[posted 24 March; see release notes]
This book’s main argument is that over the past two decades, a new model of storytelling has emerged as an alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception, a mode that I call narrative complexity. We can see such innovative narrative form in popular network hits from Seinfeld to Lost, The X-Files to How I Met Your Mother, as well as in critically beloved but ratings-challenged shows like Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, Boomtown, and Firefly, not to mention series that fail both commercially and critically, like Reunion, Day Break, Flash Forward, and The Event. HBO has built its reputation and subscriber base upon narratively complex shows, such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, and Game of Thrones, and cable channels like Showtime (Dexter, Homeland), FX (The Shield, Justified), and AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) have followed suit. Clearly these shows offer an alternative to conventional television narrative—the purpose of this chapter is to explain how and why. As a background for the rest of the book’s more topically focused investigation, this chapter outlines the formal attributes of this storytelling mode, explores its unique pleasures and patterns of consumption, and suggests a range of reasons for complex television’s emergence in the late-1990s and continued growth throughout the 21st century.
In trying to understand the storytelling practices of contemporary American television, we might consider narrative complexity as a distinct narrational mode, as suggested by David Bordwell’s analysis of film narrative. For Bordwell, a “narrational mode is a historically distinct set of norms of narrational construction and comprehension,” one that crosses genres, specific creators, and artistic movements to forge a coherent category of practices. Bordwell outlines specific cinematic modes such as classical Hollywood, art cinema, and historical materialism, all of which encompass distinct storytelling strategies while still referencing one another and building on the foundations of other modes. Kristin Thompson has extended Bordwell’s approach to television, suggesting that programs like Twin Peaks and The Singing Detective might be usefully thought of as “art television,” importing norms from art cinema onto the small screen. Although certainly cinema influences many aspects of television, especially concerning visual style, I am reluctant to map a model of storytelling tied to self-contained feature films onto the ongoing long-form narrative structure of series television where ongoing continuity and seriality are core features, and thus believe we can more productively develop a vocabulary for television narrative on its own medium terms. Likewise, contemporary complex serials are often praised as being “novelistic” in scope and form, but I believe such cross-media comparisons do more to obscure than reveal the specificities of television’s storytelling form. Television’s narrative complexity is predicated on specific facets of storytelling that seem uniquely suited to the series structure that sets television apart from film and literature, and distinguish it from conventional modes of episodic and serial forms.
Complex Serial Poetics
So what exactly is narrative complexity? At its most basic level, narrative complexity redefines episodic forms under the influence of serial narration—not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms, but a shifting balance. Rejecting the need for plot closure within every episode that typifies conventional episodic form, narrative complexity foregrounds ongoing stories across a range of genres, as discussed more in the Genre chapter. Complex television employs a range of serial techniques, with the underlying assumption that a series is a cumulative narrative that builds over time, rather than resetting back to a steady-state equilibrium at the end of every episode. While today’s complex narratives can be markedly different from 20th century predecessors, they built upon numerous innovators from the 1970s forward, a set of connections and influences explored more in the History chapter. This new mode is not as uniform and convention-driven as episodic or serials norms—in fact, its most defining characteristic might be its unconventionality—but it is still useful to group together a growing number of programs that work against the conventions of episodic and serial traditions in a range of intriguing ways.
The key prototypes for complex television emerged in the 1990s, setting precedents that more recent programs adopted and refined. Cult hit The X-Files exemplifies what may be the hallmark of narrative complexity: an interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling. Complex dramas, like X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and The Sopranos, often oscillate between long-term arc storytelling and stand-alone episodes. As Jeffrey Sconce discusses, any given X-Files episode might focus on the long-term “mythology,” an ongoing highly-elaborate conspiracy plot that endlessly delays resolution and closure, or offer self-contained “monster-of-the-week” stories that generally exist outside of the arcing scope of the mythology. Although X-Files features an influential array of narrational innovations, the show’s eventual creative and critical decline highlights one of the key tensions inherent in narrative complexity: balancing the competing demands and pleasures of episodic and serial norms. According to many X-Files viewers and critics, the show suffered from too great a disjunction between the overly complex and endlessly deferred mythology versus the detached independence of monster-of-the-week episodes that might contradict the accrued knowledge of the conspiracy. For instance, the highly-regarded self-parodic episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” mocks the show’s nested conspiracies, while the events it presents seem to undermine some of the revelations of the ongoing mythology concerning alien presence on Earth. Despite viewers’ cultish devotion for unraveling the mysteries driving Agent Mulder’s endless quest, this episode (as well as many others) left viewers unsure as to how to consistently fit events into the storyworld. Viewing tastes thus divided between conspiracy buffs, who saw the sometimes reflexive and tonally divergent monster-of-the-week episodes as distractions from the serious mythological mysteries, and fans who grew to appreciate the coherence of the stand-alone episodes in light of the increasingly inscrutable and contradictory arc—personally, I found myself in the latter camp before abandoning the show entirely.
Buffy and Angel are arguably more adept at juggling the dual demands of serial and episodic pleasures. While both shows (together and separately) present a rich and ongoing mythology of a battle between the forces of good and evil, plotlines are centered upon season-long arcs featuring a particular villain, or “big bad” in Buffy’s parlance. Within a given season, nearly every episode advances the season’s arc while still offering episodic coherence and mini-resolutions. Even highly experimental or flashy episodes balance between episodic and serial demands; for instance, Buffy’s “Hush” features a literal monster-of-the-week, known as The Gentlemen, who steal the voices of the town of Sunnydale, leading to an impressively constructed episode told in near silence. Yet despite the episode’s one-off villain and highly unusual wordless mode of storytelling, “Hush” still advances various narrative arcs, as characters reveal key secrets and deepen relationships to move the season-long plot forward; many other Buffy and Angel episodes similarly offer unique episodic elements with undercurrents of arc narration. These shows also interweave melodramatic relationship dramas and character development with story arcs—at its most accomplished, Buffy uses forward plot momentum to generate emotional responses to characters, and allows relationships to help drive plots forward, as exemplified by how “Hush” simultaneously offers closure to a monster-of-the-week, furthers the relationship between Buffy and Riley, and adds new wrinkles to the season-long arc concerning the Initiative.
But narrative complexity cannot simply be defined as primetime episodic seriality; within the broader mode of complexity, many programs actively work against serial norms, but also embrace narrative strategies to rebel against episodic conventionality. For instance, Seinfeld has a mixed relationship to serial plotting—some seasons feature an ongoing situation, like Jerry’s NBC sitcom pilot, George’s impending wedding, or Elaine’s new job. These story arcs work primarily to offer backstory for in-jokes and self-aware references, as when George suggests a potential story for an episode of his and Jerry’s sitcom “about nothing” based on the night they waited for a table at a Chinese restaurant, the actual plot of an earlier episode. However, these arcs and ongoing plots demand little explicit knowledge from episode to episode, as actual actions and events rarely carry across episodes, arguably a result of the infrequency of significant actions and events on a show committed to chronicling insignificant minutiae. While certainly your appreciation of the show’s storyworld is heightened the more alert you are to ongoing references like Art Vandelay or Bob Sacamano, narrative comprehension does not require engaging in any long-term arcs like with X-Files or Buffy. Yet Seinfeld offers a wealth of narrative complexity, often through its refusal to conform to episodic norms of closure, resolution, and distinct storylines. Many episodes leave characters in an untenable situation—Kramer arrested for being a pimp, Jerry running into the woods after becoming a “wolf-man,” George stuck in an airplane restroom with a serial killer. These unresolved moments do not function as cliff-hangers as in serial dramas, but rather as comedic punchlines not to be referenced again.
Seinfeld, and other narratively complex comedies like The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, use television’s episodic form to undercut conventional assumptions of returning to equilibrium and situational continuity, while embracing conditional seriality—some storylines do in fact continue, while others are never referred to again. Arrested Development, a more explicitly serialized comedy, subverts these conventions even more, as most episodes end with a “next week on Arrested Development” teaser, showing scenes continuing that episode’s stories. However, regular viewers soon learn that future episodes will neither show these scenes nor will they have actually occurred within the ongoing storyworld (although in the third season, the show varies this norm by allowing some of the teaser material to occur diegetically). Likewise, The Simpsons generally embraces an excessive and even parodic take on episodic form, rejecting continuity between episodes by returning to an everlasting present equilibrium state of Bart in fourth grade, Maggie as perpetual toddler, and a dysfunctional family stasis. However, there are exceptions to these norms: Apu gets married and has octuplets that grow from in utero to toddlers over the course of many seasons, suggesting that at least three years have passed in Springfield’s lifecycle, yet nobody else has aged. Often making jokes about the need to return to equilibrium state, The Simpsons offers ambiguous expectations over which transformations are “reset” after each episode—frequent losses of jobs, destruction of property, and damaging of relationships that will be restored by next week’s episode—and which will be carried over serially—like Apu’s family, Skinner and Crabapple’s relationship, and Maude Flanders’s death. Thus these complex comedies selectively engage serial norms, weaving certain events into their backstories while ambiguously discarding other moments into the more commonplace realm of forgotten episodic histories, a distinction that viewers must either overlook as inconsistency or embrace as one of the sophisticated traits of narrative complexity; evidence of fan practices online suggest that the latter is more common once viewers accept the shifting rules as one of the sophisticated pleasures offered by these complex comedies.
