Showcase #2: Narrative Complexity and the Active Audience

“While fan cultures have long demonstrated intense engagement in storyworlds, policing backstory consistency, character unity, and internal logic in programs like Star Trek and Dr. Who, contemporary programs focus this detailed dissection onto complex questions of plot and events in addition to storyworld and characters.” – Jason Mittell

Never before now have consumers of worldwide popular literature had almost as much agency over fictional content as the author of the story itself. The rise of ‘narratively complex’ television prompts “a new mode of viewer engagement” (Mittell, p. 38) where the consumer becomes a mechanism that interprets narrative material and, by extension, generates new content. Television series’ of this kind resemble, what Roland Barthes terms, the ‘text’: a device that encourages “play, activity, production [and] practice” (p. 162).

Consider the following diagram:

Stuart Hall’s ‘circuit of television’ expands upon active audience theory, where “the production of meaning does not ensure consumption of that meaning as the encoders might have intended” (Barker, p. 327). There are three distinct ways by which consumers of a television series can ‘reproduce’ meaning.

1) User-generated contentAccording to Henry Jenkins, viewers of television series’ become fans when “translating that viewing into some type of cultural activity, by sharing feelings and thoughts about the program content with friends, by joining a community of other fans who share common interests” (p. 473). Perhaps the most creative and public means of expressing such interest in a television program is through fan fiction which allows fans to write their own narrative set in the story world of the text. Writers of fan fiction can create alternative events to what occurs in the canon and/or explore hyperdiegeses referred to in the author text. These writings result in exhibitions of reproduced meanings, archived in popular fan fiction websites such as fanfiction.net. Seminal in the uprise of TV fan fiction was Star Trek, a series notable for its complex narrative reminiscent of the ‘quality TV’ format. Of all the programs to feature before it in televisual history, why did Star Trek generate the first instance of overwhelming fan fiction culture?
Camille Bacon-Smith (1986) recognises that over 90% of fan fic writers are female. Television history indicates that seriality and open-ended narrative, the kind associated with Star Trek, has been coupled with femininity (Morris, 2012).

“An influential generation of feminist television scholarship took the medium’s low cultural value as a provocative starting point, exploring the overt gendering of its pathologized, culturally subordinate viewers and its mediation of public and private spheres, and finding possibilities for redemptive or resistant readings in its carnivalesque, anarchic character” – Michael Kackman

If women developed groundbreaking academic discourse from watching the programs we now consider to be ‘quality TV’, we can entertain the idea that their fan fictionalising of such programs seeks to do just the same. Bacon-Smith’s findings suggest the seriality-feminine model encompasses several modes of televisual critical analysis, from the formal (the scholars) to the informal (the fans).

2) Consumer as “amatuer narratologist” (Mittell, p. 38)In the period following its finale or between its seasons, a narratively complex television show leaves time for the viewer to reflect on unresolved or ambiguous plot lines or story elements. “Any online fan forum” will indicate that these narrative mysteries manifest themselves in a myriad of opinions and theories concerning the resolution of said enigmas (ibid.). Lost is one of the most notoriously ambiguous television series’ to feature in the past decade, with most of the major story arcs within the show proving ambiguous every step of the way toward the series finale. Online fandom was rife with theories, plausibilities and implausibilities in trying to piece together the futures of the Lost characters and overall plot. In this reproduction of meaning, if certain storylines remain unresolved by a series’ conclusion, a consumer’s interpretation of that narrative has the opportunity to become popular belief. By “policing backstory consistency” (Mittell, p. 38), fans can also instigate change at the level of the show’s canon – something I’ll expand upon in my next point.

Though I haven’t seen it, it’s been hard to escape the public furore over the finale of The Sopranos. In what could be thought of as an eternal cliffhanger, the fate of protagonist Tony Soprano is left unknown after the final take smash cuts to black in a crucial moment  within the narrative. Relative to television, Umberto Eco’s notion of the open work is realised to its fullest capacity in such a moment. We can liken the finale of The Sopranos to Eco’s analysis of composers Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stochausen:

“In primitive terms we can say that they are quite literally “unfinished”: the author seems to hand them on to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit” (p. 4)

Where the ‘performer’ is the viewer and the ‘author’ David Chase and his writing team, the conclusion of HBO’s flagship gangster series exhibits an “Openness” (Eco, p. 104) that supports an iteration of Barthes’ concerning the “text [as] plural”. The show “accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible” (p. 159). Did Tony live or die? If so, how? Was there collateral? These questions and others stemming from the unexpected conclusion of the series all have answers though none are certain. The outcome of the scene is ultimately different for each individual – their agency over the text shared with the author, who has offered the clues and key narrative moments that will determine the meaning they produce.

