Complexity

10th April 2012

Jason Mittell is an American media scholar who writes about television drama in a manner that is rigorous, richly detailed and accessible. For my money he’s the go-to guy for finding your way around Lost and working out just why Breaking Bad (above) is so good. He runs the blog Just TV and tweets @jmittell, and because I follow him and read the blog regularly I know that his day job is as Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College but he is living in Germany with his family for a year. I also know that he is writing a new book, which follows on from Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (2004) and Television and American Culture (2009). And I know about his forthcoming book, called Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, in part because of his articles and posts over the past few years. More than that, I am reading it chapter by chapter as a draft is posted online.

Using the CommentPress format from MediaCommons Press, Jason Mittell is offering Complex TV for open peer-to-peer review in advance of his delivery of the final manuscript to NYU Press. So currently you can read – and comment on – the book proposal, which was posted online in March 2011, and three chapters in draft: the Introduction, Complexity in Context (both posted 24 March), and Beginnings (released on 9 April). Each paragraph is open to responses, and Jason Mittell is actively engaging in debate with a number of his readers – which is fascinating to watch (follow updates with @jmittell). And the book is quickly emerging as essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary culture. Here are a couple of scene-setting extracts:

In the past 15 years, television’s storytelling possibilities and practices have undergone drastic shifts in medium-specific way[s]. What was once a risky innovative device, like subjective narration or jumbled chronology, is now almost cliché. Where the lines between serial and episode narratives used to be firmly drawn, today such boundaries are blurred. The idea that viewers would want to watch—and rewatch—a television series in strict chronology and collectively document their discoveries with a group of strangers was once laughable, but is now mainstream. Expectations for how viewers watch television, how producers create stories, and how series are distributed have all shifted, leading to a new mode of television storytelling that I term Complex Television—this book tells the story of this narrative mode. (from paragraph 5 of the Introduction)

… and …

This book’s main argument is that over the past two decades, a new model of storytelling has emerged as an alternative to the conventional episodic and serial forms that have typified most American television since its inception, a mode that I call narrative complexity. We can see such innovative narrative form in popular network hits from Seinfeld to LostThe X-Files to How I Met Your Mother, as well as in critically beloved but ratings-challenged shows like Arrested Development,Veronica MarsBoomtown, and Firefly, not to mention series that fail both commercially and critically, like ReunionDay BreakFlash Forward, and The Event. HBO has built its reputation and subscriber base upon narratively complex shows, such as The SopranosSix Feet UnderCurb Your EnthusiasmThe Wire, and Game of Thrones, and cable channels like Showtime (Dexter, Homeland), FX (The ShieldJustified), and AMC (Mad MenBreaking Bad) have followed suit. Clearly these shows offer an alternative to conventional television narrative—the purpose of this chapter is to explain how and why. (from paragraph 1 of Complexity on Context)

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