November 8, 2006
Further Interesting Commentary on Complex Television

In light of my recent coverage of Jeremy Dauber's column on the cultural shifts taking place due to a growing number of people watching TV on DVD and my reaction to a recent NY Times piece about complex television and the failure of several complex shows this season came a couple of interesting recent commentaries regarding various aspects of complex TV.

First, over on his blog JustTV, C3 Affiliated Faculty Member Jason Mittell (who sometimes blogs here) writes about his opinion of The Nine and its treatment of complexity. The show, which is on the bubble as far as lasting the season, at last I heard, because of sagging ratings, suffers from what Mittell considers "unmotivated complexity." Mittell writes, "My problem with The Nine is that there is no clear motivation either for withholding the events in the bank from the audience, or the way in which they are revealed. In fact, the viewers seem to be the only ones who don't know what has happened inside the bank -- whereas in other programs using temporal complexity, a character's discovery process or the act of retelling to another character motivates narrative revelations."

Here, Mittell's warning is important. I have previously written defending The Nine to some degree, specifically in my claim that the idea of the aftermath of a bank robbery with a hostage situation is enough for a full season story arc, although I don't think it would be wise to make this show stretch beyond a season. However, I also agree with Jason here, that part of the problems currently being experienced by the networks with sagging ratings of the show is not only, perhaps, an oversaturation of complex television (which I have serious doubts about) or about fear of cancel-happy networks but also that some shows are simply using complex narrative devices without thinking them through.

It reminds me of what one of my professors here at MIT, Prof. David Thorburn, has emphasized several times. He says that the problem with some recent scholarship and popular writing about current television is that it considers complexity only in terms of narrative structure, and he contends that such narrative twists and turns is only complexity in a very shallow sense. That may be the case with the viewer apathy toward some of these shows, in that there is no sense of real commitment but rather only complex storytelling for the sake of being purposefully difficult, with no real or organic reason to withhold information other than to toy with the audience and to be able to claim complexity.

And, as a side note, see Edward Wyatt's piece in today's New York Times about the upcoming 13-week hiatus for Lost. Wyatt questions whether this long break will "have enormous consequneces not only for ABC, but also for the entire genre of serialized television drama, testing whether audeinces are loyal enough to expensive, complex shows to weather long midseawson interruptions."

In the meantime, "Lost Nuggets" will be airing as 30-second promotional clips with scenes from upcoming episodes during the new show Day Break, with ABC folks hoping Lost viewers will have an added incentive with these clips to invest in a new show.

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for sending the Times article along to me.



3 months? Come on Lost
fans...people are stuck on a dangerous island waiting indefinitely to be rescued and you can't wait 13 weeks?!? You don't know what hardship is until you've been attacked by a polar bear or tortured with electric prods.