Such examples highlight why we should conceive of contemporary television seriality not just as a simple marker of continuity but as a multifaceted variable, with a range of potential storytelling possibilities. We traditionally think of television seriality as typified by the endlessly deferred openness of soap operas, with decades of narrative accumulating within the memories of their multigenerational fan communities. As I discuss in the Genre chapter, soap operas were synonymous with television seriality for decades, but there are different elements of serial continuity beyond the model pioneered by daytime melodrama. In the Introduction, I suggested that serial narratives are comprised of the four main elements of storyworld, characters, events, and temporality—by breaking down seriality into its constitutive elements, we can see that even highly episodic shows are serialized in certain ways. Nearly every fictional television series has a serialized storyworld and characters, meaning they are an ongoing, consistent narrative element. Every episode of classic episodic procedural Dragnet takes place in the same fictionalized version of Los Angeles and features the same central character of Joe Friday. Contemporary programs that are regarded as highly episodic, like crime procedural Law and Order or sitcom The Middle, still maintain consistent and persistent storyworlds and characters so that viewers recognize the places and people they encounter each week. It’s rare for a program to violate such serialized characters and world-building, such that it becomes noteworthy when Louie plays with the form by having the same actress play Louie’s date in one episode and his mother in another episode’s flashback, a decision that creator Louis C.K. says was motivated not for thematic continuity, but just because he liked the actress for both parts and he views each episode more like an anthology of short films rather than a continuing series.
When we talk about a serialized program, we are usually referring less to the ubiquitous persistence of storyworld and characters, but rather the ongoing accumulation of narrative events—what happened in one episode happened to the characters and storyworld as portrayed in future episodes. Most classically episodic shows are agnostic on this front, simply choosing to ignore previous events rather than explicitly deny their existence, while more playfully reflexive shows will acknowledge this lack of event serialization, as with South Park’s weekly killing of Kenny, only to be reborn the following week. Programs whose narrative events do accumulate serially usually articulate this build up through the memories of characters—people reference previous occurrences like a romantic connection or personal discovery, expressing continuity through dialogue and character actions as discussed more in the Character chapter. Storyworlds also have memories, where the physical evidence of narrative events can be seen, as with the aftermath of a space battle on Battlestar Galactica or characters moving apartments on Community. Oftentimes, frustration with a serialized program stems from moments where viewers’ memories are more acute than that of characters or the storyworld, as a viewer might wonder why a character doesn’t seem to remember what happened previously to them and behave accordingly, or the set doesn’t reflect the effects of last episode’s events. A challenge for serial television is conveying norms for how much narrative continuity viewers should expect in a given program, which is generally established by the degree to which characters reference previous events and the storyworld displays the impacts—the more the show reminds us that narrative events have a cumulative impact, the more we expect strict continuity and consistency. Thus when the first season of Heroes concluded with some illogical discontinuity concerning a character’s powers and fans critiqued this inconsistency, creator Tim Kring’s comment in an interview, “theoretically you’re not supposed to be thinking about that,” directly overlooks the fact that the entire series had been focused on characters discovering and discussing the mechanics of their powers, establishing our expectations for consistency for the series.
Of course, there are different types of narrative events that may or may not be serialized. One key distinction is between major and minor events, or what Seymour Chatman calls kernels and satellites—the major kernels are central to the cause-and-effect chain of a plot, while minor satellites are inessential to the plot and thus could be omitted without impacting narrative comprehension, but they provide texture, tone, and character richness. One of the pleasures of consuming a serialized narrative is trying to figure out what whether a given event might be a kernel or satellite in the larger arc of a plotline or series as a whole. Critics, fans, and television writers frequently reference Chekov’s Gun as a storytelling axiom: Anton Chekov’s advice that if you hang a gun over the mantle in act 1, it must be fired by the end of the play. In Chatman’s terms, Chekov’s Gun might be called a kernel initially presented as a satellite; thus serial viewers can attune themselves to look for Chekov’s guns, searching for apparent satellites that might eventually turn into kernels in later episodes. Sometimes they resolve in fairly quick succession within a given episode or the next, as with a seemingly inconsequential moment in Breaking Bad’s “End Times” where Walt spins a gun on a table; this scene first seems to exist solely to portray Walt’s emotional state, but is revealed in the next episode to portray an subtle but crucial narrative event. Other such moments can hang over the life of a series—in the third episode of The Wire, we are told that Lieutenant Daniels is “dirty,” with a dormant FBI file on corruption charges. This character revelation serves as a dangling cause for years, finally triggering a power struggle that prompts Daniels’ eventual resignation late in the fifth season, with more than fifty hours of screen time between putting this gun on the mantle and firing it.
Major events move the narrative forward, but often with differing repercussions. Most kernels are straightforward occurrences that clearly change the narrative in evident ways: Jim and Pam marry on The Office, Jason Street gets paralyzed during a football game on Friday Night Lights, Nathaniel is hit by a bus and dies on Six Feet Under. Such events clearly matter to the ensemble of characters and change the status quo of the storyworld, but the narrative questions they raise are only about future events: what will the repercussions of this event be within the continuing story? There is no real ambiguity about what happened, how it happened, or even why it happened; thus we can call such events narrative statements, as they assert a story element without raising questions about the actual event beyond the ubiquitous “what next?” In contrast, some events function as narrative enigmas, raising uncertainty as to what precisely happened, who was involved, why they did what they did, how this came to be, or even whether it actually happened at all? Laura Palmer’s body being discovered on Twin Peaks, Starbuck returning from presumed death on Battlestar Galactica, and Jack Bauer finding evidence of a mole within CTU all function as narrative enigmas about what happened previously to lead to these events and mysteries concerning the details of the present narrative situation. For example, in the second season of Lost, the episode “Two for the Road” ends with Michael shooting Ana Lucia and Libby to release the prisoner known as Henry Gale. Like all kernels, this event raises questions for the future (Will Libby and Ana Lucia survive? Will their friends discover Michael’s betrayal?), but also poses questions about the narrative present (Why did he betray his friends? Did Michael intend to shoot Libby?) and past (What happened to Michael while he was away from the camp?). These questions are all answered to some degree in the following three episodes, making them fairly small-scale enigmas within Lost’s complex web of serialized mysteries and ambiguities.
Many people conflate the term “highly-serialized drama” with the more serialized mysteries innovated by Twin Peaks and The X-Files and popularized by Lost, but most shows predicated on such central narrative enigmas fail to live up to their concepts, as demonstrated by the failure of numerous programs like Harsh Realm, Reunion, Harper’s Island, Flash Forward, and The Event. Instead, the majority of serial plots focuses more on questions about future events triggered by narrative statements rather than focusing on enigmas from the narrative past. Even for shows where characters’ backstories matter significantly, as with Breaking Bad and Revenge, the narrative thrust is much more forward moving, with minor insights and flashbacks peppered throughout the series revealing key aspects of a character’s history rather than creating deep mysteries for viewers to attempt to piece together. The most common model of event serialization found on television is the forward-moving accumulation of narrative statements that create causal triggers for future events anticipated to come in subsequent episodes—whether on contemporary complex programs, as with Avon Barksdale putting out a hit on Omar on The Wire, or traditional daytime or primetime soap operas, as when Luke rapes Laura to instigate a problematic but compelling romance plotline in 1980s General Hospital, these are non-enigmatic narrative moments that keep audiences engaged in hypothesizing what will happen next, not looking backwards to solve mysteries. As discussed in the Comprehension chapter, narrative enigmas and statements lead to differing modes of engagement for viewers, prompting various forms of suspense, surprise, curiosity, and theorizing. All of these events highlight the importance of temporality in grounding seriality, as viewers and creators alike aim to manage the multiple timeframes of narrative past, present, and future in making sense of ongoing storyworlds.
Time is an essential element of all storytelling, but even more crucial for television. We might consider three different temporal streams within all narratives. Story time is the timeframe of the diegesis, how time passes within the storyworld, and typically follows real-world conventions of straightforward chronology and linear progression from moment to moment, with exceptions like characters time-traveling in Lost or Heroes. Discourse time is the temporal structure and duration of the story as told within a given narrative. Narratives often reorder events through flashbacks, retelling past events, repeating story events from multiple perspectives, and jumbling chronologies—these are manipulations of discourse time, as we are to assume that the characters experienced the events in a linear progression. Mystery plotlines often play with discourse time to create suspense concerning past events, waiting until the end of the narrative to reveal the inciting incident that diegetically occurred near the beginning of the story, and many complex narratives play with chronology to engage viewers and encourage them to try to actively parse the story. Finally, there is narration time, the temporal framework involved in telling and receiving the story. For literature, this is quite variable as everyone reads at a different pace, and might read a book in installments over a period of days or weeks. For film and television, narration time is strictly controlled, as a two-hour film takes the same for all viewers, and television restricts narration time even further through its schedule of weekly installments and commercial breaks; even with the variability and control enabled by DVDs or downloaded videos as discussed below, it still takes the same amount of narration time for everyone to consume a given moving-image narrative. For film and television, screen time is a better term for narration time, as it highlights the medium as part of the narrative experience.
