Complex TV – An Introduction

I’ve been tracking Jason Mittell’s ‘Complex TV’ book for a while now. He’s been writing it ‘in the open’, as it were, and although I didn’t really get a chance to get into the book as it was being written, I snapped it up once the final version was available on Kindle. And then I devoured it within a couple of weeks.

There’s a lot of good stuff within its pages. You can buy the book itself here – I highly recommend it for anyone interested in how TV (and narrative more generally) has developed in the last twenty years or so.

Some of it is probably stating the obvious to anyone with a passing interest in analysing narrative, but the way they are formulated, together with plenty of insightful passages which taught me a lot, makes it a very useful book as a whole.

Disclaimers – the book does take a mainly American focus. There are some mentions of British TV shows, but the focus is firmly on US programmes. I’d love to see an equivalent for several other shows, too. The book also almost exclusively deals with serialised narrative, as opposed to stand alone films or one-off dramas. And finally, spoilers do abound, so, sorry about that.

Now, originally I was going to do a single blog post, in the manner of Phil Gyford’s book-notes, summarising and highlighting parts of the book. However, as it stands, I have 375 highlighted passages, so instead, and rather appropriately, this is going to be a serialised set of notes – starting here, with the introduction. I’ve included the Kindle location references in brackets after each quote, and linked to the equivalent paragraph online (where possible), for ease of lookup – though sometimes the language will have changed slightly between the online and Kindle versions.


One of the key parts of the introduction is to justify, quite rightly, why anyone should be interested in the subject:

“The idea that viewers would want to watch — and rewatch — a television series in strict chronology and collectively document their discoveries with a group of strangers was once laughable but is now mainstream.” (137)

“One of the chief reasons that complex television has become a mainstream trend is the broad availability of online fan sites to facilitate collective discussions and decoding practices among fans, so these sites can provide research resources for accessing and understanding consumption practices among a program’s dedicated and engaged viewership.” (211)

“…it is vital to remember that the type of die-hard fan who participates in forums, creates remix videos, or seeks out spoilers is not a typical television viewer. But the rise of online fandom has made a fan who does embrace such practices less of a fringe outlier and more one who resides on one end of a spectrum of engagement.” (238)

“…it seems fair to imagine that the practices of this comparatively small number of participatory viewers represent broader interests that matter to a significant segment of the program’s viewership.” (245)

So far, so obvious – but a crucial point – yes, this is still probably a ‘niche’ behaviour amongst people who watch TV, but it is a growing phenomenon, and one which is worth study. Another reason for giving this behaviour validity is to acknowledge the fact that technology has changed, making this kind of analysis much more accessible and possible, to a wider set of the audience. This is what people do when they have access to this kind of technology. Those who create narrative in any media, given the technological context of today’s society, would be foolish, therefore, to dismiss this section of the audience entirely – though of course it shouldn’t mean that huge budgets should necessarily be poured into supporting this, separate from the actual production of the narrative.

The book’s focus – poetics

“This book is not focused on analyzing meanings as conveyed by television narratives. Instead, I aim to explore how such meanings are given expressive possibility through the form of televised stories, analyzing how such content is conveyed via storytelling.” (158)

“Poetics can be defined broadly as a focus on the specific ways that texts make meaning, concerned with formal aspects of media more than issues of content or broader cultural forces — in short, the guiding question for poetics looking at a cultural text such as a television series is “how does this text work?” This focus on poetics is different from more common questions of interpretation, which seek to answer “what does this mean?” or of cultural power, asking “how does this impact society?” ” (176)

The vast majority of scholarship in this area tends to focus on the meaning (and thus the societal, cultural and political importance) of particular narratives. That is obviously important, but is not the focus here – it’s the mechanics and architecture which are of interest. Mittell goes on to define three forms of poetics that the book is concerned with:

Historical poetics

“Historical poetics situates formal developments within specific contexts of production, circulation, and reception, where innovations are viewed not as creative breakthroughs by visionary artists but at the nexus of numerous historical forces that work to transform norms and possibilities.” (190)

Cognitive poetics

“…account[s] for how viewers engage with texts…we can best understand the process of viewing (or reading literature) by drawing on our knowledge of cognition and perception and then positing how the formal elements in a text might be experienced by such a viewer — while viewers are not reduced to their mental mechanics, the insights of cognitive psychology inform how we imagine the possible ways that viewers engage with film or television.” (200)

This is probably the most interesting one for me, personally. I’ve found it continually frustrating that people within the media industry talk of television viewers as ‘passive’. Whilst this may be the case for those who use the screen as background wallpaper, I would argue that anyone who is at all engaged with what’s happening on screen is far from passive, at least mentally, if not physically.

Reader-oriented poetics

“…reader-oriented poetics that fuses literary reader-response criticism with close analysis of televisual form…”

This form of poetics is closely associated with Robert Allen, who:

“…in his landmark study of daytime soap operas; Allen explores the genre’s formal elements as creating potential pleasures, interpretations, and modes of engagement for its viewers, and he cross-references that analysis with a history of the genre’s reception.” (207)

The narrative as network

Mittell then goes on to talk about another aspect which fascinates me – the impact of network culture (something that James Bridle and Kate Eltham have explored in particular), on serialised narrative:

“…we cannot treat a text as a bounded, clearly defined, stable object of study. Especially (though not exclusively) in the digital era, a television program is suffused within and constituted by an intertextual web that pushes textual boundaries outward, blurring the experiential borders between watching a program and engaging with its paratexts. Similarly, the serial text itself is less of a linear storytelling object than a sprawling library of narrative content that might be consumed via a wide range of practices, sequences, fragments, moments, choices, and repetitions.” (216)

“…texts only come to matter in their consumption, circulation, and proliferation, and thus when I discuss the forms and structures of complex television programs, I treat them as part of a lived cultural practice, not a static, bounded, and fixed creative work. To understand television textuality, we must look beyond what appears on a single screen to explore the range of sites where such texts are constituted, and serially reconstituted, through practices of cultural engagement.” (223)

To which I can only say – yes, yes, yes. This is exactly why we need to consider the Web (URIs & hyperlinks) as a natural form for narrative in the modern age.

…and finally, a definition

…which is always useful, right?

“A basic definition of television serial storytelling charts out this terrain: a television serial creates a sustained narrative world, populated by a consistent set of characters who experience a chain of events over time.” (277)

It’s worth reading the whole of that paragraph, in truth. It also makes the distinction between the ‘narrative discourse’ and the ‘story’ – the former being the way the story is conveyed, the latter being the actual plot and so on. But of particular interest to me here are the concepts of a sustained narrative world (echoing the ‘design to be permanent’ ethos of the Web), and a chain of events over time, which speaks to the ‘storyliner’ within me – things I’ve explored both in the Stories and subsequent Storyline ontologies.

Next time – ‘Complexity in Context’ (read the online version of the chapter, here)

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