The Qualities of Complexity: Aesthetic Evaluation in Contemporary Television

15Dec11

This is a busy week for the Popular Seriality group I’m working with here in Göttingen. First, we took over In Media Res for a series of posts about seriality – my own contribution was on Wednesday, focused on Breaking Bad and how it constructs character interiority through serial memory. Head over and join the conversation!

Today starts a mini-conference in Hannover, a city just north of Göttingen, about Cultural Distinctions Remediated. I’m giving the opening keynote today at 6pm, and wanted to share it here (below). It’s an extension of things I’ve written before about evaluation, quality TV, and cultural hierarchies, with a case study examining Breaking Bad and The Wire. It will be adapted for an anthology about television aesthetics, and incorporated into my current book project, so feedback would be quite helpful as I develop it further!

“The Qualities of Complexity: Aesthetic Evaluation in Contemporary Television”

During my year in Germany, I’m writing a book called Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Narrative, exploring the transformations in industrial norms, viewing practices, and technologies that have helped give rise to new formal elements of television storytelling. In discussing television form, one issue I touch on is the question of evaluation, considering how we might look at these transformations through the lens of aesthetic judgment. There is no shortage of evaluative practice in the backstage arenas of media scholars, whether on barstools at conferences, in departmental mailrooms, or on online networks like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. But there is little space for a media scholar to make an evaluative argument within the realm of official professional discourse, where evaluative proclamations and arguments are viewed skeptically at best, forbidden at worst. Today I would like to explore why media studies is reluctant to evaluate by considering the two contrasting positions that center around the term “quality television.” In contrasting these two approaches, I hope to move away from the discursive trap of quality, and model a third approach to evaluating television programming that can hopefully open up a space for scholars to engage more productively with aesthetic analysis. While it might not be an end in itself, evaluative criticism can strengthen our understanding of how a television program works, how viewers and fans invest themselves in a text, and what inspires them (and us) to make television a meaningful part of everyday life.[i]

The first approach to evaluation might be considered unselfconscious quality television discourse, but this is actually quite rare among media scholars. “Quality television” as a term is rarely used without layers of caveats and disclaimers, noting that “quality” is subjective or that it is more interesting as a discourse circulating within the industry or fans, rather than an evaluative label itself.[ii] Yet for all of these caveats, there still seems to be a general consensus as to what programs are included and excluded among scholars who use the term, suggesting that it has some salience as a critical category. Looking at books that use the term “quality television,” as well as the I.B. Tauris “Reading Contemporary Television Series” that typically embraces the category if not the term, we can see common texts categorized including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, The X-Files, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Lost, and Six Feet Under. While we might see a shared corpus identified under the label, there is rarely any analytic clarity as to what precisely counts as quality television, making it hard to justify why CSI, Deadwood, Scrubs, and The Daily Show are all framed within the book Quality TV, aside from all being part of a shared taste culture that appeals to academics and critics.[iii]

Attempts to define quality television depend on a notion of weak resemblance, contrasting quality with its presumed opposite and used to elevate certain programs over others, with such programs united less by formal or thematic elements than by markers of prestige that reflect well upon the sophisticated viewers who embrace such programming. The American scholar who has touted quality television most directly is Robert Thompson, who fully admits that the label is ultimately relational: “Quality TV is best defined by what it is not. It is not ‘regular’ TV.”[iv] Under this formulation, quality television refers to shows that stand in opposition to the majority of programming, with an oxymoronic implication to the term—television must be redeemed by its opposite. For some critics, quality is a marker of value, suggesting that these shows are better than others, while for others it serves as a construction of either a class of targeted viewers (“the quality audience”) or a set of textual attributes of high production values and serious themes that might better be thought of as “prestigious television.” However, the slippage between notions of value, prestige, and audience, as well as the need for quality to assert its equally vague opposite, make the concept fairly incoherent and not particularly useful to either understand how television circulates among industry and audience, or as a textual category with analytic or evaluative use.