We need to focus on narrative time to understand serial storytelling, because seriality itself is defined by its use of time. The essential structure of serial form is a temporal system with story installments parceled out over time with gaps between entries through a strictly regimented use of screen time. As discussed below, collecting episodes into bound volumes of DVD box sets drastically changes the serial experience, as screen time becomes far more controllable and variable for viewers, as well as eliminating the cultural experience of collectively watching an episode with millions of others simultaneously. But in their original broadcast form, television series alternate between episodic installments and significant temporal gaps between episodes—it is these gaps that define the serial experience. Serial temporality is thus lodged primarily without the realm of screen time through the material reception contexts of television broadcasting, which facilitates the habitual and ritualistic consumption of a series that lies at the core of the serial experience.
Arguably the most crucial aspect of screen time’s role in balancing episodic and serial forms is the opening and closing frames of each episode, as screen time defines an episode as a discrete installment of storytelling and constitutes the gap between episodes. Most episodes begin with some crucial markers, such as recaps of previous moments, an opening title sequence that might run as little as a few seconds on Breaking Bad or Lost, to over a minute on The Wire or Game of Thrones, and credits that might run over the titles or early scenes; likewise, an episode almost always ends with closing credits, bumper cards identifying the production companies, and a preview of future narrative moments. Even when published on DVD, such framing material is still retained to demarcate individual episodes, and DVD menus themselves help delineate episodic unity through titles, graphics, the choice of episode-specific paratexts like commentary tracks, and occasionally written episode summaries. All of these screen time elements exist outside the storyworld or its narrative discourse, operating in the realm of paratext or extradiegetic embedded graphics to define the boundaries, length, and (via act breaks to accommodate advertisements) rhythm of each episode, and virtually every television series must squeeze its serial storytelling to fit into the constrained parameters of episodic screen time. Even when a highly serialized show strings its plots and arcs across a full season, the producers always conceive each episode as a discrete narrative unit following the established terms of screen time. Effective storytelling uses episodic screen time to prompt viewer responses, as with Alias’s ritualistic cliffhangers: producers broke stories into a conventional four act structure, but shifted each episode’s first act into the last ten minutes of the previous episode, creating a compelling bridge between episodes while still offering (deferred) resolution of most individual plotlines.
Seriality in story or discourse time is less prominent than for screen time, but still important. Given that one of the key temporal aspects of seriality is its ritualistic pattern of engagement, some programs tap into that element in their treatment of discourse time. Both Twin Peaks and Deadwood embrace a structured use of discourse time where nearly every episode takes place over the course of a single day, providing a clear rhythm to their serialized narrative flow; 24 foregrounded this regimented use of discourse time even more fully by structuring each season as a pseudo-real time day in the life of Jack Bauer, highlighting that temporality through its use of onscreen clocks and split-screen simultaneity. Serialized story time is much more rare, as real life lacks the gaps and repetitions that typify seriality—the short-lived Day Break was exceptional, presenting the infinite looping of a single day inspired by the film Groundhog Day, while framing the story as a mystery to be solved by the show’s protagonist and viewers. Lost draws a connection between story and screen time by anchoring its twisty, temporally complex storytelling around the core narrative event of the crash of Flight 815, which took place on September 22, 2004—the actual date of Lost’s television premiere. But more frequently, complex television plays with story and discourse time through episodic variations on the serialized routine—as discussed below, one of the most central pleasures of contemporary fictional television is when a show breaks from its intrinsic norms to offer a new take on its conventional storytelling mode.
We can see the multiple facets of episodic and serial storytelling at work in two of complex television’s landmark innovators and trend-setters: The Sopranos and The Wire. While today the former series is regarded both as the breakthrough program that made HBO the preeminent channel for innovative television and the narrative template for the complex serialized dramas that emerged throughout the 2000s, in retrospect The Sopranos was far more episodic than it is typically remembered to have been. Like all fictional television, characters and storyworld on Sopranos were persistent, and certainly it was more cumulative than typical 1990s crime dramas like Law and Order or NYPD Blue. But most episodes had at least one bounded storyline that began and ended within the episode, often offering thematic resonance or ironic counterpoint to longer character arcs or event-driven struggles between mobsters, while some of its most celebrated episodes, such as “College” or “Pine Barrens,” are highly self-contained in a monster-of-the-week format resembling X-Files or Buffy. The Sopranos’s story arcs were far less sweeping than on Buffy or Lost, often lasting less than a season and resolving with little future resonances, and there were virtually no mythological enigmas that would encourage viewers to probe backwards to try to parse out what happened within any individual event—save for the infamous final scene, discussed more in the Endings chapter. Creator David Chase has said he was much more interested in creating short films about the characters and their world, but HBO pushed him toward greater serialization; nevertheless, most episodes would still make sense if watched at random without their serial contexts. Each season does add up to something more than a collection of stand-alone episodes and there are major plot arcs that define each season, but that seasonal unity is far more tied to theme or character than plotting or the rise and fall of a specific “big bad” as on Buffy. In short, The Sopranos exemplified the model of serially-infused episodic television that typifies most complex television, with fairly episodic plots building into a serialized storyworld and characters arcs.
The Wire takes a starkly different approach to its episodic structure, as there are almost no stand-alone plotlines within any given episode. All of the show’s narrative events are either independent moments illustrating characters but lacking larger arc importance—McNulty enlists his kids to play “front and follow” in pursuit of Stringer Bell, D’Angelo takes time to pick out his wardrobe—or contribute to the slow accumulation of the central plotlines that run throughout a given season. Individual episodes are defined less by their narrative events in terms of their plot revelations, but rather due to their notable tonal moments: we remember an episode for the scene where Bunk and McNulty investigate a crime scene using only varieties of the word “fuck” for dialog, but not because of how that scene’s narrative events play into the larger story arc that takes the entire season to reveal. Episodes of The Wire are virtually impervious to brief plot summaries, as each event scattered over the large cast of characters may or may not be important to the larger story arcs, whereas “Tony Soprano discovers and hunts down a mafia informant while taking his daughter on a college tour” is an apt summary of the main plotline in “College.” This is not to suggest that episodes of The Wire are just random collections of character moments and unrelated narrative events that happen to fall in the narrative sequence of the program’s plot arcs—individual episodes frequently feature thematic and character-related parallels across plotlines, and often an episode’s unity comes more from its consistent mood and tone, rather than contained story. For instance, the show’s third episode “The Buys” presents moments paralleling McNulty and D’Angelo’s roles as low-level players in their games unable to effect change, reinforced by D’Angelo’s monologue about chess, as well as showing the dealers in the pit watched by both police and criminal rival Omar, creating a feeling of pervasive threat and surveillance. Thus we can see HBO’s landmarks operating with differing structural logics: The Wire crafts season-long plotlines comprised of thematically and tonally connected episodes, while The Sopranos compiles more discrete episodic stories into larger thematically unified, but less plot-driven seasons.
While there are certainly other models available to television storytellers, most complex television operates within these various options of locating events, time, characters, and storyworlds within the spectrum between contained episodes and ongoing seriality. There are other crucial poetic elements to raise in this overview of narrative complexity, but first it is important to understand how the rise of this narrative mode both was enabled by, and helped transform, the industrial, technological, and reception contexts of television in the 1990s and 2000s, and outline some constraints as to why narrative complexity might not have emerged earlier. While none of these shifts in industry, technology, and viewing practices directly caused the rise of complex television, they all served as enabling conditions, helping to shape these storytelling strategies that have become more prevalent. Following the paradigm of historical poetics, we must consider the interplay between the formal features of complex television and its contextual surroundings.
The Contexts and Constraints of Complexity
Narrative complexity is sufficiently widespread and popular that we may consider the 1990s to the present as the era of complex television. Complexity has not overtaken conventional forms within the majority of television programming today—there are still many more conventional sitcoms and dramas on-air than complex narratives, not to mention many popular non-fictional or semi-fictional genres like reality television, public affairs, and “lifestyle programs.” Yet just as 1970s Hollywood is remembered far more for the innovative work of Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola than for the more commonplace (and often more popular) conventional disaster films, romances, and comedy films that filled theaters, I believe that American television of the past 20 years will be remembered as an era of narrative experimentation and innovation, challenging the norms of what the medium can do. Even though this complex mode represents neither the majority of television nor its most popular programs (at least by the flawed standard of Nielsen ratings), a sufficiently widespread number of programs work against conventional narrative practices using an innovative cluster of narrational techniques to justify such analysis.
A number of key transformations in the media industries, technologies, and audience behaviors coincide with the rise of narrative complexity—a brief overview of key changes in 1990s television practices points to both how these transformations impact creative practices and how formal features always expand beyond textual borders. One key influence on the rise of narrative complexity on contemporary television is the changing perception of the medium’s legitimacy and its resulting appeal to creators. Many of the innovative television programs of the past twenty years have come from creators who launched their careers in film, a medium with more traditional cultural cachet: David Lynch (Twin Peaks) and Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz) as directors, Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night and West Wing), Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, and Firefly), Allan Ball (Six Feet Under and True Blood), and J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, and Fringe) as screenwriters. Part of television’s appeal is its reputation as a producer’s medium, where writers and creators retain control of their work more than in film’s director-centered model, as discussed more in the Authorship chapter. Additionally, as reality television has emerged as a popular and cost-effective alternative to scripted programming, television writers seem to be asserting what they can offer that is unique to fictional television; narrative complexity highlights one limit of reality shows, asserting the carefully controlled dramatic and comedic manipulation of plots and characters that reality producers find more difficult to generate (although certainly many attempt their own forms of narrative manipulations). Many television writers embrace the broader challenges and possibilities for creativity in long-form series, as extended character depth, ongoing plotting, and episodic variations are simply unavailable options within a two-hour film—notably, Whedon’s film Serenity, which extended the narrative of the cancelled single-season cult series Firefly, compressed an entire season’s plot into two hours, minimizing storytelling variety, character exploration, and ongoing suspense. While innovative film narration has emerged as a “boutique” form over recent years in the guise of puzzle films like Memento and The Sixth Sense, the norms of Hollywood still favor spectacle and formulas suitable for a peak opening weekend; comparatively, many narratively complex programs are among the medium’s biggest hits, suggesting that the market for complexity may be more valued on television than film.
