Jason Mittell’s article, Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, is a summation of the ways in which the  television series has continually developed in terms of ‘narrational mode’.  The creative storytelling techniques that these TV shows utilize, according to Mittell, have evolved significantly in the last twenty or so years.  So much so that he believes that “American television in the past twenty years will be remembered as an era of narrative experimentation and innovation challenging the norms of what the medium can do.” (Mittell, 2006)

Having only been around 20 years myself and lacking a desire to seek out and watch something like Hogan’s Heros (1965 – 1971), I can’t testify wholeheartedly to the claim that narratives have become more complex and whatnot.  Nonetheless, even within my lifespan, I feel I have observed significant development in narrative techniques.  I mean, from my memory, there was nothing with the plot complexity or vastness of Breaking Bad or Madmen in the 1990s.  Or at least there were far less compared to the huge amount of narratively complex TV shows pumped out these days.

In her article, Television and the Neo-Baroque in the Contemporary Television Serial, Angela Ndalianis outlines the rather rapid evolution of the television series’ narrative complexity.  She identifies how television has moved from generally featuring “Closed narrative forms” to feature more “neo-baroque open structures that favor the movement of the serial – the ‘infinite work in progress’.” (Ndalianis, 2005).  She bases her work on Omar Calabrese’s Neo-Baroque A Sign of the Times (1992),  which gives five prototypes for televisual narrative.

The television series has its roots in the serial prototype with “distinct episodes with common characters but no overall series narrative” (Ndalianis, 2005).  Many of these types of programs still feature on television today, shows like The Loony Toons for example.  Such shows features stories that entirely self contained, there is no carry over of narrative baggage from episode to episode – all that remains the same is the characters and sometimes setting.  These programs bear an appeal in their accessibility, as there is no prerequisite knowledge required to enjoy the show in its entirety.

The second prototype as outlined by Ndalianis, is “self-contained episodes that have a single narrative goal”.  She identifies that many reality or game shows follow this formula: “The overall series goal is clear” and in between reaching “Each episode consists of formulaic tasks or rituals” (Ndalianis, 2005).

The third prototype is “self-contained episodes, an expanding series of time, and character progression throughout the series”.  Examples of this include shows like Stargate SG-1 and in some regards The Simpsons.  While still acting primarily as a narrative within the episode, it does exhibit a memory of previous episodes and narrative will likely carry over into the following episodes.

The Third Prototype – self-contained episodes, an expanding series time, and character progression throughout the series.

The fourth prototype is “series as variation on a theme producing a palimpsest effect.”  Shows such as CSI exhibit this feature.  Despite not containing any overlays of narrative from episode to episode, the differences in the progress of episodic narrative are  means of interaction between the episodes.  When it comes to CSI, Ndalianis points out  “the audience must have an understanding of how crimes were committed and solved in pre-existing episodes.” (Ndalianis, 2005)

The fifth and final prototype is the serial with “continuing episodes and multiple narrative formations”, which is “the most dominant serial form in television series today”.  It is also where the vast majority of the the so-called ‘quality TV’ fits.  The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Twin Peaks, et cetera-et cetera.  “It is characterized by dynamic narrative structures with multiple centres… throughout the entire series the viewer becomes embroiled in the changing lives and stories of multiple characters…The shows are riddled with multiple narrative formations that stress polycentrism within the series itself.” (Ndalianis, 2005)

 

The evolution of the narrative in the industry, says Mittell, has been brought about not by any one man who brainstormed game changing ways of putting together a TV program, but from “a number of historical forces that work to transform the norms established with any creative practice” (Mittell, 2006).  Namely, “key transformations in the media industries, technologies, and audience behaviors” (Mittell, 2006).  Phenomena such as the increased prestige in the medium of television, “its reputation as a producers medium”, the greater distribution of cable television and of VCRs and the fan networking that the internet enabled, all fertilized this narratively complex form.  “The incentives and possibilities they provided to both media industries and viewers encourage the success of many such programs,” says Mittell. (Mittell, 2006)

Ndalianis touches on a similar point, outlying how the economic benefits of complex serial was a trigger to their continued emergence. “By giving media-consumers familiar characters and continuing storylines, it was more likely that these fictional universes could weave themselves within the everyday world of the viewer” (Ndalianis, 2005).   Thus, establishing shows that enticed viewers to tune for the next episode by delayed closure – employing the use of cliff hanger scenarios – is as much a financial imperative as it aesthetic one.  “Economics gives rise to the new aesthetics and to new formal patterns – evident in this instance, in the shape of serial narrative formations.” (Ndalianis, 2005)

Furthermore, the rather endless narrative capacity that the neo-baroque brings with it allows for texts to converge with other media such as webisodes, games, computer games, websites, novels, comic books, fan fiction and theme park attractions, generating more sources for possible revenue.

It all sounds rather technologically deterministic.  It is an idea I personally find hard to disagree with.  However, I would not deny entirely that the narrative complexity that has developed hasn’t been significantly impacted – and continues to be impacted – by the creative genius of various people in the industry.  The stylistic uniqueness of such shows as Seinfeld, demonstrate how creativity largely unharnessed by technology, can influence development of narrative – or of anything for that matter.

Not so long ago, I was with a friend who happens to be well into the second season of Game of Thrones.  He put on an episode, I watched.  When he asked for my verdict, I responded, “…. It’s okay, I guess.”  He was relatively stunned that I hadn’t managed to enjoy the episode as much as he did.  Weeks later, I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones.  My verdict this time was far more favorable.  I could contextually understand what was going on and wasn’t left trying desperately to figure out who is a good guy and who is a bad guy.  I was running at the same pace as the show was developing and therefore had a far greater appreciation for it.

This scenario, exemplifies the problem that restrained complex narrative television from booming earlier than it did.  The industry was understandably reluctant to produce shows with the complexity of Madmen because, as my friend put it to me yesterday, “it takes about six episodes to really get into”.  In a pre-set box, pre-internet, pre-multiple broadcast era, you can see why there was reluctance in the industry to commit to programming a season of something like Twin Peaks – a show which exemplifies how an obscure plot can deter viewers despite it being critically acclaimed.  “Traditional industry logic dictated that audiences lacked the weekly consistency to allow for serialized narratives… But as the number of channels has grown and the size of the audience for any single program has shrunk, networks and channels have grown to recognize that a consistent cult following of a small but dedicated audience can suffice to make a show economically viable.”

