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Complex TV

Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling

Jason Mittell
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Complex TV
    Book Description:

    Over the past two decades, new technologies, changing viewer practices, and the proliferation of genres and channels has transformed American television. One of the most notable impacts of these shifts is the emergence of highly complex and elaborate forms of serial narrative, resulting in a robust period of formal experimentation and risky programming rarely seen in a medium that is typically viewed as formulaic and convention bound.

    Complex TVoffers a sustained analysis of the poetics of television narrative, focusing on how storytelling has changed in recent years and how viewers make sense of these innovations. Through close analyses of key programs, includingThe Wire, Lost, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Veronica Mars, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Mad Menthe book traces the emergence of this narrative mode, focusing on issues such as viewer comprehension, transmedia storytelling, serial authorship, character change, and cultural evaluation. Developing a television-specific set of narrative theories,Complex TVargues that television is the most vital and important storytelling medium of our time.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4496-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    In the fall of 2001, three espionage- themed dramas debuted on American network television:The Agency, Alias,and24.Notably, all three survived low ratings in their first season to make it to a second, a fairly rare accomplishment for a new series.¹ Surprisingly, the highest rated of the three, CBS’sThe Agency,was canceled after its second season in 2003, while ABC’sAliasgarnered 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 fate of...

  5. 1 Complexity in Context
    (pp. 17-54)

    This book’s main argument is that over the past two decades, a new model of storytelling has emerged as an alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception, a mode that I callnarrative complexity.¹ We can see such innovative narrative form in popular network hits fromSeinfeldtoLost, The X- FilestoHow I Met Your Mother,as well as in critically beloved but ratings- challenged programs such asArrested Development, Veronica Mars, Boomtown,andFirefly,not to mention series that failed both commercially and critically, such as The...

  6. 2 Beginnings
    (pp. 55-85)

    The beginning of a narrative is an essential moment, establishing much of what will follow, including whether any given consumer is motivated to keep consuming. If we want to understand contemporary serial television storytelling, we need to account for how programs begin. In this chapter, I explore a range of techniques that various complex television series use to launch their storyworlds, and I highlight how viewers might engage with these techniques, both for the specialized audience within the media industry and the broader set of viewers watching at home. Via a close analysis of one exemplary television pilot,Veronica Mars,...

  7. 3 Authorship
    (pp. 86-117)

    In 2000,Buffy the Vampire Slayersuffered a crisis of faith. I am not referring to the titular character, although Buffy Summers certainly suffered many crises of faith over her serialized transmedia existence. Rather, I mean the series itself was the site of such a crisis, with fans freaking out over a plot development that threatened to undermine the program’s integrity and vision as they had come to know it. The crisis was triggered by the introduction of a new character in the final moments of the fifth season debut, “Buffy vs. Dracula”: Buffy’s 14- year- old sister, Dawn. Fans...

  8. 4 Characters
    (pp. 118-163)

    Nearly every successful television writer will point to character as the focal point of their creative process and how they measure success—if you can create compelling characters, then engaging scenarios and storylines will likely follow suit. In a statement echoing dozens of similar interviews with showrunners,Lostcocreator Damon Lindelof states, “It’s all about character, character, character. . . . Everything has to be in service of the people. That is the secret ingredient of the show.”¹ Even as television writers, directors, and actors focus much of their energies into creating fully realized characters and designing plots and storyworlds...

  9. (pp. 164-205)

    Viewers engage with a television series through a wide range of practices, as detailed throughout this book. But at the most basic level, nearly all viewing starts with the core act of comprehension, making sense of what is happening within a episode. This might seem obvious, and certainly much of television storytelling aims to make comprehension easy, invisible, and automatic. However, complex television has increased the medium’s 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,...

  10. 6 Evaluation
    (pp. 206-232)

    In the introduction, I discussed how my experience watchingAliasand 24 in 2001 helped shape this book, as seeking ways to explain both programs’ narrative complexity inspired me to study television’s storytelling poetics to help fill a gap in the field. However, these dual programs point toward another blind spot in television studies: my own sense thatAliaswas much better than 24. There was no shortage of discussion over the relative worth of these or other series in the backstage arenas of media scholars, whether on barstools at conferences or in departmental mailrooms—sites that today extend to...

  11. 7 Serial Melodrama
    (pp. 233-260)

    Complex television is not a genre. As I argue throughout this book, complex television is a storytelling mode and set of associated production and reception practices that span a wide range of programs across an array of genres. Television genres are cultural categories that discursively bundle texts together within particular contexts, not simply sets of textual conventions.¹ This is not to suggest that questions of genre are irrelevant to understanding complex television—to the contrary, looking at genre as part of its growth and circulation highlights how the mode has grown to pervade and influence a wide range of types...

  12. 8 Orienting Paratexts
    (pp. 261-291)

    Throughout the history of American commercial television, we might consider “accessibility” to be one of its defining features. Per the medium’s commercial strategies for advertiser- supported programming, success was judged by the ability to attract, retain, and grow a viewership, which could then be converted into the currency of Nielsen ratings and sold to advertisers. The programming strategies that supported this system of popular appeal have been termed “least objectionable content” or, more dismissively, “lowest common denominator.” In short, a television storyteller’s first job is to avoid alienating potential viewers. At the base level of narrative comprehension, the industry demands...

  13. 9 Transmedia Storytelling
    (pp. 292-318)

    Few storytelling forms can match serial television for narrative breadth and vastness. A single narrative universe can continue onward for years or even decades in the case of daytime serials, with cumulative plotlines and character backstories accruing far beyond what any dedicated fan could reasonably remember. Even a series that fails to find an audience typically airs for a comparatively long time—for instance, the singleseasonTerriersis viewed as a commercial failure, but it still offered 13 episodes of serial storytelling, with a combined running time of over nine hours that eclipses the scope of most novels and nearly...

  14. 10 Ends
    (pp. 319-354)

    Every television series begins, but not all of them end—or at least not all series conclude. Endings are not quite a parallel part of the narrative frame to beginnings, a distinction that carries over linguistically.Beginis solely a verb, needing to be transformed into the nounbeginning,whileendandendingwork as both nouns and verbs—in this chapter, I explore the dual meanings ofendas both “the final part of something” and “a goal or result that one seeks to achieve.”¹ In the case of serial television, the ending is often the ends, or the...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 355-380)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 381-390)
    (pp. 391-391)