Channelling in to Television Cultures

Tag Archives: narrative complexity

What kind of show is Big Love? That is the question.


What a broad, strange thing to ask. Do we even think about this when we watch TV? Do we strain to think about what genre it is? What audience is going to watch it? How the identity of the network company alters our view of it? Do we care about how complex it is, or if television scholars consider it ‘quality’ TV?


For the most part, no. We don’t think of these things. We don’t care. We just watch what interests us. For some people this is shows that display ‘narrative complexity’, for others a simple soap opera will do the trick. We why have to categorise them all is beyond me, but okay.


A commenter on Michael Kackman’s piece on Flow TV, Jeffrey Sconce, highlights how unusual it is that we equate complexity with quality:


“…the unexamined equation of quality with complexity is a particularly strange move for television studies to make. It reached its apotheosis in the Steve Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You” book from a few years back, with its rather hilarious charts demonstrating how much more complex and thus worthy “The Sopranos” were in relation to “Starsky and Hutch.” Complex TV is apparently better because it forces you to make more neural connections, in the same way that video games are good for hand-eye coordination!”


Considering Big Love was Brian’s choice this week on our discussion on quality TV, I suppose it falls under this category. Michael Kackman loosely describes such narrative complex programs as:


“those that blend episodic and serial narrative techniques, build upon extended back stories of both plot and character, are often self-consciously aesthetically experimental, and which promote a particular kind of spectatorial pleasure in the mechanisms of narration itself.”


I would say that Big Love is more of an episodic structure than a serial. The focus is on the overall movement of the plot, rather than the small conflicts and resolutions that take place episode-to-episode. The main driving force of the show is that the family situation is so unusual: the main character has three wives, and has had children with all of these wives, yet they all live together as one family entity. This challenges the notion of the typical American nuclear family, and the institution of marriage, while also strengthening the idea that the Big love family is unusual, and that the normal family functions better (*statement open to criticism*).



In terms of genre, I like how Jason Mittel puts it:


“My concept of genre is as a cultural category bearing assumptions and associations – and probably no television genre is as laden with assumptions as the soap opera!”


Sure, soap opera is a fairly solid genre with all of its respective assumptions, but this notion of complex television shows… is this a genre in itself? Given what Mittel describes as the function of soap operas – “immersive, slow-paced, dialogue-driven melodramatic storytelling that rewards long-term accrual of character knowledge” – it would appear that there is a parallel between soap operas and these long form complex narratives.


In Big Love, we rely a lot on what the dialogue provides us: it demonstrates the jealousy of the wives, the feelings of the children, the strong stance on polygamous marriage that Bill Henrickson has. It is also true of Big Love that viewers are rewarded with ‘long-term accrual of character knowledge’. Watching the final episode of the series after watching the pilot, I actually began to tear up when Bill was dying and looking up at all of his wives. I was able to see from the pilot episode that he had feelings for them all and loved them deeply, and it was truly rewarding to see how far they had come as a family. It would have been even more rewarding had I seen all the problems they had encountered between the first and last episodes as well, I am sure.



So, to answer my original question, Big Love is an HBO branded (and therefore a “quality”) television show. The brand literally does carry ‘baggage’ with it, and works to form the genre along with the show’s specifics. While it shares aspects of soap operas and melodramas, the way in which it blends episodic and serial structuring, as well as its position within the HBO brand leaves it categorised along with other shows of narrative complexity. I would also argue that this is also due to the time in which it was created, as long form complex narratives have been developed and studied at large during the early 21st century.



Michael Kackman, 2010, ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’

Jason Mittel, 2009, ‘More thoughts on soap operas and television seriality’



What is ‘quality’? Surely our idea of what is good quality TV also depends on our own separate tastes, as explored last week. However, it would appear that ‘quality’ is fast becoming equivalent to the concept of the complex narrative TV show. Jason Mittell states:

“a new form of entertainment 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.” (Mittell, pg. 29).