Most uses of quality television accept an implicit notion of textual value, where evaluative criteria are left unspoken or undeveloped and a program’s critical worth is viewed as inherent to the text itself. In one of the more self-aware and reflective pieces about quality television, Sarah Cardwell outlines a number of features that distinguish quality television more as a genre and less as an evaluative category, noting that, “to notice a programme’s signifiers of quality is not to assert anything about its value.” But her next sentence reinforces the assumption that a text’s value is inherent: “Yet I believe these qualities also make them good.”[v] I agree fully with Cardwell that we should be upfront and open about discussing programs that we like and engage in evaluative discourse, but I find that the category of quality television does little to help explain this facet of media engagement, frequently complicating an already muddy terrain through a slippage between the established category and the type of engagement that such texts offer.

The second approach to evaluation is explicitly anti-evaluative, arguing that questions of value should not be on the disciplinary agenda. Often this position is constructed by omission, as most scholarship avoids engaging in evaluative work so pervasively that there is not any need to even mark the gap as notable—evaluation is framed as what journalistic critics and fans do, and is only studied by media scholars at a discursive remove when analyzing those cultural practices. When such scholars do raise questions of evaluation, they follow a line of cultural studies analysis that regards issues of taste and aesthetics as social constructions functioning to reinforce power dynamics and hierarchies, inspired primarily by the work of Pierre Bourdieu.[vi] Under this formulation, evaluation is always about creating distinctions that elevate one social sphere by belittling others, typically mirroring established class and gender norms. Bourdieu and his followers certainly offer a vital rejoinder to the universalizing discourses of aesthetics by highlighting how such practices are always embedded in social relations and cultural contexts, rather than inherent in texts themselves; however, this critique can be taken too far by reductively dismissing all issues of aesthetics and value in the name of political egalitarianism.

A recent book that exemplifies both this approach and its shortcomings is Michael Newman and Elana Levine’s Legitimating Television, which provides a detailed account of how television has become more culturally valued over the past decade, and in turn as reinforced cultural hierarchies. As they write in the book’s thesis statement:

The work of analyzing patterns of taste judgment and classification is thus to unmask misrecognitions of authentic and autonomous value, bringing to light their political and social functions. Such is the project of this book. We argue that it is a mistake to accept naively that television has grown better over the years, even while such a discourse is intensifying within popular, industrial, and scholarly sites. In contrast, we argue that it is primarily cultural elites… who have intensified the legitimation of television by investing the medium with aesthetic and other prized values, nudging it closer to more established arts and cultural forms and preserving their own privileged status in return. [vii]

In surveying an array of critical, industrial, and scholarly practices as part of a larger discourse of cultural distinction, they do a fine job mapping this discursive terrain and highlighting the ways that it can reinforce class and gender norms. But they fall prey to a core danger of such discursive analysis: glossing over the varieties of micro-practices falling under any discursive umbrella in the name of mapping a more totalizing and cohesive macro-picture. Thus while they claim to be arguing for more self-awareness and reflection in our analyses, they quickly label everything fitting into these broader trends of legitimation as “naïve” and thus reinforcing class and gender hierarchies, while they themselves often ignore the very self-awareness and reflection that they call for. And thus we’re left with a situation where we cannot escape legitimating discourse and thus all evaluative judgments are rendered suspect or invalid.

A danger in treating Bourdieu’s critique as gospel is that it paralyzes scholars who want to say anything about issues of evaluation, as accusing an academic of “perpetuating class and gender hierarchies” is among the harshest critiques imaginable within contemporary scholarly discourse. But just as “quality television” is too vague of a brush to paint an effective picture of media practices, “legitimating discourse” is a similarly slippery concept, used both to focus closely on specific technological or genre shifts, and more broadly to caricature criticism as politically complicit or naïve. This is not to say that Bourdieu is wrong in highlighting how aesthetic evaluation is a socially situated practice that can perpetuate power relations, or that the legitimating discourse mapped by Newman and Levine is not an important facet of media today. But we need to take the anti-universalist lessons of Bourdieu and reimagine how we can talk about issues of aesthetics and evaluation more contingently and without the broad brushes of quality television.

