a particular line from one of her eps that they say is “classic Espenson,” only to discover that it was actually written by Whedon or one of the other writers. Thus we create such figures as more coherent and uniform than actual practice.
Thanks for the comments throughout!
“more than million” should be “ten million,” I believe?
I’m experiencing some dissonance reading Treme in the same conversation with shows that were critically panned—eventually, at least—and only lasted a single season. Yes, there was a substantial discourse around the show that held it in the shadow of Simon’s authorship (something I remember blogging about at the time, actually), but the show seems to have earned the ability to stand on its own merits with its comparatively long run.
While I know you’re not considering web series, I do think Espenson’s time as a “showrunner” in that medium makes her a particularly interesting authorship case study (there seems to be some work on Husbands floating around), and I wonder if her aborted leadership on Caprica might also make for an interesting anecdote here.Also, while it’s hardly a necessary addition, I found Kyle Killen’s comments about Darin Morgan being “the most brilliant writer who hates writing,” effectively remaking his career as a consulting producer, to be an interesting angle on writers whose authorship is entirely disconnected from actual writing credits.
I’d contest the notion that Rhimes and Plec have a less active online presence – they just have a more insular online presence, focusing mainly on their fans (which are indeed gendered, and isolated in soapy genres less likely to break into broader “television fan” circles) rather than the discourse more broadly. However, both are active in similar ways to their male counterparts, and Rhimes’ recent “feud” with ASP was a case of “notoriety” emerging from her online presence.
I’m sure you’d be making this edit yourself, but thought I’d note that the “Edits” is now off the table in S3.
Apropos of changing circumstances more than suggestions, it’s sort of sad to see Harmon giving out receipts he won’t be able to see through.
I know you’re trying to keep your analysis to a certain number of shows, but I feel there’s an elephant named The Killing in this paragraph.
Of course, you also have—relevant to the Buffy example that opens this chapter—the case of Marti Noxon, which switched around these gender dichotomies a bit.
Actually more than $11 million (estimates range from 11 to 13). Don’t know how the number disappeared from this paragraph.
Good point – I talk about Treme later, so I’ll cut it here.
I don’t want to get mired in the Caprica story, as that gets complicated, but I’ll reference Husbands. Great line about Morgan!
Good distinction – I was trying to highlight how they were less broadly known, rather that they were all completely offline. I’ll clarify.
In a related note – do you think I should add a paragraph about Harmon’s firing and the fan reaction (probably drawing from my blog post about it)?
I fear if I open-up The Killing elephant it would require 1,000 words. Is there a particular point that you think would be raised by discussing Sud that the chapter needs?
Yeah, another huge can of worms that I fear opening up unless there’s a gap that needs filling conceptually…
I’d include it – one of the most “authored” texts in recent years, and a case where I think his absence only confirmed his inferred author function as opposed to necessarily complicating it, which means you could probably get out quickly once you dive into it.
I think it’s the inversion of this phenomenon: for every bit of reassurance Gilligan’s podcasts offered, Sud was comparatively silent, not cultivating the same active authorship in connection with the text and therefore creating the dissonance between expectations and reality when they reached the end of the first season.
[...] to engaged viewers in general—understand television (which Jason Mittell has analyzed in his chapter on Authorship in his forthcoming, serial published Complex TV). Fehrman finds a few quotes in which Martin uses [...]
While functioning as a sort of “transmedia lite”, I would add 2nd Screen applications for mobile and tablet devices to the list here. Not only can narrative elements be included in, elaborated on, or entirely added to 2nd screen viewing (see Psych‘s “#Hashtag Killer”), but they can also attach much of the paratext to the primary text, blurring the line that separates the two. (e.g., if a network/production company deliver content via the 2nd screen, why would said content be treated as less of the narrative than the content delivered through the 1st?)
Is it possible to read the idea that faith trumps science on the series amidst the context of the political fights about the role of science in American culture and politics? Do you know if ABC had any involvement in deciding how the series would end or if the network wanted to focus on faith versus science to make the series seem more friendly to religious viewers?
Good point – thanks for the comment!
