[posted 3 August - release notes]
Viewers engage with a television series through a wide range of practices, as detailed in other chapters of this book. But at the most basic level, nearly all engagement starts with the core act of comprehension, making sense of what is happening within a program. This might seem obvious, and certainly much of television storytelling aims to make this comprehension process easy, invisible, and automatic. However, one of the central shifts stemming from the rise of narrative complexity is television’s growing tolerance for viewers to be confused, encouraging them to pay attention and put the pieces together themselves to comprehend the narrative. While television rarely features an avant-garde level of abstraction or ambiguity, contemporary programming has embraced a degree of planned confusion. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner credits The Sopranos for demonstrating that a serial can leave plot points, characters, and relationships unstated, suggesting that “Now it’s the viewers’ problem if they don’t know what’s going on. And all of a sudden, a world has opened up to us as writers.” This chapter explores how viewers make sense of serial television within this new world.
My approach to comprehension is based on the cognitive poetic model developed primarily through David Bordwell’s work on film narration. The core assumption of this approach is that viewers are actively constructing storyworlds in their minds, and that the best way to understand the comprehension process is through the tools of cognitive psychology. Since I am not an expert in psychology, I have primarily drawn on the ways that Bordwell and other humanists have adapted psychological principles to poetic analysis rather than looking directly at the psychological literature. I avoid diving too deeply into technical terms about cognition or mental processes, choosing instead to explore viewing practices on their own terms as inspired by my reading of cognitive poetic theory. The application of cognitive science to television studies is still quite rare outside of the paradigm of media effects research; this chapter is a brief foray into what will hopefully evolve into a subfield exploring how cognitive poetics might help us understand the cultural facets of television more fully.
If this cognitive approach to comprehension seeks to understand the viewer’s practices in making sense of television, we need to be careful about what we mean by “viewer” here. Bordwell makes it clear that the viewer or spectator he discusses is neither an empirical person nor an ideal reader best situated to understand a text, but rather a “hypothetical entity executing the operations relevant to constructing a story out of the film’s representation”—in other words, the generalized receiver of a film that processes its formal systems and cues in the act of creating a narrative within their mind. When he charts out this viewer’s activity, Bordwell strives to understand the underlying universals that any competent viewer would likely carry out, rather than considering the contextually shaped variances that real viewers bring to their experiences. Contexts can matter greatly for the process of narrative comprehension, but it is fair to assume that most viewers watch a typical self-contained, non-serial feature film within some narrow conventional parameters, with focused attention and straight-through chronology in one sitting. While certainly there are many different ways one can watch a film, even more so today than in the 1980s when Bordwell developed his theories, this approach tries to outline an assumed norm for how films are viewed, and arguably one that most filmmakers have in their own minds in crafting the work, thus making it a useful project to establish an underlying baseline of viewing cognition.
But serial television lacks such an assumed norm for viewing, especially in today’s media environment. As discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter, industry lore has long asserted that fans only watch one-third of new episodes, suggesting that creators would be writing for viewers with no assumed continuity or consistency. But certainly many viewers do watch all episodes, so television must be comprehensible for both consistent and intermittent viewers. Additionally, the rise of DVDs, DVRs, and (both licit and illicit) downloading has shifted the schedule-dominated model of broadcasting to an alternate consumption pattern where viewers binge on series, catch-up from earlier seasons after starting midway through, and frequently rewatch episodes; such varying screen time patterns may or may not include breaks for advertising or between episodes—as I have argued throughout this book, seriality is constituted by the gaps between installments, and such gaps can be experienced or overridden in various ways. As the internet has emerged as an active place for discourse about television, paratextual frames have become more important, meaning that a viewer might be frequenting discussion sites, fan wikis, Twitter conversations, or searching for spoilers in moments before, during, and after viewing. All of these practices greatly change the experiences of narrative comprehension, so which of these models of television viewing should we assume to be the norm? I contend there is no single norm of viewing, so instead of ignoring these varieties of viewer practice, I will try to incorporate the role of such contexts in the viewing process, exploring a cognitive poetics that looks both to how texts cue our understanding and how contexts help shape serial television comprehension.
A cognitive poetics of serial television might try to grapple with a wide array of issues. Serial television prompts viewers to create cognitive maps of storyworlds, suggesting the importance of spatial orientation and visual construction in the viewing process. The question of emotional response is an important topic within cognitive studies of fictional forms, and certainly the ongoing immersion within serialized stories prompts distinct types of affect and engagement. Viewer attention is a vital variable in moving image media, so we might explore how programs help cue our attention through visual, aural, and temporal strategies for storytelling impact. All of these issues and others are worth considering and hope future cognitive poetic studies of television might take up these questions, but this chapter will concentrate on issues of viewer knowledge of information in the process of narrative comprehension—stories are systems of information management, with revelations, enigmas, and ambiguities mobilized for emotional impact. Focusing on how serial television handles narrative information and manages viewer knowledge will help us better understand some of the chief appeals of complex television.
Serial Systems of Knowledge
What do we mean by narrative information and knowledge? There are many types of information and knowledge that might be conveyed by a television series. As discussed in the Character chapter, we learn about character backstories, internal motivations and beliefs, and relationships through our consumption of a series. We gather information about the storyworld’s geography, history, temporality, and particular norms and rules, especially in genres with somewhat unreal universes like science fiction and fantasy. We also gain operational knowledge, as we learn the intrinsic storytelling norms of a series and extrinsic information about the genre, creative team, network, or codes of the television medium itself—the conventions catalogued by fans at the TV Tropes wiki speak to the huge amount of information about how stories are told that might be activated within the process of narrative comprehension. And at the most basic level, we gain information about narrative events, answering the essential question of “what happened?”
Consuming a narrative requires constant information management, as we must keep track of what we know and what knowledge gaps might be filled over the course of the storytelling, a process that can be quite engaging and pleasurable for viewers. Most of this information management is preconscious and automatic, driven by underlying assumptions and conventions—we recognize a face and connect it to what we know about a character, we understand the sounds coming from a character as language and comprehend its meaning, we see an edit and process it as a shift in perspective within the same continuous fictional time and space, we hear music and situate it as either nondiegetic score or diegetic sound from within the scene. Such automatic processes of assumptions and inferences rely on cognitive schemata that viewers develop through accumulated experiences of consuming media, as well as norms of everyday perception and cognition. One strategy that complex television series can use to create greater narrative intrigue and engagement is to play with the boundaries of such preconscious schemata, pushing back against our normal viewing competencies to create interesting variations on expectations by relocating automatic inferences into the realm of conscious comprehension. For instance, Battlestar Galactica’s robotic Cylon race is comprised of only twelve humanoid prototypes, meaning that multiple characters are played by the same actor—viewers experience dissonance in our automatic facial recognition schemata, as we’re forced to consciously think about precisely which iteration of a Cylon character is being embodied in any given scene by actors Tricia Helfer and Grace Park.
Many narrative schemata are not based on everyday universals like language or facial recognition, but rather through the norms that television establishes as a medium. In Bordwell’s terms, these are extrinsic norms that pervade a medium to guide our comprehension process, including genre conventions, stylistic modes, and standard expectations for what a television series is supposed to do. Within American television, screen time is a powerful source of extrinsic norms, as we watch a program knowing full well that it is supposed last for a prescribed amount of time (typically 30 or 60 minutes) and will be interrupted by commercial breaks (unless it is on PBS, a premium cable channel, or DVD). Our moment-to-moment comprehension is framed by our perception of screen time, as the approaching end of an episode will frequently trigger expectations that particular plotlines will be resolved—or in the case of genres like soap operas and serialized thrillers, we anticipate a cliffhanger to motivate our desire to watch the next episode. While sometimes we feel like we “lose track of time” in a particularly compelling episode, at a preconscious level our comprehension processes maintain a sense of how far into an episode we are and approximately how much time remains. We use our sense of screen time to manage our expectations for upcoming plot points and pacing, following a set of guidelines that have developed through our accrued experiences of television watching. Shattering these established expectations can become particularly exciting or frustrating (or both), as with the moment when an episode ends with an unexpected “To Be Continued” graphic.
Serials establish their own intrinsic norms tied to a particular series as well, teaching viewers how to watch and what to expect from future episodes. We learn to parse Battlestar Galactica’s multiplying Cylon characters, to recognize The Office’s direct address interviews as part of a fictional documentary film, and to anticipate the death-of-the-week at the start of every Six Feet Under episode. As with extrinsic norms, an individual series can establish intrinsic norms to misdirect viewer assumptions, and then create pleasurable moments of confusion, surprise, and twisty trickery by revealing these machinations as a narrative special effect, as discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter. Lost is particularly adept at both creating and subverting such intrinsic norms—three seasons of character-centered flashbacks created a strong set of intrinsic norms that were used to fool viewers into a stunning surprise at the end of the third season by portraying a flash-forward to Jack’s post-island future masked as a pre-island flashback. The show then adopted flash-forwards as a new intrinsic norm for the fourth season, teaching viewers to watch episodes in a new way, as well as setting up new possibilities for narrative special effects. Season four’s “Ji Yeon,” centered on both Sun and Jin Kwon, offers a particularly interesting play with Lost’s intrinsic norms of temporality and character attachment. The “present-time” island plot focuses on Sun’s pregnancy and the couple’s relationship, intercut with off-island flashes to Sun going into labor, and Jin rushing through Seoul looking to purchase a baby gift and get to the hospital. The season’s intrinsic norms suggest we’re attached to the couple in a flash-forward having their child after they escape the island, but the end reveals that Jin’s attachment was in a flashback to pre-island life, getting the baby gift for a business associate—and the flash-forward to Sun’s delivery ends with the revelation that Jin is dead (or so she believes). As the only episode of the series that mixes types of off-island “flashes,” it plays upon our established expectations for Lost’s intrinsic norms, ending with a twist that both elicits the operational aesthetic and delivers an emotional punch about a character’s future death.
These examples of subverting norms of narrative comprehension point to an important strategy serial television uses to engage viewer attention and interest: shattering expectations by shifting comprehension processes from pre-conscious assumptions and inferences to conscious hypotheses. An established norm provides the answer to a question that we may not even be aware that we are asking—when are we in this character’s history? Why are we hearing this character’s thoughts? Using these norms allows for smooth comprehension that guides viewer understanding and expectations, but over the course of a long-running series, they can become overly predictable, stale, and repetitive. Serial narratives must strike a balance between familiarity and difference to keep viewers engaged, and shifting an assumed norm into the realm of consciousness can provide important variations. Such variations can play out on the level of an individual episode, as with examples of Buffy that shift genre norms or storytelling perspective, or provide a “reboot” to a program’s ongoing premise and storytelling mode as on Alias, Angel, and Chuck. On Lost, altering the norms of episodic structure and temporality starting with the shift to flash-forwards served to engage viewers by forcing us to make more active hypotheses within the operational realm—how do these narrative timeframes relate? As I have argued throughout this book, viewers engage with complex television through the operational aesthetic, which we can understand as the conscious accumulation, analysis, and hypothesizing of information concerning how the story is told. As discussed below, such operational engagement intersects with a range of other realms of narrative information.
