Why We Love Narrative Complexity

In his essay, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” Jason Mittell outlines the emergence of a new form, the complex narrative. Mittell defines a television program’s narrative complexity as “a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration – not necessarily a complete merger of episodic or serial forms but a shifting balance.” (32)  At the end of his article, Mittell touches on how this new form encourages new audience participation. (38) In highlighting this point, I would like to further explore why we, the audience, love such narrative complexity – why it can be a successful form of television.

A couple of ideas:

-Narrative complexity makes us (feel) smarter.

Let’s face it, who hasn’t come away from an episode of The West Wing feeling just a tad more enlightened on issues of foreign policy or capital punishment. But that’s probably more a result of the content rather than form. A program’s narrative complexity makes us feel smarter because it allows for us to know the material as well as (if not more than) the characters do. We can laugh at a long-running joke between two characters because we know the history the humor is predicated upon. Such sensation is more difficult to achieve in a “conventional” or purely-episodic program. Moreover, the viewer enjoys the challenge of decoding a more complex narrative, and frankly programs that are spoon-fed to us can often be patronizing. As Professor Mittell said in class last week, the joy of a jigsaw puzzle is in decoding the process, not the end result. Narratively complex television programing provides such a challenge and therefore encourages a more active audience.

– Narrative complexity makes us feel gratified and rewarded for our viewing effort.

The fact is, narratively complex television shows provide the audience with the opportunity (perhaps even the requirement) of becoming more emotionally invested in the characters. A purely episodic program may appear all nice and conclusive every time, but the payoff is diminished. That is, we have less emotional investment in the characters so we reap a smaller (if any) reward for our time spent with them. I haven’t seen many episodes of Two and a Half Men, but I honestly could not care less about what Charlie Sheen’s character does, thinks, or says (although that may also have nothing to do with the character and everything to do with Charlie Sheen). On the other hand, say something bad about Toby Ziegler and we’re going to have issues. The difference? I was there with Toby at Rosalyn, or when his father came for Christmas, or when his twins were born. A trivial example maybe, but character investment goes a long way to establish intimate bonds between the viewer and the television program, which is instrumental in creating a loyal fanbase.

In short, I believe a television program’s narrative complexity to be successful because it rewards its viewers for their investment in the material, treats them more like equals, and gives them the respect they deserve.


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