Make Your Own Kinds of TV!

The idea that genres are interrelated and reinterpreted in HBO shows such as The Wire has long been an impression of such ‘quality TV’ in my mind. As I mentioned in the previous post on Game of Thrones, some criticism of the show comes from a highly pre-asserted prejudice towards the ‘low’ fantasy genre. However, Game of Thrones discusses, and deconstructs the kingdoms and its unique characters. The Wire differentiates itself from a single genre of police procedural drama although by the look of it they appear the same. I sometimes wonder what contributes to the low rating of the show. I imagine in one scenario, a genre-loyal TV audience can be soon turned off by the complex character setup that back then couldn’t be supplied by Wikipedia. TV was inherently a casual gathering, and the drama, or in this case, crime and mystery could not rely on the whole season or series to unfold.


In his essay outlining such difference ‘quality TV’ makes, Jason Mittell claims that shows with ‘narrative complexity’ creates a new model of TV storytelling against the genre-inclusive convention setup of TV drama, which is characterised by the conventional construction of episodes and series. Such narrational excellence is unique to television, and thus differentiates from feature films or novel even if shows some influences from these mediums. Although Mittell ‘admits’ that complex narratives in TV could offer a deeper and diverse pleasure than conventional TV, it doesn’t necessarily generate value or superiority. 


Mittell looks at several aspects that build up the context in 1990s for narrative complexity to grow in television. He looks at how the audience evaluates a program by its creators – with many narratively complex drama coming from film writers whose storytelling is highly dynamic yet ‘controlled’. However along with the long form of television series comes the creative challenge and opportunity to build up character depth and even to construct a new world view.


The second reason for the rise of narrative complexity also comes from the audience, as networks discover highly consistent cult status for successful TV shows deliver sufficient revenue results even if the show does not appeal to the ultimate mass. Narrative complexity usually occurs in very specific environments, however goes further to explore the attributes and personas rather than superficial drama – something that drives the ‘sophisticated”authentic’ feel of a show like The Wire compared to Law & Order.


The third force of acceleration for narrative complexity comes from technology. One reason that the audience can develop a highly consistent relationship with a series comes from platforms such as DVD box set and VCR – technologies that unlock television dramas from the limits of airing times. In one way the audience is easier to engage since they no longer need to schedule their lives with TV shows in mind. In another way it also hands over choice to the audience – something that contributes to the cult-following status of certain shows and call for narrative complexity to effectively enhance the depth of such cults. Importantly, Mittell points out that due to these technological advances, TV shows are less reliant on drama within one episode. The internet also puts the creator and consumer together in the same realm.


This leads me to think whether television is undergoing a similar process as the internet – being a much older medium. It seems to me that television is becoming more ‘personalised’ and is subject to a much higher level of segmentation. Shows are marketed to particular audience, responding to their tastes and liking, as well as contextual behaviours such as political views, life experiences, etc. They even have a conversation with their audience and evolves around the responses. The internet, on the other hand, is all about being relevant to the user, with social networks, personalised advertising. It’s exciting to think about the deconstruction of a certain mass or standard in a society, and the rise diversity coming from such segmentation. However, it also raises the question – where do Buffy fans and The Wire have a conversation? Are we going to be watching our own TV, speaking our own politics at the end of the day?


One Comment to “Make Your Own Kinds of TV!”

  1. I really enjoyed this post. You present a very interesting and engaging point if view.
    identifying Wikipedia as a source to back up complex character set-ups is genius. I am particularly guilty of ‘googling’ plot lines, stories and characters in order to gain a better understanding of the show and what it is saying. However I often wonder if by doing this I am changing my viewing experience. Does the story become more complex once you have read an analysis of the plot or a directors ‘take’ on a character? I think that external influence removes the ambiguity of imagination and interpretation and instead our ideas are shaped by the information provided. I think these concepts can be linked to your ideas of audience segmentation as these ‘extra bit of information’ appeal to a certain type of audience/individual.

    I agree with your ideas about technology influencing narrative complexity. I know that for me this has a huge impact. I watched the entire first season of GoT in two days. Whilst the second season I had to wait a week in-between episode releases. This impacted my viewing experience as with a weeks gap it was more difficult to connect with the slightly more complex plot lines in the show. By watching it ‘like a movie’ (one that kept me up till 4am for two days) I was enthralled in the story and began to see how the smaller plots were affecting the big picture. However my viewing experience with the second season was focused more on the big picture and thus I feel I missed a lot of things along the way.

    Your post is very throughout and interesting. I enjoyed reading it.

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