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.
Filed under: Narrative, TV Industry, TV Shows | 3 Comments