One of the very final frames in a remarkably “open” series finale to the hugely popular ‘The Sopranos’.

3) Indirect influence on actual plot. The “amatuer narratologist” is a prerequisite to this one. Again, Lost beckons a collaborative experience between creator and ‘consumer’ (the distinction between this term and ‘contributor’ becoming quite muddy). The first means by which a viewer can indirectly affect the TV show plot is through feedback, where online forums act as polls for gauging what consumers want to see which, according to the findings of one enthusiastLost claims to do.
Television writers will hardly look to online forums for ideas that inform the bulk of a show’s content though. Yet it is the aforementioned fan opinions and theories that creators are at least aware of in resolving major plot lines, as Mittell demonstrates:

“… as in any mystery-driven fiction, viewers want to be surprised and thwarted as well as satisfied with the internal logic of the story. In processing such programs viewers find themselves both drawn into a compelling diegesis (as with all effective stories) and focused on the discursive processes of storytelling needed to achieve each show’s complexity and mystery.” (p. 38)

Essentially, the television series writer must be aware of online musings that have manifested themselves as collective agreements on how a loose end is likely resolved. The writer must then choose which audience expectations are fulfilled and which are betrayed, weighing the public’s satisfaction against it all.

The final hypothesis Roland Barthes arrives at in relation to the ‘text’ concerns “that of pleasure” arising from the ability to rework it (p. 163). Certainly, the perception that ‘quality TV’ usually offers a more enjoyable experience to other formats of television would incite argument from many, if not all viewers of television, to some degree. Mittell states:

“Complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed—personally, I much prefer watching high-quality conventional programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Everybody Loves Raymond to the narratively complex but conceptually muddled and logically maddening 24.” (p. 30)

In terms of entertainment value, I too agree that quality TV and traditionally low-brow series’ can offer as much to an audience as the other at the consumption level alone. The structures, techniques and stylistic elements of ‘quality TV’ programs promote participatory cultures where simply consuming the text only taps into a small section of value on offer. The ability to interact with television at a deep level of creativity and collaboration with the author is something that ‘quality TV’ affords that other formats do not.

Resources:
– Bacon-Smith, C: ‘Spock among the women’ in The New York Times Book Review, 1986. Pp 26-28
– Barker, C: ‘Active Audiences’ in Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage, 2003. Pp 325-329
– Barthes, R: ‘From Work to Text’ in Image Music Text ed. Heath, S. London: Fontana Press, 1977. Pp 155-164
– Eco, U: ‘The Poetics of the Open Work’ in The Open Work. USA: Harvard College, 1989. Pp 4-5, 104.
– Jenkins, Henry. ‘Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching.’ Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York UP: New York & London, 2006. Pp 37-60
– Mittell, J: Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. Viewed on September 22, 2012 at https://docs.google.com/a/student.rmit.edu.au/viewer?url=http://justtv.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/mittell-narrative-complexity.pdf
– Morris, B: ‘Reinventing Genre: Big Love’, Lecture/Class, RMIT University, unpublished. 2012.

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Showcase #1: Transmedia Trends and Hypermediacy

Max Dawson writes that we must evaluate the perception that digital shorts reflect “the television industry’s desire to give web viewers what they want” against its prominence as “television promotion”.

One possible means of evaluating a network’s motive for engaging in transmedia activity is to go right to the content itself. Corporations are no strangers to the potential economic affordances of shifting content online, as evidenced through media analyst Charlene Li:

“The advertising dollars are there, so now the sky’s the limit”

Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin coined the term hypermediacy to describe a process whereby the utilisation of a series of mediums creates transparency in viewing a particular text (p. 31). A rise in transmedia storytelling with a focus on promotion can tend to correlate with a heightened false sense of such immediacy – the ‘storytelling’ components of the transmedia content having already been fully divulged in the author text (or traditionally broadcast television series).

24 webseries spin-off The Rookie is exemplary of the shortcomings of a promotion-motivated approach to exploiting transmedia technology. The Rookie exhibits narrational and design elements inherited from its text of origin. Themes of action, espionage and violence as well as more stylistic elements such as a real-time narrational method and use of split-screen to convey simultaneous action are almost as rudimentary in the webseries as they are in 24 (there are clear temporal ellipses in The Rookie that occur over certain edit points). Despite its 24 aesthetic, The Rookie fails to expand on any sort of hyperdiegesis that might have been hinted at in the central text’s plot and altogether avoids penetrating the television show’s major storyline, as Carlos Alberto Scolari discovers:

The Rookie [is] situated a long way from the central axis… [it] includes only some of the characters from the TV show (and not Jack Bauer, the main character).