Based on everything I’ve read, the resolution was wholly the idea of the producers, mostly Cuse & Lindelof, not in response to network pressure or an attempt to appease any viewer base. Lindelof has talked about his own attempts to figure out the place of spirituality in having been raised atheist, and that they’re very clear in not trying to embrace any one faith; rather the goal was to show the place of faith itself in practice.
Point of (potential!) interest. There’s a book by Nancy Holder called Chosen which is an episode-by-episode re-telling of Buffy season 7 (with each chapter bearing the title of its respective episode), and comes close to transcription. I’ve yet to investigate whether other seasons received similar treatment. This fits in with your ‘cult’ remit but is more contemporary. Could still be pretty unusual though, even within the corpus of Buffy-prose…
Ah sorry, para 17 makes my previous comment slightly redundant.
Yes. This comment reminds me of Jenkins’s observation that transmedia storytelling takes us some distance from narrative towards ‘diegesis’/world-building.
It’s already implicit in what you’re saying, and I think it overlaps/complements the other excellent/illuminating distinctions you make, but…I wonder if it might be worth spending a paragraph or two addressing head-on the differences between transmedia texts that occur during a television show’s original run, and ones that come after it has finished. Surely the promise of more to come in the televisual ‘mothership’ gives a different charge to transmedia texts than to ones which follow a programme understood to have come to the end of its televisual life? Of course questions of canonicity etc come into this, but it might be worth a comment. Just a suggestion. Great chapter! (My students found it very useful in their exam revision on transmedia storytelling in the Whedonverse!)
Yeah, that book & some comic retellings was what I had in mind there. Thanks!
Thanks much for the kind words, and glad to see it helping students pre-publication!
I agree that a discussion of post-series transmedia would be useful – I think I’ll tackle that in the Endings chapter… coming soon!
Doctor Who is another major example of this, and an interesting one because the tie-in novels and Big Finish Audios were the only new canon available from 1989 to 2005, because there was no TV show. With the exception of the 1996 TV movie, Eight’s run consists almost entirely of novels and audios. The audios often involved actors from the show, which I think perhaps lent them a greater degree of canonicity. But with the 2005 revival, the novelizations have reverted to paratext status (though most of them function as “new episodes,” I believe). And I think that Steven Moffat and Russell Davies have actually adapted certain audio and novelization plotlines into the show (or at least ideas from them), which is an interesting and often unusual crossover between transmedia texts.
Officially sanctioned fan-created transmedia ventures almost always fail in some way, in my experience, and I think it has to do with the squeamishness on the part of the networks and producers at the thought of really allowing the “What If” impulse to run loose. The “What Is” impulse is relatively non-threatening – it doesn’t probe at the limitations of a given canon and it doesn’t question creators’ decisions. The “What If” impulse on the other hand, which is, as you say, where a lot of fan-created transmedia lives, does exactly that, and it opens up the possibility for the creation of something that transgresses, subverts, or queers canon. The Doctor Who novelizations and audios offered up during the years the show was off the air were clear “What If” offerings, because they weren’t constrained by any “mothership,” as you say; they were free to create their own mythology and/or add to the show’s mythology in significant ways. In contrast, the novelizations sanctioned now by the BBC are lower in quality and far less interesting, since they don’t dare actually <i>do</i> anything with the characters or mythology of the show. But I agree that even relatively tame, officially sanctioned “What If” transmedia is probably on the whole more satisfying than “What Is” transmedia, which often just feels like a poor substitute for more of what you actually want (i.e. the show).
I wonder if this chapter might not benefit from bringing your eventual “What Is” vs. “What If” division forward sooner. I think that really pulled a lot of what I was thinking about as I read the chapter together for me; up to that point, I’d found your descriptions of various examples of transmedia storytelling to be interesting, but I wasn’t quite sure where your argument was going. Your eventual arrival at “What Is” and “What If” clarified things for me a lot, but it doesn’t happen until the very end of the chapter. (This might, however, be a matter of personal taste, and the result of my own longstanding interest in the division between the “What Is” and the “What If.”)
