In the past 15 years, the storytelling possibilities and practices of fictional television have undergone drastic shifts. What was once a risky innovative device, like subjective narration or jumbled chronology, is now almost cliché. Where the lines between serial and episode narratives used to be firmly drawn, today such boundaries are blurred. Expectations for how viewers watch television, how producers create stories, and how series are distributed have all shifted, leading to a new mode of television storytelling. This book is the first sustained analysis of the poetics of contemporary television narrative, exploring the cultural form that many critics feel is the most vital and important storytelling medium of our time.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 One reason why television’s formal narrative properties have been so ignored stems from the assumption that television storytelling is simplistic. Accounts of the medium’s narrative tendencies focus on the centrality of genre formulas, repetitive situations, redundant exposition suited for surfing viewers, and structural constraints based around commercial breaks and rigid schedules. While many contemporary television programs follow such patterns, albeit with more nuance and subtlety than dismissive critiques admit, new developments over the past two decades have led to the rise of a particular model of narrative complexity on mainstream commercial American television, one that is unique to the medium and thus must be examined on its own terms. The purpose of this book is to outline the features of narrative complexity featured on contemporary primetime fictional television, tracing its emergence through institutional, technological, and artistic practices, and explore the mode of spectatorship that this narrative mode encourages.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 Television’s narrative complexity is marked by a number of formal features. Serialized plotting has become mainstream, as long-term story and character arcs are featured across genres, from sitcoms to cop shows. These recent developments connect to the structures typical of daytime soap operas by highlighting the tension between relationships and narrative events, arcs and self-contained episodes, although the relationship between primetime and daytime serials is more complicated than typically acknowledged. In telling complex stories, contemporary television has embraced a high degree of experimentation concerning narrative pacing, selectivity, perspective, and chronology, all variables that were traditionally controlled and limited to strict genre conventions. Television has embraced genre mixing as a way to highlight complex thematic and formal attributes, as well as mixing the gendered appeals that are typically mapped onto genres; for instance, family melodrama and espionage action merge in the innovative narrative structure and complex cultural politics of Alias. Authorial presence and voice has been brought to the foreground, as the stylistic idiosyncrasies of producers like Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, or Larry David overtake the more interchangeable and low-profile producers more typical of earlier television. As narrative complexity has become more commonplace, programs have embraced a level of reflexivity, acknowledging the audience’s abilities to decode sophisticated long-term narrative worlds by offering inside jokes and revelations to viewers who learn the cues of narrative complexity. Through a detailed analysis of dozens of television programs and series that mark the emergence of this storytelling form, including Twin Peaks, Wiseguy, Seinfeld, Homicide: Life on the Street, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Angel, Alias, 24, Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Lost, Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica, Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, Dexter, The Office, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Pushing Daisies, and 30 Rock (as well as many other shorter-lived series), this book will draw upon narratological theories of literature and film to argue that these recent developments cannot be explained by simply adapting literary and cinematic norms, pointing to the maturation of television as a distinct and unique creative form.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Just as shifts in industrial and creative practices have altered the ways that television tells stories, how viewers relate to television have changed narrative form as well. To understand how viewers experience television narrative, I draw upon theoretical models using cognitive psychology to explain narrative comprehension within film and literature. But instead of using cognitive models to propose hypothetical viewer practices, as such analyses typically do, I look at a range of actual audience voices, drawn from fan websites, chat rooms, published commentary, and audience surveys; these cultural practices all point toward specific models and schema that audiences use to process narrative complexity. Through this analysis, we can see how audiences become aware of narrative form, engaging with their knowledge of television’s creative and industrial practices to create a multi-level process of complex comprehension. Rather than simply enjoying the nuances of a sophisticated story world, viewers of television’s narrative complexity also take pleasure in the ways that contemporary television plays with the norms and assumptions of typical television, creating a more reflexive mode of comprehension that belies assumptions of the medium’s passive audience.