One of the chief drives for narrative consumption is to increase our knowledge of a compelling story, learning more about characters, about relationships, about the world, about events both past and future, and about the operational storytelling itself through active hypothesizing and analysis of a story, especially an ongoing serial. Bordwell, following Meir Sternberg, calls the process of learning more about a narrative’s past curiosity hypotheses, as we are presented with gaps in the backstory that motivate further discovery, whether in the form of a mysterious illness, a character’s unstated motivations, or the causal events that led to the particular conditions of a storyworld like a political election, a romance, or an apocalypse. Curiosity questions can be posed explicitly, as with a murder mystery, or inferred implicitly, as with a character’s behavioral shift. As discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter, narrative enigmas emerge from such curiosity, where we hypothesize to fill-in the story gaps and speculate on what revelations might be revealed. Contemporary complex television can draw out curiosity over a longer span of screen time than in previous modes of primetime programming, as producers are much more willing to rely upon viewer memory and sustained interest as discussed below.
New bits of narrative information often help us answer lingering curiosity questions that viewers have been thinking about, filling in character backstories, vague gaps, or enigmatic mysteries by offering new or revised hypotheses. Lost certainly excels at this in drawing out such gaps over years, as with the question of how John Locke became paralyzed before arriving on the island, posed in the show’s fourth episode “Walkabout” and answered in its 62nd, “The Man From Tallahassee.” In rarer cases, new narrative information will create questions and resonant meanings retroactively, as we look back at what we thought we understood with automatic assumptions with a new layer of comprehension that prompts curiosity. Early in Revenge’s first season finale “Reckoning,” we are reminded that Emily’s mother had died when Emily was a child, and in her fight with a mysterious unnamed “white haired man,” he says, “You’re a hell of a fighter—you must have gotten that from your mother.” If you haven’t seen the program, this line raises the question “how does this man know Emily’s mother?”, but the scene’s context provides a more obvious understanding of the line—before the fight, Emily says, “I’m not here because of how my father was framed, I’m here because of how he died,” activating our established knowledge that this is the man who murdered her father. Within that context, we automatically infer that the man’s comment is an insult aimed at Emily’s father, not prompting us to even consider that he might know her mother—we assume “mother” signifies “not father” more than anything about her actual mother. But at the end of the episode, Emily learns that her mother is still alive and might be involved with this larger conspiracy—this new knowledge reframes this earlier inference which we probably did not even consider could be taken two ways (I certainly didn’t), suggesting that this man might know Emily’s mother’s fighting abilities first hand. Such moments of revelation and revision, transforming an invisible inference into a conscious curiosity question (how does the white-haired man know Emily’s mother?), contributes to the rewatchability of many complex serials, using our increased base of knowledge to increase our appreciation of foreshadowing or buried information, or perhaps encouraging a critical analysis of inconsistencies or discontinuity.
Backward-looking narrative enigmas are less common than narrative statements that propel the storytelling forward, prompting anticipation hypotheses about what might happen next. Sternberg uses suspense to refer to any such anticipated narrative outcome, but I prefer to reserve that term for its more common usage as a subset of anticipation hypotheses with potentially high-stakes results that run counter to viewer allegiances, but a low probability of occurring within the storyworld—can Walt and Jesse escape from Tuco in Breaking Bad’s episode “Grilled”? Will Jack Bauer rescue his kidnapped wife and daughter on 24? While at the operational level we know that our protagonists cannot die or profoundly fail to succeed, given the extrinsic norms of both television and most forms of popular storytelling, the storyworld’s scenario make us anticipate the more likely and undesirable outcome to create suspense in our imagined hypotheses of how things might turn out. But suspense is a special subset of a broader mode of narrative anticipation, where we react to a narrative statement by hypothesizing about what will happen next at both macro plot levels (will Kate choose romance with Jack or Sawyer on Lost?) and micro scene levels (how will D’Angelo react to learning of Wallace’s death on The Wire?). Serial narratives thrive by creating narrative statements that demand the next bit of information, inspiring our anticipatory hypothesizing about what might happen next to sustain us through the structured gaps between episodes.
Both curiosity and anticipation are emotional affects connected with the desire for more narrative information, with storytelling stakes resting on the drive toward discovery—when we talk about whether we “care” about a series, we are typically referring to whether we are curious about learning more about what has already happened or eagerly anticipate what is yet to come. (Of course when dealing with a series with complex temporality like Doctor Who or Lost, parsing the differences between curiosity toward the narrative past and anticipating the narrative future can be quite muddled, as one character’s past might be another’s future.) One of the challenges of such hypothesizing is that producers must balance between the need for plausibility, where the new information feels consistent and motivated within the storyworld, and unpredictability, where the revelations were not obvious to anyone who had bothered to hypothesize. Often programs strive for shocking twists and surprises through thwarted expectations, but those often feel inconsistent with what we’ve come to expect from the storyworld and the show’s operational norms—the ideal surprise is followed by a viewer thinking “I should have seen that coming,” suggesting unexpected but effective internal motivation. The American version of The Killing fell prey to these pitfalls in its first season, with numerous “red herring” suspects in the murder mystery that viewers could clearly see were not guilty, as well as surprising revelations that seemed unmotivated except as a tactic to surprise viewers; such weak surprises helped lead to a major backlash among fans and critics for what was perceived as an unmotivated season-ending twist. Serialized enigma-driven mysteries have a difficult time sustaining curiosity over long-term questions, and thus often resort to surprises that lose their impact if overused or unmotivated. As I will discuss below, even though surprises can seem like primary motivations for viewers, they can be thwarted without losing much narrative power.
As I have discussed throughout this book, many television viewers do not watch in individual isolation, but as part of viewing communities, often facilitated by fan cultures and online paratexts. Hypothesizing is a cognitive process enacted by individual viewers in the act of viewing, but such ideas and potential answers to narrative questions are frequently articulated within these fan communities, turning into the cultural practice of theorizing. Such theorizing takes place in numerous cultural realms, from interpersonal conversations on the couch within commercial breaks, to widely circulating websites discussed in the Orienting Paratexts chapter. There is a great deal of interplay between the internalized process of hypothesizing and the externalized cultural realm of theorizing, as a viewer will integrate the shared theories that they have read or heard from others into their own hypothesizing while watching (or rewatching) episodes. This interaction between individual cognitive activity and broader cultural circulation is a crucial facet of any attempt to understand the process of narrative comprehension, especially for a serialized narrative whose gaps invite viewers to speculate, theorize, and converse about a program—while there may be broadly shared commonalities of cognitive engagement, the actual experience of consuming a serial narrative is a highly contextualized practice and thus we must consider how such interpersonal discourses can help shape the comprehension process.
One mode of sharing narrative information that has become more prevalent in recent years are spoilers, which short-circuit the narrative information system by providing viewers advance knowledge of what is to come in a given series. Inadvertent spoilers proliferate in the online television viewing community, as people tweet about a show from American east coast hours before west coasters have a chance to see an episode, or viewers who watch programs online, recorded on DVRs, or on long delays outside of the United States must step lightly through the internet to avoid stumbling upon unwanted plot revelations. However, there is a class of viewers who actively seek such revelations ahead of time, as so-called “spoiler fans” frequent online sites that traffic in the black market of advance narrative information, with many treating embracing watching a program in a spoiled state as their normal mode of viewing. Jonathan Gray and I conducted audience research on this phenomenon, focusing on Lost spoiler fans via an online survey to try to root out why viewers would actively seek to consume such a serialized narrative in what seemed to be an aberrant manner. While we found no uniform answers that seem to apply for all spoiler fans, many respondents highlighted that knowing where the plot is going heightens their attention to other modes of engagement, focused on the “how” and “why” of the storytelling as well as the operational aesthetic of how the story is being told, mirroring the experience of rewatching a program. Spoiler fans effectively dictate the terms of their narrative anticipation, exchanging some anticipation about uncertain narrative futures as designed by producers into anticipatory curiosity (with the spoiled information serving almost as flash-forwarded story information) connecting the dots to the spoiled event. Additionally, some spoiler fans sought out narrative information as a way to control their emotional responses, avoiding surprises or preparing for disappointments about the fate of beloved characters, as well as filling the anticipatory gap between episodes by revealing story information in advance.
One interesting question about spoiled viewings is to what degree suspense might still be available, especially given that the majority of Lost viewers we surveyed claimed to enjoy the show’s suspenseful storytelling. Bordwell suggests that even though suspense involves the anticipation of narrative events, we still experience suspense for a narrative outcome that know is coming, whether in historical fiction portraying a real-life event or in rewatching a film, because emotional responses to suspense are partly involuntary “bottom-up” phenomena as well as based on the information processing model of anticipating undesirable outcomes. Such innate emotional responses to suspenseful stories can withstand the advanced knowledge provided by spoilers, as the tension derives more from how events will play out toward their known outcome rather than the unpredictability of the outcome itself. Seymour Chatman argues this point by quoting Alfred Hitchcock, who suggests that suspense generates from the audience’s inability to reveal crucial information to sympathetic characters, and offers what might be a mantra for spoiler fans: “For that reason I believe in giving the audience all the facts as early as possible.” Thus spoilers can ratchet up the anticipation that fuels suspense by pointing toward an inevitable outcome, but we must remember that narrative outcomes are often well-known regardless of whether it is spoiled or not—viewers draw upon operational expertise and awareness of storytelling norms to be assured that protagonists are safe from mortal harm, that mysteries will be solved, or other conventions that are rarely violated.