One example Mittell believes demonstrates an increase in narrative complexity is a degree of self-consciousness that is exhibited in shows such as Arrested Development and Seinfeld.  I remember a scene from Family Guy in the episode Love Blacktually where Stewie discusses with Brain which characters can and can’t hear him talk.  They are then interrupted by an unidentified voice that shouts, “We’re rolling”.  It’s a feature that reveals the shows ‘createdness’; it breaks into the fiction world and shows the hand of the creators.  Judging by the success (popular and critical) of some of the shows that have used this technique, it seems to suggest that viewers are appeased by seeing and understanding the mechanics of a show.  “We watch these shows not just to get swept away in a realistic narrative world but also to watch the gears at work, marveling at the craft required to pull of such narrative pyro techniques.”  This “operational reflexivity… invites us to care about the story world while simultaneously appreciating its construction.”(Mittell, 2006)

Developments in technologies have given television greater freedom to produce great cultural products.  One may even go so far as to say that the narrative capacity television shows possess gives them the ability to overtake film as most powerful form of visual storytelling.  As an observer of not just television products but the industry as well, it is the freedom given by the narrative possibilities in television that excite me about its future.

Sources cited:

Mittell, Jason, Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, 2006, http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/the_velvet_light_trap/v058/58.1mittell.html (Accessd, 10 October, 2012)

Ndalianis, Angela, Television and the Neo-Baroque in the Contemporary Television Serial, 2005, http://www.academia.edu/1000096/Television_and_the_neo-baroque (Accessed, 10 October, 2012)

Calabrese, Omar, Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times, 1992, Princeton Univ Pr

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Over the last 20 years, people concerned with television have begun throwing around a rather contentious and vague term: Quality TV’.

Being a medium that has and continues to face a stigma of being a ‘low brow’ medium – one that is aesthetically inferior to other mediums such as film, theatre or the novel – the notion of quality hasn’t traditionally been associated with television.  Rather, it has been viewed and for a large part still is viewed as cultural dope.  But around 1990, some shows apparently became a little more ‘sophisticated’.

Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991) is one of the most touted examples of this.  Popularly referred to as “art television” (Thompson, 2003), the show revealed a new avenue for TV.  Television had the capacity to be ‘high brow’.

The success of the show coincided with the development of cable TV in the US.  Namely, HBO emerged, which has since aired critically acclaimed shows like The Sopranos and The Wire.  The slogan of the station: “It’s not TV.  It’s HBO”, infers a clear distinction between the traditionally ‘low brow’ TV and the television it delivers.

The term ‘quality TV’ entered the industry and academic vernacular.  However, it did so without anyone really knowing precisely what it means.  The term seemingly requires a value judgment, which in our postmodern times would be considered subjective and relative.

The now disbanded (ironically perhaps) advocacy group, Viewers For Quality Television, defined a quality show as being:

“Something we anticipate before and savor after. It focuses more on relationships than situations; it explores character, it enlightens, challenges, involves and confronts the viewer; it provokes thought and is remembered tomorrow. A quality show colors life in shades of grey.” (Swanson, 2000)

But while this definition may be eloquent, there isn’t much withholding Big Brother or Neighbours from being described as quality TV.  All these criteria could well be filled on subjective basis.  Meanwhile, Kristin Thompson argues that this more arty form of TV features,“…a loosening of causality, a greater emphasis on psychological or anecdotal realism, violations of classical clarity of space and time, explicit authorial comment, and ambiguity.” (Thompson, 2003)

Yet again though, this distinction could well be broken into by many serial melodramas.  And with that revelation, things will never be the same again!

Sudeep Dasgupta argues for the abolishment of the term ‘quality TV’ as “it is an ideological term that does not refer to any actually existing medium.” (Dasgupta)  “The debate around ‘Quality TV’… is completely uninteresting if it revolves around the term ‘quality’.  By framing the popular within the high/low cultural divide… critics of ‘Quality TV’ repeat the problematic conceptual framing of quality by its proponents.”

He argues that “rather than ‘assuming that cultural objects have a fixed value’ one needs to keep in mind that culture is what puts value at stake.”  Laying claims of quality is a misinterpretation of the formulation of culture.  Culture is something that is given power by the people and by invested powers.  By the academic community to dishing out the term quality it is only perpetuating the notion of objective cultural quality.  “When critics of ‘quality TV’ repeat the discourse of the television industry they align texts, viewers, and the medium in ways in which are highly problematic.”

However Mittell argues against the idea of ‘quality TV’ being rendered entirely obsolete in the academic community, “in the name of an egalitarian (and I believe ultimately dishonest) poetics of inclusion.” (Mittell, 2007)

Mittell energetically states that he would,

“…relish the opportunity to openly debate the value of programs without suggesting that all evaluations are equally justifiable as idiosyncratic personal taste or simple ideological manifestations. Just because aesthetics can be done in a way that disenfranchises some positions does not require the evacuation of evaluative claims.” (Mittell 2007)

Even if one can sleep with Mittell’s argument here, the notion of ‘quality TV’ still remains ambiguous.  Michael Kackman points out, various shows popularly thought of as quality TV, seem very much to be in the realms of melodrama; “…most of the scholars embracing the narrative complexity of quality TV would be quick to point out that its antecedents lie in soaps and other low serial forms.” (Kackman, 2010) Jason Mittell concurs: “The soap opera plays an important role in the history of serialized TV, as it has been the centerpiece of serial form for decades.” (Mittell, 2009)

Kackman uses Lost to illustrate how melodrama pervades into the vague category of quality TV.  “A melodramatic imagination drives the narrative, and drives our own viewing pleasures: can the characters reconcile their conflicted pasts with their new challenges? Will they find happiness, completion, peace?” (Kackman, 2010)

With the acknowledgement that quality TV has its roots and some of its branches in melodrama, we again are forced to reevaluate what it is that we label quality TV.  “What kinds of characters, settings, dilemmas, can be seen as cleverly complex, deserving of the ‘quality’ label, and which will be relegated to the scrap heap of soapy excess,” Kackman asks. (Kackman, 2010)

NOW IT’S TIME FOR EVERYBODY’S FAVOURITE SEGMENT, THE TEXTUAL EXAMPLE!  FEAAATUURRRING: BIG LOVE.

