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mediacommons-press2
The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling by Jason Mittell

Introduction

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 [posted 24 March; see release notes]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the Fall of 2001, three espionage-themed dramas debuted on American network television: The Agency, Alias, and 24. Notably, all three survived low ratings in their first seasons to make it to a second, a fairly rare accomplishment for a new series.1 Surprisingly, the highest rated of the three, CBS’s The Agency, was canceled after its second season in 2003, while ABC’s Alias garnered a respectable five-season run and Fox’s 24, which had the least successful first season of the three, lasted for much of the decade as one of television’s most prominent scripted programs. The history of these three series is an instructive window into the changes in television storytelling that emerged in the 2000s that comprise the focus of this book.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 The Agency was by far the most conventional of the three shows, following an episodic procedural model that CBS had successfully ridden to ratings success with the growing CSI franchise and the hit JAG, with future hit crime procedurals to come later in the 2000s with NCIS, Without a Trace, and Cold Case. Long-held assumptions about what makes for successful television would suggest that The Agency’s formulaic approach and non-controversial take on contemporary issues would resonate with audiences (or at least generate high ratings), but the opposite proved to be the case—the CBS series’ viewership declined in its second season to the point that the network canceled it with little fanfare or protest.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 The other two spy shows were far more innovative in their narrative approach and, despite the conventional wisdom that popular television must be formulaic, generated sufficient audience interest to justify their longer runs. Alias was one of the flashiest programs yet to appear on network television, with high-style visuals, elaborate plotting, and a complex mythological backstory that attracted a small but dedicated audience that embraced the show as an heir to the cult phenomenon Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While Alias’s ratings never matched ABC’s hopes for the high-budget program, the show’s critical praise and high-profile stardom of Jennifer Garner led the struggling network to continue it for five seasons until it found greater success in hits like Desperate Housewives and Lost in 2004.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 24’s run was even more surprising, given its highly unusual narrative format: each episode features an hour of story time told in “real time” (minus commercial breaks) via split screens, counting clocks, and other self-conscious devices atypical of conventional television. Even the show’s title refers to how the story will be told—in 24 hour-long installments comprising a day in the life of hero Jack Bauer—rather than anything notable about the story itself. The show’s popularity grew from a weakly rated first season and slowly developed a strong enough following to last eight seasons and consistently rank in the Top 30 yearly ratings for much of the decade. 24 particularly benefited from DVD sales and rentals, a relatively new phenomenon for television series in the early 2000s, as viewers who caught up with the first season on home video helped increase second season ratings by a rare 25%.2 Taken together, the story of these three spy programs point to a changing landscape of American television, where complex and innovative storytelling can succeed both creatively and economically, while a conventional formulaic approach is viewed as a commercial failure.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 6 Complex TV is about this shift, exploring how television storytelling has changed, and what cultural practices within television’s industry, technology, and viewership have enabled and encouraged these transformations. Often these changes are framed as television becoming more “literary” or “cinematic,” drawing both prestige and formal vocabulary from these older, more culturally distinguished media; however, we can better understand this shift through careful analysis of television itself rather than holding onto cross-media metaphors of aspiration and legitimation. In the past 15 years, television’s storytelling possibilities and practices have undergone drastic shifts in medium-specific way. What was once a risky innovative device, like subjective narration or jumbled chronology, is now almost cliché. Where the lines between serial and episode narratives used to be firmly drawn, today such boundaries are blurred. The idea that viewers would want to watch—and rewatch—a television series in strict chronology and collectively document their discoveries with a group of strangers was once laughable, but is now mainstream. Expectations for how viewers watch television, how producers create stories, and how series are distributed have all shifted, leading to a new mode of television storytelling that I term Complex Television—this book tells the story of this narrative mode.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 The book also chronicles a shift within the field of television studies. Back in 2001, when I first experienced this trio of espionage programs as a viewer, the field was not particularly interested in exploring television’s narrative form. Back then (and still today), the key questions that these three programs would have raised to television scholars concerned issues of cultural representation—after all, these programs appeared at a transformative moment in American history and were oddly poised to tackle current events. All three programs were created, scheduled by their networks, and well into production at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, but critics and pundits framed the shows, which debuted in October and November as part of a delayed fall television season, as direct responses to America’s proclamation of a “War on Terror” following the attacks. Television scholars certainly might explore the meanings circulated by these programs, especially in how they articulate norms of American cultural identity, the role of the state, and perceptions of foreign threats in the reconfigured cultural landscape.3