However, this embrace of complexity has been a long time in the making due to a number of long-established obstacles to complex storytelling. For the bulk of its history, the commercial television industry in the United States has avoided risks in search of economic stability, embracing a strategy of imitation and formula that often results in a model of “least objectionable content.” For decades, the commercial television industry was immensely profitable producing programming with minimal formal variety outside the conventional genre norms of sitcoms and procedural dramas. Serial narratives were primarily confined to the devalued genre of daytime soap operas, with more prestigious primetime offerings avoiding continuing storylines in lieu of episodic closure and limited continuity. Economic strategies privileged the episodic form for primetime programming―in large part, serialized content posed problems for the production industry’s cash cow, syndication. Reruns distributed by syndicators could be aired in any order, making continuing storylines an obstacle to this lucrative aftermarket. Additionally, network research departments believed that even the biggest hit series could be guaranteed a consistent carryover audience of no more than 1/3 from week-to-week, meaning that the majority of viewers would not be sufficiently aware of a program’s backstory to follow continuing storylines—oddly, contemporary television producers still repeat this statistic unchanged, suggesting that it’s grounded more in industrial folklore than empirical research. But given these assumptions that viewers were inconsistent, coupled with networks’ general risk-averse attitudes and the ongoing success of episodic programming, there was little economic rationale for television producers to undertake the risks necessary to embark on experiments in more serialized and complex storytelling, although some innovations were tried that I discuss in the History chapter.
Television’s mechanisms of storytelling also provide some important constraints on how stories can be told. More than almost any other medium, commercial television has a highly-restrictive structured delivery system: weekly episodes of prescribed lengths, often with required breaks for advertisements. A given season will have a specific number of episodes, with variable scheduling for how long breaks between episodes might be―often producers cannot plan on precisely when a series will be aired or even in some extreme cases, in what order episodes might appear. Additionally, the series is consumed as it is still being produced, meaning that adjustments are often made midstream due to unexpected circumstances. Such adjustments can be due to casting constraints, as in an actor’s pregnancy, illness, or death, or feedback from networks, sponsors, or audience in reaction to an emerging storyline. Constraints like these make television storytelling distinct from nearly every other medium—a parallel would be if literature demanded the exact same word count for every chapter of every novel, regardless of genre, style or author.
Finally, a successful television series typically lacks a crucial element that has long been hailed as of supreme importance for a well-told story: an ending. Unlike nearly every other narrative medium, American commercial television operates on what might be termed the “infinite model” of storytelling―a series is deemed a success only as long as it keeps going. While other national television systems might end a successful series after a year or two, American series generally keep running as long as they are generating decent ratings. This becomes a significant issue for storytellers, who must design narrative worlds that are able to sustain themselves for years rather than closed narratives plans created for a specific run, an issue discussed more in the Endings chapter. Not surprisingly, this need to accommodate an infinite run privileges episodic content with little continuity and long-term story development, with recyclable characters and interchanging situations typical of police dramas and sitcoms. These constraints of how the industry conceived of television’s viewing and storytelling norms posed obstacles to the innovations that comprise complex television, with a gradual shift in narrative possibilities emerging throughout the 1990s, largely in response to industrial and technological transformations.
One vital shift that opened up storytelling innovations was the recalibration of industry expectations for what a hit show looked like. As the number of channels have grown and the size of the audience for any single program has shrunk, networks and channels have grown to recognize that a consistent cult following of a small but dedicated audience can suffice to make a show economically viable. The overall audience size of Buffy and Veronica Mars did not make these shows hits, but the measured expectations of newer networks like UPN and WB, as well as the youthful demographics and cult-like dedication drawn by such programming, encouraged networks to allow such experimentations to grow an audience. Many complex programs expressly appeal to a boutique audience of more upscale educated viewers who typically avoid television, as with programs like The West Wing or The Simpsons—needless to say, an audience comprised of viewers who watch little other television is particularly valued by advertisers. For cable channels like HBO, complex programs like The Wire, Deadwood, and Curb Your Enthusiasm might not have reached Sopranos-like popularity, but the prestige of these programs furthered the channel’s brand image of being more sophisticated than traditional television, and thus worthy of a monthly premium (and generating future DVD sales). And on non-premium cable channels, programming complex prestigious programs like FX’s The Shield and Justified or AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad helps establish the channel as legitimate and appealing to cable operators and consumers alike, even if ratings for such shows might not be as lucrative as other options—notably, FX makes more off reruns for Two and a Half Men than its original programs, and AMC’s least complex original series, The Walking Dead, has been its highest-rated by far. But because cable channels get regular income from every subscriber whose cable or satellite system carries the channel, high-profile prestigious programs can work to raise a channel’s status and thus its carriage fees, even if those programs do not produce much advertising revenue. In all of these instances, programs with comparatively small ratings can provide lucrative results for the industry under their recalibrated new measures.
This era’s technological transformations have accelerated this shift in similar ways. Audiences tend to embrace complex programs in much more passionate and committed terms than most conventional television, using these shows as the basis for robust online fan cultures and active feedback to the television industry (especially when their programs are in jeopardy of cancellation). Online television criticism has risen during this era, both in (initially) amateur forums like televisionwithoutpity.com and commercial sites like The A.V. Club, providing thoughtful and humorous commentaries on weekly episodes and serving as sites of fan engagement and conversation. The internet’s ubiquity has enabled fans to embrace a “collective intelligence” for information, interpretations, and discussions of complex narratives that invite participatory engagement—and in instances such as Babylon 5 or Community, creators join in the discussions and use these forums as feedback mechanisms to test for comprehension and pleasures, as discussed in the Authorship chapter. Other digital technologies like videogames, blogs, online role-playing sites, Twitter, and fan websites have offered realms that enable viewers to extend their participation in these rich storyworlds beyond the one-way flow of traditional television viewing, extending the meta-verses of complex narrative creations like Buffy’s Sunnydale or Simpsons’s Springfield into fully interactive and participatory realms. Steven Johnson claims that this form of complexity offered viewers a “cognitive workout” that increases problem-solving and observational skills—whether or not this argument can be empirically substantiated, there is no doubt that this brand of television storytelling encourages audiences to become more actively engaged and offers a broader range of rewards and pleasures than most conventional programming. The consumer and creative practices of fan culture which cultural studies scholars embraced as subcultural phenomena in the 1990s have become more widely distributed and participated in with the distribution means of the internet, making active audience behavior even more of a mainstream practice. While none of these new technologies directly caused the emergence of narrative complexity, the incentives and possibilities they provided to both media industries and viewers encourage the success and innovations of many such programs, as explored in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter.
One development that seems less radical, but may be as or more important than any of these other transformations, is the rise of TV-on-DVD box sets, a development that warrants more in-depth discussion here. Releasing television onto home video formats is certainly not new to the 2000s, as many shows were released on VHS in the 1990s and even Laserdiscs in the 1980s. Although the shift to DVD might be more of an acceleration of degree rather than a transformation of an entirely new kind of distribution, DVDs allow television to be consumed and collected in new ways that drastically changed the place of the television series in the cultural landscape, as well as altering the narrative possibilities available to creators. For the first 30 years of the medium, television watching was primarily controlled by networks, offering limited choice of programming on a tightly delimited schedule with no other options to access content. While reruns proliferated in syndication, typically reruns were shown out-of-order, encouraging episodic narratives that could accommodate an almost random presentation of a series. Since the mainstreaming of cable and the VCR in the early-1980s, the balance has shifted more toward viewer control—the proliferation of channels has helped routinize repeats, so that viewers can catch up on a program in chronologically-aired reruns or view missed premium cable shows multiple times throughout the week. Time-shifting technologies like VCRs and digital video recorders enable viewers to choose when they want to watch a program, but more importantly for narrative construction, viewers can rewatch episodes or segments to parse out complex moments. Although self-recording via VHS tapes or burnable DVDs allows viewers to create their own collections of an ongoing series, such recordings are an archive of an event, an example of recorded flow capturing a moment designed to be ephemeral. Recordings are bound to an original time and place, marked by the station identifications and advertisements as belonging to a broadcast, with the flow between programs as a strategy designed to yield high ratings and audience continuity. In short, self-recordings were what television had always been, but frozen in the amber of a collection yet still ephemerally at risk to be taped over.