Oh yes, the HBO series about the polygamist family.  The show did rather well both critically and popularly, winning nominations for a Golden Globe and an Emmy along the way.  But it wasn’t all love for Big Love though – plenty of haters too.  Chicago Tribune critic Maurice Ryan giving it a 10/100 on Metacritic and comparing it to “watching paint dry.”

I’ll declare that I’m a fan but not a fan boy.  I’ve seen a few episodes here and there but have never gone out of my way to watch it.  The acting seems undeniably superb, the cinematography often quite moving, the production values all of a high standard.

But many have asked – myself included – is this just a cashed up, bigamous version of Bold & The Beautiful?  The show seemingly shares a lot in common with the melodrama.  Its main premise is the relationships between three housewives and a husband.  Aside from the kink of polygamy, there doesn’t seem to be much separating it from your good ol’ fashioned daytime soap.  New York Post critic John Leonard writes, “the first five hours feel more soapy than salacious”. Is it just a soap opera rebranded as primetime, HBO, narratively complex, quality TV?  And if it isn’t as many proclaim, how exactly has it escaped the classification?

Melodrama and your typical narratively complex ‘quality TV’, have quite a bit in common.  They both occupy such similar territory as they both are required by their form to construct a narrative arc with the trajectory to prolong itself for anything between 6 – 60 episodes per year.  Also, ‘quality TV’ generally seems to mimic the focus on relationships that is common to melodrama.

But yet again, television geek, Jason Mittell jumps help articulate ‘quality TV’.  In an interview with Sam Ford, he offers some aspects in melodrama and primetime television that are distinct from each other (primetime being the place for most quality TV programs).  One of the main factors for Mittell is “how redundancy and repetition is handled” (Mittell, 2009).  Melodrama and primetime differentiate in the way in which narrative arcs are spun out over the duration of the programs.

According to Mittell:

–       Individual episodes of primetime have much more defined boundaries and distinctive features than on daytime.

–       Missing a week of a soap opera would cause less confusion than missing a week of a primetime serial (assuming the viewer does not watch the “previously on” recaps on primetime), because daytime incorporates far more recapping into the dialogue than on primetime.

–       Soaps spend much more time talking about events that have happened rather than showing them, while primetime serials show events more frequently than talking about them

–       Individual storylines on primetime serials are introduced and concluded far more quickly than on daytime, with the exception of major plot arcs & mythologies (as on Lost). (Mittell, 2009)

An episode of Home & Away this week is dedicated to the funeral and aftermath of a characters death.  This conforms to the above description of melodrama.  Comparatively, a primetime episode would generally not focus an entire episode on the aftermath of a narrative event.  It deals with its events rather than talks about them in their postmortem.

However, even with Mittell’s stirring differentiation between melodrama and ‘quality TV’, we are still unsure of exactly what ‘quality TV’ is.  I’m not going to try and offer a definition myself, nor do I think that quality television is something that can really be given a solid and static definition.  Much like the word art, it is subject to continuous evolution, reinvention, exploration, cultural shifts and industry revolution.  Pinning down the qualities of quality is something that can’t really be done, due to the eternally shifting nature of it.

Sources cited:

Swanson, Dorothy, The Story of Viewers for Quality Television: From Grassroots to Prime Time, Syracuse Univ Pr, 2000

Thompson, Kristen, Storytelling in Film and Television, Harvard University Press, May 2003

Dasgupta, Sudeep, Policing the people: Television studies and the problem of ‘quality’ http://www.necsus-ejms.org/policing-the-people-television-studies-and-the-problem-of-quality-by-sudeep-dasgupta/ (accessed 10 October, 2012)

Mittell, Jason, Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies), 2007, http://web.mit.edu/uricchio/Public/television/mittell%20evaluation.pdf (accessed 10 October, 2012)

Kackman, Michael, Flow Favourites: Quality Television, Melodrama, and Cultural Complexity, 2012, http://flowtv.org/2010/03/flow-favorites-quality-television-melodrama-and-cultural-complexity-michael-kackman-university-of-texas-austin/ (accessed 10 October, 2012)

Mittell, Jason; Ford, Sam, More thoughts on soap opera and television seriality, 2009, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/content/more-thoughts-soap-operas-and-television-seriality (accessed 10 October, 2012)

Here are the comments that I left on other student’s blogs:

1.

Alex Robinson’s, Complex TV – http://alextvcultures.wordpress.com/

Mr. Robinson,

I’m interested in the second idea here: are complex narrative shows of ‘higher quality’ that your regular show?
The conventional verses complex, as critics seem to term them, seem to be becoming categories harder and harder to segregate. From my viewing habits, it seems as if many of the conventional shows are developing these long term and rather complex narratives within the conventional show structure. Look at How I Met Your Mother. Pretty much every episode follows a formula similar to that of your regular sitcom, but gradually there is substantial narrative development and arguably, ‘complexity’. The same deal with Community and Modern Family. The boundaries are blurred big time.

But let’s put categorizing complexity aside and move onto the ‘quality’ issue.
I think it’s hard to disagree with your statement that “it is much harder to pull of a complex narrative than it is a more conventional plot”, which in turn makes them more worthy of critical acclamation. Personally, I have found myself more moved by the complex narratives, i.e. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, rather than the short form narrative programs. I become significantly more emotionally invested in them as opposed to conventional shows. But is being moved the measurement of quality? Or is it the addictiveness of a program that determines it quality, in which case some would argue Hardcore Pawn is a prime contender. Or is it a matter of ‘art’? If so, then we are putting the vague term of quality TV in the hands of perhaps the vaguest term in history.