The hypermediacy of the 24 franchise (across mediums such as video games, comics and novels) offers immediacy in that its presentation across all platforms is in some way informed by the television show. In some cases, the peripheral texts have even addressed crucial hyperdiegeses that satisfy audiences who look to such content for greater access to hidden parts of the story world. Having played through the video game 24: The Game, I learned an account of events occurring between seasons 2 and 3 of the show that resolve or expand on a number of the main story’s key arcs. For instance, a villain named Max, who briefly appeared at the end of 24‘s second season and never featured in the series again, features as a primary antagonist in the video game. It can be argued that transmedia consumers of 24 content “process representations from different media and languages and reconstruct more extensive areas of the fictional world” (Scolari, p. 597). While this can be said of transmedia consumers of the 24 video game, The Rookie barely adds to the canvas of 24‘s “fictional world” but instead appeals to our desire for time-efficient consumption of content.

In every manifestation, hypermediacy makes us aware of the medium or media and (in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways) reminds us of our desire for immediacy.
– Bolter and Grusin

The Rookie appeals to 24 viewers not only by emulating the series’ narrative style but by making its key themes (action, violence, counter-terrorism, etc.) accessible in a self-contained narrative within a comparatively smaller video format. Some of the vital experiences gained from watching an 42 minute-long episode of 24 are suddenly available in a video less than an eighth of the 24 episode’s length. On one level, hypermediacy is offering immediacy through the multiple platforms that capture 24‘s narrative style, while certain mediums themselves (in this case: YouTube) extend this immediacy to an audience who are required to give up less resources than if they solely rely on the author text.

The Rookie could in part be considered a charitable effort from 24 producers catering for mobile audiences who have little time to dedicate to watching entire series’ of 24 (24 episodes of 42 minutes=1008 minutes. The duration of the first season of The Rookie is roughly a hundredth of this). However, when analysed alongside webisode series Dexter Early Cuts (a program I’ve thoroughly examined in an earlier post), The Rookie‘s presence as a promotional stunt is made more obvious. First, I’ll summarise the distinction between the ways in which these texts approach the expansion of their author texts’ narrative worlds. Scolari would categorise The Rookie as a “peripheral story” in that it has a “weak relationship to the macrostory”. On the other hand, Dexter Early Cuts presents “interstitial microstories” that “enrich the diegetic world” in its distinctness as a prequel to the first season of Dexter. Dedicating a couple of minutes more to episode duration, the writers of Dexter Early Cuts revamp the visual style of Dexter and explore hyperdiegeses referred to in the Showtime series. The viewer’s attention is focused on plot points “worthy of analysis”, allowing for “close readings” between the webseries and its author text (Dawson, p. 19). That the webseries is written by Dexter writer, Tim Schlattmann, and features the voice of Michael C. Hall shows a commitment to offering inspiring content that appeals to the consumer and demonstrates how hypermediacy can enrich a television series’ story world as opposed to offering up the type of intertextual redundancies exhibited in The Rookie.

‘Dexter Early Cuts’ strives to please where ‘The Rookie’ doesn’t by integrating its plot with the core text’s storyline.

Though we can criticise The Rookie for its shortcomings and commercially-driven design, it does render the 24 franchise accessible to a wider, more mobile and multitasking audience. The story world of 24 is made no more immediate to us by the webseries, but the rate at which we are introduced to and digest its narrational style is made rapid. Hypermedia will, to some degree, inevitably facilitate consumption of a television series’ story or style when transmedia technology is being utilised. The consumer is offered a palette of mediums that they can liberally choose from in painting their own interpretation of the core text, as Frank Rose indicates:

“How do you tell a story across a variety of different media? Deep media puts the focus on the goal: To enable members of the audience… to delve into a story at any level of depth they like, to immerse themselves in it”

Resources:
– Bolter, J; Grusin, R: Remediation: Understanding New Media, ‘Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation’. MIT Press, 2001. p. 31
– Dawson, M: Television’s Aesthetic of Efficiency: Convergence Television and the Digital Shorthttp://bgock.com/maxdawson/research_files/Ch_10_Dawson_Revised_DUKE.pdf. Pp 1-12. Viewed Oct 10, 2012.
– Loads, M: ‘Transmedia Trends: Extended Narrative or Advertising in disguise?’, Lecture/Class, RMIT University, unpublished. 2012.
– Scolari, C.A: Transmedia Storytelling: Implicit Consumers, Narrative Worlds, and Branding in Contemporary Media Production. http://www.ecam.es/archivos/1341295934-RE.pdf. Pp 594 – 598. Viewed Oct 10, 2012.