We can compare how viewers with different narrative knowledge might watch the same sequence using the climax of Veronica Mars’s first season finale, “Leave it to Beaver.” Veronica has solved the season-long mystery of who killed her best friend Lily (which I will leave unrevealed here to avoid inadvertent spoilers), but has been trapped in an outdoor chest freezer by the murderer who is threatening to let her die in a spreading fire if she doesn’t hand over evidence. Will her father Keith come to her rescue before she is burned alive? Will the killer be captured or escape? A “fresh viewer” comes to the episode unspoiled, with no insider knowledge of what happens next, experiencing the story which proceeds down an unknown path as designed by the show’s producers. But how uncertain are such story events in most films or television shows? Genres have established storytelling norms that are rarely broken—in a slasher film we know early on which characters are likely to be killed and who will be the “last girl” standing; in a mystery we expect seemingly “unexpected” revelations and twists. As discussed in the Character chapter, television series have industrial norms that impact narratives, making it highly unlikely that the lead character will be killed or seriously hurt, especially when the show is named after her! Thus within the storyworld, the odds are stacked against Veronica’s survival, which leads to suspense, but viewers know that they are watching televised fiction, not experiencing the storyworld directly. Savvy viewers realize that the storytelling odds are actually reversed: Veronica’s escape from peril is all but assured, making the dreaded outcome of Veronica’s death highly unlikely. The typical fresh viewer, especially for an ongoing serial demanding dedicated viewing, does not approach a new episode naively nor treat the fictional world as if it were real, but watches with a set of operational expectations that point toward likely outcome as they typically play out on television. This viewer watches the scene with minimal uncertainty as to the outcome, quite confident that Veronica will ultimately survive and justice will be served, with the unknowns clustered around how exactly the inevitable resolution will play out.
A spoiler fan would come to this episode knowing that Veronica survives and that the killer is captured, analogous to Bordwell’s example of watching historical fiction like United 93 where we know the climactic end before we begin. The spoiled viewer approaches the episode with far less uncertainty than the fresh viewer, as any surprises from unexpected twists (like the specific identity of the killer) are gone. But in Veronica’s moment of peril, a spoiled viewer’s expectations are not drastically different: Veronica will survive, but precisely how her escape will unfold are uncertain. According to Hitchcock, suspense comes from being unable to intervene in the storyworld, a position that all viewers share regardless of their spoiled status. But there is another level as well here, as Hitchcock’s expertise was in how he revealed his story points, not the narrative information itself, with the elements that trigger suspense found less in narrative events than in their telling, the expressive cues that elicit emotional reactions such as music, camera angles, and facial expressions. This is why a potentially suspenseful series of events can be narrated in a way that undermines suspense (as in most chase cartoons), and a seemingly non-suspenseful set of events can be told to create suspense (the red herring moments of many horror films)—such emotional reactions stem more from how a story is told, rather than what actually happens in the story. Both fresh and spoiled viewers experience the narrative discourse for the first time, even if the spoiled viewer has more confidence in what events will occur; however, both viewers share the same uncertainty in how the events will be narrated and what cues will be presented, experiencing suspense from these cues in mostly similar ways.
The third type of viewer is the rewatcher, somebody reliving the narrative experience through repeated viewings, a practice that is certainly quite common in the era of TV-on-DVD just as it was in the era of ubiquitous reruns for many series. The rewatcher shares the spoiled viewer’s knowledge of the narrative events to come, but also knows how those narrative events will operationally unfold through the specific telling; yet according to Bordwell, a rewatcher still experiences suspense through the familiar but powerful emotional cues of the storytelling. On multiple viewings, a rewatcher will still be enthralled by the suspense of Veronica’s jeopardy, but also be more attentive to how that tension is being generated through cross-cutting between scenes and musical cues, as well as thinking about the way that the entire season led up to this climactic showdown with foreshadowing and anticipatory character seeds. A rewatcher’s anticipation is inflected with imperfect memory, as our memories are rarely sufficiently exact to precisely match our anticipation. Thus rewatchers actively compare the unfolding show with their memories, resulting in minor surprises and moments of recognition alongside larger feelings of anticipation; this creates a playful engagement with past experiences, adding another layer of viewing pleasure to rewatching. Both spoiled viewers and rewatchers can use their knowledge of the story to focus their attention on the narrative discourse, absorbing and enjoying how the story is operationally told and the subsequent emotions that the telling stimulates. Lost’s spoiler fans wrote that they used their foreknowledge of narrative events to focus on textual details, subtleties of performance, stylistic flourishes, and foreshadowed clues. Thus by knowing the story ahead of time, spoiler fans and rewatchers both approach an episode like a critic, simultaneously experiencing and analyzing a text, foregrounding the operational aesthetic that is often prominent within complex television series.
Another important variable concerns how viewers reconcile their own narrative knowledge with the information that characters seem to possess. We can consider a series as exhibiting varying degrees of openness with its narrative information, offering more or less range, depth, and communicativeness of knowledge. These variables often connect with specific characters, charting how many characters’ we share information with, how much access we have to character interiority and backstory, and how much characters seem to be withholding from viewers, all issues discussed more in the Character chapter. We can see these variables played out over the course of a long arc, using Dexter’s first season as a brief case study. We are tightly aligned with Dexter Morgan, seeing what he sees, hearing his thoughts in voiceover, sharing his secrets and discoveries, and rarely learning more than what he knows. In the pilot episode, we witness his secret life as a serial killer, learn of the code he follows per his adoptive father Harry, and are introduced to every other character from his perspective, via a narration that appears to offer limited range but high depth and communicativeness. The pilot also sets up the season-long arc, with the “Ice Truck Killer” making his presence known in Miami by signaling Dexter directly, suggesting that Dexter’s secret is not safe —the enigma of the killer’s identity and his connection to Dexter align us with the main character, as we share identical gaps in knowledge and the resulting curiosity. While the narrative range expands somewhat in subsequent episodes to include scenes of the secondary characters without Dexter, especially his sister Debra, for the most part all of our significant new information, curiosity, and anticipation directly parallels Dexter’s.
This tight alignment shifts in episode 8, “Shrink Wrap,” when we learn that Rudy, Debra’s new boyfriend whom we met in the seventh episode but know little about, is the Ice Truck Killer. In the subsequent episodes, Rudy seems creepily obsessed with Dexter for reasons that only we understand (at least partially). This shift in knowledge alters the narrative intrigue away from the curiosity question of the killer’s identity, and toward issues of why and what will happen down the road—by allowing us to know more about Rudy than Dexter or Debra do, we start to anticipate their potential jeopardy and seeing hidden motivations in Rudy’s behavior. This dynamic is especially effective in episode 9, “Father Knows Best,” when Dexter discovers that his biological father left him a house and he travels there to uncover pieces of his past. Rudy convinces Deb to join Dexter, and we watch Rudy insert himself into Dexter’s emotional life, building on the established game that the two killers have been playing which we link to Rudy but Dexter does not. We watch these episodes with the assumption that we have the essential knowledge about Rudy and his twisted motivation, and that our position as more knowledgeable than Dexter provides anticipatory pleasures, expecting the emotional and violent payoff when Dexter discovers that the killer has been lurking around his sister. The season finale, “Born Free,” does pay off this anticipation, but raises the stakes even more when we learn that Rudy and Dexter are long-separated brothers, a revelation that pulls all of the Ice Truck Killer’s actions into focus, providing clear motivation as to why he was tweaking Dexter’s past and repressed memories, and how he knew more than Dexter himself did. Dexter uses these differentials in narrative knowledge to drive the serial narrative forward via suspense, anticipation, and curiosity.
However, the revelation of Rudy and Dexter’s shared parentage is more complex than just a surprise twist, as it turns our focus backwards toward the mechanics of storytelling that drive the narrative, shifting focus on the characters and their relationship that gain more depth and complexity in light of this new knowledge. The last half of the final episode plays out the inner conflict that Dexter feels between his monstrous nature, represented by his fellow traumatized brother, and his socialized code, fostered by Harry and Debra and their shared profession as police. In conjunction with the tremendous lead performance of Michael C. Hall, the episode pays off the big twist by focusing inward into Dexter’s damaged psyche, with subsequent events resolving this conflict, at least temporarily. But with this revelation in mind, previous narrative events take on a new light that would only be visible to spoiled viewers, rewatchers, or viewers familiar with the novel that the series is based upon. In “Father Knows Best,” when Dexter goes to sort through his biological father’s house, Rudy is also visiting his own familial past. On first viewing, we know that Rudy was manipulating Dexter in ways that place us in a more knowledgable position than the lead character, but only after completing the season can we see ramifications of the crucial bit of narrative knowledge that only Rudy knew at that moment. Dexter doesn’t call attention to this revelation, offering no introspective moment of Dexter putting together the pieces of his and Rudy’s shared past; instead, the show rewards viewers for continued contemplation into the gap between seasons or for rewatching, creating an opportunity for making pleasurable narrative connections on our own that feels more earned than had we watched Dexter come to the same conclusions himself. But to make such connections, serial television must rely upon and trigger viewer memory, a complex topic on its own.
The Mechanics of Serial Memory
Complex television, requiring viewer effort and attention for ongoing comprehension, strategically triggers, confounds, and plays with viewers’ memories, leading to medium-specific poetic techniques. For instance, cinematic narratives typically engage a viewer’s short-term memory, cuing and obscuring moments from within the controlled unfolding of a two-hour feature film, while literature designs its stories to be consumed at the reader’s own pace and control, allowing for an on-demand return to previous pages as needed. The typical model of television consumption, divided into weekly episodes and annual seasons, constrains producers interested in telling stories that transcend individual installments, as any viewer’s memory of previous episodes is quite variable, with a significant number of viewers having missed numerous episodes altogether. If the characters and events in the storyworld have internal coherence and continuity, then viewers need to follow along with the expansive narrative universe. When a series is told over a period of months and years, this becomes a challenge for storytellers to manage the mechanics of memory. As discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter, shifts in technologies and viewing practices have made binge and marathon viewing more common, providing a competing pressure for serials to avoid redundancies and repetitions that become annoying and excessively obvious when viewed without the serial gaps between episodes. Viewers also vary as to what paratextual expansion they explore, where some read reviews, participate in fan forums, and other participatory cultural sites that keep memories fresh in their minds, while others may not think at all about a show until the next episode airs. Thus the long arcs of complex television must balance the memory demands of a wide range of viewers and reception contexts.