Abstraction, abstraction, abstraction.

I feel that the term quality (defined as: native excellence or superiority by Dictionary.com) can’t really be chucked around in this post-modern age we are lingering in. Taste is undeniably a subjective and hugely personal thing. Labeling one show quality and another objectively inferior doesn’t stack up in academic discourse.

 

2.

Genevieve Day’s, Hopelessly Devoted To Reality TV – http://tvculturesgd.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/hopelessly-devoted-to-reality-tv/

Scintillating one Ms. Day.

I find it interesting how we are willing to let ourselves be seduced by the ridiculous reality tag that shows like The Hills and The Real Housewives make, despite them being undeniably set up.  Whether it be set up by creating an environment where a particular behaviour is encouraged, ‘soft scripting’ the cast so that they follow a particular narrative arc and all they really do is add lip to the scenes, or whether they just straight up hand them a line to say to the camera.  Reality is often so far gone that to call it reality TV seems like some kind of ironic joke.

Nonetheless, hordes of viewers, from all demographics it seems, get their fix from these shows. Big-time screenwriter, Daniel Petrie Jr. says: “We look at reality TV, which is billed as unscripted, and we know it is scripted. We understand that shows don’t want to call the writers writers because they want to maintain the illusion that it is reality, that stuff just happens.”  Some are happy to ignore the contradiction of reality TV.  Ignorance is bliss I suppose.  Realism ain’t shit.

But if this is true, why don’t you just go to a fictional drama rather than play this self deception game with reality TV? Why does Dance Moms come before Mad Men and its cousins?

And if I wanted to take a socially protective stance on this, I might say that the deception of labelling these shows as ‘reality’ is encouraging a deluded/egotistical perception of reality amongst some of the more easily influenced viewers.  Tsk, tsk TV executives, keep it real.

 

3.

Joshua Bell’s, Big Love to Mum For Her Love of the Soap – http://www.whythecomic.com/tv-cultures/2012/10/11/showcase-post-one-big-love-to-mum-for-her-love-of-the-soap

Interesting thoughts on the differentiation between melodrama and complex narrative, Josh.

Like you said, they both occupy such similar territory as they both are required by their form to construct a narrative arc with the trajectory to last about 24 or 12 episodes.  Also, for a narrative to be complex, it is hard not to have a huge focus on ‘relationships’, for these are the stuff that almost all stories are made of, right?

I find Mittell’s distinctions between the two to be rather well thought out.   His recognition of how the different operational requirements affect the content that they manufacture is an important point.  The soap traditionally needs to pump out a few episodes every week for a good half year season.  While your primetime show usually has a 12 episode run over 12 weeks.  The output of the soap is so great that it runs the risk of burning out characters and plot lines if they maintain the narrative development rate of a primetime show.

Also, the idea that audience engagement creates a distinction between the two I find to be true.  A show like Home and Away allows for viewers to miss a weeks worth of episodes and still be able to keep fairly good pace with the narrative.  Where missing an episode or two of Breaking Bad will put you significantly in the dark about what’s going on.  The soap incorporates almost excessive recapping into episodes to both ration development and keep temporally engaged viewers in the loop.  I mean watching this weeks preview for Home and Away, it seems that an entire episode is focused on the mourning of the death of a character.  It’s a perfect example of this prolonging of narrative events that soaps are prone to.

 

 

 

Reality TV.  What is it?  No one seems to be able to nail it down with a definition or create a solid distinction between it and other genres, i.e. documentary.  It seems like whatever suggestion you put forth is rebutted by some show that breaks the mold but still is generally considered ‘reality TV’.

I hit the online dictionaries in search of that elusive definition for reality TV:

– Dictionary.com said reality TV is a genre of television programming in which ‘real life’ people are followed in a situation, game, etc.”  If this is the case, then how do we separate it from documentary, which too follow ‘real life’ people in a situation and sometimes even games?  From this definition, you can’t.  Sorry Dictionary.com, you fail this time.

– Cambridge online dictionary:
“Television programmes about ordinary people who are filmed in real situations, rather than actors”.

For starters, Cambridge, you’re forgetting the whole sub genre of celebrity focused reality shows: Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Being Lara Bingle, Hogan Knows Best.  Do these celebs count as ordinary people?  Also, reality TV often uses actors.  Take the show Punk’d for example, which generally has more people acting than not.

Secondly, unless one considers the situation of a minority of farmers being surrounded by a majority of potential wives at a random farm in Australia with an army of camera crews filming the on goings – or other scenarios of this absurd nature – a ‘real situation’, then the definition again falls short.   Creator of Survivor, Mark Burnett, has admitted to this unreality common to the genre: “I tell good stories. It really is not reality TV. It really is unscripted drama.”

But even this unscriptedness has a question mark over it.  Reality TV shows generally employ a team of writers to dictate the narrative of the show.  If they want the fat girl to have a fight with the hot girl then they compose a scenario in which this will happen.  While the writers may not control every word coming out of their mouth, ‘soft scripting’ has the ability to make people behave in a way entirely different to what they may usually.  Other shows have been caught red handed going so far as to hand a cast member a line to say on camera.

According to screenwriter, Daniel Petrie Jr., “We look at reality TV, which is billed as unscripted, and we know it is scripted. We understand that shows don’t want to call the writers writers because they want to maintain the illusion that it is reality, that stuff just happens.”  Even just putting a camera in someone’s face has the capacity to change his or her behaviour.  Aaron Barnhart writes in his article How reality TV took over prime time, “In recent years filmmakers increasingly conceded that their work was subject to what they call the Heisenberg Principle. The idea, adapted from quantum physics, is that the very act of documenting reality — just flipping on a camera — disturbs and thus alters it.”  Defining reality TV as following people in ‘real’ situations seems far, far off the mark.

The online English dictionary tries to find a way around this ‘real’ error that Cambridge makes by defining reality TV as a type of television programming which aims to show how ordinary people behave in everyday life, or in situations, often created by the programme makers, which are intended to represent everyday life.”

