Sunday, October 28, 2012

Complicating Television With Narrative Complexity

     This Digging Deeper Opportunity really hit home with me because Mittell (2006) reviewed my favorite kinds of films/television. In this article, however, he focuses on the television aspect. The term he uses is narrative complexity (NC) and he defines it as "a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration"(p. 32). More or less NC refers to the story-telling of a television series, but in more artistic ways, ways that captivate the viewer and makes him or her think, become aware, and invested in what he or she is watching. What comes to my mind are psychological thrillers like Shutter Island, however there aren't many television series that take that route. Some series that he mentions are The X-Files, Alias, Buffy, Angel, Seinfeld, and Lost among others.
     Mittell (2006) discusses how NC is not exactly a new subject as it is evident in other media such as novels, comic books, video games, and as I've mentioned, films. But, the concept is relatively new to television and he reveals several ways that NC has emerged in that medium: key transformations in the media industries, technologies, and audience behaviors. I believe that these are institutional shifts that contribute to NC growth in contemporary American television and that all three rely on each other in order to be successful.

Transformations in Media Industries
     Here, Mittell (2006) discusses the creative ability of writers and producers that isn't typically found in film as well as other types of television. Writers and producers use this ability to produce shows that don't fit to the typical mold of television such as conventional sitcoms, soaps, and reality television. They don't really fit the mold because these kinds of shows are a mesh of different styles. They incorporate different ways of telling a story even within a show's own series. Story arcs continue across episodes and even seasons. Climaxes are revealed in the beginning and the events leading up to it make up the show. Mittell (2006) refers to all of this as "narrative pyrotechnics." I think that this shift in creative control between media industries (film and television in this example) hits perfectly on our class discussion last week of the creativity-business spectrum. Mittell (2006) mentions that most of the creators of these shows came from film and are now more free to exercise their creative process. Therefore, these writers and producers would fall on that spectrum of wanting to be creative, but wanting to be successful in what they do ("success" being subjective). So, with television networks allowing for more creativity and risk with their creators (shows like Louie and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), the more NC is allowed to flourish.

     Mittell (2006) discusses that technologies have allowed for the growth of NC because technology, more or less, affects the third shift of audience behaviors. First of all, being able to watch films or television series at anytime by owning a copy of said entertainment allows for better viewer engagement and "rewatchability." The visual upgrade of switching from VHS to DVD is a plus as well. Then other forms of digitization has led to this shift as well, mostly things that stem from the internet such as blogs, online role-playing sites, fan websites, etc. He also mentions the incorporation of video games and the creative influence they've had on the creators. Video games are also able to further submerge the viewer if the game is based off a series or film. In short, technology has put television series in the hands of the audience, allowing them to engage with the media in a more personal way.
     To go a little further, some options that Mittel didn't discuss are resources like Netflix and Hulu. Like DVDs, they allow the viewer to watch films and television series at their convenience. They've even taken TV on DVD to another level because one doesn't have to own 4 to 6 discs of a season for every season if it is offered through these resources. The kicker about them is that they are more portable as they can be viewed on nearly any smartphone, tablet, or laptop. This is true as well for other online resources such as fan sites. For instance, Lostpedia is a wiki for fans of lost to share theories and other information about the show Lost. So, not only does the site allow fans to immerse themselves in the show with other fans, but they can do so nearly anywhere at anytime.
     All this to say that technologies allow for NC growth because it allows the viewer to experience the series in deeper ways. The creators know this and I would argue they will utilize technology in their creative process, thus allowing for further growth of NC.

Audience Behaviors
     As I've mentioned, these three shifts rely on each other, but I would argue that this shift is the most important. Mittell (2006) says that "the innovations comprising narrative complexity have stuck because they have been actively embraced by viewers" (p. 32). He also discusses that there are several series that didn't gain a large enough audience to keep the show on the air, but there was enough of a loyal fan base to warrant DVD sales and even a film based off the story line (Serenity and Firefly). The technological advances wouldn't be successful without fans to use them and the creators aren't going to create without the audience in mind. This is summed up in Mittell's (2006) term: "operational aesthetic." Basically, technologies like fan sites allow viewers to delve deeper into the story and the creators create these narrative pyrotechnics I mentioned to draw fans to the show. The idea is that the fans will then desire to dig deeper in other ways using these technologies. In the end, how the audience behaves towards the series is what will determine its success, thus limiting or stimulating NC growth.

In sum, NC appears to be rapidly gaining popularity in television, even if viewers are unaware of why they are so immersed in the shows they watch. The key to this popularity is the relationship between the industry, technology, and the audience. Mittell (2006) describes how NC is story-telling comprised of works building off one another, and that is exactly how these institutional shifts work. You can't have one without the other.

Source: Mittel, J. (2006). Narrativ complexity in contemporary american television. The Velvet Light Trap, 58, 29-40.

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