Similarly, individual episodes need to manage our short-term memory of events that roll out over the course of the episode along with the longer term serialized recall from weeks, months, or even years beforehand. While the stereotype of the distracted television glance is less relevant today, especially concerning demanding and slow-paced narratives like The Wire or Mad Men that might take years to payoff long dormant story threads, producers still need to create programs for a domestic environment that is prone to split attention and multitasking viewers more than for many other media. Over the course of an episode, television narratives embed minor redundancies that remind viewers of key story information, ranging from establishing shots locating a scene’s setting to dialogue repeating characters’ names and relationships. Soap operas rely upon a common device for redundant narration that both facilitates viewer recall and offers the pleasure of watching character reactions to past events: diegetic retelling, where character dialogue reminds viewers of what has already happened on the series. Prime time serials are far less dependent on the dialogue-based practice of diegetic retelling as a core narrative pleasure than daytime soaps, but characters still call each other by name and reference their relationships more frequently than in everyday life, using dialogue as a way to keep crucial character information active in our minds. Often past events are retold to new characters both to update them on the status of a situation and to remind us of what we have already seen. For a typical instance, early in Lost’s fourth season episode “Cabin Fever,” a scene shows mercenary leader Keamy arriving via helicopter on a freighter with an injured man. The ship’s doctor asks, “What did this to him?” Keamy replies, “A black pillar of smoke threw him 50 feet in the air… ripped his guts out,” retelling an event spectacularly portrayed two episodes earlier in “The Shape of Things to Come.” While anyone who saw the previous episode was unlikely to have forgotten the source of the injury, this diegetic retelling reminds us of the events via naturalistic dialogue and reinforces what we have already previously seen.
This example points to an important concept for understanding how viewers make sense of ongoing serials. At this point in Lost’s run, a dedicated viewer would have watched 79 episodes over the course of four years, creating a vast array of narrative information to retain and recall. Even the most attentive and intent viewer could not possibly have all of that narrative information active in her operative working memory―most of the story information she has retained would be archived in long-term memory. When a character’s dialogue uses diegetic retelling, the viewer activates that bit of story information into working memory, making it part of her immediate narrative comprehension. While certainly some viewers might have been actively thinking about the smoke monster’s attack from two weeks earlier when starting “Cabin Fever,” this diegetic retelling ensures that everyone has this context active in working memory while watching the rest of the episode, as subsequent events build upon this past event to motivate Keamy’s actions to find his betrayer and return to the island.
Diegetic retelling typically uses dialogue as a means to activate past events into working memory, but more subtle visual cues like objects, setting, or shot composition can serve a similar function to activate long-term memories. For instance, in the third season Battlestar Galactica episode “Maelstrom,” pilot Kara Thrace gives Admiral William Adama a figurine of a goddess to use as a masthead for his model ship; at the end of that episode, Adama destroys the model out of grief when Thrace’s ship appears to be destroyed in a fatal crash. In the next season’s episode “Six of One,” Adama is shown rebuilding the model after Thrace has seemingly returned from the grave. Lingering shots of the figurine and ship activate memories of the earlier episode, adding resonance to these characters’ relationship and the mysterious circumstances of Thrace’s survival, but without the explicit expository function of dialog. Typically, visual cues are more subtle than dialog, functioning less to catch-up viewers who might have missed an episode than integrating past events into a naturalistic style of moving image storytelling that still works to activate viewer memories.
While diegetic strategies of dialog and visual cues are a primary means for activating viewer memories, many programs use non-naturalistic techniques to trigger recall. The use of voiceover is a common way to convey story information via a more self-conscious mode of narration. While many writers condemn voiceover as overly literary and a lazy tool for film and television, it can be used effectively in certain genres like detective shows or sitcoms, serving to both guide viewers within the narrative world and offer a distinctive personality to the storytelling. As discussed in the Beginnings chapter, the film noir infused teen drama Veronica Mars uses often sarcastic first-person voiceover narration by the titular character to both keep viewers on track with the complex story and convey the character’s perspective on narrative events. For instance, in the first season episode “Silence of the Lamb,” Veronica is helping her friend Mac grapple with the discovery that she was switched at birth with another baby. Veronica’s voiceover narration intones, “I could tell Mac I know how she feels, but the truth is, I don’t. When I had the opportunity to learn my paternity, I chose blissful ignorance with a side of gnawing doubt.” This reference to Veronica’s paternity refers to an event from two episodes earlier, as Veronica discovered that her mother had been unfaithful and she ordered a kit to test her father’s DNA, but decided not to go through with the test. While Veronica’s mysterious parentage does not become a significant plot point until later in the season, recalling this previous event helps viewers draw parallels between Mac and Veronica, and colors with way that Veronica and her father interact later in the episode.
Voiceover narration can also resemble the more literary model of third-person omniscient storytellers. Such narrators typically act only to frame a story, as in Rod Serling’s opening and closing narration on the 1960s science-fiction anthology series The Twilight Zone, but some recent series have played with third-person voiceover narration as a self-conscious device. Pushing Daisies, a whimsical cross between fantasy romance and detective fiction, uses the voice of Jim Dale, recognizable as the reader of the Harry Potter audiobooks, as an omniscient narrator to both present new story information and remind us of past events. In episode seven, “Smell of Success,” the narrator comments, “Chuck continued to keep the secret ingredient of her pies secret. Not even Olive Snook knew the baked secret she delivered contained homeopathic mood-enhancers meant to pry Chuck’s aunts out of their funk.” This voiceover reminds us of a plot development introduced four episodes earlier, while also orienting us as to who knows what about the secret pie ingredient. Given Pushing Daisies’ highly elaborate narrative mechanics and fanciful storyworld, the omniscient narrator’s storybook style, as reinforced by the intertextual link to Harry Potter, functions both to manage memories and promote a self-conscious playful tone. The third-person voiceover found in the farcical sitcom Arrested Development is even more playful, with producer Ron Howard narrating the action about a dysfunctional wealthy family as if he is providing deadpan commentary within a nature documentary. Howard’s narration fills in gaps and moves the story forward, allowing the fast-paced show to cover an astounding amount of story in a half-hour. The narrator frequently provides clarifying references to a previous episode―in the second season episode, “The One Where They Build a House,” aspiring actor Tobias appears with blue paint on his ear, leading Howard to clarify, “Tobias had recently auditioned as an understudy for the silent performance-art trio, the Blue Man Group,” an event that occurred in the previous episode. Howard’s deadpan narration often serves to humorously undercut or comment on the character’s action, providing narrative momentum, clarifying recall, and comedic density.
Arrested Development’s narration highlights how moving image media rely on more than just language to manage memory―often the narrator’s comments are accompanied by images and scenes to further trigger memories and move the narrative forward. Following the comment on Tobias and the Blue Man Group, the scene shifts to a flashback of Tobias auditioning for the part. While this references an event that happened over the course of the previous episode, this scene was never shown, making it a flashback within the storyworld but adding new narrative information beyond just triggering recall. Arrested Development uses more than flashback scenes to retell past events, relying on a number of pseudo-documentary techniques for comedic effect. Later in the same episode, Michael and his son are talking about how he is no longer in charge of the family company. Howard’s narration reminds us of another event from the previous episode: “In fact, since Michael’s father escaped from prison, his brother G.O.B. had been made president.” The visuals cut to a shot of a newspaper reporting both the prison escape (complete with still photo taken from the previous episode) and the leadership succession. The scene then shifts to a conversation between Michael and G.O.B., in which they recount the events that led to G.O.B.’s presidency and the accompanying criminal investigation, all framed with the running gag of Michael disingenuously saying, “I have no problem with that,” which is even quoted in the newspaper. The effect of these narrative strategies is to combine a range of ways to prompt viewer recall while maintaining a humorous tone through running gags and self-conscious style.
Since narration is not necessarily verbal in moving image media, other techniques can retell information aside from voiceover. Flashbacks are a common technique to incorporate previous events into an episode, and like voiceover, they can follow first or third-person focalization. A first-person subjective flashback is more common, presenting a character’s memories as cued by suggestive close-ups, subjective visuals, and special effects. For instance, in the season four Battlestar Galactica episode, “Guess What’s Coming To Dinner,” Cylon leader Natalie tells a group of humans that being rescued by Kara Thrace was their destiny. Kara watches the speech as the image begins to blur and break-up, leading into a subjective flashback of Kara being told that she is the “harbinger of death” in the previous episode. While this was an important prophecy that viewers are likely to recall, the explicit flashback both activates the memory and highlights its importance to Kara in imagining her own role in the battle between humans and Cylons. Reinforcing this dialogue by re-showing the scene via flashback makes it more prominent in the long-term mythology, which proves to be a central narrative concern in the program’s final season. Such glimpses of character’s memories via flashbacks are a common cue to trigger a viewer’s own memories, promote empathy with a main character, and frame our comprehension of an upcoming set of events. Flashbacks can be paired with voiceover narration as a way of visualizing a narrator’s memories. Veronica Mars frequently uses this device, as we see bits from Veronica’s memories and clues about a lengthy mystery, often that we witness multiple times throughout a season. Comedies can use a similar technique, such as on My Name Is Earl, where Earl will reference a minor character we’ve met previously, and narrate a flashback comprised of earlier appearances and footage. In these instances, the voiceover typically serves as a determining thread of knowledge, framing previous scenes and cuing the relevant memories of earlier events and relationships as needed to advance the ongoing story.
Flashbacks presented from a more objective third-person perspective, or what we might call replays, are more commonly used as a way to fill in backstory rather than triggering memories―series like Lost, Jack and Bobby, and Boomtown use atemporal storytelling to craft their complex narratives, but their flashbacks are rarely used to present memories rather than new narrative material. Flashbacks of previously-seen events that are not framed as character memories are quite uncommon. Crime shows like C.S.I. often use replays in the context of retelling the previously-seen crime scene, but present new narrative information in the retelling, making the flashback less about memory than gap-filling. Legal thriller Damages and hostage drama The Nine both use complex atemporal structures to narrate their core crime stories, portraying previous events repeatedly throughout the season and adding more information each time to string together a new storythread―again, this model of repetition is more about filling in gaps in multiple timelines rather than reminding us what we might have forgotten. Matt Hills discusses such objective flashbacks in the most recent version of the British science-fiction series Doctor Who, but suggests that they function more to invite new viewers into the complex narrative rather refresh the memories of long-term fans. An exceptional example of a memory-driven replay came at the end of Lost’s final season episode “Across the Sea.” The episode takes place entirely in ancient times to tell the origin story for The Man in Black and Jacob, concluding with Jacob placing his mother and brother’s bodies in a cave; this final scene is intercut with a replayed scene from the first season episode, “House of the Rising Sun,” portraying Jack, Kate, and Locke finding the bodies in 2004. The producers have said the replay was not included to remind viewers about the bodies known for years as “Adam and Eve,” but instead to connect the ancient plotline to the lives of the main characters; however, the backlash from fans suggests that the atypical device felt too obvious and redundant to warrant this violation of the show’s intrinsic storytelling norms.