Thus, it debatably makes it through a loophole by saying that a person eating a bucket of live cockroaches is intended to represent everyday life – perhaps in the way that it shows the triumph of the will over fear…  But still, it’s pushing it.

Personally, I found Urban Dictionary’s definition rather accurate:
A truly saddening development of modern media. Programming which lacks any redeeming social, intellectual or moral value but is nonetheless poignant in a macabre way due to the reflection it offers of a rapidly declining western culture. Primarily watched by mindless, brainwashed Americans who are long since bereft of any intelligent thought or recognizable human values.”

This derision that is so common to reality TV could be argued to be a defining factor of the genre.  James Poniewozik writes: “If there is one thing that reality TV fans generally agree on, it’s that they should be ashamed of themselves for watching it…  Arguably, the most widely agreed on definition of “reality TV” is “non-fiction television of which I personally disapprove.

 

The somehow loveable, Don Draper, tasked with selling a Kodak slide dispenser, pulls out a powerful, moving presentation that uses his own family photos as nostalgic rocket fuel.  It is overwhelmingly successful, the Kodak representatives are left speechless and it even brings co-worker Harry to tears.

Some Internet psychos claim it to be the best scene of all time.  And they’re probably not that far off.  The Carousel scene, as it has come to be known, is a defining moment of the first season… in fact it’s a defining moment of the whole series.

The sales pitches in Mad Men are kind of the adrenaline moment of each episode, the climax.  Where Dexter and The Sopranos has the kill of the week, Mad Men usually has a sales pitch that sows the episode together.

The scene immediately lays bare the character roles and the plot dynamic.  Two business like Kodak representatives, Joe Harman and Lindt Taylor arrive in search of a advertising pitch to sell ‘the wheel’, which they admit will be hard “because wheels aren’t really seen as exciting technology even though they are the original.”  The audience almost immediately dislikes the representatives.  Balding, chubby, suit wearing and unfamiliar to the audience, they take on the image of stereotypical corporate greed and social standoffishness.  Their presence represents a critical challenging our beloved mad men, and for this, we regard them with a slight contempt.

Kodak Representatives, Joe Harman and Lindt Taylor.

The camera comes back to a long shot and the viewer sees the presentation room setting in its entirety for the first time.  In typical mad men fashion, half the people in the scene are smoking the others are garnished with cups of tea, glasses of water and fruit cakes.  For once though there isn’t a glass of scotch anywhere inset…  The lighting is predominantly artificial, only a touch of natural light from outside seeps through the blinds, just like the lifestyle that the mad men sell.  The drab, easily collapsible, plywood like walls typical of the era, create the boundaries of the room while the roof is also is visible in the top of the screen – a common stylistic feature of Mad Men – making sure it is apparent to the viewer just how boxed in the characters really are, physically and mentally.

The scene’s long shot

While all the other characters recline into their chairs, Don remains standing.  The stage is set.  All eyes angle up toward the face of Don as he charismatically delivers his monologue, embodying his familiar patriarchal role in the show.

If there are still doubters at the capacity of TV to be art then show them this to shut them up.  Don’s monologue is… beautiful.   As he delivers it, the reflected light from the projector fills his face, providing a shot of Don rather unfamiliar to the show.  Whereas usually characters in Mad Men are shot with a half their face lit emphasising the concealed intentions and aspects of their character that reside within them, in this scene, the full face lighting perhaps signifies that Don’s words here are his most sincere and most revealing.  We are seeing a truthful side of Don.  Seeing his most base passions and desires – a longing for the love of his family.

The common ‘half face lit’ shot of Draper.

Full Face Lighting

As he talks, the hum of the projector provides a soothing noise under Don’s words, furthering the feeling of safety, balance and home that are pushed in the speech.  Also the sounds of the slide give a rhythmic effect to the monologue, stamping Don’s words with a mark of emptiness as the viewer hears the slide pulled out of the projector, and another one fill its place.

But a bitter irony, familiar in Mad Men, lies in the fact that this sentimental revelation by Don, perhaps his most revealing at this point in the series, is constructed purely as a tool of trade, a method of marketing.  It is done for a commercial imperative.  This humanizing moment is lost to the perils of commercialism.

As it happens, when Don returns home, his family has gone away for Thanksgiving.  The realization that it appears Don gained from his Kodak presentation was in vain.  The advertising world has won out over the strength of family yet again.

 

Big Love.  The five season HBO drama that revolves around the troubles and triumphs of a polygamist family.  The show did rather well both critically and popularly, winning nominations for a Golden Globe and an Emmy along the way.  It wasn’t all love for Big Love though – plenty of haters too.  Chicago Tribune critic Maurice Ryan giving it a 10/100 on Metacritic and comparing it to “watching paint dry.”

I’ll declare that I’m a fan but not a fan boy.  I’ve seen a few episodes here and there but have never gone out of my way to watch it.  The acting seems undeniably superb, the cinematography often quite moving (I reference here the scene in which the three wives drive down a highway in a Mini Cooper), the so-called production values all of a high standard.

But I can’t help but ask, is this just a cashed up, bigamous version of Bold & The Beautiful?  New York Post critic John Leonard writes, “the first five hours feel more soapy than salacious”. Is it just a soap opera rebranded as primetime, HBO, narratively complex, quality TV?

‘HBO television’ has gradually come to be accepted by most as a step up from the trashy, run of the mill, cultural dope that is served up for the most part by television.  As their slogan infers: It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”

This rebranding of the more prestigious television material as an entirely new genre of television has brought about notions of this thing called quality TV.  Usually associated with narrative complexity, quality TV is thought to have departed from the rather lowbrow melodrama, soap operaesque stuff that used to be is thought to have dominated television until up to about 20 years ago.  Media scholar Jason Mittell writes that, “American television in the past twenty years will be remembered as an era of narrative experimentation and innovation challenging the norms of what the medium can do.”  We are in an era where television can be considered somewhat highbrow.

 

However, it is pointed out by some academics that perhaps the HBO style shows are not so different from their melodramatic, soap opera style ancestors.  Michael Kackman writes that “most of the scholars embracing the narrative complexity of quality TV would be quick to point out that its antecedents lie in soaps and other low serial forms.”  Well, Jason Mittell does anyway: “The soap opera,” writes Mittell, “plays an important role in the history of serialized TV, as it has been the centerpiece of serial form for decades.”