As discussed in the lecture, this long-form narrative is best encapsulated in HBO productions. We’ve all heard of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and HBO’s famous series, and although not all of these have rated spectacularly, they have all been successful in building up HBO’s reputation and brand image, which Mittell points out is thought of as ‘being more sophisticated than traditional television and thus worthy of a monthly premium’ (Mittell, pg. 31).

In his article Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, Mittell makes several arguments about complex narratives.Firstly, he defines what he calls ‘narrative complexity’ as the following:

“At its most basic level, narrative complexity is a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration – not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms but a shifting balance. Rejecting the need for plot closure within every episode that typifies conventional episodic form, narrative complexity foregrounds ongoing stories across a range of genres.” (Mittell, pg. 32)

So, essentially what I feel he labels narrative complexity is something in between episodic and serial narrative. Each episode can be viewed on its own and has its own ‘mini resolutions’ inclusive, however it also fits into the wider series as part of a larger resolution process. Mittell stresses that it is a ‘shifting balance’ between the two which makes the narrative complex – it ‘is not as uniform and convention driven as episodic or serial norms (in fact, its most defining characteristic might be its unconventionality)’ (Mittell, pg. 30). An example of this is in how TV shows ‘oscillate between long-term arc storytelling and stand-alone episodes’ (pg. 33). Mittell gives the example of The X Files, Buffy and Seinfeld. To give one of my own, Friends operates a bit like this, with each episode viewable on its own, but also tying into the entire series with ongoing in jokes, such as Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break”.

I like that one of Mittell’s firmest arguments is that TV is of a classification of its own, therefore he denies its relation to cinema, and narrative complexity’s tie to “novelistic” television’. By evaluating television on its own as separate from other media, he reveals its truths.

‘Complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed,’ (pg. 30) he says. In a way this ties to what a classmate, Lucy, said in her blog on transmedia and webisodes from week 4. Her argument was that just because a popular TV show had an online presence, didn’t mean it was effective as transmedia. Similarly, Mittell highlights that popular shows are not necessarily all that complex, and complex narratives are not necessarily loved by all. I love that he points out:

“…value judgements should be tied to individual programs rather than claiming the superiority of an entire narrational mode or genre.” (pg. 30)

I.E. HBO is not the best thing since sliced bread. Personally, I think Game of Thrones is alright, The Wire was rubbish…. dare I go on?!

I find it kind of ironic that we are analyzing TV like this and separating the good quality from the bad quality, when this is essentially what TV does to us as audiences as well. As Brian pointed out in today’s lecture, there can be good quality audiences. Those are the kind of niche audiences that have a lot of disposable income and can invest a lot of time and money into TV shows. This is not the kind of audience member who will watch whatever is on TV, flick through the channels and passively watch their screens, but the kind of person who will pay for the DVD box set of the show and actively engage with it by watching webisodes and talking about it online. These audiences are valuable, much more so than thousands of passive audience members. Mittell calls them a ’boutique audience of more upscale educated viewers who typically avoid television’ (pg. 31).

It is also interesting that Mittell spends a lot of time focusing on audience self-consciousness in narrative complexity. A little too much time even I think?? He paints the audience as incredibly aware and intelligent, suggesting they ‘watch complex programs in part to see “how will they do it?”‘ (pg. 35). The concepts of ‘operational reflexivity’ and ‘operational aesthetic’ also indicate that audience members are concerned with the construction of stories and texts and how they themselves can analyse and engage with them. To suggest that ‘this mode of formally aware viewing is highly encouraged by these programs, as their pleasures are embedded in a level of awareness that transcends the traditional focus on diagetic action typical of most viewers’ (pg. 36), seems a bit extreme to me. I also find it hard to see what kinds of shows are NOT complex. He mentions Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Malcolm in the Middle, which I wouldn’t have really considered to be on the same scale as The Sopranos and such.


Mittel, J. Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. The Velvet Light Trap
Number 58, Fall 2006.