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Likewise, these series all offer interesting possibilities for the representational analysis of identity, arguably the most active research area within the field of television scholarship in the 1990s. Alias presents a particularly evocative vision of gender politics, with a nearly omnipotent lead heroine Sydney Bristow, kicking ass in high-style while negotiating her strained relationships with male father figures, potential romantic partners, and a succession of villainous female friends, rivals, and an evil mother returned from the presumed grave. 24 also foregrounds gender norms, although in a more conventional form, with a hyper-masculine hero working in the first season to rescue his wife and daughter in jeopardy from what turns out to be a treasonous former lover, a conventional example of a sexualized demonic woman. Both shows also portray a range of ethnic and racial others defined in opposition to their white heroes, charting an array of representational strategies for 21st century television. 4

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 4 While I would never suggest that scholars should ignore questions of representation, this book is not interested in analyzing such meanings as conveyed by television narratives. Instead, I aim to explore how such meanings are given expressive possibility through the format of televised stories, outlining the formal means by which content can be conveyed. One reason why television’s formal narrative properties have been so ignored stems from the assumption that television storytelling is simplistic. Previous accounts of the medium’s narrative tendencies tend to focus on the centrality of genre formulas, repetitive situations, redundant exposition suited for surfing viewers, and structural constraints based around commercial breaks and rigid schedules. While many contemporary television programs follow such patterns, albeit with more nuance and subtlety than dismissive critiques admit, new developments over the past two decades have led to the rise of a particular model of narrative complexity on mainstream commercial American television, one that is unique to the medium and thus must be examined on its own terms.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 As a television scholar in 2001, I felt that the field was not equipped to answer my questions about the successful narrative innovations featured in Alias and 24, and the comparative failure of The Agency’s conventions.5 However, in the past decade since such programs debuted—arguably motived in large part by earlier examples of complex television series from the 1990s including Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The West Wing, and The Sopranos—television studies has broadened its account of the formal and aesthetic dimensions of television storytelling.6 This book, along with numerous pieces I have written over the past decade both in formal academic publications and informally on blogs, represents my own attempt to engage with television’s formal dimensions in concert with a broader approach to television as a cultural phenomenon, where form is always in dialog with cultural contexts, historical formations, and modes of practice. This book strives to offer a model of formal analysis that is not divorced from issues of content, context, and culture, but rather a key component of such concerns that are more central to media and cultural studies.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 4 The guiding concept for my approach is poetics, building on a model that has emerged within literary and film studies. Poetics can be defined broadly as a focus on the specific ways that texts make meaning, concerned with formal aspects of media more than issues of content or broader cultural forces—in short, the guiding question for poetics looking at a cultural text like a television series is “how does this work?” This focus on poetics is different from more common questions of interpretation, seeking to answer “what does this mean?”, or cultural power, asking “how does this impact society?” As suggested above, questions about meaning and power are not off-limits within a poetic analysis, but rather operating on a different level. Throughout the book, I point to ways that poetics might lead to more nuanced understandings of broader social issues that often concern cultural scholars, but the focus of my analysis is understanding the way television tells stories, not the cultural impact or interpretation of those stories. Looking at storytelling from a poetic approach can be quite similar to narratology, as developed by literary scholars, but I prefer labeling my approach as poetics to distance myself from the structuralist and strictly textual model often found in narratology—although certainly many narratologists and their analytic work has shaped my own thinking, and like poetics, narratology can encompass a wide range of issues and methods. My own approach to poetics is influenced by a model of cultural circulation, in which practices of the television industry, audiences, critics, and creators all work to shape storytelling practices, and thus questions about form are not restricted to the realm of the text, but deeply connected to contexts.7

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 4 Poetics have been adopted and adapted by scholars in three crucial ways that have inspired my work. First and foremost, the concept of historical poetics developed by film scholar David Bordwell provides an essential contextual anchor for the study of narrative form. Historical poetics situates formal developments within specific historical contexts of production, circulation, and reception, with innovations in media form are not viewed as creative breakthroughs of visionary artists, but at the nexus of a number of historical forces that work to transform the norms established with any creative practice. Such an analysis examines the formal elements of any medium alongside the historical contexts that helped shape innovations and perpetuate particular norms. If we are to understand how complex television works today, we need to contextualize its development within the technological, industrial, and reception shifts emerging in the 1990s and 2000s, functioning not as straightforward causes of this formal evolution, but certainly enabling creative strategies to flourish. Throughout the book, I connect creative choices to these crucial contexts to both account for how complex television emerged and suggest why it may have developed as it has. 8