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Comments

On Blake O’Neill’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – Mad Men S01E13’
Really cool post, you really come to appreciate just how vast your analysis of Don’s character and past is after reading the entire article. Reflecting on all you’ve written before you arrive at the ‘carousel’ scene helps me (and probably other readers too) in seeing strength in your final thought on the sequence: “One wonders whether Don is right in using his family for commercial success.” With so much family crisis occurring around Don, it becomes natural that he reflects on his contribution and loyalty to his wife and children. A moral man would have done so BEFORE he became estranged from his wife and indirectly caused his brother’s suicide. And while the ‘carousel’ scene seems to demonstrate Don in his most passionate and regretful state, it is the fact that he exploits his own personal trauma for the benefit of his career that speaks volumes about the inextricably job-orientated lifestyle Don will continue to pursue.

On Alex England’s ‘Big Love – Reinventing Genre
Good pick-up on McNutt’s reading of the first season! It’s easy to see how so many other narratively complex shows can initially wow audiences in their first seasons when introducing us to the utterly unfamiliar or ‘Other’ (a “moral” serial killer in ‘Dexter’ or Chem teacher-turned-Meth cook in ‘Breaking Bad’ come to mind here). To me, such shows tend to, at first, marginally exist within the boundaries of plausibility before script writers turn to melodrama and give in to constantly churning out the next big twist (eg. when a certain AMC anti-hero inadvertently causes two planes to crash into one another because he let a junkie choke to death on her own vomit. Really?).

On Steph Iversen’s ‘Narrative complexity, so on and so forth.
Narratively complex TV really does get viewed favourably when it is commonly associated with the positively-loaded term ‘quality’. I find that Mittell writes with a predominately academic voice (probably because he writes foundational texts in the ‘narrative complexity’ discourse) but I think one of his most intriguing statements comes from a personal account of his: “I much prefer watching high-quality conventional programs like ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ to the narratively complex but conceptually muddled and logically maddening ’24’. I think this statement still problematises our preconceptions of unwatched TV because Mittell seems to suggest the label “high-quality” needs to prefix the conventional programs we enjoy (a treatment that our preferred narratively complex TV shows do not seem to undergo).

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Week Ten Reflections

On the surface, reality TV seems superficial in content and narrative compared to the ‘quality TV’ programs briefly examined in recent posts. This is to say, according to lecturer Brian Morris: reality TV is traditionally connoted as being “low brow” or “low quality”. Yet the academic discourse surrounding reality TV is just as dense as that of its ‘quality’ counterparts, and remarks on reality TV’s borrowing from several film or TV genres or modes (some of which would, standing alone, be considered ‘quality’).

Reality TV as transnational.
One aspect quite unique to reality TV is its capacity to be re-packaged in overseas models. Programs such as Idol have become templates recycled worldwide. These reality TV formats are among the most notable series’ to feature transnationally and, given their US origins, make a case for reality TV as an act of westernisation. However, Albert Moran notes that, while the US and UK nations are among a select few who act as “traditional sources” of transnational reality TV models (p. 298), there are other diverse countries that contribute their reality TV templates to the global exchange of this particular small screen format. This act of positively-perceived globalisation comes as a result of the “linguistically neutral” flavour of reality TV (Moran, 298). In other words, language barriers are irrelevant to a reality show’s capacity to make the transnational move – the content featured in the program is inherently tied to national cultures worldwide.

Reality TV as drama.
Television shows must always uphold a duty to be entertaining. Reality TV (or any format that claims to present some sort of reality) is in danger of crossing a boundary into the mundane, such as in archiving day-to-day events (Big Brother) or presenting the same weekly locale and theme (One Born Every Minute). Editing and the potential of light scripting are techniques utilised to imbue a reality TV program with a ‘three-act-structure’.
In the opening of the One Born Every Minute episode screened in the lecture, we are shown two pregnant women and their families entering the hosptial. We come to learn about these women’s personalities, their pasts and experience a range of emotions associated with getting to know these women. The second act presents a conflict: one woman refuses medical advice that will facilitate the birth of her baby while another, who is doing everything she can to help her own labour be speedier, has resigned herself to being confined to the hospital for days on end. I have a sneaking suspicion that the ladies weren’t in the hospital at the same time when filmed. The juxtaposition of narratives (mother desperately trying everything to have baby against mother’s stubbornness preventing birth) seems too coincidental. We can assume that the sequences may have been filmed days, weeks or months apart and have been included alongside one another in the same episode for the sake of generating narrational structure around the program.