So today I want to propose a third way to approach the critical evaluation of television, one that avoids the categorical sweep of either quality television or anti-legitimation discourses. I don’t claim that this approach is novel or wholly original, as it tries to synthesize a number of other mostly-British and Australian media scholars who have discussed similar issues.[viii] The goal of my approach to evaluative criticism is to model a way that scholars can be honest and reflexive about our own taste cultures and commitments, and provide insight into how television texts accomplish or fail at their aesthetic goals, without resorting to notions of universal or essential criteria of value. I distinguish typical notions of valuation, where a text’s worth is seen as intrinsic and needing to be discovered by the critic, from evaluation, which I see as an active process of engaging with aesthetic criteria, textual features, and cultural circulation. Quality television posits a product of valuation, while evaluation foregrounds the process of critical analysis and the ongoing conversation about text, contexts, and aesthetic criteria.

To engage in evaluation as a process, I suggest we need to articulate specific evaluative criteria for particular texts, rather than casting broad nets that seem to measure all programs to the same standards, or attempt to create broad categories like quality television that efface the specificity of individual criteria or texts. These criteria must emerge from the detailed analyses of television texts, rather than imposing them from other media or types of programming, as we must try to evaluate any given program on its own contextualized creative goals. We should justify the worth of any given criterion, allowing for a diversity of potential markers of success, far from any universalized standard of aesthetics. We should explore how a text achieves or falls short of meeting its aesthetic goals using a model of reader-oriented poetics that examines texts through their cultural circulation. We should situate our own taste cultures within this analysis to consider how our analyzes are tied to our social identities and contexts, not to render our judgments invalid but to highlight their contingency. Thus evaluation requires four key components, potentially performed in any order: establish contextualized criteria, justify criteria, analyze contextualized texts in relation to these criteria, and self-situate our own contingent place in these cultural contexts.

Before modeling this process of evaluation, I need to clarify what we’re doing when we evaluate. Contrary to the assumptions apparent within many adherents of Bourdieu’s anti-aesthetic model, making an evaluation does not aspire to the status of fact or proof. By claiming that a given program is good, or that one series is better than another, I am making an argument that I believe to be true, but I do not assert it as a truth claim—in the terms laid out decades ago by Stanley Fish, evaluation is a discursive act of persuasion rather than demonstration.[ix] Even more than other types of analysis, evaluation is an invitation to a dialog, as debating the merits of cultural works is one of the most enjoyable ways we engage with texts, establish relationships with other cultural consumers, and gain respect for other critics and viewers’ opinions and insights. Of course I do hope to convince you that my evaluation is correct, and I certainly believe it to be true, but we do not make evaluations to make a definitive statement about the importance of any given text; instead they are contingent assertions lodged in their contextual moment that will almost undoubtedly be revised after future viewing and conversation. While my persuasive evaluation emerges from a context of authority, with an imprint of expertise that gives it more discursive weight than a random pseudonym in an internet comment thread, in the end I think that the effectiveness of any given evaluation stems more from successful analysis and argumentation than the backing of institutional power or authority.

To model this approach to evaluation, I want to turn to the criterion of complexity, a concept that is central to my recent writing. I contend that complexity is an appropriate and useful criterion for evaluating fictional television, as it seems both to be a distinct goal featured by many contemporary programs, and fits into broader cultural norms that seem non-controversially valued. To call something complex is to highlight its sophistication and nuance, suggesting that it presents a vision of the world that avoids being reductive or artificially simplistic. It suggests that the consumer of complexity needs to engage fully and attentively, and such engagement will yield an experience distinct from more casual or partial attention. We teach our students to strive for complexity in their analyses, as we believe the world to be multifaceted and intricate enough to require a complex account to accurately gain insight, whether the field is biology or media studies. Contrast “complex” with “complicated,” and the latter seems to suggest both less coherence and more artifice, an attempt to make something appear more nuanced than it really is. Thus it seems like the aesthetic quality of complexity is a worthy goal and one marker among many of creative achievement.

