Successful Deviation?

What constitutes a successful deviation from narrative norms? Where is that fine line between that “really cool” deviation and the “weird” one?

Bordwell writes, “The spectator comes to a film with schemata, and these are derived in part from experience with extrinsic norms. The viewer applies these schemata to the film, matching the expectations appropriate to the norms with their fulfillment within the film.” (NiFF, p. 153)

The same can be said for television programs. The spectator not only brings the paratextual knowledge of genre norms (Cop shows, medical dramas, sit-coms, etc.) but also the norms established within a given series. Such standards not only pertain to the program’s storyworld, but also its presentational format, tone, etc. My interest here in this case is not so much the norms themselves but what happens when a program hosts an episode that deviates from its own established standards. Why are some deviations successful, and others simply terrible?

Consider the following examples:

Pushing Daisies – Unfortunately, my first experience with Pushing Daisies happened to be with an episode that deviated somewhat from its established norms. Let me tell you, not a good way to get into a series.  The episode, entitled “Bitter Sweets,” focuses on a competition between the Pie Hole and a new candy store intent on putting Ned & Co. out of business. It was not the murder-mystery-detective plot I had understood (and the pilot had cued to me understand) to be the show’s standard operating procedure.  I was not happy. It felt like a weak episode. It was an experiment that crashed and burned in my book.

There are however, numerous examples of how a particular episode that deviates from its series’ norms can be refreshing and very entertaining. Two particular installments I have in mind are Scrubs’ “My Musical” (2007) and The West Wing’s “The Debate” (2005).  “My Musical,” plays out through a number of musical numbers, with the regular cast routinely breaking into spontaneous song and dance.  Even more extreme, “The Debate” was a live episode of The West Wing, performed on live television, once for EST and once again for PST.  Both of these episodes drastically deviated from the established norms of each respective series, yet each was wildly popular.

So I’ve been wrestling with the question, what does it take for a television series to successfully deviate from its own pre-existing norms? I’m nowhere close to coming up with an answer; obviously there’s no formula, or else there would never be a “bad” deviation. One thing worth noting though, at least with these examples, is that it probably helps to have a thoroughly grounded and established set of norms before you deviate from them. That is, it’s not simply deviating; its how you do it, to what extent, and in what ways. In Pushing Daisies’ case, the episode deviated from the norms of the only seven episodes before it. Perhaps the norms had not been established to extent that it is even possible to successfully deviate from them yet.

So those are my musings, any thoughts?

  1. Jason Mittell’s avatar

    Good question – I think one key issue is how norm-dependent (or “formulaic” for a more pejorative term) a given show is. It’s hard to imagine an episode of Law & Order varying from its pattern in significant ways, but series like Buffy or Scrubs vary their norms frequently enough that it’s less of a big deal. We should talk about this in a few weeks when we tackle serial form, as there are some great examples of shows varying to powerful effect.

    I’m wondering how much the Daisies episode you saw was just a weaker episode – as well as the fact that the show is best consumed in order, so you internalize the tone, style, and scenario.

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