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From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative
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From Beats to Arcs:
Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative

Television is a story machine. Every day, thousands of hours of narrative zip through the airwaves and cables and into our sets and minds. Television does more than just tell stories, of course, but its function as a storytelling medium demands analysis, and with this essay I offer a framework for analyzing one kind of television narrative. Unlike some accounts of television as a storytelling medium, however, this one will not isolate the text from its makers and users. 1 My purpose here is to initiate a poetics of television form, an account of storytellers' strategies in crafting narratives that will solicit certain effects in viewers such as suspense and surprise, hope and fear, and aesthetic appreciation. 2 A poetics can help explain why so many people take so much pleasure in television's stories. 3

In particular I am interested in one form of American television drama, the contemporary scripted prime-time serial, or PTS. For the past twenty-five years there have been two main forms of hour-long prime-time programs. Serials such as St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982–88) dramatize long-form stories in ways similar to daytime soap operas. Shows such as Law & Order (NBC, 1990–) have an episodic format in which all of the problems raised in the beginning of an episode are solved by the end and questions do not dangle week after week. Evening serials became an important form of American television programming in the 1980s after the ratings success of Dallas (CBS, 1978–91) and the acclaim and awards bestowed on Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981–87). 4 They became a dominant form in the 1990s with shows such as The X-Files (Fox, 1993–2002) and ER (NBC, 1994–) consistently winning both high ratings and critical praise. Later in the 1990s and in the early 2000s the serial saw its presence diminish as episodic programs and reality shows grew in popularity, but as I write it is enjoying a revival at the same time that many sit-coms (e.g., Arrested Development, Fox, 2003–) and reality shows (e.g., Survivor, CBS, 2000–) are also thoroughly serialized.

Over the quarter-century since the rise of the serial, American television has undergone enormous changes with the introduction of more than one hundred new channels, pervasive new structures of media ownership and synergy, and transformations in the technologies of media production and distribution. But in spite of all these developments, the past twenty-five years have seen a remarkably stable condition obtain in which the most basic narrative conventions of the PTS have not been significantly altered. 5 Throughout the period between Hill Street and Lost (ABC, 2004–), the general production practices of prime-time television have remained quite constant. A program is overseen by a showrunner who reviews all of the scripts and guides the storytelling; each serial episode resolves some questions but leaves many others dangling; serials tend to focus on ensembles, with each episode interweaving several strands of narrative in alternation scene by scene; a season has approximately twenty-four episodes, begins in fall and ends in spring, and offers sweeps periods every November, February, and May.

As critics have often noted of MTM Productions' seminal dramas of the 1980s, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, the PTS is really a hybrid of episodic dramas and serials such as soaps and miniseries. 6 Although evening serials have much in common with their daytime counterparts, prime-time shows still have fewer episodes, smaller casts, and greater episodic closure. And although they share many qualities with episodics, PTSs offer a distinct mode of investment in character, a product of their long-format storytelling. Beginning with those MTM dramas so often figured as "quality TV," the PTS has functioned as a distinct [End Page 16] group style whose norms of artistic production are shared among its makers. By calling it a group style I mean to assert a basic commonality among many different programs on the level of form. This commonality is independent of any program's "quality" and also of its genre status as cop, doc, legal, sci-fi...