The Quality of Complexity

24May11

I submitted my spring term grades today, which is particularly sweet this year as it marks the unofficial start to my sabbatical–I won’t have teaching responsibilities for the next 15 months! While I do love teaching, I’m definitely ready for a break to refresh, regroup, and research. It will be a busy summer, what with planning for our year abroad in Germany (leaving July 31), but I hope to restart my blogging with more regularity.

My first summer activity is a mini-conference this week – I’m going to the International Communication Association in Boston, not for the full conference, but just a day-long pre-conference on Thursday. The topic is “Placing the Aesthetic in Popular Culture: Quality, Value, and Beauty in Communication and Scholarship,” a topic that’s definitely squarely in my area of interest. The day-long workshop is set-up similarly to the Flow Conference, with short position papers distributed ahead of time, and then 5 minute oral presentations preceding structured conversations. I’m on a panel about “Quality Television,” a term that I approach with some ambivalence. Below is my position paper, offered for feedback and sustained conversation – and I hope to see some of you in Boston!

“The Quality of Complexity (and the Complexity of Quality)”

I have spent the past few years studying television programming that I have grouped under the mode of narrative complexity: primetime fiction foregrounding overt storytelling devices and experimentation with serial and episodic norms working in tandem. In delimiting the poetic and formal aspects of this mode of storytelling, I have not shied away from exploring the evaluative dimension of criticism. Indeed, I believe that one of the main uses of close formal analyses is to bolster evaluative arguments, providing detailed evidence to support the claims we might make for why a particular show is aesthetically successful or falls short of its potential, as well as helping us understand why such evaluative practices are so central to the processes of cultural consumption. While this might not be an end in itself, I contend that evaluative criticism can strengthen our understanding of both how a television program works and matters, and how viewers and fans invest themselves in a text.

However, in my writings on this topic, I have consciously avoided the term “quality television” (until now). This is not because I dislike quality (nor television), but because I find the term to be far less useful to describe television than to prescribe a particular attitude toward television. “Quality television” is most usefully understood as a discursive category used to elevate certain programs over others, with such programs united less by a formal or thematic elements than a mark of prestige that reflects well upon the sophisticated viewers who embrace such programming. Historically in the U.S., quality television was rhetorically crystallized in opposition to the “vast wasteland” of lowbrow, interchangeable formulaic programming, with the term reaching its highest profile in the 1980s to celebrate, and lobby for the continuation of, programs like Hill St. Blues and Cagney & Lacey. The American scholar who has touted quality television most directly is Robert Thompson—although I’m loathe to use the term “quality television scholar” for what that might imply—who fully admits that the label is ultimately relational: “Quality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not ‘regular’ TV.” Under this formulation, quality television refers to shows that stand in opposition to the majority of programming, and thus there seems to be an oxymoronic implication to the term—television must be redeemed by its opposite.

I understand that the term has more salience and broad use in the UK, and I don’t claim to know enough about its lineage and use to dismiss the term’s global circulation. But in the US context, quality television implies a default anti-television attitude that I firmly reject, as well as offering limited insights about what distinguishes quality from regular TV. Of course, complexity can be seen as similarly relational, elevating particular programs over simplistic or formulaic fare. But in how I’m trying to study it, complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed—personally, I much prefer watching well-made conventional programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Everybody Loves Raymond to narratively complex, but conceptually muddled and logically maddening shows like 24 or FlashForward. Narrative complexity refers to specific qualities of a text (and its consumption), not its inherent quality (or the quality of its fans). We can certainly use the framework of narrative complexity to make evaluative arguments, and I believe we should, but I am skeptical of translating such aesthetic valuations into categorical markers like “quality television,” and thus hope that in our discussion, we can complicate this seemingly simple demarcation of quality.

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3 Responses to “The Quality of Complexity”

  1. 1 jreu

    Hey Jason,

    Wow, I’m very impressed by your position paper, I am particularly pleased that you avoided using the term “Quality television” particularly as it is such a bold statement.
    I can’t speak for the entire UK but as a producer for television I can offer my experience and ideas.
    “Quality television was rhetorically crystallized in opposition to the “vast wasteland” of lowbrow, interchangeable formulaic programming.” This quote arguably would be used in the same context if the subject was UK Television. However, “Quality Television” without a doubt is an extremely subjective statement, especially in the UK.
    The UK has such a vastly diverse populace of different cultures to consider as well as a range of different classes. Variables such as Gender and Social issues may even apply. The lower classes might consider soaps such as “EastEnders” and “Coronation Street” (The UK longest running drama and probably THE most formulaic programs in existence) as quality television because of audience relation. People have watched this show and gone on to ATTACK the actors because they almost believed the shows to be real.
    Whilst middle and higher class are able to afford Sky and record the shows that they would consider quality t.v shows, shows that are scripturally complex and ‘logically muddled’ such as Doctor Who, The Pacific, Lost, The Walking Dead. However, we’re also forgetting that the masses in the UK like to watch Comedy dramas, Cartoon families, documentaries and quiz/chat shows and many more. UK is so big on Comedy shows, the office for example expanded to create the American office which really shocked me considering our humor are completely separate.

    So I think ‘quality tv’ is a subject statement affected by many different variables.


  1. 1 Does narrative complexity equal ‘Quality TV’? « Audience of One.
  2. 2 The Qualities of Complexity: Aesthetic Evaluation in Contemporary Television « Just TV

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