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 Another key site of television innovation that impacts narrative in subtle ways is technology. Traditionally, the technological model of the television medium offered one way of distributing television narratives: broadcasting. Most of the norms of episodic narrative form were predicated on the assumption that the television industry offered segmented access to stories, in weekly installments per a centralized schedule. With the rise of home video recorders, both VCRs and DVRs, viewers have been able to alter their relationship to the television schedule through time-shifting. Likewise the growing market of home video recordings of television series on tapes and DVDs has led to a new mode of narrative engagement beyond the weekly schedule model. Both home video recording and packaging have altered the viewer’s temporal relationship to television narratives, giving more control to audiences in ways that resist the restrictions of the regimented television schedule. These shifts in temporal technologies have impacted the narrative strategies of television, as creators now tell stories that can be experienced in a range of more flexible and collectable formats, encouraging a more invested and engaged form of spectatorship than typically assumed for earlier television. New media forms like videogames and websites also allow viewers to enter into the narrative worlds of television programs, encouraging a degree of fan engagement and transmedia immersion greater than with any other pre-digital medium. These technological developments have all encouraged narrative complexity as a highly pleasurable and marketable technique in contemporary media.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 By exploring the multifaceted ways in which television’s narrative complexity operates at the levels of form, industry, viewing practice, and technology, we can gain new understanding and appreciation of the sophistication of this central facet of American culture. This project argues that contemporary developments in television narrative have led to the emergence of a medium-specific mode of storytelling, moving beyond its cinematic, literary, and theatrical origins. Exploring television narrative is a natural outgrowth of this media development, applying the rigorous framework of narratology to our most ubiquitous yet least understood medium of storytelling. The project also models a form of interdisciplinary scholarship blending the formal precision of narratology with the contextualization and historical grounding of media studies. By applying the model of historical poetics developed within film studies to the cultural site of television, this book will posit of model of media scholarship that will bridge numerous divides within these related fields.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 3 This project is a natural continuation of my scholarship on American television. My first book, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (Routledge, 2004), explores how genre categories operate within a range of cultural spheres, especially television industries and audiences. In that work, I explored the rise of serial narratives in primetime television in the late-1970s and genre mixing in the 1990s, highlighting trends that need further exploration. This new project extends my approach to understanding television’s core properties into the realm of narrative, combining a cultural studies theoretical model with careful historical research and formal analysis. My second book, Television & American Culture (Oxford UP, 2009), offers an overview of the current state of the television medium, with an emphasis on the interrelations between industry, technology, form, viewers, and cultural contexts. In that book, I briefly touch on a number of the programs and concepts that this project will explore in more depth.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 I have published and presented many fragments of this project over the past seven years, and I believe my ideas are now ready to assemble into a larger book. The most central article from this project, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” (published in The Velvet Light Trap in 2006), has been influential to the field, cited in dozens of other works and taught in numerous courses. I have since published six book chapters, two journal articles, numerous blog posts, and over ten different public lectures on topics connected to this project. While none of these writings will be precisely duplicated in this book, they all have served both to establish my reputation as an active researcher on the topic of television narrative and to allow me to work through my ideas in a public setting. Based on the reception of my work, I feel confident that there is an audience for a book on this topic and that readers will be receptive to my arguments.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 The audience for this book is multi-faceted. The most traditional group are media scholars, as questions of narrative form are emerging as central focus of teaching and research within media studies. I know of advanced undergraduate courses focused on television narrative at University of Wisconsin – Madison, Ohio State University, Dartmouth College, University of Notre Dame, Pomona College, as well as my own course at Middlebury College – this book would be an ideal adoption for those courses which already use essays of mine in their syllabi. It would also be appropriate for general courses in television studies at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The book will also speak directly to scholars of narrative across media. I have been active in publishing within anthologies pitched at narratologists, especially in the growing field of cross-media narrative analysis. There are few scholars who have actively connected the theoretical framework of narratology to television studies, and there seems to be significant interest among narrative scholars for such work. I will write the book to specifically engage such scholars in the conversation about television, hoping that it could be adopted in literary studies courses with a focus on narrative theory.