The Nine & unmotivated complexity


Following up on yesterday’s post about new serial dramas, I’ve been thinking about one of the new programs whose low ratings have been mentioned as evidence that the trend toward narrative complexity is threatened, The Nine. While there’s much I like about the show – strong cast, high production values, engaging characters, and a clever idea – something has bothered me from the beginning of the show. For those who haven’t watched it, the concept is that nine people are held hostage in a bank robbery, and the show traces the after-effects of the event on their lives and relationships. The show’s storytelling gimmick is that the 52 hours of the hostage situation is not revealed directly to the audience – each episode fills in a bit more of the events at the beginning of the show, and through flashbacks that characters have throughout the rest of the episode.

This storytelling device is clearly inspired from Lost, where flashbacks reveal a character’s backstory that illuminate their “current” situation on the island, as well as other programs that have used flashbacks & flashforwards (temporal manipulations called anachrony in the narratology jargon) in creative ways, like Jack & Bobby and Boomtown. But my problem with The Nine is that there is no clear motivation either for withholding the events in the bank from the audience, or the way in which they are revealed. In fact, the viewers seem to be the only ones who don’t know what has happened inside the bank — whereas in other programs using temporal complexity, a character’s discovery process or the act of retelling to another character motivates narrative revelations. More than any other show using such innovative storytelling strategies, The Nine seems to use its devices only as an externally-imposed gimmick without a clear motivation emerging from the storyworld itself.

Why does this matter? In my article “Narrative Complexity on Contemporary American Television,” I argue that such innovative television storytelling techniques invite viewers to think about & understand the formal devices of narration as “amateur narratologists,” fostering an “operational aesthetic” viewing the gears of the narrative machine, not just its results. If the gears are clogged or inelegantly designed, this aspect of the pleasure is undermined. And as quoted in the New York Times piece I referenced yesterday, at least one other viewer found similar dissatisfaction with the show:

A poster named GregB on the Metacritic Web site ( said he was reluctant to commit to “The Nine” after seeing the pilot. ‚’Watching the pilot made me feel like I was reading a book and missing chapter 2-10, and then had all the characters talk about all those chapters,’ he wrote. ‘I feel like I’m being teased.’

The immense narrative possibilities for serial television are arguably being explored in exciting new ways, but as viewers grow more sophisticated in comprehending innovative formal techniques, the gears of the machinery need to run smoothly to appeal to our operational aesthetic.

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