With TV-on-DVD, a television program is now a tangible object that can be purchased, collected, and cataloged on your shelf, much like books, musical albums, and films. This helps raise the cultural value of television programming, detaching it from the industrial-controlled, commercially-saturated flow of broadcasting, as well as surrounding a series with the paratextual framing of packaging, design, and video-extras that comment upon and expand the text. The physical collectibility of DVD boxes adds to its aesthetic positioning―the ability to shelve a television series next to a classic film or novel creates the possibility of aesthetic equality in a way that the ephemeral system of broadcasting never did. Probably the most critically praised television series of all time, The Wire, has been hailed as a modern day Dickens or Tolstoy, a claim that is bolstered by its status as a bound collectable object much as the 19th century novel gained cultural legitimacy in its shift from serialized to bound form. The serial publishing of Dickens and Tolstoy certainly garnered these authors both popularity and acclaim, but had they not been bundled and compiled into published novels, War and Peace and Bleak House would probably be regarded less as timeless masterpieces and more as ephemerally tied to their historical moment, if remembered at all. This pattern of validation through bound publication extends to other serialized media as well, like the rise of graphic novels republishing more ephemeral serial comic books like Cerebus and Watchmen in the 1980s, or the compilation of Louis Feuillade’s serialized short films of the 1910s at La Cinémathèque Française in the 1940s. Thus the emergence of boxed TV-on-DVD sets has enabled contemporary television to be judged and valued as part of a larger aesthetic field, and television’s rising evaluative stock over the past decade has been fueled by positive comparisons with other narrative forms, such as the literary and cinematic as discussed in the Evaluation chapter.
TV-on-DVD also changes the terms by which viewers might consume their narrative texts, moving away from broadcasting and toward a publishing model, as convincingly argued by Derek Kompare. Although such publishing is increasingly manifested as digital files downloaded via iTunes or streamed on Netflix instead of the waning DVD market, the effects on viewing practices are quite similar, providing viewers the opportunity to control how they watch far more flexibly than previous media formats. Serial continuity can be greatly enhanced by this publishing model, as viewers owning DVD sets or downloaded files can mimic the “random access” possibilities of books to consult and replay moments from episodes or seasons past. If most television storytelling for its first few decades was designed to be viewed in any order by a presumably distracted and undiscriminating viewer—a strategy that many programs and viewers challenged, but was certainly encouraged by the industry—today’s complex narratives are designed for a discerning viewer not only to pay close attention to once, but to rewatch for noticing the depth of references, marvel at displays of craft and continuities, and appreciate details that require the liberal use of pause and rewind. Complex comedies like Arrested Development encourage the rewind and freeze-frame power of DVDs to catch split-second visual gags and pause the frantic pace to recover from laughter. Serial mysteries like Lost invite us to stop screen time to parse a complex onscreen image, or consult with a community of fellow viewers to insure full comprehension. These televisual strategies are all possible via scheduled flow, but greatly enhanced by the viewing possibilities of published DVDs.
Additionally, TV-on-DVD makes the published version definitive and canonical over both the original broadcast and typically shortened syndicated rerun versions. Publishing can enable continuity corrections and edits as needed―for instance, the Lost episode “Orientation” features a photograph of Desmond and Penny, but it was shot before Penny was cast as an actual character and thus features the image of another actress. In the DVD version of “Orientation,” the photograph is replaced by an image of Sonya Walger, who was later cast to play Penny. Such details would be insignificant in the broadcast flow era, but for fans encouraged to freeze-frame and parse the images of Lost, details matter and DVDs allow producers to make such course corrections throughout a series. DVDs can also include footage cut from original broadcasts for time or content restrictions, making some of television’s broadcast constraints irrelevant upon publishing. As I discuss in the Beginnings chapter in the case of Veronica Mars, DVDs can override the original broadcast version of a pilot, reasserting authorial intent over network meddling as part of the medium’s broader legitimation. Thus while the broadcast original is what makes a program an example of “television” as it’s traditionally understood, the DVD version serves as the long-term record of a series as it will be consumed and remembered for years to come.
For many series, the ability for viewers to watch on their own schedules has opened up storytelling possibilities, as DVD viewers typically watch episodes more quickly in succession, working through a season over a week or two, which fosters a more immersive and attentive viewing experience. For some series built upon cliffhangers like 24, the DVD viewing becomes a mad rush for narrative payoff, prompting a binge mentality comparable to the compulsive “eatability” of a bag of salty snacks—and certainly 24 prompted such binges, where viewers would consume an entire season in a 24-hour marathon session. At the other end of the storytelling spectrum, The Wire’s slow-moving plotting, lack of exposition, and vast ensemble poses challenges for a new viewer to appreciate on a weekly basis―there are too many opportunities to forget connections and lose track of the copious details vital to appreciating the complexity of the storyworld for many, so DVD viewing helps establish more momentum and continuity. Compiling a serial allows viewers to see a series differently, enabling us to perceive aesthetic values traditionally used for discrete cultural works to ongoing narratives―viewing a DVD edition helps highlight the values of unity, complexity, and clear beginnings and endings, qualities that are hard to discern through the incremental releases of seriality. A series like Lost asks viewers to believe that the twisty looping narrative as guided by a master plan exhibiting continuity and consistency. Because many revelations and explanations are deferred for numerous episodes and even seasons, the long gaps in a serial broadcast can make it feel like the show is avoiding resolution and even “making it up as they go,” a clear aesthetic condemnation for a complex narrative where unity and continuity is a value. While revelations may still take multiple seasons, watching Lost via DVD keeps the pace moving sufficiently as to downplay the issues of deferred resolution and answers. We might consider this drive toward unity and complexity as fulfilled by bound volumes like DVD sets as a boxed aesthetic, tied together and treated as a complete whole comparable to similarly unified forms like novels and films.
Of course, there are aspects of a serial aesthetic that might be lost in the shift to a boxed aesthetic, with Lost as a prime example of these trade-offs. Even though the quicker pace of DVDs highlights how all of Lost’s puzzle pieces come together (or fail to), this mode of binge viewing does not allow for a viewer to focus on the puzzle-solving process. One of the chief pleasures of Lost is the ludic sense of play that fills the gaps between episodes and seasons, with fans congregating in online forums and wikis to theorize, investigate, evaluate, and debate, as discussed in the Orienting Paratexts and Transmedia Storytelling chapters. This mode of fan engagement is dependent on simultaneous viewership, with everyone at the same point of the story, enabling a collaborative group process of decoding and engagement. Although Lost will continue to be watched via DVD (or the next video publication technology) for years to come, the broader experience of communal serialized viewing is tied to the original broadcast. Watching Lost via boxed sets is inherently isolated from the larger fan community and its rich network of paratextual materials, suggesting that the truly ephemeral aspect of the series was not the initial textual broadcast but the experience of serialized spectatorship. When the next generation of media historians look at the series, all that will remain from the original airing is the program and the archived paratexts―the aesthetic experience of collectively decoding Lost’s complex narrative will be lost. The structure of broadcast flow may be replaced by the control of boxed publishing, but there is a palpable experiential loss that cannot be artificially retained.
Such serialized consumption practices are not unique to television, as readers of 19th century serial fiction regularly discussed ongoing stories as they were released, published critical commentaries within letters to periodicals, and even corresponded with authors throughout the writing process. The experiences of Dickens’s readers who followed his novels through the serialized publication process were unique and unable to be replicated by those who read his bound volumes; similarly, the serialized television viewing experience is ephemeral compared to the repeatable practice of boxed viewing. As Sean O’Sullivan discusses in relation to both Dickens and Deadwood, the gap between installments is the constitutive element of serial fiction, the space between available story units when both writers and readers imagine new possibilities and reflect on old tales. While a boxed viewer can recreate this gap by self-pacing a series, the normal model of consuming a bound serial is to move forward as time permits, not as dictated by a forced schedule. Although the broadcast schedule is ultimately arbitrary and artificial, it is also productive, creating the structure for collective synchronous consumption and providing the time to reflect upon the unfolding narrative world.
This long discussion of the impact of TV-on-DVD sets the stage for understanding narrative complexity, as it foregrounds the interplay of industrial strategies, technologies, viewer practices, and poetic form that comprise the phenomenon of complex television. Using the new technologies of home recording, DVDs, and online participation, viewers have taken an active role in consuming complex television and helped it thrive within the media industries. While it would be hard to claim that any of these industrial, creative, technological, or participatory developments explicitly caused the emergence of narrative complexity as a narrational mode, together they set the stage for its development and growing popularity—and collectively forge the backdrop for understanding the poetics of complex television.
Television’s Operational Aesthetic and Spectacular Storytelling
Complex television is marked by greater variations on serial form than traditional episodic programming or soap opera models, enabled by shifts in the television industry, technology, and viewing practices. One of the more interesting ways that creators have responded to these shifts is by creating a more self-conscious mode of storytelling than is typically found within conventional television narration. Seinfeld is a key innovator here, as the show revels in the mechanics of its plotting, weaving stories for each character together in a given episode through unlikely coincidence, parodic media references, and circular structure. In conventional television narratives, episodes typically feature two or more plotlines that complement each other: a main A plot that dominates screen time, and secondary B plots that may offer thematic parallels or provide counterpoint to the A plot, but rarely interact at the level of action. Complexity, especially in comedies, works against these norms by altering the relationship between multiple plotlines, creating interweaving stories that often collide and coincide. Seinfeld typically starts out its four plotlines separately, leaving it to the experienced viewer’s imagination as to how the stories will collide with unlikely repercussions throughout the storyworld. Such interwoven plotting has been adopted and expanded by Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, extending the coincidences and collisions across episodes in a way that transforms serial narrative into elaborate inside jokes—for instance, only by knowing Larry’s encounter with Michael the blind man from Curb’s first season does his return in the fourth season make sense. Likewise, Arrested expands the number of coinciding plots per episode, with often six or more storylines bouncing off one another resulting in unlikely coincidences, twists, and ironic repercussions, some of which may not become evident until subsequent episodes or seasons.