A more common place to see such replays is reality television, where we often are shown earlier scenes and moments to refresh our memories of previous events and heighten the dramatic stakes. Within fictional television, the most common examples of objective replays triggering memories might be within comedies. One recent trend has been the rise of the cutaway aside as a comedic technique, commonly found in animated series like Family Guy or single-camera sitcoms like Scrubs. Such asides frequently cutaway from the main action, to counter or comment on whatever just happened in the story, to an often random vignette featuring fantasy sequences, unknown moments from a character’s past, or replays from past episodes. An example of the latter comes from “Kidney Now,” a third season episode of 30 Rock. Tracy tells Kenneth that he never cries, which triggers a cutaway to a montage of six moments from previous episodes showing Tracy crying. The sequence is certainly functions as a comedic aside, but also builds upon our memories of Tracy’s frequent crying jags that counters Tracy’s own statement. However, the paucity of relevant examples suggests that replays are a comparatively less utilized strategy to promote memory recall.
Thus far, the strategies of triggering memories I have discussed all occur within diegetic narration, but television has also adopted a number of strategies outside of the core storytelling text to help manage memories. Most notably, contemporary serials typically air a brief recap before each episode to summarize key events “previously on” the series. These recaps are generally crafted by producers, choosing key moments that they believe vital to refresh viewers’ memories for upcoming storylines and to enable new viewers to get on board with the series. While they are designed for the weekly original airings, recaps often do get included on DVDs, with some series offering the option of viewing each episode with or without recaps, while others leave them integrated into the core episode. The presence or absence of recaps can drastically change the way episodes are consumed and comprehended.
Most recaps highlight the upcoming episode’s most pertinent narrative information. For instance, the Veronica Mars episode “Silence of the Lamb,” replays three brief scenes in the recap, drawing from three different episodes, ranging back over nine weeks. The scenes capture highly expository moments―first is a two-line exchange between Veronica’s father and former sheriff Keith Mars and his successor Lamb, discussing the season-long murder mystery of Lily Kane. Next is the scene where Veronica and Mac meet, setting up Mac’s role in this episode’s primary plot. Finally, shots of Veronica investigating her mother’s past are overlaid with a voice-over explaining the contested paternity, which sets up the secondary plot of this episode. In just 30 seconds, the show triggers which long-term plotlines need to be activated into working memory to comprehend this episode’s developments. However, these clips would mean almost nothing to someone who had not seen most of the previous episodes, as the snippets are far too minimal to actually provide adequate exposition for new viewers. Just as notable is what the recap omits, with no reference to major characters Logan and Duncan—these characters do not appear in this episode, and thus can stay archived in long-term memory.
Recaps can serve more expository roles, especially early in a series run. Dexter’s second episode features a two-minute recap, culled exclusively from the 52-minute pilot. This recap functions as a summary of the pilot, providing glimpses of each main character, highlighting the core narrative scenario of a serial killer working for the Miami Police Department, and establishing the ongoing arc of Dexter’s pursuit of another serial killer. While it might be a bit confusing, it would certainly be possible to watch the series without viewing the pilot, filling in narrative gaps solely from this recap and other internal redundancies. For viewers who had seen the pilot (especially in the short-order of a DVD viewing), the recap seems quite redundant, offering little to cue memories aside from character names―the core narrative situation of a serial killer working as a forensic investigator is sufficiently memorable as to not need refreshing, as simply thinking about the name of the show would likely activate that basic narrative memory. The recap from Dexter’s first season finale is much more in keeping with the memory-refreshing role typically found later in a season. The 1:45 recap contains clips from many of the previous 11 episodes, and presents them in such quick succession that they would be incomprehensible to a new viewer. For ongoing viewers, however, the flashes of clues remind us of how far Dexter had gotten in his pursuit of the Ice Truck Killer, and the final shots of his sister in peril refreshes the cliffhanger from the previous episode. The recap also focuses on the stabbing of police office Angel from episode 10, which becomes a major plot point in the finale. More than anything, recaps like this one serve to filter previous hours of story information that an ongoing viewer accrues, activating the most crucial bits of narrative into working memory while allowing other moments that will not become relevant in the upcoming episode to continue to reside in the archives of long-term memory.
Recaps can trigger long dormant memories which might work to foreshadow upcoming narrative events. Often in complex narratives, a recap will remind viewers of a key mystery or enigma that has receded to the background in recent serialized episodes. In the first season of Lost, castaway Sayid is attacked and knocked unconscious while trying to use radio equipment to send a message off the island in the show’s seventh episode, “The Moth.” Sayid recovers in the following episode, but it is left uncertain as to who attacked him, going unmentioned for numerous episodes. In Lost’s 21st episode, “The Greater Good,” the recap replays this scene that had first been seen five months earlier, suggesting (correctly) that this dormant question as to who attacked Sayid would finally be addressed. While different viewers might have varying investments on that particular mystery, Lost had introduced so many burning questions and enigmas over the months between these two episodes, it seems fair to say that without this recap, the mystery over Sayid’s attack would be fairly unlikely to be active within most viewers’ working memories, even if binge viewing in rapid succession. The recap plays the scene again to encourage viewers to remember this lingering question, rekindle the anticipation of an answer, and trigger the narrative satisfaction of its forthcoming resolution.
Sometimes a recap can trigger memories beyond dormant questions, highlighting important character backstories or relationships instead. For instance, the recap before the fourth season Battlestar Galactica episode “Escape Velocity,” includes a scene from the third season episode “Exodus (part II)” featuring the death of Ellen Tigh, wife of Colonel Sol Tigh. The gap between the original airdates of these episodes was over 18 months, marking this scene’s presence in the recap as unusual―at the time I first saw it, I hypothesized that the inclusion of Ellen’s death in the recap must mean that she’ll reappear in some fashion in the episode. That prediction proved correct, as Sol Tigh begins to hallucinate visions of Ellen, a connection that proves to be even more significant in the series mythology later in the season. The recap effectively reminded me about Ellen, who had certainly receded from my active memory, but also made her reappearance more predictable than it would have been within the diegetic narrative without the recap. Viewers watching the series on DVD or DVR might choose to fast-forward through the recaps, which might make Ellen’s reappearance prompt confusion or surprise, two reactions mitigated by her presence in the recap. For those who saw the recap, Ellen’s reappearance was presaged in a manner analogous to spoilers, making us anticipate her reappearance even without knowledge of how or why she would be back from the dead. Clearly recaps must balance between the dual demands of activating memories for comprehension and avoiding foreshadowing to allow for surprise to register for viewers without being confusing; creators have devised a number of strategies for avoiding such recap spoilers.
One option is the use of diegetic flashbacks to serve as embedded recaps for viewers in the moment of the surprise itself. “Daybreak,” the series finale of Battlestar Galactica offers a good (if convoluted) example. Five characters agree to share in a complicated technological process that will share their memories with each other to facilitate a peace agreement between the warring Cylons and humans. Prior to the procedure, Tory mentions that they may discover shameful things in their pasts, a protest that another character brushes aside. During the procedure, we glimpse memories in the form of flashbacks of some key moments from each character. Among these events, we see Tory confronting Cally, the late wife of Galen, another character in the memory exchange. Galen starts to focus on these memories, and we witness a replay of Tory’s murder of Cally from “The Ties That Bind,” which had originally aired 11 months before “Daybreak”; this revelation triggers Galen to break from the procedure and strangle Tory. Producer Ron Moore stated in his commentary track that they intentionally “buried” the storyline of Cally’s murder, waiting for the climactic moment to payoff Galen’s revenge with high narrative stakes in the finale. Notably, the recap for “Daybreak” contains no reference to Cally or the murder, allowing the viewer to experience the rekindled memory along with Galen’s realization. While a dedicated viewer certainly could have recalled that Tory had murdered Cally without getting caught, it was far from active memory after 11 months and many subsequent plot machinations—viewers later watching the series on DVD would have a more compressed experience, and thus would be more likely to have the lingering plot point fresh within their minds. But for me and some other viewers in the original screen timeline whom I spoke with, the revelation prompted a gradual surprising realization that Galen will witness his wife’s murder and the shock of his reaction. Had the recap reminded us about the murder, we would have been better able to anticipate the result of the memory meld, defusing a moment of high drama. The effect of such revelations might be called surprise memory, or the moment of being surprised by story information that you already know, but don’t have within working memory.
Surprise memory need not be triggered by a flashback. In the fourth season episode of Lost, “Cabin Fever,” which notably aired without a “previously on Lost” recap, castaway Claire awakens in the jungle to discover that her infant son is not with her. She looks around for him, and we see Christian Shephard holding him. Claire looks at him with confusion and says, “Dad?” right before we cut to commercial. It had been revealed via off-island flashback that Christian, who was introduced as main character Jack’s father in the first season, was also Claire’s father in the third season episode “Par Avion,” but that relationship had not been actively referenced for over 10 months of screen time. While it is surprising enough to see Christian in the woods (especially given that he is dead and previously had only appeared on the island as a mysterious apparition for Jack!), the average viewer would not likely have his identity as Claire’s father in working memory until she calls him Dad, prompting this satisfying moment of surprise memory, highlighting the importance of working memory for storytelling practice. When a long-term viewer has accrued a large amount of story information, a storyteller can guide emotional reactions based on what is in working memory―a show might highlight particular relationships and connections within working memory, or prompt surprise or suspense via elements buried in long-term memory. The feeling of being surprised through the act of remembering is quite pleasurable, rewarding the long-term viewer’s knowledge base while provoking the flood of recognition stemming from the activation of such memories. Such pleasures are hard to imagine working in non-serialized formats, as the shorter-term forms of cinema or novels do not allow sufficient time over the course of narrative consumption to enable the process of archiving, forgetting, and reactivation needed to be surprised by your own memory.
One additional source of memory within television episodes can be the credit sequence. Such sequences vary greatly in form and scope, from brief title cards on Lost or Breaking Bad, to two-minute montage sequences on Deadwood or Veronica Mars. Some title sequences use footage outside the main narrative, as with Tony’s drive from New York City to his suburban house on the gangster drama The Sopranos, with the sequence working to emphasize the program’s setting and milieu, or Dexter’s visually stylized images of the title character preparing to go to work, highlighting the theme of finding the gruesome within the mundane. Many longer title sequences include images from the series itself, which for both episodic and serialized shows can evoke fond character moments, as with Friends or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each season of The Wire offers a new montage of images of Baltimore and from narrative moments of the series, most of which have little explicit resonance within the story, but some images do trigger particular memories. For instance, season four’s credits includes a brief close-up of an unidentified man putting a lollypop into his pocket. For the first four episodes, this image bears no real meaning, and seems out of place next to images of criminals, cops, and kids on the street. In the season’s fourth episode, “Refugees,” we see the image in context, as crime boss Marlo pickpockets the lollypop in an act of petty crime aimed to openly mock a security guard, who is later killed for daring to confront Marlo about shoplifting. For the rest of the season, this repeated image in the credits serves as a reminder of Marlo’s arrogance and cold-blooded lust for power, highlighting how he might do anything to climb the ranks of Baltimore’s drug game and build his reputation. Through this repetition and constant reminder, we keep this minor action in working memory, consistently shading Marlo’s character.