One frequent objection to evaluation is that it inherently creates cultural hierarchies by valorizing one form over another, a mode of distinction that Bourdieu has convincingly shown can work to reinforce social power relations. However, we can think beyond a reductive binary logic that insists that value is a zero-sum game, or that lauding any single criterion is inherently deriding its opposite. I do believe that complexity is potentially a virtue, but that doesn’t mean that simplicity is a sin—there are many contexts where simple would trump complex, whether in constructing an effective rhetorical motto or designing a user interface. There is certainly pleasure and value in some forms of simple television, where a straightforward elegance of purpose and execution is a laudable achievement. Likewise, achieving complexity is no inherent marker of value, as a complex narrative that sacrifices coherence or emotional engagement is likely to fall short in any evaluative analysis. It is only through the specific analysis of a series and its related criteria that we can avoid falling back on such assumed binaries or inherent universalized values.

In thinking through how to apply this model of evaluation around complexity, I turned to the two series that I currently rank atop my shifting list of best all-time television: The Wire and Breaking Bad. The two series bear some interesting parallels and differences that are instructive as to how we might evaluate programs and approach the process of evaluation. In contrasting the two, I’m not interested in ranking the two shows or even validating why I see them as more successful than many other excellent programs, but instead I want to use them to tease out the criteria we use to evaluate and how each manages to succeed in accomplishing its own ambitious aesthetic approach to complexity. Like all evaluative claims, my analysis is an argument that is not offered as fact, but supported belief—I make my case in the hopes of helping other viewers see the shows in a new light, not to convince the world that these two programs are the pinnacle of television. Hopefully this evaluative analysis demonstrates the usefulness of academic critics engaging in such discussions and not abdicating questions of judgment solely to journalistic critics and fans.

In many ways, The Wire and Breaking Bad are strikingly similar. Both were produced for emerging cable channels in the shadow of a critical darling that had immediately established the channel’s brand identity (HBO’s The Sopranos and AMC’s Mad Men respectively), but both pushed the channel toward new aesthetic directions and slowly grew to match the earlier show in critical reputation. Both came from writers who established themselves on landmark network innovators in the 1990s (David Simon on Homicide and Vince Gilligan on The X-Files), but neither producer seemed poised to create programs as innovative and acclaimed as these follow-ups. Both shows feature five-season runs, ending on their own terms in approximately 60 episodes.[x] And both shows have somewhat similar focus on drug dealers, crime syndicates, and ongoing battles among police and competing criminal groups, while mixing intense drama along with a vibrant vein of dark comedy to explore contemporary struggles of men attempting to find meaning in their relationship to work and labor.

Yet in other ways, the two series are diametrically opposed, serving as stark contrasts among the range of options within the realm of serialized primetime dramas. The Wire is stylistically restrained, following visual norms of naturalistic cinema, eschewing the use of non-diegetic music except for notable season-ending montages, and adhering to typical editing conventions of that we read as “realistic” storytelling. Breaking Bad embraces a wide visual palette, ranging from stylized landscape shots evoking Sergio Leone westerns to exaggerated camera tricks and gimmicks situating our vantage point within a chemical vat or on the end of a shovel, as well as editing devices like time-lapse and sped-up montages. The show’s sound design is widely varying with unusual choices of licensed pop songs, ambient electronic score, and even an original composition of a Mexican narcocorrido ballad about the main character. While Breaking Bad embraces atemporal storytelling jumps and subjective sequences much like other examples of complex television that I have discussed elsewhere, The Wire is fully linear and conventional in presenting chronology and objective narrative perspective throughout.[xi] In short, The Wire embraces a “zero degree style” that strives to render its televisual storytelling techniques invisible, whereas Breaking Bad foregrounds a “maximum degree style” through kinetic visuals, bold sounds, and unpredictable storytelling form—it is hard to imagine two programs within the general norms of crime drama that take such different approaches to narrative, visual and sonic style.