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Finally, the book will appeal to general readers interested in a sophisticated take on television fiction. Alongside the development of contemporary television narrative complexity, a robust sphere of online television criticism has emerged over the past decade, with active readership and commentary focused on thinking carefully and deeply about television series. Although I will write the book with a deep scholarly engagement, I pride myself on being able to write in an accessible voice that will invite non-specialist readers. In reaching out to these online critics, I hope to connect my book to their writing and create some bridges between the academic and non-specialist critical communities. To explore such connections, I am planning on creating this book in multiple formats.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 At one level, this will be a traditional academic print monograph, appropriate for libraries and course adoption. However, I also intend to create digital iterations of the book as well, making NYU Press the ideal partner given its track record for openness to such innovative projects. The first “beta” version will be part of the pre-publication review process. In conjunction with MediaCommons (whose editorial board I am on), I hope to release a serialized version of the book during late Fall 2011 through Spring 2012 within CommentPress. Every two weeks, I will publish a chapter for peer-to-peer review to generate a conversation around the book’s content. After releasing the entire project, I will revise it per the relevant feedback and submit the manuscript to NYU Press for peer review and editorial approval. I will be on sabbatical during the 2011-12 academic year and on a fellowship in Germany with full concentration on writing and editing this project.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 5 While the book is in-press for print publication, I will be developing a digital version to publish simultaneously. This version, probably designed as an app for iPad and Android systems, will take advantage of the digital form in a number of ways. It will contain embedded video to illustrate the examples discussed in the text (which should be usable per fair use guidelines). It will contain two levels of text – one will be a shorter version written for a more general readership, with the option to “dive deeper” into extended sections that focus on more academic and theoretical matters (that will closely mirror the print version). It will also contain a space for networked commentary to make the book less of a fixed product than an ongoing site of conversation. I have spoken with people from MediaCommons and Institute for the Future of the Book for ideas to help develop this version, and I have faith that we can devise an effective and innovative digital book that will be noteworthy and influential in both form and content.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The print version of the book will be approximately 120,000 words, making it comparable in length to my first book. Both versions of the book will contain numerous illustrations in the form of frame-grabs from television series and websites, in keeping with fair use guidelines. I feel confident that with my upcoming sabbatical, I should have a full manuscript available for review in late Spring 2012 that has already been publicly discussed at MediaCommons.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 There are a number of books that focus on contemporary serial television, but I believe that none speaks to the particular approach and scope that mine will. Serial Television by Glen Creeber (BFI, 2004) tackles some of the same issues, but is structured around a series of individual series analyses and thus lacks the scope and structure that my book will offer. Storytelling in Film & Television by Kristin Thompson (Harvard UP, 2003) applies narrative theory to television in a series of published lectures, but lacks the range of issues and examples as my book. The other comparative books are primarily edited anthologies lacking a unified through-line or books on single series that do not offer the scope or theoretical focus of my project. There are other new books that focus on questions of television form and aesthetics, such as Jeremy Butler’s Television Style (Routledge, 2010) and Greg Smith’s Beautiful TV (U Texas Press, 2007), but none that offer in-depth analysis of narrative structure and form. Thus I believe this book will offer something distinct and needed to the body of media scholarship.
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Book Structure and Chapter Outline
The book is organized topically, integrating dozens of examples throughout the chapters. After the introduction and first core chapter, the specific thematic chapters can be read independently and in any order. In the digital version, these can be navigated via hyperlinks and variable paths; in the print version (and this proposal), they will appear in alphabetical order, with a clear invitation to read them in any order.
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Introduction: Discovering Complexity
In the opening section of the book, I will introduce the project’s key concerns involving narrative theory, historical poetics, and cultural analysis. I will write it as a personal account of how I came to the topic, tracing a number of examples I encountered as a television viewer starting in 1999, including The Sopranos, The West Wing, 24, and Alias. In exploring how media studies scholarship is inadequate to explain the phenomena I observed ten years ago, I argue that the scholarly silos between television studies, narratology, and formal film studies need to be traversed to account for the rise of television’s narrative complexity. In writing in a personal voice, I will foreground the experiential dimension of narrative consumption, and highlight my own relationship to such programs as a fan and scholar. The introduction makes the case for merging a historical poetics approach with television cultural studies model, and outlines the rest of the project.
