The perils of narrative complexity


I’ve been researching recent developments in television’s storytelling strategies, exploring the dimensions of narrative complexity that have been rising over the past decade (with a recent article published in The Velvet Light Trap if you’re interested in reading more). So this article in the New York Times from earlier in the week intrigued me – as Sam Ford discusses in the Convergence Consortium Weblog, reporter Bill Carter is arguing that the quick cancellation of a number of this season’s serialized dramas (Smith, Kidnapped, Vanished) and the low ratings of a number of others (The Nine, Six Degrees, Friday Night Lights) is a sign that the trend is stale and viewers don’t want complexly told tales of drama and suspense beyond their already-ongoing favorites. I’m not so sure…

The vast majority of television series fail to make it past season one. Since many of this season’s new shows were serialized dramas, it is no surprise that a good number of the season’s failures are serial dramas – it’s ultimately an issue of proportions. On the other side of the ratings charts, three new series are considered hits – one of them is a serialized drama of the highly-complex variety (Heroes), one is a semi-serialized dramedy which is distinctly unlike anything on American television (Ugly Betty), and one is a procedural (Shark). This tells us nothing about the tendencies of the viewing public – it only tells us that networks have quick triggers on shows that are expensive & seem to bleed viewers from week to week, which we have known for years.

Most complex narratives, like all unconvential series, have needed time to build audiences & buzz, from innovative sitcoms (Seinfeld, The Office) to serial dramas (24, Alias). The exceptions are Lost and Desperate Housewives, which stormed out of the gate more like Heroes this year, but these are exceptional rather than normal hits. If networks are only willing to stick with an innovative show that has proven to be a quick hit by Nielsen’s questionable measures, then probably the trend will decline. But building viewer confidence in a network’s patience to promote a quality show seems like a needed element to nuture such long-form programming – if the networks can’t offer that, perhaps we have seen the end of this moment of innovation.


3 Responses to “The perils of narrative complexity”

  1. Regarding the “time to build” argument, and why Lost and DH might’ve been exceptions to that rule: Perhaps early critical acclaim, internet buzz, and success at the upfronts give the initial Neilsen numbers that networks need to see in order to let a show develop. There are limits to this theory (AD would never bring in #s that would satisfy Fox no matter how many critics crowed about it), but I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether initially well-reviewed shows are apt to stick around, and if not, why not.

    I like your idea that the success of a complex serial has to do with the proportion of new serials its up against. One might also consider the waning ratings of other serials (e.g. Gilmore Girls) as a factor, figuring that viewers of these older complex serials are ready to jump ship and find something new.

  2. I think you’re right that a lot of this is just the usual network MO around this time of the season; it’s just that there are more serials than there usually are.

    That said, I think the problem with a lot of recent serials is that they’ve been too much in the Lost mold, as if being serialized means playing a game of solve-the-puzzle (e.g., the trio of alien invasion shows from last season). One of the notable things about Heroes is that it’s both doing and not doing Lost. There’s a lot of mystery and unfolding situations, but also a fair amount of user-friendly recapping, and a public declaration from the showrunners that they’re not going to keep the audience waiting forever on all the puzzles it poses. That is, they’re not Lost.

    On a different note, one interesting thing about the upcoming Daybreak is its exceptional closed-ended design, apparently 13 episodes and that’s it. Common in most other countries, but relatively unheard-of here. It’ll be interesting to see if that sets off a new trend: the teleological serial, designed to end in one season.

  1. 1 JustTV

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