The application of the term quality seems to be about as ambiguous as the ending to the first season of Lost.  Kackman rightly asks, “what kinds of characters, settings, dilemmas, can be seen as cleverly complex, deserving of the quality label, and which will be relegated to the scrap heap of soapy excess.”

The highbrow TV watchers are thrown into defense mode, touting all types of things like “those shows just aren’t as artfully composed as my shows,” or perhaps that “the relationships, the plotlines, the characters are less complex.”

Kackman puts forward the idea that “Complexity isn’t just something we find in a text; it’s something we bring to a text – and our recognition of certain characters as meaningfully conflicted, their narrative and moral dilemmas agonizingly or beguilingly puzzling, is a cultural identification.”  Maybe this is why I don’t get Asian TV…

Surely though, someone can outline the differences between the primetime elite and the soap opera trash.  Yep; Jason Mittell saves the day again.  Or he at least offers the opinion that one main difference is “how redundancy and repetition is handled.”

Mittell goes on to list 10 of his observations that show how primetime differs from soap opera TV.  I’ll narrow this down to what I think are the more interesting:

–       Individual episodes of primetime have much more defined boundaries and distinctive features than on daytime.

–       Missing a week of a soap opera would cause less confusion than missing a week of a primetime serial (assuming the viewer does not watch the “previously on” recaps on primetime), because daytime incorporates far more recapping into the dialogue than on primetime.

–       Soaps spend much more time talking about events that have happened rather than showing them, while primetime serials show events more frequently than talking about them

–       Individual storylines on primetime serials are introduced and concluded far more quickly than on daytime, with the exception of major plot arcs & mythologies (as on Lost).

What Mr. Mittell offers is fascinating, but more so identifies the differences created by the demands of the daytime/soap opera television sub-industry, which is required to produce 10 times that of a primetime broadcast.

But back to Big Love.  Upon watching the trailer to season 5 of the show, can one deny that the show is routed deep in the cultural trashcans of melodrama?  Or does this show transcend the bubble bath label through its aesthetic accomplishments, political and moral outreach or character intricacies?  I guess, God Only Knows.

Articles mentioned:

http://flowtv.org/2010/03/flow-favorites-quality-television-melodrama-and-cultural-complexity-michael-kackman-university-of-texas-austin/

http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/content/more-thoughts-soap-operas-and-television-seriality

Jason Mittell’s article, Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, is a summation of the ways in which the HBO-esque (or narratively complex) TV series’ have continually developed in terms of ‘narrational mode’.  The creative storytelling techniques that these TV shows utilize, according to Mittell, have evolved significantly in the last twenty or so years.  So much so that he believes that “American television in the past twenty years will be remembered as an era of narrative experimentation and innovation challenging the norms of what the medium can do.”

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Man of the moment, Jason Mittell.

Having only been around 20 years myself and lacking a desire to seek out and watch something like Hogan’s Heros (1965 – 1971), I can’t testify wholeheartedly to the claim that narratives have become more complex and whatnot.  Nonetheless, even within my lifespan, I feel I have observed significant development in narrative techniques.  I mean, from my memory, there was nothing with the plot complexity or vastness of Breaking Bad or Madmen in the 1990s.  Or at least there were far less compared to the huge amount of narratively complex TV shows pumped out these days.

This evolution in the industry, says Mittell, has been brought about not by any one man who brainstormed game changing ways of putting together a TV program, but from “a number of historical forces that work to transform the norms established with any creative practice.”  Namely, “key transformations in the media industries, technologies, and audience behaviors”.  Phenomena such as the increased prestige in the medium of television, “its reputation as a producers medium”, the greater distribution of cable television and of VCRs and the fan networking that the internet enabled, all fertilized this narratively complex form.  “The incentives and possibilities they provided to both media industries and viewers encourage the success of many such programs,” says Mittell.  Technological determinism seems to be what he is getting at here.  It is an idea I personally find hard to disagree with.  However, I would not deny entirely that the narrative complexity that has developed hasn’t been significantly impacted by the creative genius of various people in the industry.

Mittell goes on to point out how long form complex narratives defied traditional ideas of consumption.

Not so long ago, I was with a friend who happens to be well into the second season of Game of Thrones.  He put on an episode, I watched.  When he asked for my verdict, I responded, “…. It’s okay, I guess.”  He was relatively stunned that I hadn’t managed to enjoy the episode as much as he did.  Weeks later, I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones.  My verdict this time was far more favorable.  I could contextually understand what was going on and wasn’t left trying desperately to figure out who is a good guy and who is a bad guy.

 

Madmen, more like… mad narrative

This scenario, exemplifies the problem that restrained complex narrative television from booming earlier than it did.  The industry was understandably reluctant to produce shows with the complexity of Madmen because, as my friend put it to me yesterday, “it takes about six episodes to really get into”.  In a pre-set box, pre-internet, pre-multiple broadcast era, you can see why there was reluctance in the industry to commit to programming a season of something like Twin Peaks – a show which exemplifies how an obscure plot can deter viewers despite it being critically acclaimed.  “Traditional industry logic dictated that audiences lacked the weekly consistency to allow for serialized narratives… But as the number of channels has grown and the size of the audience for any single program has shrunk, networks and channels have grown to recognize that a consistent cult following of a small but dedicated audience can suffice to make a show economically viable.”

One example Mittell believes demonstrates an increase in narrative complexity is a degree of self-consciousness that is exhibited in shows such as Arrested Development and Seinfeld.  I remember a scene from Family Guy in the episode Love Blacktually where Stewie discusses with Brain which characters can and can’t hear him talk.  They are then interrupted by an unidentified voice that shouts, “We’re rolling”.  It’s a feature that reveals the shows ‘createdness’; it breaks into the fiction world and shows the hand of the creators.  Judging by the success (popular and critical) of some of the shows that have used this technique, it seems to suggest that viewers are appeased by seeing and understanding the mechanics of a show.  “We watch these shows not just to get swept away in a realistic narrative world but also to watch the gears at work, marveling at the craft required to pull of such narrative pyrotechniques.”  This “operational reflexivity… invites us to care about the storyworld while simultaneously appreciating its construction.”