As I have argued throughout, the process of consuming television narratives plays out in a broader context than the singular television text itself, and thus the television industry has devised a number of extra-textual means of helping manage viewer memory. One longstanding tradition is the rerun—for decades, networks typically played each episode of a season twice throughout the year, filling in off-times with earlier episodes. These network reruns have become less common in the 2000s, especially with DVD, DVR, and online video as methods for viewers to rewatch or catch-up on missed episodes. Lost aired with reruns over the summer and during breaks from new episodes in its first two seasons, but ABC ceased this practice in later seasons. Instead, Lost and other network shows took a page from cable channels, showing the same episode multiple times throughout the week of its first run, a scheduling practice allowing viewers to refresh their memories, take a closer look at an episode during the week’s gap, or catch-up on missed material. Lost used these multiple airings to offer so-called “enhanced versions” of episodes after the initial airing—these versions add caption annotations to clarify references and previous events. For instance, in “Something Nice Back Home” when Claire encounters Christian, the captions read: “Christian Shepard is also Claire’s father, making Jack and Claire half-brother and sister, though neither one of them know it.” Such comments can certainly help refresh memories for viewers, but most diehard fans report dissatisfaction with the “enhanced” experience for being too obvious, literal, or trivial in its annotations.
More commonly, serialized programs use paratexts to refresh memories and orient new viewers. ABC aired fourteen hour-long compilation shows over the course of Lost’s six seasons, with each show replaying key moments from the series along with voice-over narration retelling the narrative. Battlestar Galactica and The Wire, among others, aired similar recap compilation shows before the start of new seasons to refresh viewer memories and invite new viewers. Compilation shows, like recaps, are quite strategic in their summaries, selecting plot threads with continued relevancy while ignoring storylines that have been resolved and made dormant within the ongoing narrative. The rise of online video has enabled a number of other strategies for recapping. Some networks, channels, and programs have created “minisodes” briefly summing up previous episodes, such as NBC’s online-only “2 Minute Replays,” or Rescue Me’s “3 Minute Replays” that could be seen both online and on cable channel FX. Such replays probably function more to allow viewers who missed episodes to fill gaps, but they could also serve as memory refreshers like pre-show recaps; however, such replays are more designed to retell the entire episode rather than strategically present key story information for the upcoming episode.
An interesting trend emerged in 2007 with the popular YouTube video “The Seven Minute Sopranos.” A high-speed recap of the previous five and a half seasons in advance of the final episodes, the humorous but affectionate fan-created video garnered over a million views and successfully promoted the final season. Producers took note of the success, and enlisted marketers to create similarly glib online recaps, such as “Lost in 8:15” and “What the frak is going on?” for Battlestar Galactica. These humorous recaps are designed for long-term fans as affectionate parodies, but they also function to effectively remind viewers of key events and highlight patterns and repetitions across the series, such as the numerous times that Carmela Soprano “gets pissed” at her husband Tony, captured by the repeated visual of her throwing his luggage at him down the stairs. In addition to recap videos, viewer memory can be filled in online via many of the sites discussed in the Orienting Paratexts chapter, yielding an array of media extensions that allows nearly any question a fan might have about a serialized television program to be answered by a quick Google search or perusing the show’s most active fansites, making these long-form storyworlds effectively searchable and highly documented.
Clearly, complex series use a range of narrative strategies to trigger and play with viewer memories. This catalog of memory-aiding techniques highlights the importance of underlying processes of memory in the seemingly simple act of narrative comprehension. Managing a multi-year narrative universe is difficult enough for television writers, but they also face significant challenges to ensure that viewers can follow the action without falling into either confusion or boredom from redundancy. Even though new modes of viewing have made it more common for viewers to watch a serial in sequential order without missing episodes, it is still common enough for viewers to watch erratically as to require internal redundancy and paratextual extensions to ensure narrative comprehension. To understand the process of making sense from a series without full background knowledge and memories, we can take a closer look at the comprehension of a single episode.
The Serial Viewer’s Activity
Comprehending a television narrative is both so straightforward as to fall beneath the threshold of analysis, and potentially rich in complexity. To understand how we make sense of complex television, we need to take a slow-motion look at comprehension in practice, following Bordwell’s model pioneered by his account of viewing Rear Window. But as suggested above, the television viewer’s activity is too multifaceted to bracket off viewing context, as serial texts can be comprehended in drastically different ways depending on what viewers bring to their viewing. To highlight this process, I will examine the viewing process a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode with some self-reflexivity, examining at how the particular context I first brought to the episode shapes the comprehension experience, frames knowledge differentials, and functions to structure viewing memory. I am not suggesting that the viewing I trace here is identical to my own comprehension process, as much of this activity operates at the level of preconscious automatic processing that I cannot claim to access for myself or others; rather, by highlighting the contexts that I brought to the episode, I hope to be able to slow down how I or other viewers with similar contexts might view the episode. Thus the comprehension activity charted here is abstracted and hypothetical, but the crucial shaping contexts are not. By taking this slow-motion account of the episode’s storytelling and the process of viewer comprehension, it allows us to see complex narrative form operating at the level of an entire episode, exemplifying many of the poetic aspects explored throughout the rest of the book.
I have chosen to focus on “Vehicular Fellatio,” the second episode of the seventh season, in part because it is a particularly elegant episode of television (despite its crude name), and in part because of my own idiosyncratic context. I first saw this episode upon its initial airing in September 2009 as a long-time fan of Curb, but one with an unusual viewing history. I had watched the program’s first four seasons in full when they first aired from 2000 to 2004, but gave up after a disappointing fourth season made me less interested in the series, as well as my lack of HBO during the next two seasons made it more difficult to continue watching. I returned for the seventh season in because I had read that it would feature a Seinfeld reunion as a serialized plotline—as a passionate Seinfeld fan, I knew I had to watch. So my engagement with this episode comes with the context of knowing the show’s first four seasons well (although in distant memory), but not knowing the next two. Prior to watching the seventh season, I read brief online summaries of the fifth and sixth seasons to see what I had missed, but some of the characters and relationships portrayed in “Vehicular Fellatio” were new to me beyond the seventh season debut, “Funkhouser’s Crazy Sister.” This experience of watching a serialized program with breaks in viewing history and using extratextual information to fill-in the gaps is certainly not the norm as designed by television producers, but it is common among viewers, highlighting how serial television’s viewing contexts are far more variable and unpredictable than those for film. My experiences are certainly not those of an “ideal viewer” who has seen every episode of a series prior to watching the next with strong recall of past events, but such ideal viewing practices are rare, especially for a program running into its seventh season. While not ideal, I do believe that my experiences made me a “competent viewer,” drawing upon both previous viewing and extratextual information to put me in a position to adequately comprehend the season. To highlight how such variables can shape a viewer’s activity, I foreground my own experiences to show how comprehension is shaped by the intersection of a television text and a viewer’s contextual background within the cognitive process of consuming a program.
As discussed in the Authorship chapter, Curb’s main character, named Larry David, is a television writer who made a fortune after creating Seinfeld, a series modeled in part after his own life. Of course, Curb itself stars, is created, produced, and written by Larry David, a television writer who made a fortune after creating Seinfeld, a series modeled in part after his own life through the onscreen surrogate of George Costanza. On top of this layer of meta-referentiality are numerous celebrity guest stars playing themselves, always reminding us that the people who play (fictional) Larry’s friends are often (real) David’s friends. These blurring boundaries between reality and fiction become particularly fraught in the seventh season, as the story follows from Larry’s divorce of his longtime wife (fictional Cheryl), paralleling David’s well-publicized divorce from his real longtime wife Laurie. Additionally, the main arc of the season follows Larry’s attempts to create and produce a Seinfeld reunion special, culminating in a reunion of the Seinfeld cast staging part of this special within Curb itself, offering an embedded episode of Seinfeld in lieu of any actual reunion special. Thus anyone watching Curb with a degree of cultural literacy about Seinfeld and David (which the series certainly encourages viewers to seek out) must keep these multiple frames of reference in mind, inviting us to chart out what on-screen events are based on real events and how those representations mirror or rework reality.
Another important level of extratextual knowledge involves Curb’s highly unusual production model—David writes a detailed story outline for every episode, but the actual lines of dialogue are improvised by the actors in multiple filmed run-throughs. Thus as we watch, we are invited to imagine how scenes were put together, considering to what degree actors devised their own jokes and how the improvisation process played out. Although with most programs, such meta-analysis is something that only small subset of viewers do, more common to those with training in media studies, aspirations to become television creators themselves, or just fascination with “how the sausage gets made,” Curb invites such operational attention to the creative process because the fictional world itself frequently portrays the characters working on television, theatre, or other storytelling media, a trend that is quite magnified in the seventh season. Additionally, Larry and his friends are always obsessing over what people mean by what they say, and why on earth somebody might have said that—extending such nitpicking analytic detail to how the spoken lines came to be seems consistent and encouraged by the program’s analytic attention to minutiae and motivations.
Season seven picks up on two main plotlines from the sixth season—Larry’s divorce from Cheryl, and his romantic relationship with Loretta Black, a member of the New Orleans family that the Davids welcomed into their house in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The season premiere links these together by making it clear that Larry would like out of his relationship with Loretta to reunite with Cheryl, but in the episode’s final moments, they learn that Loretta has cancer, a diagnosis that ever-selfish Larry sees as an obstacle to being able either to extract himself from the relationship or to play golf. Thus “Vehicular Fellatio” begins at this key moment in the story arc, with Larry facing his fate of being Loretta’s caretaker, a position for which he is wholly unsuited. After watching “Funkhouser’s Crazy Sister,” I was faced with a few additional questions that I looked up before proceeding: how long have Larry and Loretta been a couple? How long has she been ill? And who exactly is Leon, who seems to be of a different ilk than the rest of the Black family? Consulting resources like fan sites, other viewers, or even Wikipedia has become commonplace for television viewers, as discussed in the Orienting Paratexts chapter—while Curb does not feature a convoluted mythology like Lost or vast array of characters like Game of Thrones, it does invite us to explore extratextual sources, in large part cued by the show’s own references to extratextual concerns. Based on my partial viewing, I’m wholly unsympathetic to Loretta and her relationship with Larry, as I lack any context for her character beyond her appearance in this episode, and thus I share Larry’s disdain for her and interest in reuniting with Cheryl, whom I know much better from the first four seasons.
