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The Velvet Light Trap 58.1 (2006) 29-40

Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television
Jason Mittell

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. 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. HBO has built its reputation and subscriber base upon narratively complex shows, such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Wire. 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 1990s.

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. 1 Bordwell outlines specific cinematic modes such as classical Hollywood, art cinema, and historical materialism, all of which encompass distinct storytelling strategies while still referencing one another and building on the foundations of other modes. 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. 2 Although certainly cinema influences many aspects of television, especially concerning visual style, I am reluctant to map a model of storytelling tied to self-contained feature films onto the ongoing long-form narrative structure of series television and thus believe we can more productively develop a vocabulary for television narrative in terms of its own medium. 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 1990s 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 1970s 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." Even though this mode represents neither the majority of television nor its most popular programs (at least by the flawed standard of Nielsen ratings), a sufficiently widespread number of programs work [End Page 29] against conventional narrative practices using an innovative cluster of narrational techniques to justify such analysis. 3

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. 4 Complexity...