The two series also approach their thematic focuses and storytelling scope in similarly contrasting manners. The Wire is nominally about the drug war, especially in its first season, but eventually reveals itself to be more interested in using crime as a window into the larger urban condition of 21st century America. As seasons progress, the show’s scope expands to include the shipping docks, City Hall, public schools, and the newsroom, tracing the interplay between these new dramatic sites and the established police precincts and drug corners. The show starts with an already large scope—the pilot episode introduces more than two dozen characters who will serve recurring roles, with more to come in subsequent episodes to reach a mass of sixty significant characters in the first season alone; this narrative scope gradually broadens over the course of its run to create a sense that viewers have experienced a full range of people and places comprising the show’s fictionalized Baltimore. Moreover, the show not only creates a vast world, but presents a guided tour of the city’s political and economic machinery by portraying how each person, place, and institution fits into a broader system of function and dysfunction. No other television series comes close to achieving such a sense of vast breadth as The Wire’s storyworld, and arguably few examples from other narrative media do either.

The Wire’s emphasis on the vastness of Baltimore’s interlocking institutions and inhabitants necessitates that it sacrifice character depth to achieve such breadth. Characters on The Wire are certainly multi-dimensional and quite nuanced human beings, but they are defined primarily by their relationships to larger institutions, whether the police force, the school system, or the drug enterprise—the characters that succeed are usually those that play the rules of their particular games best, while individualistic rebels fail to escape, change themselves, or transform unjust systems. There is little sense of their interior lives, psychological depths, or nuanced relationships with each other, as The Wire creates a world where people are defined more by what they do than what they think or feel, except as those thoughts and emotions become manifest in their actions. Depth accrues from the accumulation of numerous characters and their institutional affiliations, as Baltimore itself is constructed as a living entity with its own complex interiority.[xii]

Despite its shared focus on drug criminals, Breaking Bad has quite different concerns, shifting away from a vast sociological breadth toward an inward-looking psychological depth. The show has little interest in constructing a working model of Albuquerque, forgoing urban verisimilitude in exchange for a tighter focus on a central character and his immediate associates. It has a comparatively small cast for a serialized program, with an initial core ensemble of six main characters with little expansion over its first four seasons. Every character is defined primarily through his or her relationship to Walter White, and the narrative is focused on how his choices and actions impact each of their relationships. Instead of subsequent seasons spinning outward from the core characters and setting, the show layers itself inward, creating deeper layers of Walt’s psychological makeup. If The Wire presents a world where characters and institutions are immutably locked into a larger system, Breaking Bad is a profile of psychological change as the core character becomes darker and more amoral, pulling everyone around him down on his descent, the journey that creator Gilligan has frequently called the “transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” Even after four seasons, the show’s spatial universe seems fairly small and non-distinct, but the psychological depth and web of interpersonal history is arguably as complex as the political machinery of The Wire’s Baltimore.

These different approaches to style and storytelling highlight distinct modes of realism pursued by each series. The Wire embraces a fairly conventional mode of social realism, where we are asked to judge the storyworld, its characters, and their actions on the metric of plausibility, where success is measured by how much the fiction mirrors the world as we know it. The degree to which the show succeeds on this measure can be seen by how many sociologists, geographers, and other scholars of urban America have used the show as a teaching tool and research reference point to illustrate social conditions, often denying its fictional frame.[xiii] The show’s realist goals may be conventional, but its techniques for achieving its social realist effects are innovative in their scope and vastness, resulting in a vision of the world with great explanatory and rhetorical power. It is telling that for many fans and critics, The Wire’s final season fell short of its earlier heights primarily because it forsook its full commitment to such realist storytelling in exchange for a more reflexive and satirical tone.

Breaking Bad strives more for psychological rather than social realism. In embracing a goal of character transformation, the show aims for a nearly unprecedented effect in television: chronicling how a character’s core identity and beliefs can drastically change over time in a convincing manner. The Walter White who commits the unfathomable act of poisoning an innocent child at the end of season four is simply a different person than the broken-down school teacher who begins to “break bad” in the show’s pilot, but his gradual transformation has played out onscreen in such a way that his behaviors never feel untrue to who he is at any given point in the story. The program’s flashy visual style signals that the world seen onscreen is less naturalistic than the thoughts and emotions playing out inside characters’ heads, so even something as unreal as the plane crash triggered by Walt’s selfish actions in the second season is grounded as psychologically plausible and consistent with the show’s thematic and tonal approach. Breaking Bad is ultimately less invested in creating a realistic representation of its storyworld than in portraying people who feel true, and through this sense of honest representation the show engages with real questions of morality, identity, and responsibility.

