In his article ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’, Jason Mittell explains the contradicting genre of television that has been emerging over the last two decades. While “conventional episodic and serial forms have typified most American television since its inception”, narrative complexity has surfaced as a new genre of television storytelling.
Mittell puts forward that these narratively complex shows don’t outnumber more conventional sitcoms and dramas on current television, but that maybe they are worth looking at because they have been part of an era of narrative experimentation and innovation with television storytelling over the last two decades.
Indeed, they highlight the challenging of the norms of what television can do, just as “1970s Hollywood is remembered far more for the innovative work of Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola than for the more commonplace (and often more popular) conventional disaster films, romances, and comedy films that filled theatres.”
Mittell points out “complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed”. This idea is apparent in any number of cancelled TV shows, and even in the fact that although we may like ‘quality television’, sometimes (most of the time?) it’s way more fun, and even easier, to veg out in front of The Dick Van Dyke Show (although I don’t know what that is… Does that make anyone feel old?) and Everybody Loves Raymond than to the “narratively complex but conceptually muddled and logically maddening 24”.
One thing that springs to mind about complex narrative enjoyment is the idea of delayed gratification. In the case with HBO’s quite long episodes (a full 60 minutes instead of 42), sometimes it takes until the last 5 minutes of an episode, or even until the last episode of the season, for everything to come together, make sense, and make you full of joy that you stuck it out. This idea of delayed gratification is explained further by Joachim de Posada in the following TED talks:
Mittell brings up the idea of “rewatchability” – something I think is key to complex narrative, but not necessarily limited to. Mittell explains that certain TV shows that “were never granted time to establish a core audience … have emerged on DVD, as their dedicated fandom’s embrace the collectability of television in a new form, a trend that the media industries are eager to capitalize upon by creating programs with maximum ‘rewatchability’”. Even in television shows that are conventionally episodic, though with a season- or series-long narrative arc, have cottoned on (cottoned on, who says that? I apologise) to this idea. How I Met Your Mother’s iconic ‘Countdown’ episode with shots of numbers, you guessed it, counting down throughout the episode until the bombshell that Marshal’s dad has died drops, emphasizes this rewatchability. On first watch, I noticed these numbers sporadically for them being at times not very seamless, but the idea of counting down didn’t occur to me. Upon reading about the episode sometime later, the countdown was brought up, and found myself re-watching the episode for more clues.