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 3 Bordwell’s model of historical poetics focuses primarily on the interplay between industry, technology, and the creative choices of filmmakers, downplaying the reception contexts of cinema; instead he models an approach that others have more broadly termed cognitive poetics to account for how viewers engage with texts.9 According this model, viewing (or reading of literature) is understood by drawing upon our knowledge of cognition and perception, and then positing how the formal elements in a text might be experienced by such a viewer—while viewers are not reduced to their mental mechanics, the insights of cognitive science informs how we imagine the possible ways that viewers engage with film or television. For some questions of viewing practice, such as processes of comprehension and memory, a cognitive poetic approach is well-poised to understand some of the ways that viewers engage with television serials.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 We can also compliment a cognitive approach that posits viewer activity by studying actual viewing practices of the ongoing consumption of serial television, especially for many cases, like fans consuming narrative spoilers or contributing to fan wikis, that are not easily explicable by cognitive norms. Thus I draw upon Robert Allen’s notion of reader-oriented poetics that fused literary reader-response criticism with close analysis of televisual form in his landmark study of daytime soap operas; Allen explores the genre’s formal elements as creating potential pleasures, interpretations, and modes of engagement for its viewers, and cross-references that analysis with a history of the genre’s reception.10 In looking at the texts of contemporary complex primetime serials, I try to connect their narrative strategies with the broadly circulating reception practices of these popular programs. One of the chief reasons that complex television has become a mainstream trend is the broad availability of online fansites to facilitate collective discussions and decoding practices among fans, so these sites can provide a wealth of research resources for accessing and understanding consumption practices among a show’s dedicated and engaged fanbase.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 6 My research within these sites warrants some methodological contextualization—I have spent the last decade as a participant-observer among various television viewing communities around complex television series. I have avidly read (and written) episode-by-episode television criticism, read (and written) comments on blogs and discussion forums, referenced (and edited) fan wikis about ongoing series, read (and written) academic analyses of serial narrative, read (and conducted) interviews with television producers, and watched (and rewatched) over a thousand hours of television programming and associated paratexts. I bring this immersive experience as viewer and fan to my analysis, and hope to accurately represent experiences that many others have in watching these programs and engaging with their paratexts. Although most of the research material I have gathered was publicly available online or in television programs, I have not documented every single example with a citation to a fan forum or specific moment in a program. I have made the choice to be less citational than much scholarship to emphasize readability and flow; hopefully the senses of television textuality and viewer practices that emerge from this account is sufficiently convincing to not require hundreds of links to now-defunct fan forums or specific episodes of television programming.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 2 When doing such research with online fans, it’s vital to remember that the type of diehard fan who participates in forums, creates remix videos, or seeks out spoilers is not a typical television viewer. But the rise of online fandom has made a fan who does embrace such practices less of a fringe outlier, and more of one end of a spectrum of engagement. We have little concrete information about how representative fan practices might be, but one example is instructive: the active fan wiki Lostpedia reports that since it was setup on the wikia.com server in 2008, more than 28,000 registered users have edited the site at least once.11 This is obviously a small portion of the millions of viewers who watched Lost every week, and the uncounted more who caught up on DVD or downloads. However, factoring in the large size of Lostpedia’s assumed non-editing readership, following the typical pattern of high reader-to-editor ratios at most wikis, plus the active traffic on numerous other Lost fansites, it seems fair to imagine that the practices of this comparatively small number of participatory viewers represents broader interests that matter to a significant minority of the show’s viewership.12 Moreover, it is a highly influential minority, as reader-oriented poetics can highlight how the show itself addressed such participatory viewers directly, which I discuss in depth in the Orientation Paratexts and Transmedia Storytelling chapters. Throughout the book, I assume that the behaviors exhibited by small groups of active online fans are indicative of broader tendencies among many less participatory television viewers, based on the way they fit with poetic textual strategies and broader cultural trends, making such fans an important and influential minority viewership. There are certainly many other viewing practices for such programming, and I do not present those that I explore as a prescriptive norm to be followed—I hope other critics build on this foundation to offer accounts of other ways that viewers (and non-viewers) engage with complex television to broaden our understanding of reception practices.