So The Wire and Breaking Bad are both similar and different—a banal observation probably true for any pair of series. But their storytelling differences point to two distinct modes of narrative complexity, and the fact that two such different shows can be so successful with the same critics (including myself) is instructive for how processes of evaluation might work. The two shows approach serialization with distinctly different vectors. The Wire embraces what we might call centrifugal complexity, where the ongoing narrative pushes outward, spreading characters across a expanding storyworld. On a centrifugal program, there is no clear narrative center, as the central action is about what happens between characters and institutions as they spread outward. It is not just that the show expands in quantity of characters and settings, but that its richness is found in the complex web of interconnectivity forged across the social system. For instance, the fourth season’s resolution is predicated on how the fate of kids like Randy and Namond are not determined by their own mettle or talents, but by the conjuncture of almost random actions undertaken by agents of the interconnected institutions of the school system, the police, drug gangs, and city government. Based on conventional narrative logics, Randy’s entrepreneurial spirit and warmth would allow him to rise above his circumstances, while Namond’s bitterness and sense of privilege should doom him to replicating his father’s role on the corners—but on The Wire, character traits and choices are always circumscribed and actions are often determined by complex networks of institutions portrayed through the show’s vast serial expanses. Systemic logic trumps character actions or motivations, as when Snoop (quoting Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven) answers the question of what a potential victim did to deserve his fate—she justifies an unjustifiable murder by saying, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

But on Breaking Bad, deserve’s got everything to do with it. If The Wire is all about broad systemic vastness, Breaking Bad exemplifies a model of dense television, embracing centripetal complexity where the narrative movement pulls the actions and characters inward toward a more cohesive center to establish a thickness of backstory and character depth that drives the action. The effect is to create a storyworld with unmatched depth of characterization, layers of backstory, and psychological complexity building upon viewer experiences and memories over its numerous seasons. All expansions to the storyworld connect back to Walter White or his associate Jesse Pinkman, and typically become part of their ongoing interrelated transformations, with nearly every plot event triggered by Walt’s choices and behaviors, rather than social systems or conditions. Additionally, the show frequently revisits moments from the narrative past to fill-in gaps in character histories or relationships, whether it’s flashbacks to Walt’s hyper-confident persona before becoming a teacher or returning to the narrative consequences of Combo’s murder, an event that at the time felt marginal but reemerged to directly trigger a crucial narrative turn at the end of the third season. On Breaking Bad, there is always the sense that a past event that seems marginal might get sucked back into the narrative center and impact Walt’s fate in unpredictable but justifiable ways; this centripetal force creates a complex storyworld that seems to always hold its main characters accountable for past misdeeds and refuses to let them (or us) escape these transgressions at the level of story consequences or internal psychology.

Through the different modes of complexity embraced and achieved by The Wire and Breaking Bad, I hope we can see the usefulness of evaluative criticism. Even under the same umbrella of complexity, we can see that their approaches are so different that each would fall short of each other’s aesthetic criteria: The Wire provides little psychological depth to its characters, Breaking Bad fails to paint a picture of how people are impacted by interlocking institutions. But their specific modes of complexity function as criteria for their own evaluation, as each demonstrates a relentless commitment to their own storytelling norms and approaches. And it is through these serialized storytelling strategies that each show speaks to its viewers, and we can see their ongoing attachment to each series through their engagement with such aesthetic facets. Thus I would argue that such models of complexity are not simply embedded in the texts to be rooted out by critics, but emerge through viewers’ contextualized engagements with a series—we are the ones who flesh out the models of centripetal and centrifugal complexity by filling in the gaps, making the connections, and investing our emotional energies into these storyworlds.