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It is narrative advancements such as these that excite me about the capacity of television.  Developments in technologies have given television greater freedom to produce great cultural products.  I may even go so far as to say that television shows have developed the capacity to overtake film as most powerful form of visual storytelling.  Big call.  I’ll leave it on that.

Little did Ginia Bellafante know that when she published her pessimistic review of Game of Thrones that she would unleash Internet warfare.  In particular, her view that the fantasy is strictly for boys has incited an online bitch fight, e.g. “Ginia, you ignorant slut“. 

A dramatisation of the internet assault hurled at Ginia for her review.

The section that drew most of the haters’ hate was this:

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise… Game of Thrones is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

http://tv.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/arts/television/game-of-thrones-begins-sunday-on-hbo-review.html?_r=0

With her remarks here, Ginia is entering into a highly contentious
GAME OF TASTES!

It is not just that she is insulting the show that gets the fans riled up, but that she makes the claim that, generally speaking, medieval fantasy isn’t for females.  In doing this, she draws responses such as this:

“Ms. Bellafante: How about you, I don’t know, get crazy and try to seek out a female fan of Game of Thrones? Trust me, there are thousands of them! Then you could have asked her why she likes the series. Or you could have been more scientific and asked lots of female fans. This is better than simply making the arrogant claim that this is boy fiction.”

http://geekfemme.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/response-to-ny-times-game-of-thrones.html

It’s a question of taste.

You see taste these days isn’t what it used to be.  From an academic perspective at least, we are a lot less discriminatory about what we deem to be ‘good taste’ or ‘bad taste’, ‘girl taste’ or ‘boy taste’.

A great man named Pierre Bourdieu left behind him some very influential work on the subject of taste.  He writes in Distinction (1984):

“[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a given…social space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position.”

My man, Pierre.

Taste is a means by which social distinctions are made and maintained.  It determines which forms of culture are desirable and undesirable.  It determines how we interpret things and the way we speak of them.  It has an enormous impact on almost everything.

Now if we examine Ginia Bellafante’s claims with Bourdieu in mind, her judgements of cheapness begin to look like those of an aristocrat, which is particularly controversial seeing as she is writing for rather libertarian publication The New York Times.

Game of Thrones falls into a cultural division that has long been, and evidently continues to be, victimized by so called higher forms of culture.  The fantasy genre accommodates titles such as Star Trek, World of Warcraft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  These ones in particular, despite being hugely successful and even verging on the mainstream, are still often ridden off as being liked by rather nerdy, loopy people.

A Trekkie family photo

They are subject to the criticism of ‘fandom’.  In his 1992 publication Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins points out that the term ‘fan’ has never managed to break free of ‘earlier connotations of religious and political zealotry, false belief, orgiastic excess, possession and madness’.

Though judging by the brutal reaction to Bellafante’s article, it seems we may have entered into an era where Trekkies and the like are no longer tolerating this taste discrimination.  They are demanding that their tastes be taken seriously rather than ridden off as childish or ‘low culture’.  Furthermore, female fantasy fans are refusing to take shit for liking this apparent ‘boy fiction’.

Yet despite continually becoming more accepting in our taste, one has to wonder whether there is a point where ‘taste’ is rendered obsolete?  Is it possible?  As a departing gift, I leave you with an interesting quote from William Brookes in his article, On Being Tasteless (1982):

“We live in a tasteful world. We are surrounded by people of taste. Worst of all, we ourselves must constantly choose from a wealth of options open to us; we are seduced by our own preferences our likes and our dislikes.  How can we possibly aspire to tastelessness and why, after all, should we?”

I sat on a rusty old bus journeying through the middle of nowhere in the middle of Cambodia. Suddenly, the 30cmx30cm television screen at the front of the bus switched on.  I watched eagerly.  A Cambodian serial began playing.  While I didn’t understand a word, I could make out the plot line through the acting.  It was similar to Bold and the Beautiful, but somehow, even more over the top.  The close ups were closer, the acting even more melodramatic, and the plot sequence even cheesier.

I had a few other experiences with Cambodian television during my time there, all of which were remarkably similar to the show I saw on the bus.  As for other Asian television, I admit my experience hasn’t been too extensive.  Yet watching the Korean show, Winter’s Sonata, and Japan’s Long Vacation in the lecture last week, I have to admit, I must be a TV racist.  I can’t stand Asian television.  It seems to be trying to do a bad impression of American TV.

I left the lecture theatre somewhat confused, pondering my western centric television taste.  I mean this stuff is obviously popular in Asia.  So if they like it, why don’t I?  Suddenly I bumped in my Singaporean friend Nick.  Seeing as he is Asian I asked him, “Do you like Asian TV?”  His response, “No, I hate it.  It’s all crap.  I hate it.”  By no means is this a scientific validation for Asian television’s inferiority, but nonetheless, I found it interesting to note this televisual treason.

Is this simply a case of cultural bias or ethnocentrism?  Has my cultural history inclined me to view Asian TV with a cynical eye? If so, is this morally wrong? Or, is the production quality of Asian television simply not as advanced as it is in the west, in particular America?  Is it a matter of prejudice or of taste?

In critical discourse, there seems to be a predominant argument for ethnocentrism.  “Ethnocentrism,” according to Wikipedia, “is judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture.  While it is considered a natural tendency of human psychology, it has developed a generally negative connotation.”

However, I’m reluctant to let Asian TV off the hook purely based on my own cultural difference.  I am going to go out on a limb and say that not specifically Western, but American TV is of a higher standard than Asian…generally speaking anyway.  Americans, why are they so good at everything.  I would attribute their television success primarily to their strong economic and social condition, globally speaking.  They’ve had the finances and the liberty to continuously pump out television content for about 80 years now and have gotten pretty good at it.  In comparison, the Asian television has been hindered by social constraints, marginal finances and in some cases rendered obsolete by war such as Japan in the 1940s.  By no means do I wish to advocate that American’s are creatively and critically stronger, but that their cultural domination has been brought about from their favourable circumstances in the last century, and they are still riding that wave today.