Thus I entered the episode armed with partial knowledge and framed anticipation. As is typical in the era of electronic program guides and DVRs, the episode title precedes the episode, and in this case, “Vehicular Fellatio” certainly calls attention to itself, setting-up anticipatory questions about who might be receiving and giving such fellatio, and in whose vehicle. Curb episodes lack “previously on” recaps, so depending on how long it may have been since a viewer had watched “Funkhouser’s Crazy Sister,” the episode will need to diegetically remind us of the lingering questions surrounding Loretta. However, the opening sequence forgoes plot concerns for a moment of pure physical comedy—Larry opens a gift bag containing a GPS device, but struggles to open the plastic clamshell packaging for nearly two minutes of escalating frustration, a wordless sequence containing only Larry’s rage-induced shouts. By opening this way, the episode aims our anticipation away from plot questions, and more toward the emotional realm of pure comedy. The sequence ends with Loretta’s voice calling for Larry to come upstairs, leading him to stomp on the package in anger, connecting this micro-frustration to the broader reminder of his sense of being trapped in an unhappy relationship with ill Loretta. This situation is activated into working memory when he converses with her upstairs, as Loretta mentions her cancer to make Larry feel guilty about his petty complaints and desire to play golf. Over the course of the conversation, Larry mentions a few other characters that activate our memories, including series regulars Jeff and Susie, “Lewis” in reference to comedian Richard Lewis (who has played himself as a recurring role throughout the series, but had not yet appeared in the seventh season), and Lewis’s new girlfriend, suggesting a new character. By iterating such character names, it helps prime viewers for who might appear in subsequent scenes, and establish the relationships for viewers who might have missed episodes. The scene also displays Loretta being petty and demanding, using her cancer as a rationale to have Larry wait on her, which reinforces our allegiance with Larry in rooting for him to dump Loretta despite her illness, rather than making us pity her and condemn his selfishness.
The next scene seems to be a throwaway, as Leon asks Larry to call his friend Alton, revealing that Alton is a huge Seinfeld fan, he is depressed, it is his birthday, and he has “a hot-ass wife.” The brief scene offers little comedy, aside from Leon’s curse-filled dialect, but sets in motion another plotline, with Leon leaving Alton’s number on Larry’s dresser. Thus five minutes into the show, we have five dangling story threads: Larry and Loretta’s dysfunctional relationship, the upcoming dinner with Richard and friends, Alton’s birthday call, the GPS gift, and the mysterious episode title. Additionally, we know of the lingering possibility of Larry and Cheryl reconciling, and the extratextually-hyped Seinfeld reunion that has yet to be mentioned in the season. Having learned how to watch Curb and recognize intrinsic norms of plotting, we expect some of these plotlines to come together in a surprising way, as we imagine such possibilities through hypotheses of operational speculation. The next scene moves one of these plots forward, as Larry glances at the television to see Dr. Phil interviewing Dr. Karen Trundle about her approach to counseling cancer patients to ditch their “toxic relationships,” which she defines as “someone who is impatient, someone who is obnoxious, someone who is petty and argumentative, obsesses over meaningless details at the expense of a harmonious relationship.” Larry’s face moves from interest to pleasure to jubilation as he hears his own faults itemized, and we engage in an easy bit of character mind reading to imagine him rationalizing the break-up as better for Loretta’s illness. The next scene starts this plot moving forward, with Larry telling Loretta that he’s made an appointment for them to see Dr. Trundle—although this being Curb, we anticipate that this plan will backfire in unpredictable ways.
The Alton plotline advances next, as Larry calls him with birthday wishes. All goes well in the phone call, until Larry succumbs to his tendency to overshare information, as he tells Alton that Leon thinks his wife is beautiful, triggering a jealous rage in Alton that Larry hangs up on, but we know that this conflict will certainly come back before the episode’s end. Larry’s behavior, in making a minor social miscue that leads to overreaction and conflict, is a common occurrence, and thus experienced viewers certainly think back to other moments of comparable awkwardness and their repercussions in predicting the potential outcome. The next scene is the anticipated dinner, which starts with dialog at the bar between Jeff and Larry containing a number of memory cues. Jeff makes Larry swear to secrecy, to which Larry says, “I’m a vault,” a reference to a phrase commonly used on Seinfeld, which both strengthens the link between Larry and George Costanza, and evokes the anticipated outcome that, as on Seinfeld, this vault will soon be opened. The secret Jeff shares is that on the way to the restaurant, Richard’s girlfriend “blew him in the car,” providing a reference for the episode’s titular sex act and thus seemingly closing down that lingering question. The conversation drifts away from the plot momentum into comedic riffing, as Jeff and Larry discuss the dangers of blow jobs, hand jobs, or “any kind of job” while driving, and then turn to why they’re called “jobs.” This type of comedic dialogue evokes the operational dimension of comprehension—knowing the program’s improvisatory production model, viewers imagine the actors coming up with these digressions and watch for frequent signs of them breaking character to laugh at each other.
When Jeff and Larry join the others at the table, Richard’s girlfriend introduces herself as Beverly, which furthers the process of character recognition discussed more in the Character chapter—and assures viewers who missed recent seasons that she is indeed a new character, rather than a reoccurring figure. Beverly encourages Larry to try a sip of her drink, which repulses him based on his memory of her recent sexual activity—as viewers, we share Larry’s knowledge and thus can fill in the unstated rationale for why he refuses the sip, even as the other characters are confused by his rude behavior. At the end of the dinner, Jeff asks Larry if he’s going to Michael York’s party, which raises a memory question: do we know this character? Some older viewers might know York as the British actor who had been most famous in the 1970s from films like Cabaret and Logan’s Run, while dedicated Curb viewers would remember York’s appearances in four episodes in the third season. Regardless of how we know him, his name sets up our anticipation that he will reappear in this episode, cuing narrative expectations for another setting to emerge. Within the scene, York’s mention becomes an excuse to bring up the GPS system, which Larry thanks Jeff and Susie for, but tells of how he failed to open the package; ten minutes into the episode, this reference functions as a short-term memory cue, reminding us of this opening moment and suggesting that the GPS package will return to relevance down the road beyond just the opening bit of physical comedy. Beverly moves to kiss Larry upon her departure, and he recoils from her, prompting her outrage and Richard demanding that Larry explain himself. As we wonder whether Larry will open the vault, Jeff gestures to keep it secret, so Larry lies that he was ashamed that he had a cold sore—given our knowledge of Curb’s obsession with such health-related minutiae and deceptions, we can assume that this fake cold sore will reappear in some form.
The next day, Larry goes to a hardware store to buy a knife to open the GPS package, where Leon follows him to confront Larry about telling Alton about Leon and Alton’s wife, which it turns out was more than just a compliment. As Larry and Leon argue about the latter’s habit of “tapping the ass” of married women, it raises curiosity questions about Leon’s backstory. Given the context of my serial gaps, I wasn’t sure how much about Leon’s past, personality, and relationship with Larry had been established in the sixth season versus what was intentionally unstated. For me at the time, he seemed like a particularly inscrutable character, notable mostly for his crude speech and comic banter with Larry, but lacking any clear role in the ensemble; such instances are telling for the varieties in serialized experiences, as many fans who had watched the sixth season celebrated Leon as one of their favorite characters. Thus watching without the full backstory presented within the series prompts viewers to create unintentional curiosity questions and hypotheses, leading to a wide range of possible narrative responses due to varying background and contexts.
Larry and Loretta go to Dr. Trundle in the next scene, which plays on our short-term knowledge differences. We know that Larry is trying to appear “toxic” by selfishly ignoring Loretta and belittling her cancer, and thus we laugh at his petty, horrible behavior knowing it to be an exaggerated performance of his typical insensitivity—which is how the fictional Larry functions in reference to the real-life David as well. These layers of performance foreshadow a theme that will grow in prominence throughout the season, as Larry deals with Jason Alexander’s performance of George as a fictionalized reflection of his own worst tendencies. Within this episode, we root for Larry to extract himself from Loretta and enjoy his over-the-top attempts to be insensitive and obnoxious. When Larry leaves the room, we follow him to maintain full alignment throughout the episode; in the waiting room, he encounters Mr. Trundle, the doctor’s husband whose picture he saw in her office, but this interaction only lasts a single line—given Curb’s norms that new characters and interactions usually amount to something significant, we anticipate his eventual return. Dean Weinstock, Larry’s former neighbor, arrives and reminds Larry (and us) who he is, which we have likely forgotten, having appeared only in one first season episode that originally aired nearly nine years earlier. They get into a highly petty, minutiae-focused argument about who broke Dean’s glasses, which escalates in typical Curb fashion until Dean mentions that he has cancer; this mortifies Larry, who disengages and agrees to pay for the glasses. Larry’s shift in demeanor highlights that he is not wholly a horrible person, but also contrasts with the insensitive way he is willing to treat Loretta for personal gain.
On the drive home, Larry tells Loretta, “I got a pretty good vibe from that doctor. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.” His drawn-out delivery of the repeated “pretty” is one of Curb’s catch phrases, evoking memories of past episodes and our affinities toward Larry. This positive sense if furthered by the impression that Dr. Trundle told Loretta to dump Larry, as she alludes vaguely to things she needs to do for her health, which Larry encourages. After arriving home, Richard stops by to blame Larry for destroying his relationship with Beverly, which Richard claims was “maybe the most special one” he ever had; Larry questions this claim by highlighting how he’d said the last one was special. Without knowledge of the previous seasons, this reference is unclear, although given the show’s sense of history, I assume that Larry was somehow involved in wrecking Richard’s last relationship as well. Richard insists that Larry apologize to Beverly for his actions, and we anticipate a reiteration of the cold sore lie. However, Larry tells the truth for once, mistaking Richard’s gesture as the “blow job sign” and opens the vault, talking about the vehicular fellatio that Jeff had revealed and thus reactivating the episode title. The dialogue between Larry and Richard again enters the realm of operational pleasure, as they riff about sex and manners, with both actors on the verge of cracking up.