Reality TV as documentary.
Brian claims that the term ‘factual TV’ is obsolete in light of programs that are preferably categorised as reality TV, such as Big Brother. Yet as Annette Hill highlights, shades of factual TV are visible in recent reality TV formats that exhibit “the natural ability of genres in making and remaking factuality” (p. 118). For instance, in a program as construed as Big Brother, the “invasive organisms” of the Big Brother house, such as its hidden cameras – and, by extension, the national general public – still depict a ‘reality’ in the sense that the show’s contestants are forced to adapt to obstacles imposed on them. The show’s ‘reality’ is predicated on the contestants’ natural response to the challenges of such an alternative lifestyle. Sure, the show’s writers look to have some dramatic narrative plot points feature at specific points within an episode, but such “script writing” relies on character profiling of the contestants on the crew’s part; an understanding of the true aspects of their personalities.

Annette Hill claims “The construction of cultural discourses surrounding reality TV as artificial, unnatural, threatening, invasive, as a moral and cultural risk to society, highlights feral properties that threaten the integrity of factual broadcasting and act as a barrier to genre diversity” (p. 118). I don’t doubt for a second that these negative aspects of television culture exist in the reality TV genre but, as I have outlined above, there are impressive production standards and well constructed case studies to be gleaned from certain reality TV programs. We should not be so quick to turn our nose up at the format as a whole.

Resources:
– Hill, A. “Truth claims” Restyling Factual TV: News, Documentary and Reality Television. Psychology Press. 2007.
– Moran, A. “Configurations of the New Television Landscape”, A Companion to Television. Pp 291 – 304. 2009
– Morris, B. “Reality TV: Origins and Context”, Lecture/Class. RMIT University, unpublished.

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Week Nine Reflections

The first RMIT course reading I was ever assigned was a chapter from ‘The Media Student’s Book’ entitled Approaching Media Texts. Along one page’s margins was the URL for a YouTube video that supposedly exemplified the indexical link between “memory, longing and photographs.” I had watched the clip just a few weeks earlier when I wilfully endured the first season of Mad Men. I do not hide my distaste for the show (the main cause of this perspective being its characters for which I bear no empathy) but this is perhaps something I’ll delve further into in a future post. Don Draper’s “Carousel” pitch was arguably the highlight of the first season and, despite my misgivings of the series, has remained, in my mind, a remarkable moment for television.

The first thing that strikes me when I watch this scene is the demeanour of the two men that the Sterling Cooper advertising agency host in the board meeting. The pair appear doubtful of their product’s appeal from the outset. This is conveyed through their performance (the man not wearing the glasses, Joe Herman, glances at the wheel complacently and speaks with little confidence) and their dialogue (Lynn Taylor’s “We know it’s hard…”).

With the stage set for Sterling Cooper to pitch their advertising concept to the prospective clients, we are presented with a wide shot of the room and all the men inside it (there is a female assistant in the shot also, but our view of her is obscured by Salvatore Romano’s body – foregrounding the series’ predominant theme of sexism and gender inequality). Don Draper occupies the limelight through his staging in relation to other characters in the scene (he stands while the rest sit) and the lighting employed. The most intense facial soft light is reserved for Draper’s face, a feature that our eye is naturally drawn to by the roof and lamp light sources that seem to bookend his face. The interchange between this shot, a couple of two shots of the attentive ‘projector’ pair and medium shots of Draper foreshadow the impact of the latter’s pitch in the sequence unfolding, where Draper’s voice commands in a soundscape otherwise devoid of speech elements.

A close-up of Draper heralds a defining moment in his speech and draws the viewer’s attention to the elements of his dialogue and performance (evidenced in the pause before the word that will inform the overarching theme of Draper’s monologue: “nostalgia”). Before the nitty-gritty of the scene is to arrive, we are given one last reminder of the sexism that pervades the world of Mad Men through Draper’s addressing of the female assistant as “sweetheart”. Discrimination undercuts this seemingly affectionate term through Draper’s singular instance of acknowledging the woman’s presence as well as the delivery of the word. His inflection seems not to ask “could you turn the lights off?” but “you know the cue, why haven’t you switched them off yet?”.

The subsequent absence of lighting signposts the forthcoming significance of Draper’s pitch. The light of the projector beams toward the camera and becomes the shot’s primary visual attraction, signalling its importance within the scene’s narrative. With the fade in of dramatic music, the board room space that we have become familiar with over the series’ first season seems to complete its transition into a surreal atmosphere that Draper now has full authority over.