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 With these poetic approaches as my guide, this book explores the formal dimensions and cultural practices of contemporary television serial storytelling. I do not claim to be comprehensive in my analytic scope, as there are far more programs that I will not consider that might support or contradict some of my claims. I focus exclusively on primetime television, operating on the model of weekly episodes aired on networks or cable channels in ongoing seasonal units typically ranging between 10 and 24 episodes—certainly there are newer forms of online serials that might be relevant to the programs I explore here, and the older tradition of daytime soap operas is a major site of television seriality that I will discuss briefly in the Genre chapter. However, I am limiting my focus to primetime serials because I believe the weekly installments form a distinctive narrative mode worth considering in depth, and the wide reach of both primetime cable and network programming still makes it the most culturally prominent form of television. I focus almost exclusively on American television, as I believe its specific industrial norms need to be understood on their own terms; additionally, the global circulation of American television has made many of these programs highly popular and influential around the world, even in the form of American remakes of foreign originals like The Office, Ugly Betty, In Treatment, and Homeland. I do consider a range of examples spanning comedies and dramas, but only scripted programming—while the simultaneous rise of reality television alongside this form of complex TV is an interesting and probably related phenomenon, the role of storytelling on reality programming is outside my purview here.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 In choosing the programs to analyze, I have decided to focus in depth on a few key texts while referencing a broad corpus, rather than trying to effectively cover every series that might be relevant. This is in large part due to the challenges of studying long-form serial texts—a successful series can run for over 100 hours of programming, and such analysis can require multiple viewings, as well as immersing in broader paratextual circulation. Thus much of my analytic focus will be aimed at the series I know best, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Lost, with more compact analysis of other programs like Veronica Mars, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Arrested Development, Dexter, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, among many more. There are numerous other programs that might be understood as key examples of complex television, or that might counter some of my analytic claims. I hope that readers who are so moved will use this book to launch their own analyses of such examples to strengthen our understanding of the poetics of contemporary television storytelling.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 In looking at storytelling, I am focusing on the process of narration whereby a storyworld is conveyed by a television text and constituted in the minds of its viewers. A basic definition of television serial storytelling charts out the terrain of narrative analysis: a television serial creates a sustained narrative world, populated by a consistent set of characters who experience a chain of events over time. I am most interested in exploring how this fictional world is told via serial television, highlighting the distinction between the fictional story and its telling via narrative discourse, a distinction established by narrative theorists across media. The bulk of the book considers the different storytelling strategies used by serial television to create engaging storyworlds through a range of complex techniques of narrative discourse, including playing with temporality, constructing characters, and incorporating transmedia. I do not focus on questions of visual or sonic style directly—while the use of visual and aural techniques to convey narrative is an essential part of television, I only consider such elements in service of other storytelling goals like atemporality or character development. There is no doubt that many complex television programs have embraced a broader palette of stylistic techniques that have helped make them distinctive and successful innovators, but I do not focus on style as a central analytic element here.13

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 9 What I do try to do in this book is tell the story of television’s changing narrative paradigms. In 2011, one of the most popular new network programs, Revenge, opened its pilot with a party scene taking place at the end of the summer that ends with a shooting and a dead body. The show then flashed back five months to chart how the narrative arrived at this climactic point, a major event that would only be reached in the season’s 15th episode, with the rest of the pilot incorporating voiceover narration and multiple flashbacks to various timeframes. What was most remarkable about this pilot was how unremarkable it was—critics and fans found this style of complex storytelling commonplace and undistinguished, generally classifying the show as a decent “primetime soap” or belittlingly as a “guilty pleasure.” But primetime soaps of previous decades like Melrose Place were much more conventional in their narrative techniques, and such complex chronology was reserved for more “prestigious” programs like Six Feet Under or Alias. In 2000, The West Wing opened its episode “What a Day This Has Been” with a hard-to-comprehend scene that concludes with a moment of tension, with the rest of the episode flashing back to lead up to and explain that climactic moment—I remember being struck by how atypical the device was, especially for such a fairly “realistic” show, but today such a device is practically a cliché.14 Narrative complexity has suffused television to the degree that Revenge’s complicated narrative technique can go unnoticed; the rest of this book aims to explain how and why.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 How to Read this Book