While this mode of comedic narrative is often quite amusing on its own terms, it does suggest a particular set of pleasures for viewers, one that is relatively unavailable in conventional television narrative. The viewers of such complex comedies as Seinfeld and Arrested Development focus not only on the diegetic world offered by the sitcoms, but also revel in the creative mechanics involved in the producers’ abilities to pull off such complex plot structures, a mode of viewing that Jeffrey Sconce labels as “metareflexive,” but warrants more detailed consideration. This set of pleasures evokes an influential concept offered by Neil Harris in his account of P.T. Barnum: Harris suggests that Barnum’s mechanical stunts and hoaxes invited spectators to embrace an “operational aesthetic,” in which the pleasure was less about “what will happen?” and more concerning “how did he do that?” In watching Seinfeld, we expect that each character’s petty goals will be thwarted in a farcical unraveling, but we watch to see how the writers will pull off the narrative mechanics required to bring together the four plotlines into a carefully calibrated, comedic Rube Goldberg narrative machine. There is a degree of self-consciousness in this mode of plotting, not only in the explicit reflexivity offered by these programs (like Seinfeld’s show-within-a-show or Arrested Development’s winking acknowledgement of television techniques like product placement, stunt casting, and voice-over narration), but also in the awareness that viewers watch complex programs in part to see “how will they do it?” This operational aesthetic is on display within online fan forum dissections of the techniques that complex television uses to guide, manipulate, deceive, and misdirect viewers, such as the highly-popular TVTropes.com wiki, suggesting the key pleasure of unraveling the operations of narrative mechanics. We watch these shows not just to get swept away in a realistic narrative world (although that certainly happens), but also to watch the gears at work, marveling at the craft required to pull off such narrative pyrotechnics.
The operational aesthetic is heightened in spectacular moments within narratively complex programs, specific sequences or episodes that we might consider akin to special effects. Accounts of cinematic special effects highlight how these moments of awe and amazement pull us out of the diegesis, inviting us to marvel at the technique required to achieve visions of interplanetary travel, realistic dinosaurs, or elaborate fights upon treetops. These spectacles are often held in opposition to narration, harkening back to the cinema of attractions that predated narrative film and deemphasizing classical narrative form in the contemporary blockbuster cinema. While such special effects do appear on television—although arguably television’s dominant mode of visual spectacle highlights the excessive beauty norms of beer commercials and Baywatch more than the explosive pyrotechnics of the large screen—complex television offers another mode of attractions: the narrative special effect. This device occurs when a show flexes its storytelling muscles to confound and amaze a viewer, as in the major temporal leaps forward seen on Alias (“The Telling”), the revelation of flash-forwards on Lost (“Through the Looking Glass”), or the incorporation of the backstory-retrofitted main character Dawn on Buffy. These moments of spectacle push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; often these instances forego strict realism in exchange for a formally aware baroque quality in which we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis. The random access control of DVDs greatly enhances and enables viewers to engage the operational aesthetic, allowing pausing, rewinding, and slow-motion close study to ferret out narrative clues from twisty mysteries like Lost and Alias, and replay past moments to highlight exemplary moments of narrative construction.
One such moment of spectacular storytelling is found in the second season finale of Battlestar Galactica, “Lay Down Your Burdens pt. 2”: the narrative of the human survivors of an apocalyptic war trying to outrun their Cylon enemies has portrayed around 300 days of story time over the course of the initial miniseries and two seasons, amounting to over 27 hours of screen time. At this climactic moment, Cylon-collaborating human Gaius Baltar has been elected president and has chosen to colonize a planet, instead of running from a potential Cylon attack. Left alone sitting in his presidential office, the camera slowly pulls in for 45 seconds toward an anguished Baltar trying to cope with his guilt and stress, eventually stopping on an extreme close-up of his head down on his desk. After a subtle dissolve through his black hair, the camera begins to pull back to reveal that although Baltar looks mostly the same, his office has changed and the dialog suggests that he is deep into his presidency; after 30 seconds, a caption appears to orient us: “One Year Later.” This is a remarkable ellipsis, jumping forward a full year in the course of what first appears to be a single shot, a moment so shocking and affecting that I needed to pause and rewatch it upon the first viewing, and have repeatedly returned to it via DVD as a marvel of narrative engineering in creating a narrative special effect and the operational aesthetic. Its power stems from the show’s manipulation of its own intrinsic norms, or the patterns and expectations that a given series establishes for itself—because the first two seasons of Battlestar had taught us that the story time moved more slowly than the scheduled screen time (with weekly and seasonal gaps not mirrored in story time), viewers came to expect that same pattern of gradual-moving narrative moving forward. This ellipsis works as a narrative special effect by effectively shocking us out of our expected patterns and norms, forcing viewers to think about how the storytelling might proceed, raising questions about what might have occurred during the year ellipsis, and leaving us unsettled for the shocking story turns still to come in the final act of this episode. While such moments encourage viewers to think about formal construction, they do not distance us from the emotional pull of the storyworld, as per the operational aesthetic.
As programs become established in their own complex conventions, we also marvel at how far creators can push the boundaries of complexity, offering baroque variations on themes and norms; these narrative special effects can be the climaxes of shows, as when all the divergent Seinfeld or Arrested Development plots collide, or when a plot twist on Lost or 24 forces us to reconsider all that we’ve viewed before in the episode. Or narrative spectacles can be variations on a theme—Six Feet Under begins every episode with a “death of the week,” but by the second season, the creators vary the presentation of these deaths to offer misdirections and elaborations to keep viewers engaged once they understand the show’s intrinsic norms. A particularly telling moment of narrative spectacle comes from Lost’s episode “Orientation”: after discovering what is hidden beneath the mysterious hatch, two characters watch a training film that details the origins of the facility as part of a research institute. Once finished with the enigmatic film containing many obscure details that recast events of the show’s first season in a new light, Locke gleefully exclaims, “we’re going to have to watch that again!”, mirroring the reaction of millions of viewers prepared to parse the film for clues to Lost’s diegetic and formal mysteries. This is not the reflexive self-awareness of Tex Avery cartoons acknowledging their own construction, or the technique of some modernist art films or Brechtian theater asking us to view their constructedness from an emotional distance; operational reflexivity encourages us to simultaneously care about the story and marvel at its telling.
Another level of narrative spectacle centers on entire episodes. Buffy is probably the most accomplished show for narratively spectacular theme episodes, with individual episodes predicated on narrative devices like starkly limiting storytelling parameters (the silence of “Hush”), genre mixing (the musical episode “Once More with Feeling”), shifts in perspective (telling an adventure from the vantage point of habitual bystander Xander in “The Zeppo”), or foregrounding an unusual narrator (Andrew’s pseudo-documentary in “Storyteller”). While each of these episodes, and others like them in X-Files (“Monday,” “Triangle”), Angel (“Smile Time,” “Spin the Bottle”), Seinfeld (“The Betrayal,” “The Parking Lot”), Scrubs (“His Story,” “My Screw Up”), The Simpsons (“Trilogy of Error,” “22 Short Films About Springfield”), Lost (“The Other 48 Days,” “Exposé”), Community (“Paradigms of Human Memory,” “Remedial Chaos Theory”), and Breaking Bad (“The Fly”), may offer diegetic thrills and laughs, the more distinctive pleasure in these programs is marveling at the narrational bravado on display by violating storytelling conventions in a spectacular fashion. Through the operational aesthetic, these complex narratives invite viewers to engage at the level of formal analyst, dissecting the techniques used to convey spectacular displays of storytelling craft; this mode of formally-aware viewing is highly encouraged by these programs, as their pleasures are embedded in a level of awareness that transcends the traditional focus on diegetic action typical of most mainstream popular narratives.
Individual episodes can trigger the operational aesthetic through narrative spectacle, but whole programs can also be predicated upon such storytelling pyrotechnics, either through their ongoing stories or inherent structure. For an example of the former, Alias is a strong example of narrative complexity, juggling both ongoing and episodic stories of espionage with arcs of relationship dramas mapped onto both family and spy politics. But its boldest moments of narrative spectacle occur when the plot makes unforeseen sharp twists that cause the entire scenario to “reboot,” changing the professional and interpersonal dynamics of nearly every character. The first, and arguably most effective, of these reboots occurred midway through the second season, in the episode “Phase One” that aired in the high-profile post-Super Bowl time slot; over the course of this episode, Alias’s entire espionage scenario was reconfigured, with the main character’s status as a double agent shifting to becoming an outright CIA agent, chasing down the same main villain but with different alliances and motives. Additionally, the relationships between characters transformed, with Sydney’s innocent-bystander friend Francie being replaced by a nefarious agent and her long-simmering crush on Vaughn finally coming to fruition–all within one hour! While much of the effectiveness of this shift was in breathing life into a premise that may have been on the verge of becoming too repetitive, an important pleasure was to be found in the impressive way in which the producers were able to reconfigure the scenario in a way that was diegetically consistent (at least with the show’s own outrageous norms of espionage technology and convoluted mythology), narratively engaging, and emotionally honest to the characters and relationships. Similar series revisions were pulled off in subsequent seasons of Alias, as well as Buffy (through the introduction of Buffy’s sister Dawn), Angel (with the heroes taking over their arch enemy’s lawfirm), and Lost (as the castaways left the island and discovered time travel). In all of these cases, audiences take pleasure not only in the diegetic twists, but also in the exceptional storytelling techniques needed to pull off such machinations—we thrill both at the stories being told and at the way in which their telling breaks television conventions.