The shots featuring projected slides in an otherwise scantily lit space continue to emphasise the centrepiece of Draper’s speech. The slides take on a whole new level of narrative significance when we recognise that they feature photographs of Draper’s family. An appreciation for this sequence thus comes from the aesthetic of how the projector is worked into the show’s seriality. That the projector acts as a tool by which we enter Don’s subjective examination of his marriage and family can be viewed as yet another landmark in the storytelling capabilities of narratively complex television. This spectacle, then, is among many “specific sequences or episodes that we might consider akin to special effects” (Mittell, p. 35).

The increasing variation of the music accompanying Draper’s speech charts the transition of the projector from one-dimensional, headache-inducing, problematic product to an unexpectedly mythical (“time machine”) and powerfully emotive machine (“it takes us to a place where we ache to go again”). “The wheel” becomes abolished for “the carousel” and it is in the drawn-out, expansive monologue of Don Draper’s that we come to view this latter term as truly encapsulating of the product’s sentiment. Such product refurbishment lends itself to both Mad Men‘s episodic resolutions (Don Draper has, as is usually the case per episode, clinched yet another client through his pitching prowess) and serial aesthetics (the presentation addresses Draper’s ongoing issues with his family).

The writer’s choice of showing the product’s visual advertisement before one last ‘wedding slide’ of Don and Betty foregrounds Mad Men‘s seriality as paramount to its narrative – the episodic resolution a by-product of such a sequence. If this sentiment weren’t clear enough, Harry Crane’s emotional departure from the board room evokes his own marital issues resulting from his infidelity in an episode previous to ‘The Wheel’.

The sequence concludes by rather explicitly invoking a sense of a three-act structure to the scene. The all-but-certain clients simultaneously swivel in their chairs to face Don, mouths ajar and, in the case of Herman, tongues poking in disbelief. The two shot that captures their movement is almost identical to the shot that introduced the men’s apprehensions concerning their product. While not temporally juxtaposed, the visual consistency between these shots marks a clear transition from the scene’s beginning (the despairing businessmen) to its end (they are awe-struck by Don’s ideas), cueing reflection on the causation of such plot development (the scene’s ‘middle’).

Having finished watching the first season of Mad Men, I once told my brother of my disinterest in the program to which he swiftly accused me of lacking the intelligence to appreciate its content. I can’t think of many times I’ve been more furious with my brother than in that instance. Such a statement warrants a discussion on matters of taste which completely misses the point of my dissatisfaction. In justifying his personal struggle to join the masses in appreciating Mad Men, Jason Mittell writes that “a program must start strong enough to inspire viewers to commit to many hours of viewing over weekly installments”. I feel the “Carousel” speech is a diamond in the rough that is Mad Men – a gem that fellow cynics would likely consider found too far down the track to gain our constant viewership.

Resources:
– Mittell, J: Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. Viewed on September 22, 2012 at https://docs.google.com/a/student.rmit.edu.au/viewer?url=http://justtv.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/mittell-narrative-complexity.pdf
– Mittell, J: On Disliking Mad Men. Viewed on September 22, 2012 at http://justtv.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/on-disliking-mad-men/

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Week Eight Reflections

As film history attests to, different narrative forms have developed as a result of dissatisfaction with the medium’s dominant modes of storytelling at the time. The first documentaries, for instance, were produced in retaliation to a collective despair at the “absence of “reality”” demonstrated in Hollywood fiction films (Nichols, p. 139). Perhaps more relevant to the rise of “quality TV” are the documentary modes that, according to documentary theorist Bill Nichols, rose in prominence during the decades following the pioneer documentaries. The predominant mode of an era sought to eradicate the flaws of documentary in their ‘predecessor’ modes’ failure to present a “reality” of perfect quality. While Nichols’ theory of taxonomy is one that is constantly criticised, his ideas incite investigation into narrative “evolution” across other mediums. Are ‘quality TV’ programs a result of a genre reinvented?