My goal here is not to prove that these are great shows (although I believe that they are), but to argue that analyzing the ways they each achieve aesthetic success is important to understand how they each work as texts, how they speak to fans, and what they say about the world. We could probably analyze such dual models of complexity without considering evaluation, but it would be untrue to cast me as a detached objective observer of these programs. I find them both tremendously powerful and compelling works of fictional television, and I am moved to write about them because I find them both exceptional aesthetically, and exceptionally interesting—two facets that are certainly related. By acknowledging my own personal investments, it allows me to go beyond asking “how do these programs work?” to consider “how do they work so well?” I think by bracketing off that facet of our engagement with media, we are not only being dishonest, but also missing the chance to participate in larger conversations with critics, fans, and producers about the very cultural hierarchies that many scholars seem fearful of replicating.

And this brings me back to the fourth facet of evaluation: self-situation. I write this, and watch these shows, as who I am: an American, white, educated, heterosexual, middle-aged professional man, one with an academic investment and expertise in long-form television narrative that is far from universal. I fully acknowledge that my identity is similar to the class habitus that has long policed traditional aesthetic judgments, as well as that of the creators of these two specific programs—in other words, these shows are speaking my language, and I have a vocabulary to respond. But I am not responding with a universalized appeal to transcendent aesthetics outside who I am. I am not asking you to join me in praising the complexity of The Wire and Breaking Bad (although I’m happy to do so on one of those aforementioned barstools), but rather I am inviting you to see the shows how I see them. I have faith that my analysis is compelling enough that you would see something interesting if you do, but I also think it’s partial enough that there is much more in each show to be explored and discussed. What I have done here, and what I think evaluation does, is to present an argument in order to open a conversation. Making an evaluative claim is not designed to construct a canon to exclude other possibilities, but rather to posit a contingent perspective on why something matters, both to me and presumably to other viewers who similarly embrace it. It is neither a statement of fact nor a proof, but an invitation to dialogue and debate—which can commence now.


[i] I discuss the role of evaluation in television studies more fully in Jason Mittell, “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies),” in Reading LOST: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 119-38.

[ii] For discussions of the discursive use of “quality television,” see Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, MTM: “Quality Television” (London: BFI Publishing, 1984); Philip W. Sewell, “From Discourse to Discord: Quality and Dramedy at the End of the Classic Network System,” Television & New Media 11: 4 (July 2010): 235 -259; and Dorothy Collins Swanson, The story of Viewers for Quality Television: from grassroots to prime time (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

[iii] Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, Quality TV: contemporary American television and beyond (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007). See also Mark Jancovich and James Lyons, Quality popular television: cult TV, the industry and fans (British Film Institute, 2003), and Robert J. Thompson, Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill St. Blues to ER (New York: Continuum, 1996) for other corpus defining efforts.

[iv] Thompson, 13.

[v] Sarah Cardwell, “Is Quality Television Any Good? Generic Distinctions, Evaluations and the Troubling Matter of Critical Judgement,” in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, eds, Quality TV: contemporary American television and beyond (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007), 19-34.

[vi] See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1987) for the landmark work on the topic; John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, second edition (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2010) offers an influential application of Bourdieu to television and other popular media.

[vii] Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011), 7. See this post for more commentary on this book.

[viii] See Charlotte Brunsdon, Screen tastes: soap opera to satellite dishes (London: Routledge, 1997); Jason Jacobs, “Issues of Judgment and Value in Television Studies,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4: 4 (2001): 427-447; Christine Geraghty, “Aesthetics and Quality in Popular Television Drama,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6: 1 (2003): 25-45; Michael Bérubé, The aesthetics of cultural studies (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005); Jason Jacobs, “Television Aesthetics: an Infantile Disorder,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 3: 1 (May 2006): 19-33; Alan McKee, Beautiful things in popular culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006); and Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally Mcbeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007) and Matt Hills, “Television Aesthetics: A Pre-structuralist Danger?,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 8: 1 (April 2011): 99-117.