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Complexity in Context
This core chapter provides the definition of narrative complexity that will be explored throughout the rest of the book, focusing on forms of storytelling structure and viewing practice. It introduces the important concepts of the operational aesthetic, a degree of formal self-consciousness that invites viewers to simultaneously marvel at a show’s narrative mechanics and emotionally engaging story, and the narrative special effect, the use of “show-off” storytelling techniques that ground spectacle within the narration rather than alongside it. The chapter also highlights the key contextual developments in the past two decades within the television industry and technologies that ground narrative complexity within our historical moment. This connection between form and context pervades the subsequent thematic chapters, with this chapter providing the core theoretical framework and approaches for the project.
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The first of the independent thematic chapters explores how contemporary television has fostered a unique form of creative authorship. The chapter discusses the technologically-enabled paratexts of podcasts, making-of documentaries, DVD commentaries, Twitter feeds and blogs that have enabled television creators to speak directly to viewers. Such paratexts have helped constitute a new model of the star showrunner like Buffy’s Joss Whedon, Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore, Lost’s team of Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse, and Larry David as both star and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm. In exploring the textual and paratextual presence of showrunners, I read the discursive practices of television creators through the lens of narratological theories of implied authorship, to propose a hybrid model of the implied author function as embodied in contemporary television serials.
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Although long-form television serials are notably marked by their potentially eternal narrative middles, they all must start somewhere. This chapter explores how serials are launched with television pilots, considering the core functions of pilots as setting up the direction of a serial’s narrative thrust and teaching viewers how to watch the ongoing narrative. The chapter uses a detailed case study of the Veronica Mars pilot to demonstrate how serials establish intrinsic norms for ongoing narratives, with shorter references to the strategies found in pilots of How I Met Your Mother, Alias, Pushing Daisies, Lost, and Breaking Bad. This chapter will also consider the practice of rebooting serials with new scenarios, characters, and narrative norms, looking at Alias and Angel as examples of shows that reset their narratives mid-series, and how beginnings of episodes and seasons, such as in The Wire, similarly establish thematic and narrative patterns.
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Many complex serials have embraced anti-heroes as lead characters, using the long-form narrative structure to layer psychological traits and key elements of backstory. This chapter uses the case studies of Dexter and Breaking Bad to explore how serial dramas construct characters with different approaches to relationships, flashbacks, repetitions, memory, narration, and performance. Through these examples, the chapter considers how serials foreground shifting character/viewer relationships over the course of a series, and how such shifts in sympathy and appeal can both sustain and derail an ongoing serial.
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One of the challenges of a long-form serial narrative is maintaining viewer comprehension throughout a variety of viewing practices, whether it is weekly and seasonal installments through broadcast schedules, or the more variable patterns afforded by DVDs, online viewing, and DVRs. This chapter considers how television serials have created methods to both maximize comprehension and play with knowledge differentials between characters and viewers, building on cognitive theories of narrative comprehension. I focus on issues of viewer memory as addressed both within the core narrative text and associated paratexts (like recaps and DVD extras), considering the varying ways programs trigger memories and exploit viewer’s fading memories to create unusual surprises in programs like Battlestar Galactica and Lost. The chapter also analyzes different approaches to suspense, surprise, anticipation, and curiosity that have developed for the form of long-form serial television.
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American commercial television differs from the rest of the world in how it privileges a model where a successful series never ends, with a series ending as either a sign of commercial failure and/or creative exhaustion, and often shows end by abrupt cancellation more than planned conclusion. In the last decade, more series have planned their conclusions, creating a set of precedents for serial endings that variously embrace ambiguity, circularity, reflexivity, and finality. This chapter will look at the concluding seasons and episodes of Lost, The Wire, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Six Feet Under, and The Shield as exemplars of both narrative strategies and the divergent viewer and critic reactions triggered by various finales. It will also discuss open-ended season finales that offer both closure and the possibility of continuance, as with Terriers and Scrubs.