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 This book was written and published serially. We normally think of a scholarly manuscript as emerging as a singular, bound statement all at once, but most research is a long-term, ongoing process where pieces emerge first in conversations, classrooms, conference presentations, blog postings, and stand-alone articles or book chapters. Seeds of this project were buried in the ground of my first book, especially in discussing how Soap innovative serial sitcoms in the 1970s.15 Some core ideas of Complex TV first got public airing in 2004 at a small colloquium presentation at Middlebury College, where feedback from colleagues transformed it significantly. Since that time, I have presented and published versions of these ideas numerous times, each time gathering feedback to (hopefully) strengthen and nuance my arguments; additionally, a few of my terms and analyses have been picked up by other scholars, making “narrative complexity” and “forensic fandom” seem less novel concepts (at least to me) than on their first appearances. I hope to take in the work of other scholars on these issues, using them to bolster my ideas, provide additional wrinkles, and in some cases outsource topics to others who have covered similar ground better than I could have. On top of this more typical model of serial release and revision, publishing this draft online in serialized installments will serve as the penultimate version of the final book, which I hope will be strengthened by readers’ commentary and criticisms in the margins. Making the serial facets of the book’s own writing and publication process visible will hopefully call attention to the ways that all scholarship is written in dialogic installments over time, through multiple versions and iterations, less like an episodic lecture than a serialized conversation. Much like serial television itself, such ongoing scholarship is written for a variety of readers—those who are casually dropping in on the topic, those who have been actively participating in the conversation for years, and a range in between. I hope there is something interesting to discover here for every type of reader, no matter where you fall in the serial spectrum.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Although the print version of this book proceeds in a linear fashion, page after page, it is not designed to be read that way. The next chapter, Complexity in Context, should be read next, as it outlines key ideas and terms running throughout the book that explains precisely what narrative complexity is and how it fits into the contemporary television context. However, the rest of the chapters can be read in any order; they are arranged alphabetically by topic, from Authorship to Transmedia, instead of following a sequential logic, and I have chosen not to number them to encourage non-linear exploration. Although together they do tell the story of complex television, they are more episodic and self-contained than the cumulative sequential storyworlds they analyze. So feel free to chart your own path through the chapters, eschewing chronology for topicality. The following brief “recaps” preview each installment if you are so inclined, or feel free to explore on your own unspoiled by what is to come:

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Authorship: Contemporary television has fostered a unique form of creative authorship, establishing the role of “showrunner” within its production contexts. This chapter discusses the technologically-enabled paratexts of podcasts, making-of documentaries, DVD commentaries, Twitter feeds and blogs that have enabled television creators to speak directly to viewers, and how such paratexts have helped constitute a new model of the star showrunner like Buffy’s Joss Whedon, Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore, and Lost’s team of Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse. In exploring the textual and paratextual presence of showrunners, I consider how viewers rely upon an inferred author function to make sense of contemporary television serials.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Beginnings: Although long-form television serials are notably marked by their potentially eternal narrative middles, they all must start somewhere; this chapter explores how serials are launched with television pilots, considering the core functions of pilots as setting up the direction of a serial’s narrative thrust, teaching viewers how to watch the ongoing narrative, and inspiring them to commit to ongoing serialized consumption. The chapter uses a detailed case study of the Veronica Mars pilot to demonstrate how serials establish intrinsic norms for ongoing narratives, with references to strategies found in pilots of Twin Peaks, Arrested Development, Alias, Awake, How I Met Your Mother, and Pushing Daisies.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Character: Many complex serials have embraced anti-heroes as lead characters, using the long-form narrative structure to layer psychological traits and key elements of backstory. This chapter uses the case studies of Dexter and Breaking Bad to explore how serial dramas construct characters with different approaches to relationships, flashbacks, repetitions, memory, narration, and performance. The chapter considers how serials foreground shifting character/viewer relationships over the course of a series, referencing other programs like Treme, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, and Revenge, and how such shifts in sympathy and appeal can both sustain and derail an ongoing serial.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Comprehension: One of the challenges of a long-form serial narrative is maintaining viewer comprehension throughout a variety of viewing practices, whether it is weekly and seasonal installments through broadcast schedules, or the more variable patterns afforded by DVDs, online viewing, and DVRs. This chapter builds on cognitive theories of narrative comprehension to consider how television serials have created methods to both maximize understanding and play with knowledge differentials between characters and viewers. I focus on issues of viewer memory as addressed both within the core narrative text and associated paratexts (like recaps and DVD extras), considering the varying ways programs trigger memories and exploit viewer’s fading memories to create unusual surprises in programs like Battlestar Galactica and Lost. The chapter also analyzes different approaches to suspense, surprise, anticipation, and curiosity that have emerged for long-form serial television, and how viewers thwart such narrative pleasures through spoilers.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 4 Endings: American commercial television differs from the rest of the world in how it privileges a model where a successful series never ends, with endings regarded as signs of commercial failure and/or creative exhaustion, and often shows end by abrupt cancellation more than planned conclusion. In the last decade, more series have planned their conclusions, creating a set of precedents for serial endings that variously embrace ambiguity, circularity, reflexivity, and finality. This chapter looks at the concluding seasons and episodes of Lost, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under as exemplars of both narrative strategies and the divergent viewer and critic reactions triggered by various finales. It also discusses open-ended season finales that offer both closure and the possibility of continuance, as with Terriers and Scrubs.