This is quite helpful, and something I’ve been grappling with – I prefer to save some macro claims until the end of chapters like this (also in Authorship & Characters), allowing the specific analyses & examples to develop on their own terms, and then reframing them with broader concepts at the end that hopefully will be clear and convincing to readers after reading the analyses. I fear by front-loading such concepts, they would have to be presented as unformed or vague until the analyses exemplify the ideas. But the downside of this is that the chapter doesn’t seem to be going anywhere until the end. Curious what others might think…
Thanks, although your comment does raise a question (that I won’t try to tackle) about how do we judge “failure” or “success” of a transmedia extension? There seem to be such a range of desires and interests for fans that nearly every extension seems to please at least somebody.
That makes sense, and for some reason it worked well for me in the Characters chapter (haven’t gotten to the Authorship chapter yet), but less well for me here. I think possibly it was because the argument in the Characters chapter was clearer to me while you were building it, whereas in this chapter, I wasn’t quite sure where we were going until the very end (this might have to do with the amount of time you spend on “What Is” transmedia texts, with “What If” examples only appearing toward the end, if I recall correctly.)
True! I was thinking about levels of fan satisfaction . . . but I am a very particular sort of fan, who might not be very representative.
[...] « Les Revenants, aspect transmédia » http://mcpress.media-commons.org/complextelevision/transmedia-storytelling/ http://www.experience-transmedia.com/hebdomedia-transmedia-19-11-2012/ [...]
This is just fascinating, great work. Are there ever occasions where “What If” extensions can become canonical (particularly through fan practices?)? As you say there is blurring but any canon? (I am working on a paper trying to understand these older transmedia franchises like Sherlock Holmes and how canon gets formed through transmedia.)
Could it be possible (if it is not too late) to add something on Syfy’s new show ‘Defiance’? Is the MMO game as a transmedia extension–’What If’ or ‘What Is’?
Earlier (6), you introduced a difference between different categories of paratexts, distinguishing between orienting paratexts and those that tend to expand the storyworld.
Here, I feel a bit confused, as the fan practices consisting in mapping and cataloguing the canonical universe seem to relate more to the “orienting paratexts” category of practice than the one this chapter adresses. But the lines between categories might be thin…
“However, we can follow Gray’s lead by distinguishing between paratexts that function primarily to hype, promote, and introduce a text, with those that function as ongoing sites of narrative expansion that I will explore here; I would add a third category of orienting paratexts that serve to help viewers make sense of a narrative, as discussed in its own chapter.”
How would you treat the ever-growing field of “social-media” based-initiatives surrounding new and established shows ?
Granted, different type of paratexts can thrive on these platforms – from the Walking Dead Official Facebook game to the fan-driven Madmen Twitter accounts – . But you do not specifically adress these, though they seem to garner a lot of attention from TV execs.
Sorry for my delayed reply. I’d say these are more in the realm of hype and/or orienting paratexts, but rarely storytelling extensions per se, unless its in-character blogging or posting, for instance. I’m really trying to focus on paratexts that strive to advance the narrative more than just promote engagement.
Great point – I’ll clarify that distinction here. Thanks for the comments!
Jason — It bears mention that the great majority of these Bourdieu-inspired works rely on Distinction, rather than Field of Cultural Production; whereas Distinction takes the viewpoint of cultural consumers, its argument in fact depends (logically and historically) on that of Field, which takes the viewpoint of cultural producers. In the latter, Bourdieu begins with the formation of a market-driven cultural field of “large-scale production” which produces cultural goods for nonproducers or the “public at large” (aka the “mass audience”). Producers whose products fared poorly on the general market experience its expansion as a threat to their autonomy; they withdraw into a “restricted field,” an imaginary space outside the market in which they see themselves as producing for other artists (“production for producers”). Whereas in the field of large-scale production the (economic) goal of audience maximization favors relatively simple, easily consumed products, in the restricted field competition for cultural rewards (the respect of other artists) encourages formal experimentation, innovation, the production of internally complex, “difficult” works. For Bourdieu, the paradox of the restricted field is that the artists’ disavowal of economic interest eventually becomes the condition of economic profit, once a segment of the general audience learns to appreciate “difficult” works (and to flaunt their tastes as a mark of class superiority). This is the more familiar part of the argument which Bourdieu presents in Distinction, and it’s certainly open to the criticisms you note later on. But the “anti-aesthetic” critics who enlist Bourdieu to “reduce” aesthetic differences to their social function ignore the project of Field, to offer a sociological explanation of how the two “fields” generate different sorts of aesthetic practice and regimes of value through their operation. Bourdieu’s binary model of the cultural field remains problematic, but I think certain aspects of the Field argument can be adapted to the increasingly differentiated, segmented markets that contemporary media industries construct; that is, pressures for “complexity” today come from within media industries as well as from outside them. FYI, I’m an anthropologist who also works in cultural and media studies and a long-time fan of your work.