 

On another bus ride through Cambodia, it was the radio rather than the TV that was turned on.  I listened intently.  It didn’t take me long to realize that the song playing was an Asian version of the Foundations’ Build Me Up Buttercup.  This occurrence wasn’t a one off.  Asian covers of western songs accounted for a good proportion of the music that this radio station played.

I found myself a little disturbed by this observation that Cambodia seemed to be suckling off the Western world’s cultural domain, hacking into artifacts such as that one hit wonder from 1968.  This phenomenon, from my experience, is rather pervasive throughout Asian culture nowadays.  The buzz word:  Globalisation.  For some reason, the Asian world seems particularly susceptible to this invasion of culture, if you can call it that. 

Cultural imperialism, some might say; the imposition of a foreign viewpoint or civilisation on a people.  The shift to capitalist or more commercialised economies in the recent history throughout much of Asia has perhaps allowed for the commercially seductive ways of the Western world to creep in.

And so perhaps it is this that whenever I watch Asian TV, makes me feel like I’m watching an amateurly produced, toned down version of western shows and brings this image to my mind of the elderly Asian population gazing at them with distain, wondering what has happened to Oriental culture.

This or I’m an absolute ethnocentric.  I’m gunna go watch some Japanese gameshows.  These on the other hand, I can watch.

 

The subject I want to focus on is the webisode, which according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is:  an episode especially of a TV show that may or may not have been telecast but can be viewed at a web site.

As a case study, I want to use this mini episode of Community that is originally found on the shows website.  The clip runs for a brief 154 seconds (two and a half minutes).  It begins and ends with promotional sequences advertising the website Xfinity TV.  In between the promotions, a 128 second scene plays.  The scene is a textbook Community clip, featuring the main characters in the shows most familiar setting, acting out a scene that you could imagine seeing on regular episode.  The webisodes narrative is self contained; there are no repercussion from it in the TV episodes.  There is however the continuous context of the scene being a “90 second study break” acting throughout the five webisodes.  Also, it could be said that a wider knowledge of the television series would generate a more pleasurable experience as the viewer would already be familiar with the character’s traits and complexities.  Nonetheless, even for the unfamiliar viewer, there is definitely some humour to be found in the scene.  For a seasoned Community watcher on the other hand, the webisode is mainly just another scene to be enjoyed.  Though it could perhaps be seen as a more concentrated presentation of the characters, thus providing the viewer with greater insight into the creator’s conceptions.

Webisodes, CHANGing it up.

Watching the webisode critically, it becomes obvious that it is acting primarily as a promotion for the show, and also perhaps for extra revenue.  The very closing seconds, the webisode spruiks the show’s time and station. While the very blatant promotion for Xfinity TV is most likely paid for, and perhaps a source of extra viewership since, as Yvette Nicole Brown tells us: “you can watch Community and thousands of other shows, whenever and wherever you want.  That’s Exfinity TV!”  However, despite the webisode being overtly created for commercial imperatives (even more so than a typical episode) rather than creative ones, I still find it to function successfully.  Max Dawson points out that:

“a recognition of these promotional functions need not discount the insights that close analysis of television’s digital shorts may yield. Quite the contrary, it is the brazen fashion in which shorts carry out their commercial obligations that make them so revealing. As highly-concentrated versions of television programs designed to compel viewers towards full-length, advertiser-supported or pay-per-view presentations or retail opportunities, digital shorts disclose a great deal about the U.S. television industry’s conceptions of its programs and audiences.”

Community’s webisodes demonstrate quite convincingly that a webisode can carry out the “functions of promos, content, and commercials all at once”.  In fact, in some instances, I find that the brevity of a webisode can make it more appealing that watching an entire episode.

I will now embark on a rather absurd and relatively related rant:

I’m an ex-Youtube addict. I’ve been clean about a year and a half now.  I’ve relapsed a couple of times but for the best part of it, I’ve been able to distract myself with other, less brain numbing activities.  I was addicted for about a year.  As soon as I arrived home, I’d boot it up and sink into the anaesthesia.  One hit after another.  There’s always something else to watch, something else to search.  I’d be awake until 4 a.m. just sitting there, jaw open, watching, waiting.  It became apparent to me that I had almost completely ceased watching TV!  Shocking, I know.

Youtube and online visual content in general is appeasing to the viewer in quite a different way than television or cinema are.  It’s like TV on speed, one may say.  A typical online video doesn’t go over five minutes long and it is in this brevity that its major appeal lies.  You see, in today’s fast paced world, we don’t feel like we have time to sit down and watch an hour long episode of Breaking Bad.  Rather, we have to get our entertainment fix in short bursts.  In shots of Jaegermeister rather than glasses of wine.

Being so short in length, means that the online punchline comes faster, the realisation made quicker, the revelation provided earlier.  We don’t want any more of this waiting!  We don’t need anymore of this plot thickening!   We don’t need any more suspense!  Just give me that f**king hit of entertainment!

TV shows are too long, too drawn out.  You have to commit to them.  They nag at you, beg you to snuggle with them for thirty minutes before you can go do something else.  I don’t have the time for that sh*t.  On top of this, Youtube is free.  No paying for a two year subscription to f**king Foxtel.  No $50 box sets.  At the very worse you have to sit through a 30 second ad.  Compare that to the sixteen minutes you sit through when you watch an hour length program on ordinary TV.

I don’t care what anyone says.  In my opinion, internet television, vlogs, webisodes, et cetera, can all provide content of a quality that rivals or even betters television.  Also, because of its practicality, I would hold that it has the capacity to take the place of or at least equal television as the primary medium for content distribution.  I’ll let Mr. Dawson play me out:

“As television’s convergence with digital media approaches critical mass, making digital shorts a more commonplace component of audiences’ media diets, required is an aesthetic that is as open to the artistry of the seventy-second promo as it is to that of the seventy-hour serial.”