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 1 Evaluation: Television studies, as forged by the influence of populist cultural studies, has been loath to include critical evaluation in its toolbox, as television’s own spot on the receiving end of numerous aesthetic condemnations has pushed evaluative criticism off the field’s agenda. In this chapter, I explore a model of contextualized evaluation that does not recreate universal aesthetic values, but rather looks at how a series can define its own terms and parameters of evaluation, and how television scholars might productively engage with questions of value. One facet of narrative complexity is that it appeals to many traditional markers of aesthetic value from other media, and this chapter both acknowledges such tendencies and problematizes the relevance of adopting evaluative criteria across media. Using the examples of The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, Arrested Development, and Mad Men, all of which have been hailed by critics as among the greatest television series in the medium’s history, I discuss how we can enter into medium-specific debates over value without recreating a canon or exclusionary critical practice.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Genre: Many complex series embrace a mode of genre mixing, ranging from the overt fusion of Buffy’s teen drama/horror, to The Wire’s revisionist and expansive shift from cop show to urban drama, to the hodgepodge of Lost’s genre stew. This chapter explores the role of genre within contemporary serial narratives, starting with the soap opera’s debatable influence on this mode of storytelling. By separating out the narrative norms of soap operas from the emotional appeals of melodrama, I argue that soap’s storytelling form is less vital to primetime serials than the discursive history that has linked seriality to the soap genre for decades. Instead, I consider how the emotional responses triggered by specific genres like soap operas, comedies, mysteries, and science-fiction play into the mixed-gender appeal of narratively complex series. I explore how shows like Alias, Veronica Mars, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife, and Revenge play with such conventions in innovative ways that complicate well-established assumptions about various genre categories and their gendered appeals, pointing to the vital links between genre and narrative consumption.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 2 History: Although narrative complexity has emerged as a coherent storytelling mode in recent years, it has numerous important historical precedents dating back to the early years of American television. This chapter traces back the history of primetime television’s narrative form, looking at the key precedents of the two-parter, the recap, and the cliffhanger as they developed within the earlier programs and the critical reactions they triggered. Through reconsiderations of landmark programs like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gunsmoke, Peyton Place, Soap, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Wiseguy, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Seinfeld, as well as interesting failures like Coronet Blue, I show the gradual development of television’s complex narrative strategies, and posit some explanations for why the 2000s saw such an acceleration of storytelling innovation.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Orienting Paratexts: Along with shifts in the television industry and technologies, viewer practices have adapted to the digital era with new developments in how people consume narrative television. This chapter explores the range of paratexts that have emerged to help viewers make sense of complex television’s temporality, characters, plot, and spatial orientation, spanning a wide range of programs from St. Elsewhere to Game of Thrones. Through a detailed account of the fan wiki Lostpedia, I explore the complexity of how people watch television, and foreground notions of forensic fandom and drillability as modes of television spectatorship.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Transmedia Storytelling: As television series have become more complex in their narrative strategies, television itself has expanded its scope across a number of screens and platforms, complicating notions of medium-specificity at the very same time that television seems to have a clearer sense of distinct narrative form. This chapter explores how television narratives are expanded and complicated through transmedia extensions, including video games, novelizations, websites, online video, and alternate reality games. With specific analyses of transmedia strategies for Lost and Breaking Bad, I will consider how television’s transmedia storytelling is grappling with issues of canonicity and audience segmentation, how transmedia reframes viewer expectations for the core television serial, and what transmedia possibilities might look like going forward.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0  

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 While these chapters offer a broad span of topics and examples of the complex television phenomenon, I make no claims toward comprehensiveness—there are many more series, historical connections, viewer practices, and analytic angles to be explored. I hope this book offers a solid understanding of how we might think about contemporary television storytelling on its own terms, rather than in the language of literature or film, and provides a critical vocabulary for both television scholars and fans to understand the ongoing shifts in what is still our most influential and popular storytelling medium.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Notes

