Television Narrative

January 23, 2018 | Author: Anonymous | Category: Arts & Humanities, Performing Arts, Drama
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“Paradoxically, the very serial elements that have been so long reviled in soaps, pulps, and other ‘low’ genres are now used to increase connotations of ‘quality’ . . . In television drama.”

From Jeff Sconce, “What If? Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries”

“U. S. television has devoted increased attention in the past two decades to crafting and maintaining ever more complex narratives, a form of ‘world building’ that has allowed for wholly new modes of narration and that suggests new forms of audience engagement.”

Jason Mittell detects evidence in the sort of narrative moves Lost makes—he speaks of “narrative pyrotechnics” and “the narrative special effect”—of a growing tendency to “push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; often these instances forgo realism in exchange for a formally aware baroque quality in which we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis” (Mittell 35).

“Certainly, chief among Lost’s pleasures is the show’s ability to create sincere emotional connections to characters who are immersed in an outlandish situation that, as of this writing, is unclassifiable as science fiction, paranormal mystery, or religious allegory, all constructed by an elaborate narrational structure far more complex than anything seen before in American television.” Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity”

U. S. television has devoted increased attention in the past two decades to crafting and maintaining ever more complex narratives, a form of “world building” that has allowed for wholly new modes of narration and that suggests new forms of audience engagement. Jeff Sconce, “What If?” (95)

“Thus, in the span of a decade between the late 1980s and late 1980s, the preferred model [of television drama] had been inverted from one of a stable text fixing the subjectivity of passive spectators to one of active readers negotiating their own meanings and pleasures in play with a slippery text” (Nelson in Creeber 9).

Steven Johnson. Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

Studies in Narratology, Summer 2011





”To follow the narrative” of a contemporary television series, Johnson argues, “you aren't just asked to remember. You're asked to analyze. This is the difference between intelligent shows, and shows that force you to be intelligent.”

Now “another kind of televised intelligence” is on the rise, demanding the same kind of “mental faculties normally associated with reading: “attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads.”

“[F]ilm has historically confronted a ceiling that has reined in its complexity, because its narratives are limited to two to three hours. The television dramas we examined tell stories that unfold over multiple seasons, each with more than a dozen episodes. The temporal scale for a successful television drama can be more than a hundred hours, which gives the storylines time to complexify, and gives the audience time to become familiar with the many characters and their multiple interactions. Similarly, the average video game takes about forty hours to play, the complexity of the puzzles and objectives growing steadily over time as the game progresses. By this standard, "our average two-hour Hollywood film is the equivalent of a television pilot or the opening training sequence of a video game: there are only so many threads and subtleties you can introduce in that time frame. It's no accident that the most complex blockbuster of our era--the Lord of the Rings trilogy-lasts more than ten hours in its uncut DVD yersion. In the recipe for the Sleeper Curve, the most crucial ingredient is also the simplest one: time” (Johnson 131)

With many television classics that we associate with "quality" entertainment—Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Frasier—the intelligence arrives fully formed in the words and actions of the characters onscreen. They say witty things to each other, and avoid lapsing into tired sitcom clichés, and we smile along in our living room, enjoying the company of these smart people. But assuming we're bright enough to understand the sentences they're saying—few of which are rocket science, mind you, or any kind of science, for that matter—there's no intellectual labor involved in enjoying the show as a viewer. There's no filling in, because the intellectual achievement exists entirely on the other side of the screen. You no more challenge your mind by watching these intelligent shows than you challenge your body watching Monday Night Football. The intellectual work is happening onscreen, not off.--Steven Johnson

“Viewers of The West Wing or Lost or The Sopranos no longer require those training wheels, because twenty-five years of increasingly complex television has honed their analytic skills. Like those video games that force you to learn the rules while playing, part of the pleasure in these modern television narratives comes from the cognitive labor you're forced to do filling in the details. If the writers suddenly dropped a hoard of flashing arrows onto the set, the show would seem plodding and simplistic. The extra information would take the fun out of watching” (Johnson 77).

“The clarity of Hill Street comes from the show's subtle integration of flashing arrows, while West Wing's murkiness comes from Sorkin's cunning refusal to supply them. The roll call sequence that began every Hill Street episode is most famous for the catchphrase ‘Hey, let's be careful out there.’ But that opening address from Sergeant Esterhaus (and in later seasons, Sergeant Jablonski) performed a crucial function, introducing some of the primary threads and providing helpful contextual explanations for them. Critics at the time remarked on the disorienting, documentary-style handheld camerawork used in the opening sequence, but the roll call was ultimately a comforting device for the show, training wheels for the new complexity of multithreading.”-Steven Johnson

Types of Television Series

Traditional/Episodic Series.

In a traditional series each episode tells an independent, discrete, stand alone story that adds little or nothing to the cumulative memory of the show over seasons/years.

Continuous Serials.

Existing contemporaneously with the episodic series, ghettoized, however, in the very different mediacosmos of daytime television, continuous serials told stories that “were by contrast, deliberately left hanging at the end of each episode; nearly all plots initiated in a continuous serial were designed to be infinitely continued and extended” (Dolan 33). Linear, as opposed to the episodic series’ inherent circularity, the continuous serial makes narrative change its raison d’etre.

Until the 70s, Dolan observes, “the episodic series and the continuous serial were almost inevitably segregated into separate areas of viewing time, the former dominating the prime time hours, the latter dominating the mornings and afternoons. This gave network television a remarkably split personality, with happy love affairs and marriages ruling by night, for example, and infidelity and divorce ruling by day” (33).

Sequential Series.

Once the continuous serial broke free from its daytime prison, migrating to prime-time first in the form of night-time soaps like Dallas, the sequential series was born: television schedules were quickly populated by shows “that, had they been made a decade earlier, would almost certainly have been constructed in almost purely episodic terms,” series which “could very often not be shown in an order other than their original one, since events in one episode clearly led to events in another” (Dolan).

Episodic serials.

Tulloch [left top] and Alvarez identify a closely related narrative form which they deem the episodic serial. Episodic serials exhibit continuity between episodes but only for a limited and specified number (ix). The subject of their study, Doctor Who, serves as an example, as does another famous British series, The Prisoner. Horace Newcomb [left middle] uses a different designation for essentially the same narrative manifestation: "cumulative narrative.” Like the traditional series and unlike the traditional "open-ended" serial, each installment of a cumulative narrative has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. However, unlike the traditional series and like the traditional serial, one episode's events can greatly affect later episodes. As Newcomb puts it, "Each week's program is distinct, yet each is grafted onto the body of the series, its characters' pasts" (Reeves 30).


The last two decades of television have seen the spread of what Robin Nelson terms “flexi-narratives,” a “hybrid mix of serial and series forms . . . involving the closure of one story arc within an episode (like a series) but with other, ongoing story arcs involving the regular characters (like a serial)” (82). The widespread appeal of the flexinarrative is not difficult to understand, for it “maximises the pleasures of both regular viewers who watch from week to week and get hooked by the serial narratives and the occasional viewers who happen to tune into one episode seeking the satisfaction of narrative closure within that episode” (Nelson 82).

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