“If you argue that shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and The Wire are indebted to the soap opera genre, it’s pretty easy to rebut that these programs are “more evolved” than daytime – the aesthetic criteria that celebrate primetime serials will judge soap operas as cro magnon relatives at best, and thus worthy of evolutionary extinction!” – Jason Mittell

Social Darwinism appears an inevitable point of discussion when discussing ‘quality TV’ in relation to soap operas. This seems unnecessary when you consider that narrative complexity and soap operas occupy entirely different planes of thought in television studies. The former is a “narrative mode” typical of David Bordwell’s assessment of film narrative (Mittell, p. 29) while the latter is a genre that arguably adopts this narrative form but fails to gain entry into the ‘quality TV’ category. The term ‘quality TV’, then, is muddy – it is neither a discrete narrative mode as it is a subdivision of Mittell’s “narrative complexity” nor is it a genre if we define soap opera as genre. This is because ‘quality TV’ acts as a mechanism for genres like the gangster (The Sopranos) and the fantasy (Game of Thrones) to emerge as whatever it is we perceive to embody ‘quality TV’. For now, it seems ‘primetime’ and ‘daytime’ are the only means by which we can effectively make distinction between the two terms that become rather confusing when considered under the same mode of thinking, as Mittell demonstrates:

“So what are the shared features? Seriality, of course, and often an investment in melodrama. But the way daytime and primetime handle serial form and melodramatic writing and performance are so different that I don’t see this as a particularly compelling link.”

Big Love is a wave in a veritable sea of HBO series’ that tackle melodrama from a different angle to soap operas. ‘Quality TV’ programs and ‘soapies’ bear similarity in their presentation of constant melodrama – a concept foreign to audiences for the relative infrequency of such crisis in their own lives (for the average viewer, anyway). The context that births such melodrama, however, becomes the point of difference between ‘quality TV’ and soap operas. In Home and Away, viewers are shown crises in contexts that appear traditional and probable to occur in their own lives if they were to encounter conflicts in the near future. Big Love re-packages these crises through alternative contexts. The ‘love paradigm’ is reframed via the notion of polygamy, the family politics debacle reconstituted through a look at alternative ways to alternative ways of living. Soap opera’s failure to tackle melodrama through unconventional contexts present in ‘quality TV’ programs is likely, in part, a result of the feared “unlikeable protagonist”, an obstacle Big Love overcomes by pitting “good polygamy” (the Henricksons) against “bad polygamy” (the Juniper Valley compound).

In ‘Big Love’, the polygamist lifestyle of the Henrickson family is made ethically digestable through the presence of a group of antagonists with darker motives driving their own polygamy.

My own experiences with Big Love demonstrate that ‘quality TV’ programs can be appreciated for their commitment to avoiding textual redundancy and repetition so organic to the soap opera. Watching the pilot episode and series finale in succession, with next to no knowledge of exposition that had occurred between these first and last episodes, I could infer that there had been significant plot and character development as well as substantial forward temporal movement. That’s a lot captured in 53 fifty minute episodes (2650 minutes in total), a tremendous effort at streamlining narrative content when compared to the efficiency of soap operas:

“One thing we need to remember is that an average primetime serial produces around 22 hours each year, or even less for cable series (without subtracting out commercial time). A soap opera produces over ten times that amount each year, a stark difference in the sheer amount of storytelling volume… The primetime shows I’m most interested in explicitly discourage such viewing strategies & textual redundancies – their plots and enigmas are constructed to reward viewers who watch every episode carefully, and they refuse redundancy and repetition for dramatic effect.”

In years to come, viewers of The Young and the Restless won’t be easily recalling that episode where so-and-so’s evil twin stole so-and-so’s lover because so-and-so was buried alive – partially because there are thousands-upon-thousands of TYatR episodes – but also because the ‘coffin’ segment was an indistinguishable chapter among the ‘so-and-so twins’ saga made insignificant for its similarity to other scenarios spawning from the feud between the two characters. On the other hand, if you miss a cue on a ‘quality TV’ program, you’re likely never to be given that clue again – as is the case in The Wire when we are forced to quickly put together all the pieces that initiate Stringer Bell’s death (in particular: Omar and Mouzone’s hate for Stringer and Avon’s fury over D’Angelo’s death – emotions that developed during events from the season previous to Stringer’s death).

Not only are soap operas and “quality TV” not snuggly fitting together under the term genre, their melodramatic characteristics, to me, seem too disparate for one to be a product of the other:

“Soap operas did not invent serial form or melodrama – they just happened to be the dominant locale for both throughout the bulk of television history. But I see today’s primetime serials as much more influenced by other serial formats, like comic books and 19th century novels, than by soap operas. Thus today’s primetime serial is cousins with the soap opera, sharing common ancestry from the 19th century novel, but very few primetime shows seem to be directly influenced by daytime traditions.” – Michael Kackman

And there we go with the ‘family tree’ schematics of media again. I imagine that creators of ‘quality TV’ would cringe at the suggestion that their works are influenced by soap operas: the mindless drivel that requires little innovative thinking from the team bringing the ‘soapie’ to the screen. Kackman sees ‘quality TV’ as offering so much more for necessary societal change:

“Our ability even to identify narrative complexity and see it as a marker of quality television is itself an act not of aesthetic, but cultural, recognition… I’d like to see us talk more about melodrama and contemporary quality television not just as an ameliorative, cathartic symbolic resolution of social anxieties, but as a mechanism for the registering of political dreams.”

Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer’s ‘Big Love’ attempts to normalise alternative marriage and family values (like their own) through the story of a family struggling with society’s perception of polygamy.

Here’s where Big Love completely detaches itself from the soap opera. The show’s creators are in a homosexual marriage to one another and wrote the series at a time where family values were (and still are) being hotly debated in the public sphere. That Big Love questions normative meanings of family and marriage allows the pair to implicitly, if perhaps a little underhandedly, tackle the issues surfacing in their own lives. Television’s competency to challenge social norms remain impossible in the soap opera realm, where hyperbole and apathy toward realism means that no one takes the show’s content to be reflective of actual conflicts facing humankind.

Resources:
– Kackman, M: ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’ in Flow Journal, March 5, 2010. Viewed on September 15, 2012 at http://flowtv.org/2010/03/flow-favorites-quality-television-melodrama-and-cultural-complexity-michael-kackman-university-of-texas-austin/

– Mittell, J: ‘More Thoughts On Soap Operas and Television Seriality’ on Media Commons, July 14, 2009. Viewed on September 15, 2012 at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/content/more-thoughts-soap-operas-and-television-seriality

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Week Seven Reflections

There is a degree of self-consciousness in the mode of plotting… in the awareness that viewers watch complex programs in part to see “how will they do it?”… The operational aesthetic is heightened in spectacular moments within narratively complex programs, specific sequences or episodes that we might consider akin to special effects.” – Jason Mittell

For the narratively complex program viewer, television’s gratifying qualities, according to Mittell, extend beyond the realm of plot and can instead be focused around the idea of spectacle. In this case, complex narrative, in entire episodes or particular segments, will seek less to build upon character development and integral plot lines but opts to become innovative (though experimental might be a more appropriate term) in its style and presentation so far apart from the program’s norm.

One such complex narrative anamoly is the Breaking Bad bottle episode ‘Fly’, a 45-minute audiovisual experiment restricted to one location (an underground meth lab) and two “protagonists” in Walt and Jesse. Every other episode of the five season AMC series provides exposition on a number of storylines by featuring multiple characters facing multiple conflicts across multiple locales. In ‘Fly’, the program’s plot develops very little, if at all, considering the potential breakthrough the episode hints at providing (Jesse finds out that Walt was complicit in his lover’s death) never comes to fruition. One can theoretically have never watched ‘Fly’ in having watched every other episode of Breaking Bad and still have not missed a beat. From my perspective – that is, the perspective of a film and television studies critic – ‘Fly’ is a gift regardless of how the show’s plot is or isn’t developed in an entire episode. As Mittell puts it, gratification comes from discovering the solution to “how will they do it”, how Breaking Bad‘s producers are going to showcase a set of interactions between two characters in one seemingly dull setting for a mammoth 45 minutes.

The fly. The perfect organism for an entire episode to revolve around where Walt and Jesse are immersed in claustrophobia, anxiety and insomnia.

I feel that this break in convention isn’t a random and entirely experimental choice; the episode does illustrate and comment on the world in which Walt and Jesse find themselves in. That we are trapped in Gus Fring’s dank, gloomy meth lab for the duration of ‘Fly’ helps the viewer empathise with Walt and Jesse, slaves to Gus as well as their crippling debts, addictions and personal ineptitudes. No longer do we have a seemingly uncontrolled freedom as we magically glide between the many settings of Albuquerque. We must instead share Walt and Jesse’s claustrophobia: potential allegories for the state this pair’s friends and families find themselves in. So while ‘Fly’ seems, on one level, a brave experiment, close analysis suggests that this episode fits snugly in the Breaking Bad fabula. That being said, I can empathise with viewers who look to their favourite programs for regular conventions and thus bear a distaste for ‘Fly’. My own friends have said they “hated that fly episode” and this stands as incontrovertible proof that “complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed” (Mittell, p. 30) and that these past couple of decades, whilst heralding a new and exciting mode of narrative complexity, may be remembered an equal amount for their contribution to everlasting televisual hallmarks as well as their trial and error in bringing these historical techniques to the small screen.

Resources:
Mittell, J: Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. Viewed on September 22, 2012 at https://docs.google.com/a/student.rmit.edu.au/viewer?url=http://justtv.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/mittell-narrative-complexity.pdf

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