Larry drives Loretta to Dr. Trundle’s lecture, and they see Mr. Trundle in the car ahead of them, mentioning him by name, relationship, and previous encounter, all of which seem to be setting him up for playing a major role in the anticipated narrative collision course that Curb episodes frequently feature, and thus his presence triggers an operational anticipatory question: why do we keep seeing him? We soon get our answer, with the first crossover between plotlines: as they are driving, we see Dr. Trundle’s head rise up from her husband’s lap, wiping her mouth after some implied vehicular fellatio. Loretta is so offended that she discredits the doctor, insisting that Larry turn the car around, thus foiling his plan to inspire Loretta to leave him. At the operational level, it feels like the title has now fully been paid off, crossing between plots and serving as a major narrative stimulus to undercut Larry’s grand scheme. Yet it returns in the next scene, as Larry goes to Dr. Trundle’s office to leave payment for Dean’s glasses, but Dr. Trundle asks to speak with him to express her disappointment that Larry and Loretta missed the lecture, and to accuse Larry of interfering because she was going to urge Loretta to leave him. Larry “rejects the hypothesis,” and when she presses him to tell the truth, he describes what they witnessed. The doctor denies it, becoming so incensed with Larry’s implications that she beats him with her book. We’re left uncertain whether she was lying about searching for her cell phone, but clearly we can get behind her accusation that Larry has a “tiny little, insecure, infantile mind of about a twelve-year-old” (to which he replies, “I think you blew him”)—and yet we are fully aligned and allied with Larry throughout his pettiness and misanthropy. Like the antiheroes discussed in the Character chapter, we see Larry as an undesirable person, but enjoy him as a character, saying things that are socially unacceptable and living without shame or fear of consequences from his griping.
The fellatio-related complications are not over yet, however, as Larry arrives home to find Leon attempting to hide Alton’s wife from Alton, who has arrived hoping to catch them in an uncompromising position. Alton’s wife hides by ducking in Larry’s car until Leon convinces Alton that nothing is going on, but just as the coast is clear, Loretta drives up to see the wife sit-up in the car. With vehicular fellatio active in her working memory, she assumes the worst and promptly leaves Larry, moving out with his family. Despite being called a “cheating, no-good, bald-head motherfucker,” Larry is elated to be free from Loretta and our sympathies are certainly with him. Our sense of a happy ending is intensified with the operational aesthetic of having the multiple plot threads come together in such an elegant manner, united around the unusual act of vehicular fellatio that randomly allowed Larry to accomplish the goal that his scheming could not. This effect is typical of the series, as Larry’s successes are rare, but most frequently attributable to random fortune rather than careful planning, social skills, or decent behavior. As I discussed in the Character chapter, we enjoy mind reading characters with particularly adept social skills, or Machiavellian intelligence; in Larry, we have a character whose social intelligence is stunted within an infantile mind, but who manages to succeed through coincidence and fortunate failure, conveying the message that no matter how culturally awkward we might be, we can still survive via dumb luck.
However, the episode is not yet over, as there are a few more threads to weave into the web of vehicular fellatio. The final scene shows Larry driving to Michael York’s party, calling back to that reference from the dinner scene, when he sees a car accident on the side of the road. He discovers Jeff and Susie in the car in a compromising position, having swerved off the road in a moment of sexual play, a danger that Larry had cautioned Jeff against earlier in the episode. To help them get out of their stuck situation, Larry says he’ll get the knife he bought earlier to cut Jeff’s seatbelt—only to discover that the knife itself is wrapped in an impenetrable plastic package, leaving Larry screaming in an incoherent rage, just as the episode began. This is a dually satisfying moment, offering both the visceral laughs of a panic-stricken Larry grappling with an improbably packaged knife, and the operational pleasures of a perfectly structured episode of comedy. Such circularity and contrivances make for highly unrealistic storytelling, as Curb clearly sets its norms far from expectations of plausibility. Instead, the show values the elegance of a well-crafted set of contrivances, where the situations pile up and top one another in highly implausible but resonant ways. However per the program’s intrinsic norms, we do not expect that these closing events will have serial implications—while we can assume that Loretta leaving (and Leon staying) will persist beyond this episode, we also expect that Jeff and Susie’s car accident and Larry’s attempted rescue will go unresolved, treated as a thrown-away gag rather than a lingering plot point. This assumption is proven correct in the next episode, “The Reunion,” which launches the Seinfeld arc now that the lingering situations from season six’s plotline with the Blacks are wrapped up.
As an exemplar of complex comedy, Curb highlights how innovative plotting, reflexive story mechanics, and an awareness its own norms and expectations can work to offer new possibilities for narrative comprehension. While not as elaborately serialized as many dramas, nor infused with backstory enigmas and suspense-driven mysteries, Curb Your Enthusiasm offers a good glimpse into the how we engage with an episode of complex television to make sense of an ongoing narrative. Although comedy is typically less naturalistic than drama, Curb is on the extreme side of the spectrum with Arrested Development in rejecting realism for more operational pleasures, coupled with a pseduo-documentary shooting style and improvised dialogue that invites us to imagine how the show was made. With at least five plot threads all connected to a central character, the episode must keep each plate spinning independently, actively reminding us about each storyline and playing with our anticipation as to how they might all crash together. All of this cognitive stimulation does not forestall emotional engagement, as we laugh at the episode, root for Larry to move forward with his personal life, and cringe at his inappropriate behavior. This slow-motion description of the viewer’s activity in making sense of a program can highlight how complex television storytelling works to interweave the pleasures of a story and its telling that typify the operational aesthetic.
Taking a cognitive poetic approach to television storytelling does not close down other theoretical models or methods—it is an approach that is best suited to answering particular questions about viewer activity and engagement. Although cognitive approaches film and media studies have been criticized for making overly universalized assumptions about viewers and ignoring cultural contexts, my analysis aims to show how using cognitive models for viewer comprehension fit nicely within contextualized accounts of active audiences and participatory culture more common to television studies. We can combine what we know about cultural contexts with the mechanics of mental comprehension and engagement to develop a more pluralistic and complimentary set of theoretical tools. By looking closely at how we comprehend complex television narratives through both contextual and cognitive models, we can better understand how this narrative mode engages various types of viewers and continues to be a site of creative innovation within television storytelling.
 Quoted in Brett Martin, “The Men Behind the Curtain: A GQ TV Roundtable,” GQ, June 2012.
 See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); David Bordwell, “Cognition and Comprehension: Viewing and Forgetting in Mildred Pierce,” in Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008), 135–150.
 Beyond Bordwell, see David Herman, Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences (Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2003); Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (Routledge, 2003); Peter Stockwell, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2002).
 Bordwell, Narration, 30.
 Bordwell, Narration, 37.
 Bordwell, Narration; Meir Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).
 See Noël Carroll, “Toward a Theory of Film Suspense,” in Theorizing the Moving Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 94–124.
 Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell, “Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption, and Rethinking Textuality,” Particip@tions 4, no. 1 (2007) – thanks to Jonathan for allowing some of that work to be repurposed here; see also Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010).
 For more on multiple passes through a narrative, see Matei Calinescu, Rereading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex : Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Derek Kompare, Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television (New York: Routledge, 2005).
 David Bordwell, “This Is Your Brain on Movies, Maybe,” in Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2011), 96-102.
 Quoted in Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse : Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978), 60.
 Bordwell, Narration, 57-61.
 See Bordwell, “Cognition and Comprehension.”
 For seminal work on television’s glance aesthetic, see John Ellis, Visible Fictions : Cinema, Television, Video (London ; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).
 For an overview of cognitive theories of memory, see Henry L. Roediger, Yadin Dudai, and Susan M. Fitzpatrick, eds., Science of Memory: Concepts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 See Ethan Thompson, “Comedy Verité? The Observational Documentary Meets the Televisual Sitcom,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 60 (Fall 2007): 63–72.
 Matt Hills, “Absent Epic, Implied Story Arcs, and Variation on a Narrative Theme: Doctor Who (2005-2008) as Cult/Mainstream Television,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 333–342.
 See Virginia Heffernan, “Gotta Minute? So, There’s This Guy Tony …,” The New York Times, April 6, 2007.
 Bordwell, Narration, 40-47.
 For more on the role of awkwardness in Curb, see Adam Kotsko, Awkwardness (Hants, UK: O Books, 2010).
- 1 Quoted in Brett Martin, “The Men Behind the Curtain: A GQ TV Roundtable,” GQ, June 2012, http://www.gq.com/entertainment/movies-and-tv/201206/roundtable-discussion-matthew-weiner-vince-gilligan-david-milch.
- 2 See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); David Bordwell, “Cognition and Comprehension: Viewing and Forgetting in Mildred Pierce,” in Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008), 135–150.
- 3 Beyond Bordwell, see David Herman, Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences (Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2003); Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (Routledge, 2003); Peter Stockwell, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2002).
- 4 Bordwell, Narration, 30.
- 5 Bordwell, Narration, 37.
- 6 Bordwell, Narration; Meir Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).
- 7 See Noël Carroll, “Toward a Theory of Film Suspense,” in Theorizing the Moving Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 94–124.
- 8 Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell, “Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption, and Rethinking Textuality,” Particip@tions 4, no. 1 (2007): available at http://www.participations.org/Volume%204/Issue%201/4_01_graymittell.htm – thanks to Jonathan for allowing some of that work to be repurposed here; see also Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010).
- 9 For more on multiple passes through a narrative, see Matei Calinescu, Rereading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex : Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Derek Kompare, Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television (New York: Routledge, 2005).
- 10 David Bordwell, “This Is Your Brain on Movies, Maybe,” in Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2011), 96-102.
- 11 Quoted in Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse : Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978), 60.
- 12 Bordwell, Narration, 57-61.
- 13 See Bordwell, “Cognition and Comprehension.”
- 14 For seminal work on television’s glance aesthetic, see John Ellis, Visible Fictions : Cinema, Television, Video (London ; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).
- 15 For an overview of cognitive theories of memory, see Henry L. Roediger, Yadin Dudai, and Susan M. Fitzpatrick, eds., Science of Memory: Concepts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
- 16 See Ethan Thompson, “Comedy Verité? The Observational Documentary Meets the Televisual Sitcom,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 60 (Fall 2007): 63–72.
- 17 Matt Hills, “Absent Epic, Implied Story Arcs, and Variation on a Narrative Theme: Doctor Who (2005-2008) as Cult/Mainstream Television,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 333–342.
- 18 See Virginia Heffernan, “Gotta Minute? So, There’s This Guy Tony …,” The New York Times, April 6, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/06/arts/television/06sopr.html.
- 19 Bordwell, Narration, 40-47.
- 20 For more on the role of awkwardness in Curb, see Adam Kotsko, Awkwardness (Hants, UK: O Books, 2010).