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Television studies, as forged by the influence of populist cultural studies, has been loath to include critical evaluation in its toolbox, as television’s own spot on the receiving end of numerous aesthetic condemnations has pushed evaluative criticism off the field’s agenda. In this chapter, I explore a model of contextualized evaluation that does not recreate universal aesthetic values, but rather looks at how a series can define its own terms and parameters of evaluation, and how television scholars might productively engage with questions of value. One facet of narrative complexity is that it appeals to many traditional markers of aesthetic value from other media, and this chapter will both acknowledge such tendencies and problematize the relevance of adopting evaluative criteria across media. Using the examples of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, The Sopranos, Lost, Arrested Development, and Mad Men – all of which have been hailed by critics as among the greatest television series in the medium’s history – I discuss how we can enter into medium-specific debates over value without recreating a canon or exclusionary critical practice.
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Many complex series embrace a mode of genre mixing, ranging from the overt fusion of Buffy’s teen drama/horror, to The Wire’s revisionist and expansive shift from cop show to urban drama, to the hodgepodge of Lost’s genre stew. This chapter explores the role of genre within contemporary serial narratives, starting with the debatable influence that the soap opera may or may not have had on this mode of storytelling. By separating out the narrative norms of soap operas from the emotional appeals of melodrama, I argue that soap’s storytelling form is less vital to primetime serials than the discursive history that has linked seriality to the soap genre for decades. Instead, I consider how the emotional responses triggered by specific genres like soap operas, comedies, mysteries, and science-fiction play into the mixed-gender appeal of narratively complex series. I explore how shows like Alias, Veronica Mars, Friday Night Lights, and The Good Wife play with such conventions in innovative ways that complicate well-established assumptions about various genre categories and their gendered appeals, pointing to the vital links between genre and narrative consumption.
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Although narrative complexity has emerged as a coherent storytelling mode in recent years, it has numerous important historical precedents dating back to the early years of American television. This chapter traces back the history of primetime television’s narrative form, looking at the key precedents of the two-parter, the recap, and the cliffhanger as they developed within the earlier programs and the critical reactions they triggered. Through reconsiderations of landmark programs like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gunsmoke, Peyton Place, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Wiseguy, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Seinfeld, I will show the gradual development of television’s complex narrative strategies, and posit some explanations for why the 2000s saw such an acceleration of storytelling innovation.
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The defining feature of serial form involves time, with a long, drawn-out narrative segmented into discrete installments with built-in gaps; for television, these segmented episodes have been further temporally delimited by weekly and season schedules, as well as ad breaks sectioning off individual episodes. This chapter will explore the temporal dimension of television narrative, considering the different types of seriality found within contemporary programming, including character and relationship arcs, mysteries, and story arcs, and examining how such serial strategies co-exist with episodic norms and structures. The chapter will also look at the ways that temporal gimmicks, like flashbacks, flashforwards, ellipses, jumbled chronology, time travel, and real-time storytelling have become part of the storytelling vocabulary of series like 24, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, How I Met Your Mother, and Pushing Daisies.
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As television series have become more complex in their narrative strategies, television itself has expanded its scope across a number of screens and platforms, complicating notions of medium-specificity at the very same time that television seems to have a clearer sense of distinct narrative form. This chapter will explore how television narratives are expanded and complicated through transmedia extensions, including video games, novelizations, websites, online video, and alternate reality games. With specific analyses of transmedia strategies for Alias, Buffy, Lost, and Breaking Bad, I will consider how television’s transmedia storytelling is grappling with issues of canonicity and audience segmentation, and how transmedia reframes viewer expectations for the core television serial. This chapter will also consider fan-generated transmedia properties, from fan wikis to vids to self-designed games, exploring what fans can teach the television industry about the possibilities of transmedia storytelling.
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Along with shifts in the television industry and technologies, viewer practices have adapted to the digital era with new developments in how people consume narrative television. This chapter explores the range of viewing practices that impact how television tells stories and complicate straightforward models of narrative comprehension, including spoiler fans, ludic puzzle-solvers, and rewatchers. Through detailed accounts of viewer practices around shows like Lost, The Wire, 24, and Buffy, I will suggest the necessity for doing empirical reception research in dialogue with theoretically-inflected narrative analysis to best understand the complexity of how people watch television, and foreground the undertheorized importance of “play” as as a dominant mode of television spectatorship.