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 [1] According to Nielsen ratings, The Agency ranked #49 out of primetime broadcast programs for the 2001-02 season with 10.3 million estimated viewers, while Alias was at #60 with 9.7 million and 24 at #76 with 8.6 million; see http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/2002/2002-05-28-year-end-chart.htm.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 [2] See Lambert, David (October 22, 2003). “24′s TV-on-DVD success leads to new DVD concepts” . TVShowsOnDVD, http://www.tvshowsondvd.com/news/24/764.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 [3] See Michael Kackman, “Conclusion: Spies Are Back,” in Citizen Spy: Television, Espionage, and Cold War Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 176-190, for a fine example of such cultural analysis.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 [4] See Stacey Abbott and Simon Brown, Investigating Alias: secrets and spies (I.B.Tauris, 2007); and Steven Peacock, Reading 24: TV against the clock (I. B. Tauris, 2007) for representative ranges of scholarship on these two series.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 [5] For important earlier explorations of television’s narrative form, see Horace Newcomb, TV: The Most Popular Art (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974); John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video (London ; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982); Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Horace Newcomb, “Magnum, Champagne of Television?,” Channels of Communications (June 1985): 23-26; Jane Feuer, “Narrative Form in American Network Television,” in High Theory/Low Culture, ed. Colin MacCabe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 101-114; Sarah Kozloff, “Narrative Theory and Television,” in Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, ed. Robert C. Allen, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 61-100; Christopher Anderson, “Reflection on Magnum, P.I.,” in Television: The Critical View, 4th Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 112–125; Thomas Schatz, “St. Elsewhere and the Evolution of the Ensemble Series,” in Television: The Critical View, 4th Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 85–100; Marc Dolan, “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks,” in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 30-50.; Greg M. Smith, “Plotting a TV Show About Nothing: Patterns of Narration in Seinfeld,” Creative Screenwriting 2, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 82-90; Robert J. Thompson, Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill St. Blues to ER (New York: Continuum, 1996); Jennifer Hayward, Consuming pleasures: active audiences and serial fictions from Dickens to soap opera (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997); Robyn R. Warhol, “Feminine Intensities: Soap Opera Viewing as a Technology of Gender,” Genders, no. 28 (1998), http://www.genders.org/g28/g28_intensities.html.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 [6] For more recent examples of such work, see Robyn R. Warhol, Having a good cry: effeminate feelings and pop-culture forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003); Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in film and television (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003); Glen Creeber, Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen (London: BFI Publishing, 2004); Jeffrey Sconce, “What If?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries,” in Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 93-112; Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon, eds., The Contemporary Television Series (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2005); Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005); Michael Newman, “From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (Fall 2006): 16-28; Sean O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction,” in Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, ed. D. Lavery (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); Sean O’Sullivan, “Broken on Purpose: Poetry, Serial Television, and the Season,” StoryWorlds 2 (2010): 59-77; Shawn Shimpach, Television in Transition: The Life and Afterlife of the Narrative Action Hero (John Wiley and Sons, 2010); Paul Booth, “Memories, Temporalities, Fictions: Temporal Displacement in Contemporary Television,” Television & New Media 12: 4 (July 2011): 370 –388; and Anthony Smith, “Putting the Premium into Basic: Slow-Burn Narratives and the Loss-Leader Function of AMC’s Original Drama Series,” Television and New Media (2012), http://tvn.sagepub.com.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/content/early/2011/10/07/1527476411418537.abstract.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 [7] I explore this model more fully in Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 [8] See David Bordwell, “Historical Poetics of Cinema,” in The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 369-398; Henry Jenkins, “Historical Poetics and the Popular Cinema,” in Approaches to the Popular Cinema (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995); David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2007).

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 [9] See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); Torben Grodal, Moving Pictures: a New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Peter Stockwell, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2002).

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 [10] Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 [11] See http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Special:Statistics.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 [12] We have no specific metrics on Lostpedia’s readership during the show’s original airing, but http://mako.cc/copyrighteous/20110206-00 calculates that an average of .025% of Wikipedia readers have made at least 5 edits. If we were to extrapolate this ratio to the 10,000 Lostpedian with at least 5 edits, it would place the site’s readership at around 40 million, a figure that is undoubtedly high but clearly points to the likelihood that a good percentage of Lost viewers were actively reading Lostpedia or other fan sites.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 [13] For more on television style, see Jeremy G. Butler, Television Style (New York: Routledge, 2009), and Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 [14] For a chronicle of this device and its use across television and other media, see the TV Tropes entry “How We Got Here,” http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HowWeGotHere.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 [15] Jason Mittell, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004).