Narrative spectacle can be built into the core scenarios of programs as well—24 is often heralded for its real-time narrative structure, with parallel story, discourse, and screen timeframes (excepting commercial breaks and gaps between seasons). Even more interesting here is that it may be the only television series ever named for its storytelling technique, not in reference to its diegetic world or thematic concerns—the number 24 refers to nothing notable in the storyworld, but rather to the number of hours (and episodes) needed to tell the story. How I Met Your Mother is predicated on a storytelling mode as well, with Ted allegedly telling his children the story referenced in the show’s title via narrated flashbacks, but seven seasons in as of this writing, we have still not met this legendary mother, as Ted is a serial digresser. Yet many fans watch in hopes of the promised narrative resolution to solve the teased-at mystery of the mother’s identity and role within the program’s complex mythology. Other programs are similarly notable for their storytelling discourse (how the story is told) more than the story itself—Boomtown offers fairly typical police stories, but when told through changing multiple limited perspectives among an ensemble of characters, the cases are more nuanced and complex than they first appear. Jack and Bobby tells a typical tale of teen brothers, but through the conceit of frequent flash-forward interviews in the 2040s, a future tale emerges of one of them becoming U.S. President, with future events and relationships resonating with adolescent family drama. Reunion highlights a group of high school friends, with each weekly episode charting one year in their lives over a twenty-year span, while Day Break limits its temporality into a repetitive loop. In all of these mostly short-lived shows, what is arguably most compelling and distinctive is not the stories that they tell, but the narrative strategies used in the telling.
Complex narratives also employ a number of storytelling devices that, while not unique to this mode, are used with such frequency and regularity as to become more acceptable narrative norms rather than exceptional outliers. Analepses, or alterations in chronology, are not uncommon in conventional television, with flashbacks serving to either recount crucial narrative backstory (as a detective narrates the solution to a crime) or framing an entire episode’s action in the past tense (like the dramatization of Rob and Laura meeting on The Dick Van Dyke Show). Similarly, conventional programs have often used dream or fantasy sequences to explore possibilities of other scenarios (like Roseanne’s retelling as a 1950s sitcom) or probe a character’s inner life (the experimental St. Elsewhere episode “Sweet Dreams”). Another device, found in episodes of conventional programs like All in the Family and Different Strokes, is retelling the same story from multiple perspectives, often called the “Rashomon effect” after the landmark Kurosawa film. Voice-over narration is atypical in most television, but conventional programs like Dragnet or The Wonder Years use it to set the emotional tone and provide expository transitions. Yet all of these devices, which vary from the “exceedingly obvious” mode of naturalistic television storytelling, typically maximize their obviousness by explicitly signaling them as differentiations from a norm, predicated by expository narration (“I remember it well…”) or contrived scenarios (like hypnosis, courtroom testimonies, or recollections over a photo album) to highlight how the show is using non-conventional conventions.
In contemporary complex television, such variations in storytelling strategies are more commonplace and signaled with much more subtlety or delay; these shows are constructed without fear of temporary confusion for viewers. Fantasy sequences abound without clear demarcations or signals, as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Buffy, and Battlestar Galactica all present visions of events that oscillate between character subjectivity and diegetic reality, playing with the ambiguous boundary to offer character depth, suspense, and comedic effect. Complex narration often breaks the fourth wall, whether through visually represented direct address (Malcolm in the Middle, The Bernie Mac Show, The Office), or more ambiguous voice-over that blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic (Scrubs, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, Desperate Housewives), calling attention to its own breaking of convention. Programs like Lost, Jack and Bobby, Boomtown, and How I Met Your Mother offer analepses in nearly every episode with few orienting signals, while Alias and The West Wing frequently begin episodes with a teaser at the climax of the story, then turn back the clock to explain the confusing situation with which the episode began. In all of these programs, the lack of explicit storytelling cues and signposts creates moments of disorientation, asking viewers to engage more actively to comprehend the story, and rewarding regular viewers who have mastered each program’s internal conventions of complex narration as discussed in the Comprehension chapter. These strategies may be similar with formal dimensions of art cinema, but they manifest themselves in expressly popular contexts for mass audiences—we may be temporarily confused by moments of Lost or Alias, but these shows ask us to trust in the payoff that we will eventual arrive at a moment of complex but coherent comprehension, not the ambiguity and questioned causality typical of many art films.
The “Noël” episode of West Wing typifies the complex use of such discursive strategies: the episode is framed by Josh Lyman’s therapy session to process his post-traumatic stress reactions to being shot, which allows for the conventions of repeated flashbacks via Josh’s narration. However, the flashbacks are rampant, and not always signaled as falling within a clear order, with sound bridges between the present-tense therapy and past-tense events adding to a sense of disorientation that the show uses to increase tension and anxiety. Additionally, we see frequent dramatizations of Josh cutting his hand on a glass, an accident he claims to have happened, but his therapist correctly suspects is a lie masking a more violent act; these lying flashbacks lack a clear differentiation from other past events until the end of the episode, leaving the audience to decode the contradictions and confusing chronology. The episode climaxes with a five-minute sequence interweaving disjoined sound and image from five different timeframes (including one that never actually happened), rhythmically edited to convey a robust emotional arc—a presentational mode more common to European art cinema than American television, but ultimately in service of a coherent ongoing narrative. This sequence is set to a White House performance of Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach cello suite, a musical choice that highlights the Baroque style of complex television, with themes and variation, elaborate ornamentations, and an invitation to examine and appreciate formal systems and innovation rather than classical norms. While much of the episode’s pleasure is serial, as the more we know Josh the more we can engage with his breakdown, the episode stands alone as a dramatically compelling character portrait (which won actor Bradley Whitford an Emmy), but only if we accept its distinct storytelling conventions, a competency that regular viewers learn over time. Complex television programs invite temporary disorientation and confusion, allowing viewers to build up their comprehension skills through long-term viewing and active engagement.
This need for gaining competency in decoding stories and comprehending diegetic worlds is particularly salient across a number of contemporary media. Certainly videogames are predicated on this ability to learn how to understand and interact with a range of storyworlds and interfaces—nearly every game contains its own diegetic training module, as players learn to master the controls and expectations for this particular virtual world, as well as intuiting the procedural logics demanded by a given game. Cinema has also seen the emergence of a popular cycle of “puzzle films” that require the audience to learn the particular rules of a film to comprehend its narrative; movies like The Sixth Sense, Pulp Fiction, Memento, The Usual Suspects, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Run Lola Run, The Matrix, The Prestige, and Inception have all embraced a game aesthetic, inviting audiences to play along with the creators to crack the interpretive codes to make sense of their complex narrative strategies. But crucially, the goal of these puzzle films is not to solve the mysteries ahead of time; rather we want to be competent enough to follow their narrative strategies but still relish in the pleasures of being manipulated successfully. I doubt anyone who predicts the twists of these films could say that they enjoyed them more than the willing (but still active) spectator who gets pulled along for the ride. Puzzle films invite us to observe the gears of the narrative mechanisms, even flaunting them in a display of storytelling spectacle—think of the climax of Sixth Sense, as the twist is revealed through flashbacks demonstrating the mastery of how the film fooled its viewers. Although few television programs have followed the puzzle film model fully—individual episodes of Seinfeld, Simpsons, Buffy, Scrubs and Lost have mimicked these films, which themselves are influenced by the seminal anthology television program The Twilight Zone—what seems to be a key goal across videogames, puzzle films, and complex television series is the desire to be both actively engaged in the story and successfully surprised through storytelling manipulations. This is the operational aesthetic at work, enjoying the machine’s results while also marveling at how it works.
Thus complex television encourages, and even at times necessitates, a new mode of viewer engagement. While fan cultures have long demonstrated intense engagement in storyworlds, policing backstory consistency, character unity, and internal logic in classic programs like Star Trek and Dr. Who, contemporary programs focus this detailed dissection onto complex questions of plotting and enigmatic events in addition to storyworld and characters. We watch Twin Peaks, X-Files, Alias, Lost, Veronica Mars, Desperate Housewives, Dexter, or Fringe at least in part to try to crack each program’s central enigmas—look at any online fan forum to see evidence of such sleuths at work. But as in any mystery-driven fiction, viewers want to be surprised and thwarted as well as satisfied with the internal logic of the story. In processing such programs, viewers find themselves both drawn into a compelling diegesis (as with all effective stories) and focused on the discursive processes of storytelling needed to achieve each show’s complexity and mystery. Thus these programs convert many viewers into amateur narratologists, noting usage and violations of convention, chronicling chronologies, and highlighting both inconsistencies and continuities across episodes and even series—I call this model of engagement forensic fandom, discussing such viewing practices more fully in the chapter on Orienting Paratexts. While certainly audiences have always been active, most scholarly accounts of such reception processes focus on negotiations with television content, reconciling with the politics of Madonna videos or The Cosby Show. Complex programming invites audiences to engage actively at the level of form as well, highlighting the conventionality of traditional television and exploring the possibilities of both innovative long-term storytelling and creative intra-episode discursive strategies.