[ix] Stanley Fish, Is There A Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 365-68.

[x] As of this writing, Breaking Bad has aired four seasons, with the fifth and final season still to come, putting the show at 62 episodes.

[xi] See Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (Fall 2006): 29-40.

[xii] I discuss The Wire’s approach to simulating urban systems more in Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic,” in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 429-38.

[xiii] For one of many such instances, see Anmol Chaddha, William Julius Wilson, and Sudhir Venkatesh, “In Defense of The Wire,” Dissent Magazine, Summer 2008, where the authors, including two noted sociologists, write “Quite simply, The Wire—even with its too-modest viewership—has done more to enhance both the popular and the scholarly understanding of the challenges of urban life and the problems of urban inequality than any other program in the media or academic publication we can think of.”



5 Responses to “The Qualities of Complexity: Aesthetic Evaluation in Contemporary Television”

  1. 1 rpole

    Hi Jason. First off, thanks a lot for this piece, which spoke to a lot of the questions I’ve been dealing with in the run-up to my thesis. I have a couple of questions and points in response. In your discussion of the visual and narrative styles of Breaking Bad and The Wire, I wonder if we can make a comparison to the differences between the contemporary novel and journalism. Perhaps the novel, like Breaking Bad, manipulates time and style to call attention to its medium (language). If a mainstream journalist wrote in such a way as to call attention to itself, it would likely be deemed bad journalism. To what degree then do you think the creators of the shows make these choices in order to position themselves in relation to other forms of art and media? I think with The Wire, it’s fairly clear that the show intentionally draws on journalistic conventions, but what about Breaking Bad? Is it quoting another tradition?

    About the larger questions of taste, I am still a bit stuck. I think it has changed in recent years, with the re-thinking of the status of the fan, but ‘outing’ oneself as a fan still undermines one’s evaluative claims in a lot of circles. I had a professor tell me recently never to use the word ‘like’ or any ‘fancy synonyms’ in a paper. This is especially an issue, I think, for a young academic. That is, as an established professor and writer, perhaps your statements of appreciation do less to undermine the seriousness of your work. Can self-situation be performed in certain situations (e.g. early in one’s academic career) without casting doubt upon the writer’s critical analysis? Lastly, the Dana Pollan essay I mentioned at the conference is in the collection Cable Visions. On a second reading, I found that he doesn’t make any claim that TV can’t be treated as a text. Instead, he also (rather simplistically, I thought) characterizes much of TV scholarship as ignoring the greater context of industry, discourse, and practice. But he addresses many of the questions of status, taste, and canon-making that you do in your piece, so that may be interesting to you.

  2. 2 Jane Glaubman

    Some very acute and helpful observations here on the comparative structures of the two shows considered, for which much appreciation.

    A question (or doubt): I’m not sure the model, as laid out here so far, explains why Walter White has more “depth” than Erica Kane. I’m serious. If the *amount* of story attached to a specific character creates depth, especially absent explicit institutional or social explanations for the events in the character’s narrative, then Erica should win. Right? What is the model of “character” or “character depth” that you are using? I assume it is one that only operates in “quality television.” But why?

    My own instinct is that depth of character is not a function of the amount of narrative attached to it. In fact, I think depth is more often an effect created by withholding information about a character or doling out their character parsimoniously. I’d look to Auerbach or Barthes if I were exploring this. I’d say Omar Little (sic) is a good example of a character who is constructed as deep by withholding, at least in the early seasons.

    An alternate reading: Walter White has some psychological traits – pettiness, narcissism – but I think the overwhelming sense we get is that, increasingly, he’s a machine, a monster – someone whose defining trait is a lack of psychological depth or authenticity. Viewed this way, stylized sequences such as those used to depict the murderous, caricatured thugs from the Mexican cartels are analogs to Walter’s “character.” Jesse, who more resembles a character from The Wire, is the one who seems psychologically deep.


  1. 1 Thank You | initiative für interdisziplinäre medienforschung
  2. 2 Best TV of 2011 « Just TV
  3. 3 Complex TV: Evaluation « Just TV

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