The term “Quality TV” was destined to be contentious. It is used by some to describe a distinct form of television storytelling that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. Specifically, it refers to those long-form programs presented in series structure which bring narrative complexity and innovation to the fore and present an alternative to traditional episodic and serial storytelling. Commonly cited examples include The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad.
“Quality TV” is a problematic term because it sounds like a value judgement, apparently positioning one of television’s many branches as superior to the others. At their simplest, value judgements manifest as notions of what is “good” or “bad” and are subjective by nature. There are widely held views on certain things, but just because a lot of people hated Garfield 2 (Tim Hill, 2006) doesn’t mean everyone hated Garfield 2. Come on, the animation is pretty cool.
This is the primary reason why I prefer the way Jason Mittell describes this relatively new breed of programming: “narratively complex” TV. As Mittell points out in his article, ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’: “Complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed.” He goes on to explore some of the key aspects of complex narrative television.
“…we thrill both at the stories being told and at the way in which their telling breaks television conventions” (Jason Mittell, 2006, p.36).
It’s hard to define narratively complex television for the simple reason that it is not nearly so formula-driven as typical episodic (e.g. The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) or serial programming (e.g. Neighbours, Home and Away, General Hospital). Instead, Mittel says, narrative complexity challenges these television norms, while simultaneously employing the two. He proclaims that this “…interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling” is one of the key identifying factors of narrative complexity. It is “non-discrete” episodic TV that promotes the sense of ongoing and multi-faceted narratives spanning a variety of established genres.
This multi-focal approach – with both story arcs across both episodes and seasons – immediately reminds me of Showtime’s Dexter. Mittell describes The X-Files as having a “monster-of-the-week” focus while proliferating the longer-term narrative arc of the show’s own “mythology”. Similarly, episodes of Dexter mostly feature a “kill of the week” – a bad guy that Dexter (Michael C. Hall) researches, stalks and idiosyncratically whacks for their crimes. These weekly tales occur within season-long narrative frameworks similar to those Mittell associates with Buffy. Each season of Dexter has a primary “villain”: The Ice Truck Killer (Season 1), Bay Harbor Butcher (Season 2), Miguel Prado (Season 3), The Trinity Killer (Season 4), and so on. It is a mix of cop show, thriller, mystery, romance and black comedy and the show’s numerous episodic and season-long story arcs reflect this.
But there is also an over-arching narrative arc that runs for the show’s entirety. Dexter finds himself unable to meaningfully connect with human feelings and emotions. By remembering more and more from his past (which take the form of flashbacks), he is forever trying to discover himself and his humanity. Dexter’s voiceover narration is an amazing storytelling device. It offers insights into his state of mind, reveals where he is at in his quest for self-discovery and frequently contradicts what his face and body language is outwardly telling other characters. It can be funny, frightening and strange. I can’t see this plot arc ever reaching any kind of genuine resolution – Dexter’s character is too foreign, layered and unknowable.
Season 10: Dexter remembers everything from his troubled past, suddenly feels true emotions and IT ALL MAKES SENSE. I don’t see this happening. It had better not!
Mittell also points out that episodes of narratively complex programs rarely have neatly packaged endings. This encourages viewers to watch the next installment, which will then propel or colour the narrative further. “Cliffhangers” immediately spring to mind – moments that have you demanding to know what happens next. The Game of Thrones pilot ends in this fashion, with one character pushed out of a window by another – will they live, or will they perish?
Sometimes it is an entire season of a narratively complex program that ends with a cliffhanger, like the Twin Peaks season one finale, which concludes as Agent Cooper is gunned down, his fate unknown. Being forced to wait until the release of a new episode or season can be frustrating, but also exciting.
Mittell goes as far as to say that narrative mechanics, the way a complicated story is written and constructed, can be a source of viewer pleasure in itself – “narrative special effects”. He connects this to the “operational aesthetic” audiences revel in while watching the work of elaborate physical/stunt comedies like those of Buster Keaton, or more recently Frank Woodley. Mittell says the viewer satisfaction and wonder derived from many complex comedies as coming from asking “how did they do that?” as opposed to “what will happen next?”.
Seinfeld is the perfect example of the remarkable tying together of several seemingly unrelated storylines through cleverly orchestrated “coincidence” and “chance”. That’s why Mittell cites it. HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (also created by Seinfeld‘s Larry David) is also mentioned, but not given nearly enough time.
Littered with self-referentiality, Curb is sometimes so beautifully cringeworthy that it’s hard to watch. But it’s also impossible to look away – I blame the artful writing. At its centre is the painfully inflammatory “Larry David” (Larry David). No matter how hard he tries, Larry cannot escape conflict. Sometimes it looks like he’ll escape condemnation, ridicule, attack, physical violence or some or all of the above. That’s just what the creators want you to think. But he never does. The show’s writing creates the equivalent effect of an on-screen explosion. It never fails to amaze me.
It seems appropriate to finish this post with a nod to this week’s timely edition of The Age‘s greenguide, the front cover of which reads: “The A-List: We choose the best 25 shows from the last 25 years.” You can probably take a guess at which shows are on the list. No prizes.