  • 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0
  • 1 According to Nielsen ratings, The Agency ranked #49 out of primetime broadcast programs for the 2001-02 season with 10.3 million estimated viewers, while Alias was at #60 with 9.7 million and 24 at #76 with 8.6 million; see http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/2002/2002-05-28-year-end-chart.htm.
  • 2 See David Lambert, (October 22, 2003). “24‘s TV-on-DVD success leads to new DVD concepts” . TVShowsOnDVD, http://www.tvshowsondvd.com/news/24/764.
  • 3 See Michael Kackman, “Conclusion: Spies Are Back,” in Citizen Spy: Television, Espionage, and Cold War Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 176-190, for a fine example of such cultural analysis.
  • 4 See Stacey Abbott and Simon Brown, Investigating Alias: secrets and spies (I.B.Tauris, 2007); and Steven Peacock, Reading 24: TV against the clock (I. B. Tauris, 2007) for representative ranges of scholarship on these two series.
  • 5 For important earlier explorations of television’s narrative form, see Horace Newcomb, TV: The Most Popular Art (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974); John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video (London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982); Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Horace Newcomb, “Magnum, Champagne of Television?,” Channels of Communications (June 1985): 23-26; Jane Feuer, “Narrative Form in American Network Television,” in High Theory/Low Culture, ed. Colin MacCabe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 101-114; Sarah Kozloff, “Narrative Theory and Television,” in Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, ed. Robert C. Allen, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 61-100; Christopher Anderson, “Reflection on Magnum, P.I.,” in Television: The Critical View, 4th Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 112–125; Thomas Schatz, “St. Elsewhere and the Evolution of the Ensemble Series,” in Television: The Critical View, 4th Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 85–100; Marc Dolan, “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks,” in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 30-50.; Greg M. Smith, “Plotting a TV Show About Nothing: Patterns of Narration in Seinfeld,” Creative Screenwriting 2, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 82-90; Robert J. Thompson, Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill St. Blues to ER (New York: Continuum, 1996); Jennifer Hayward, Consuming pleasures: active audiences and serial fictions from Dickens to soap opera (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997); Robyn R. Warhol, “Feminine Intensities: Soap Opera Viewing as a Technology of Gender,” Genders, no. 28 (1998), http://www.genders.org/g28/g28_intensities.html.
  • 6 For more recent examples of such work, see Robyn R. Warhol, Having a good cry: effeminate feelings and pop-culture forms (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003); Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in film and television (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003); Glen Creeber, Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen (London: BFI Publishing, 2004); Jeffrey Sconce, “What If?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries,” in Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 93-112; Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon, eds., The Contemporary Television Series (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2005); Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005); Michael Newman, “From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (Fall 2006): 16-28; Sean O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction,” in Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, ed. D. Lavery (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); Sean O’Sullivan, “Broken on Purpose: Poetry, Serial Television, and the Season,” StoryWorlds 2 (2010): 59-77; Shawn Shimpach, Television in Transition: The Life and Afterlife of the Narrative Action Hero (John Wiley and Sons, 2010); Paul Booth, “Memories, Temporalities, Fictions: Temporal Displacement in Contemporary Television,” Television & New Media 12: 4 (July 2011): 370 –388; and Anthony Smith, “Putting the Premium into Basic: Slow-Burn Narratives and the Loss-Leader Function of AMC’s Original Drama Series,” Television and New Media (2012), http://tvn.sagepub.com.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/content/early/2011/10/07/1527476411418537.abstract.
  • 7 I explore this model more fully in Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • 8 See David Bordwell, “Historical Poetics of Cinema,” in The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 369-398; Henry Jenkins, “Historical Poetics and the Popular Cinema,” in Approaches to the Popular Cinema (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995); David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2007).
  • 9 See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); Torben Grodal, Moving Pictures: a New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Peter Stockwell, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  • 10 Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
  • 11 See http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Special:Statistics.
  • 12 We have no specific metrics on Lostpedia’s readership during the show’s original airing, but http://mako.cc/copyrighteous/20110206-00 calculates that an average of .025% of Wikipedia readers have made at least 5 edits. If we were to extrapolate this ratio to the 10,000 Lostpedian with at least 5 edits, it would place the site’s readership at around 40 million, a figure that is undoubtedly high but clearly points to the likelihood that a good percentage of Lost viewers were actively reading Lostpedia or other fan sites.
  • 13 For more on television style, see Jeremy G. Butler, Television Style (New York: Routledge, 2009), and Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).
  • 14 For a chronicle of this device and its use across television and other media, see the TV Tropes entry “How We Got Here,” http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HowWeGotHere.
  • 15 Jason Mittell, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004).
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