Many of these programs outright demand such level of engagement–it is hard to imagine how someone might watch 24, Lost or Arrested Development without noting their formal innovations and considering how the use of real-time storytelling, flashbacks, or reflexive narration respectively changes their perspectives on the narrative action. You cannot simply watch these programs as an unmediated window to a realistic storyworld into which you might escape; rather, complex television demands you pay attention to the window frames, asking you to reflect on how it provides partial access to the diegesis and how the panes of glass distort your vision on the unfolding action. Interestingly, these programs can be quite popular with a mass audience (Lost, Seinfeld, X-Files) or have narrow appeals to cult viewers willing to invest the effort into the decoding process (Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, Firefly)—while certainly many of these cult shows have demanding narratives that may seem inaccessible to a mass audience, the striking popularity of some complex programs suggests that a mass audience can engage with and enjoy quite challenging and intricate storytelling. This is not to downplay the importance of traditional pleasures of character depth, neat resolution of plots, storyworld consistency, action-oriented excitement, and humor—complex television at its best employs all of these elements while adding the operational possibilities of formal engagement. These levels of formal engagement and immersive storytelling interplay, as articulated well by Robert King, co-creator of The Good Wife: “The show wants to embrace complexity and baroqueness, because that helps hide magic tricks in terms of plot devices you don’t see coming.” Lost similarly works with these dual levels, as it creates sincere emotional connections to characters who are immersed in an outlandish situation that, as the show progressed, toggled between genre identities of action/adventure serial, science-fiction, paranormal mystery, and religious allegory, all constructed by an elaborate narrational structure far more complex than anything seen before in American television.
This account of narrative complexity suggests that a new paradigm of television storytelling has emerged over the past two decades, redefining the boundary between episodic and serial forms, with a heightened degree of self-consciousness in storytelling mechanics, and demanding intensified viewer engagement focused on both diegetic pleasures and formal awareness. By exploring the formal structure of this mode of storytelling, we can appreciate connections with broader concerns of media industries and technologies, creative techniques, and practices of everyday life, all of which resonate deeply with contemporary cultural transformations tied to the emergence of digital media and more interactive forms of communication and entertainment. A common underlying trend that manifests itself both in television narratives and many digital forms like videogames and webpages is a need for procedural literacy, a recognition on the part of consumers that any mode of expression follows particular protocols and that to fully engage with that form, we must master its underlying procedures. This manifests itself explicitly in videogames, where procedural mastery is a requirement for success, and web use, as we have come in a very short period of time to accept linking, searching, and bookmarking as naturalized behaviors. For television, contemporary complex narratives foreground the skills of narrative comprehension and media literacy that most viewers have developed but rarely put to use beyond rudimentary means. To understand this phenomenon, we must use poetic analysis to chart its structure and boundaries, while incorporating other methods to explore how this narrative mode intersects with dimensions of creative industries, technological innovations, participatory practices, and viewer comprehension. This is the goal of the rest of this book.
Notes David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 155.
2 Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in Film and Television (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
3 Jeffrey Sconce, “What If?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries,” in Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, ed. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 93–112.
4 Louis C.K. posted this comment on The A.V. Club review for the “God” episode.
5 Quoted in Matt Webb Mitovitch, “Heroes Creator Solves Finale’s Biggest Mystery,” TV Guide, May 23, 2007.
6 Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse : Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978).
7 For more on the role of gaps in serial storytelling, see Sean O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction,” in Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, ed. D. Lavery (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Sean O’Sullivan, “Broken on Purpose: Poetry, Serial Television, and the Season,” StoryWorlds 2 (2010): 59–77.
8 It is telling that in recent years, network and cable programs that contain advertising breaks are less likely to contain lengthy title sequences, as producers feel squeezed by limited screen time, while the longer and less strictly-timed premium cable shows on Showtime and HBO are free to create lengthy and imaginative title sequences that help define the series and shape our expectations.
9 See Paul Booth, Time on TV: Temporal Displacement and Mashup Television (New York: Peter Lang, 2012), for a discussion of temporal play in complex television.
10 See Sean O’Sullivan, “Episode, Season, and The Sopranos,” in How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming), for more on Chase’s approach to serialization and the show’s episodic and seasonal structure.
11 For more on the key industrial and technological transformations of television in the 1990s and 2000s, see Jennifer Gillan, Television and New Media: Must-Click TV (New York: Routledge, 2010); and Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
12 See Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011), for more on this shift in television’s cultural legitimation.
13 For an overview of television’s economic and production processes, see Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
14 Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005).
15 See Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006) for an influential take on these shifts in participatory culture.
16 See Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010).
17 I discuss The Wire’s cross-media comparisons in Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 429-38.
18 Derek Kompare, “Publishing Flow: DVD Box Sets and the Reconception of Television,” Television and New Media 7:4 (2006): 335-360.
19 For more on Lost‘s issues with the perception that there is no master plan, see Ivan Askwith, “’Do you even know where this is going?’: Lost‘s Viewers and Narrative Premeditation,” and Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” both in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009).
20 See Jennifer Hayward, Consuming pleasures : active audiences and serial fictions from Dickens to soap opera (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997).
21 O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue.”
22 Sconce, “What If?”.
23 Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
24 See Tom Gunning, “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy,” in Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (New York: Routledge, 1995), 87-105, and Lisa Trahair, “The Narrative-Machine: Buster Keaton’s Cinematic Comedy, Deleuze’s Recursion Function and the Operational Aesthetic,” Senses of Cinema, no. 33 (October 2004).
25 See Wanda Strauven, ed., The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam University Press, 2006).
26 For more on the baroque influence on complex television, see Angela Ndalianis, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004); Angela Ndalianis, “Television and the Neo-Baroque,” in The Contemporary Television Series, ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2005), 83–101.
27 For more on the procedural logic of games, see Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2008).
28 See Warren Buckland, ed., Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
29 Quoted in Jace Lacob, “The Good Wife: Robert and Michelle King on Alicia, Kalinda, Renewal Prospects, and More,” The Daily Beast, March 12, 2012.
- David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 155.
-  Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in Film and Television (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
-  Jeffrey Sconce, “What If?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries,” in Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, ed. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 93–112.
-  Louis C.K. posted this comment on The A.V. Club review for the “God” episode.
-  Quoted in Matt Webb Mitovitch, “Heroes Creator Solves Finale’s Biggest Mystery,” TV Guide, May 23, 2007.
-  Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse : Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978).
-  For more on the role of gaps in serial storytelling, see Sean O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction,” in Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, ed. D. Lavery (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Sean O’Sullivan, “Broken on Purpose: Poetry, Serial Television, and the Season,” StoryWorlds 2 (2010): 59–77.
-  It is telling that in recent years, network and cable programs that contain advertising breaks are less likely to contain lengthy title sequences, as producers feel squeezed by limited screen time, while the longer and less strictly-timed premium cable shows on Showtime and HBO are free to create lengthy and imaginative title sequences that help define the series and shape our expectations.
-  See Paul Booth, Time on TV: Temporal Displacement and Mashup Television (New York: Peter Lang, 2012), for a discussion of temporal play in complex television.
-  See Sean O’Sullivan, “Episode, Season, and The Sopranos,” in How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (New York: NYU Press, 2013), for more on Chase’s approach to serialization and the show’s episodic and seasonal structure.
-  For more on the key industrial and technological transformations of television in the 1990s and 2000s, see Jennifer Gillan, Television and New Media: Must-Click TV (New York: Routledge, 2010); and Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
-  See Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011), for more on this shift in television’s cultural legitimation.
-  For an overview of television’s economic and production processes, see Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
-  Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005).
-  See Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006) for an influential take on these shifts in participatory culture.
-  See Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010).
-  I discuss The Wire’s cross-media comparisons in Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 429-38.
-  Derek Kompare, “Publishing Flow: DVD Box Sets and the Reconception of Television,” Television and New Media 7:4 (2006): 335-360.
-  For more on Lost‘s issues with the perception that there is no master plan, see Ivan Askwith, “’Do you even know where this is going?’: Lost‘s Viewers and Narrative Premeditation,” and Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” both in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009).
-  See Jennifer Hayward, Consuming pleasures : active audiences and serial fictions from Dickens to soap opera (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997).
-  O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue.”
-  Sconce, “What If?”.
-  Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
-  See Tom Gunning, “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy,” in Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (New York: Routledge, 1995), 87-105, and Lisa Trahair, “The Narrative-Machine: Buster Keaton’s Cinematic Comedy, Deleuze’s Recursion Function and the Operational Aesthetic,” Senses of Cinema, no. 33 (October 2004), for examples of the operational aesthetic applied to film comedy.
-  See Wanda Strauven, ed., The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam University Press, 2006).
-  For more on the baroque influence on complex television, see Angela Ndalianis, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004); Angela Ndalianis, “Television and the Neo-Baroque,” in The Contemporary Television Series, ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2005), 83–101.
-  For more on the procedural logic of games, see Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2008).
-  See Warren Buckland, ed., Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
-  Quoted in Jace Lacob, “The Good Wife: Robert and Michelle King on Alicia, Kalinda, Renewal Prospects, and More,” The Daily Beast, March 12, 2012.