Jason – I think that footnote 18 misrepresents Caldwell’s model of “televisuality” in referring to it as “video-centered”. Caldwell distinguished two modes of “excessive style,” the “videographic,” conventionally evaluated as “low”, and the more familiar “high” or “prestige” mode, which he specifically characterizes as “cinematic”; in short, the cinematic influence on Breaking Bad seems to me entirely consistent with (and arguably exemplifies) what Caldwell called “prestige/cinematic televisuality”. (I should add, I think I tend to see more continuities than you do between post-2000 “complex” TV and the earlier bout of experimentation that unfolded over the 80s and 90s. But this is simply a matter of emphasis)
Well, I very much doubt that Bourdieu would have regarded Mad Men as “high cultural,” because his binary model of the cultural field never recognized the increasingly fragmented character of “large-scale production” and the ensuing proliferation of “capitals”. But leaving that issue aside, Bourdieu never claimed that “high” taste would be utterly homogeneous, such that there could be no differences among the bourgeoisie. I would encourage you to cut the last sentence of this paragraph.
Elizabeth – thanks for the great comments! I agree fully that Bourdieu’s work is much more multifaceted than how he has been used by most media scholars – I remember reading Field in grad school & it blowing my mind. I don’t think that this book is the place for me to extend this critique of Bourdieu’s followers and try to nuance a reading of Bourdieu that better accounts for the potential usefulness of his broader theory, but I will clarify that how he’s been taken up within populist media studies is only partial. Thanks!
Yes – thanks so much for this! It’s been years since I read all of Caldwell’s book, and I was referring only to his chapters on video-centered style (which is what I’ve got PDFs of at the moment). I’ll definitely revise & look at the cinematic mode more when I return to the US and my full library!
Very true – I was thinking more of Bourdieu-influenced TV scholarship that treat the more compressed range of TV as more culturally varied. Mad Men is clearly middlebrow in Bourdieu’s formulation, and I’ll acknowledge it as such. I do want to emphasize that highlighting such habitus-resistent dislike does push back against social determinism, but I’ll nuance that point much more.
Point taken. And of course, with his focus on class, Bourdieu also neglected questions of gender and of race, both of which may influence responses to Mas Men. But the main point is that having the competence to understand or “appropriate” a text is a necessary but insufficient condition for liking it.On another note, that B would have classified Mad Men as middlebrow seems to me indicative of his wider failure to adequately theorize the culture industries, which he uses largely as a foil for elucidating the “field of art”. I do think that high/low distinctions have proliferated within media industries in ways that Bourdieu never recognized or anticipated.
Yes – I generally excuse the class-centricism of Bourdieu as more applicable to 1960/70s France (not that gender & race didn’t matter there, but differently than in the US). But it highlights the limits of importing a uni-axial model to another culture.I really like the “necessary but insufficient condition” reading – but it seems like many Bourdieu-inspired scholars reduce everything to the “necessary” without considering the complexities. Obviously I don’t come close here, but at least hopefully point to something that’s missing from the conversation.
I think I detect your keenness to quickly dispatch the European strand, but I don’t recognise your characterisation of it. This could just be my lack of familiarity with the relevant texts, but which are you referring to? My impression is that the notion of ‘quality’ is just as much an object of skepticism/debate for British scholars as it is for US ones – see, eg, Brunsdon, Caughie.
