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The Velvet Light Trap This model of television storytelling is distinct for its use of narrative complexity as an alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception. We can see such innovative narrative form in popular hits of recent decades from Seinfeld to Lost , West Wing to The X-Files , as well as in critically beloved but ratings-challenged shows like Arrested Development , Veronica Mars , Boomtown , and Firefly.
Clearly, these shows offer an alternative to conventional television narrative—the purpose of this essay is to chart out the formal attributes of this storytelling mode, explore its unique pleasures and patterns of comprehension, and suggest a range of reasons for its emergence in the s.
In trying to understand the storytelling practices of contemporary American television, we might consider narrative complexity as a distinct narrational mode, as suggested by David Bordwell's analysis of film narrative. For Bordwell, a "narrational mode is a historically distinct set of norms of narrational construction and comprehension," one that crosses genres, specific creators, and artistic movements to forge a coherent category of practices.
Kristin Thompson has extended Bordwell's approach to television, suggesting that programs like Twin Peaks and The Singing Detective might be usefully thought of as "art television," importing norms from art cinema onto the small screen.
Television's narrative complexity is predicated on specific facets of storytelling that seem uniquely suited to the series structure that sets television apart from film and distinguish it from conventional modes of episodic and serial forms.
Narrative complexity is sufficiently widespread and popular that we may consider the s to the present as the era of television complexity. Complexity has not overtaken conventional forms within the majority of television programming today—there are still many more conventional sitcoms and dramas on-air than complex narratives. Yet just as s Hollywood is remembered far more for the innovative work of Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola than for the more commonplace and often more popular conventional disaster films, romances, and comedy films that filled theaters, I believe that American television of the past twenty years will be remembered as an era of narrative experimentation and innovation, challenging the norms of what the medium can do.
Thus for argument's sake it is useful to explore how today's television has redefined narrative norms in a series of ways that I label "complex. Obviously, the labels "conventional" and "complex" are not value-free descriptions, just as terms like "primitive" and "classical" signal evaluative standpoints in film studies. While I have argued elsewhere for the importance of questions of value in studying television, a tendency that contemporary critical approaches dismiss, I do not propose these terms as explicitly evaluative.
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Alongside the host of procedural crime dramas, domestic sitcoms, and reality competitions that populate the American television schedule, a new form of entertainment television has emerged over the past two decades to both critical and popular acclaim. If you would like to authenticate using a different subscribed institution or have your own login and password to Project MUSE.
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Surely our idea of what is good quality TV also depends on our own separate tastes, as explored last week. Jason Mittell states:. This model of television storytelling is distinct for its use of narrative complexity as an alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception. As discussed in the lecture, this long-form narrative is best encapsulated in HBO productions. In his article Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television , Mittell makes several arguments about complex narratives.
Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television
Skip to search form Skip to main content You are currently offline. Some features of the site may not work correctly. Wiens Published This thesis describes a two year classroom-based research project concerned with adult readers' conceptions of reading, focussing specifically on the critical importance of the relationship between conceptions of reading and the acquisition of reading skills. Findings from this research provide the basis for a reflective inquiry into ways to effectively teach adults reading. Save to Library. Create Alert.