Complex Narrative Television or “Quality TV”
Jason Mittell’s article Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television explores the new mode of television which has emerged over the past two decades – distinct for its use of narrative complexity. HBO as a network has taken advantage of this new paradigm – marketing their brand on the notion of “quality TV.”
One of the key elements of narrative complex television is its juggling of “serial and episodic pleasures.” This mode of television tends to respect a single episode as an entity in its own right while also contributing to and progressing through the serial as a whole.
Mittell states that a key reason for the rise of this narrative complexity on the television is the “changing perception of the medium’s legitimacy and its appeal to creators.” He continues that “many of the innovative television programs of the past twenty years have come from creators who launched their careers in film, a medium with more traditional cultural cachet.”
Twin Peaks, for example, was a television show created by art-film director David Lynch. Another reason for the emergence of narrative complexity, Mittell suggests, is a kind of backlash to the ubiquitous reality TV genre. Writers are now asserting that what they have to offer to television is unique and irreplaceable.
He continues that “many complex programs expressly appeal to a boutique audience of more upscale, educated viewers who typically avoid television, save for programs like The West Wing”. These kinds of viewers could also be generally described as a wealthier target market, and as noted in the Television Cultures lecture, both commercial and cable TV providers recognise the benefits of [a] focus on…more affluent audiences…who are worth more to advertisers.”
Interestingly, the idea of “quality TV” could be seen as a marketing technique to draw in a particular socioeconomic group that were previously fairly uninvolved in the television community – essentially creating an entirely new market of television watchers. On another commercial note; unlike cheaply made reality TV, complex narrative television or “quality TV” lends itself more to DVD sales and the notion of “rewatchability” – financial incentives for the networks.
Complex narrative television also has an element of “operational aesthetic”, especially in comedy programs. This operational aesthetic invites us to “care about the story world while simultaneously appreciating its construction.” More important than “what will happen?” is the notion of “how will they do it?” A fan of Arrested Development or Seinfeld will recognise this trope – as each character’s story unfolds, we can’t help but wonder how all these different story strands will combine spectacularly at the end of each episode.
Despite the clear commercial reasons behind the shift to complex narrative television – I feel it also marks an exciting shift in the perception of television and its place in our cultural hierarchy. Television isn’t a “cultural ‘problem’ to be solved” anymore. Rather it is becoming an active reflection and participator in our popular and wider culture. The Wire is a great example of this kind of quality television. It contains strong themes, three-dimensional, interesting characters, and fascinating story arcs as well as serving as a literary reflection and commentary of our society (a role previously left to novels and films). Complex narrative shows like The Wire prove that television is becoming a medium to be taken seriously by viewers and critics alike.