I try to tack this more in the next paragraphs, and certainly agree that many Brits are critical of the term. But it circulates more as a coherent term in Europe, even among those who problematize it. So it’s a strange balance to contrast how it’s both more prevalent, but also not generally taken for granted (except for when it is!). Do you think as the chapter proceeds it becomes clearer?
Certainly as the chapter proceeds the contours of the debate become clearer – and para 19 is useful. My own sense is still that even as an initial statement subject to modification, to speak of a ‘split’ is a little strong, and to identify the location of the split as (for the most part) the Atlantic is somewhat problematic. For example, would a US scholar living (mostly) in the US but publishing in an anthology edited by British writers and published simultaneously in the UK and US be part of the European or American tradition (I’m thinking, for example, of David Lavery and Jane Feuer’s contributions to Akass and MacCabe’s Quality TV anthology)? And then it might generate follow-on questions: Thompson’s nationality is identified when you discuss his contribution to the debate, but Cardwell’s isn’t…I’m not saying there aren’t differences in the use and meaning of the term in Britain and the US. (Another interesting faultline is that the term has a different charge, I’d say, when a British person applies it to say, The Sopranos on the one hand, and when s/he applies it to a BBC co-produced period drama like Pride and Prejudice on the other.) But unpicking all of this could of course derail the chapter entirely!
It’s a good point, and I need to nuance it more. My ultimate point is just that the discourse of “quality TV” is much more commonplace in the UK/Europe, where it is used in course titles, journalistic pieces, and other everyday sites. I’ll try to clarify this and spin away from claims I’m not trying to make. Thanks!
Regarding the footnote: As one of those critics, I’d argue that the issue of when we’re “allowed” to make evaluations of the television we watch is something that feels like it should be at least tackled within the body of the chapter if nonetheless still bracketed off for a larger conversation at a later date. I say this not because I seek to devalue your evaluation of the series—although I will admit some of my discomfort with the generalized statements about Mad Men’s social engagement (as opposed to style which remains fairly stable throughout the show’s run) given only a single complete season remains—but rather because I think confronting the question points to key questions of how evaluation and subjectivity are perceived within scholarly work. At the very least, given your call for us to acknowledge our subjectivities more clearly, I’d argue that burying the context of your viewing in the footnote (despite acknowledging a similar viewing pattern with 24 earlier in the chapter) creates more problems than its solves.
Yeah, that makes sense. I don’t want to get bogged down in the meta, but I’ll move it into the body.
Is there a missing ‘I’ before ‘hope’ in the penultimate sentence?
A note from the UK: Weekly TV listings magazines here routinely lay out in summary form the key events of the week to come in the most popular soap operas (Coronation St, EastEnders, etc). I suppose this is partly due to something you note above: viewers may miss episodes, especially when there are multiple episodes per week. Of course, this is largely tangential as you’re interested in a different kind of television programme. However, in reading this para of yours I was reminded of that suggestion that melodrama’s epistemic model often revolves around waiting for characters to find out what we already know, and observing their reactions closely.
Kendall Walton has a small section in his book Mimesis as Make-Believe on this issue. It’s Section 7.4, ‘Suspense and Surprise’. His overall thesis is that works of fiction are likes games of make-believe that the beholder plays (this has affinities with your idea of the operational aesthetic and – I think? – ludic narrative). Part of the viewer’s game is that each time they encounter the work, they encounter it as if for the fist time. It’s not entirely satisfactory but it is interesting, and I think it complements your approach here.
‘police officer Angel’? (near the bottom)
I just wanted to say this section on temporality/memory is really good stuff!
This is a good point, and there are similar publications in the US (like Soap Opera Digest), and now online recaps function similarly.
Yes, Walton’s book is on my “to read” shelf, so I’ll hunt down that specific section.
Thanks! Such comments are definitely welcome…
i just left a comment wondering how the demise of the DVD business and streaming will effect some of your thoughts on the boxed set…i am enjoying your work immensely, Leslie
(co-editor of House, the wounded healer on television’ and an upcoming book on Vico, ‘Rhetorical Investigations’ -)
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